Preparing the Way for Christ (1): Straight Paths to Crooked Hearts
Intro – So far in Luke we ‘ve seen the birth of Jesus, and His forerunner, John. Except for Jesus’s temple appearance at age 12, there followed 30 years of silence for both men when they were out of the public eye, being prepared by God for their brief but world-changing ministries. This morning John’s ministry begins – his ministry to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. The Jews were expecting a magical Messiah who would deliver them from Rome. They had no concept of their need for spiritual deliverance. Major attitude changes were required to prepare them for the true Messiah. Over 700 years before, God had foreseen the need for someone to prepare the way. Isaiah prophesied in 40: 3) A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” I was sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio in 1992 that overlooked the local freeway. Suddenly traffic ceased and I wondered if there had been an accident. But shortly an entourage of limos passed with sirens blaring, lights flashing. It turned out President Bush had been in town for a campaign appearance, causing a lot of special preparation. Everyone who visits the Queen gets special protocol training.
Similarly Luke tells us how John went about preparing the Jewish people for Messiah’s coming. In the end, John tells us in John 1: 11 that while “He came to his own, his own people did not receive him.” Ultimately, the nation rejected Him. But through His death for sin, Jesus continues to offer Himself to us. But our hearts need to be prepared. Let’s see why and how.
I. The Mess (1-2a) – Shows why we need Him
Vv. 1-2a: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (stop there for a moment). Luke has two reasons for giving us this section. As a careful historian, he is giving the historical setting for the gospel. Ours is a faith rooted in history. It has verifiability. It deals with real people and facts. It is subject to reasonable investigation; it has substance. Luke notes we are in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar who became co-ruler with Augustus in AD 12. Combine this with John 2:20 where we find that the temple has been 46 years in building by that time and Josephus tells us it started in 19 BC – and that Luke 3:23 tells us Jesus began His ministry at about age 30, having been born shortly before Herod died in 4 BC – we arrive at a date of sometime around 27 AD for this event.
But this list also emphasizes the darkness of the times. The list reads like a rogues gallery of the biggest villains of their age. Eventually they would kill both John and Jesus. They depict the darkness of Godlessness. But they also remind us of the light of God’s presence. Yes, they will kill Jesus, but His resurrection will demonstrate His power over any darkness.
At the top of this messed up world, over all, was Tiberius the stepson of Caesar Augustus. He started well, but over time degenerated into one of the most licentious and cruel rulers in world history. Herod the Great ruled Palestine at the time Jesus was born. However, he died shortly after and his kingdom was divided between three of his sons. Archelaus, who was given control of Judea was a bad man. Mary and Joseph avoided Judea on their way back from Egypt specifically to avoid him. Within a couple of years even the Romans could not stomach him and so they appointed a governor in his place. Thus, Pontius Pilate was in his sixth year as governor of Judea – a brutal ruler who hated the Jews almost as much as they hated him. Philip governed the far north regions with tolerance – best of the lot. He built Caesarea Philippi which was important later in the ministry of Christ. Herod is Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee with an iron rod for over 40 years. He seduced the wife of his brother Philip and later had John the Baptist killed when John condemned their actions. Jesus refers to him as “that fox”.
The Jews did not see themselves as part of this darkness. They had on spiritual blinders. They were the chosen people, looking for a promised Messiah to rescue them from Rome. They saw deliverance as their birthright and that was their agenda. They completely missed the OT prophesies of the suffering Messiah, and the need for a new and cleansed heart. They had totally misfired on their mission to be a blessing to other nations. Their expectations were in dire need of retro-fit. No wonder a forerunner to prepare the way was required. Their expectations overlooked the gross sin in their own existence and darkness in their own hearts.
Luke mentions the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” in v. 2 – representatives of Jewish leadership that was corrupt beyond redemption. There was actually only one high priest. Annas was a long-time high priest who had been ousted by the Romans several years previously. But he retained power through various sons who followed him. Current high priest Caiphas was the son-in-law of Annas. Annas was the real power. They presided later in the illegal trial and sentencing of Jesus. The religious scene was an unmitigated mess of corruption and sin.
Luke’s depiction of the darkness of the times shows the need for help. But any life without Christ is the same sinful, shameful mess. The Bible says in Eph 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” People without Christ live normal lives oblivious to the fact that they are spiritually dead until their lostness is somehow brought home to them. The illusion of freedom covers our enslavement to our own lusts. The fact is that we as sinners are so used to living with sin that we have no concept of the sinfulness of sin as seen by a holy God. We keep covering ourselves in fig leaves we’ve sewn together and think all is well.
Listen to God’s description of the man without God in Psa 36: 1-3: “1)Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. 2) For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated. 3) The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit.” Our world has largely lost any fear of the Lord or sense of the awfulness of sin. To know why, you need look no further than our churches. One of America’s most popular television preachers said not long ago: I don’t think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counter-productive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition. That was Robert Schuller and there are a lot more like him. That approach suggests the Bible errs in saying, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Why would you look for a Savior when you see nothing to be saved from? That’s why Paul started Eph 2 the way he did and the reason Luke started Luke 3 the way he did – to point us toward the bankruptcy of life without Christ. To pave the way to Him.
II. The Messenger (2b)
Now into the vacuum of hopelessness, v. 2b to introduces the messenger – the one who will prepare the way for Christ. “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Simple statement; filled with meaning. Take the first phrase -- The word of God came to John. That phraseology is found nowhere else in the NT, but it is all over the OT. It tells us multiple things. First, it tells us John is in the long line of OT prophets, which is exactly how Jesus identifies him later. The main function of a prophet was to deliver a message from God. Second, it tells us that the message is from God. This is divine revelation. What modern man in his arrogance has declared impossible, God claims as His unique right.
Remember Carl Sagan, the personable astronomer who became the spokesman for his generation with his television series Cosmos which made people aware of the billions and billions of galaxies out there? He perfectly captured the spirit of his times and of modern man’s faith in naturalism in the first line of his book, Cosmos, “The cosmos is all there was, is, or ever will be.” That is the starting assumption of man without God. But it assumes too much, doesn’t it? Before you can say that the cosmos is all that was, is or ever will be, you’d have to examine every corner of every universe. Further, while you are scientifically right since science by definition is based on the uniformity of nature as experienced through our natural senses, you have not allowed for the possibility of reality beyond natural perception. Such reality could be known only by revelation from that reality – something that the Bible claims over and over in the phrase the word of God came. It’s a mind-blowing phrase, really. Here’s information coming from beyond!
The kicker to all of this is that the verbal word of God eventually became the personal and living Word of God in the person of Christ who is introduced by John and who is subject to verification through sensory perception. So, when Luke says word of God came – we’d better take notice. This is something special – a transcendent God revealing Himself in speech that His creation can understand, absorb and be responsible for. God claims special power for his Word when He says in Heb 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” So, pay attention.
Now, John’s identity as son of Zechariah points us back to the distant cousin of Jesus born six months ahead of Jesus. He is better known in Scripture as John the Baptist, or literally, John the Baptizer, in reference to his special ministry. He comes out of the wilderness, an area on both sides of the southern 1/3 of the Jordan River as it empties into the Dead Sea. It is a desolate, barren area covered with pebbles, and broken stones and rocks with occasional brushwood. Why John comes from there we don’t know. Possibly his elderly parents died in his youth and he was raised in that area by someone else. His ascetic appearance is emphasized in Matt 3:4, “Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” He reminded people of Elijah. What matters is when God broke His long silence, the message didn’t come thru a corrupted priesthood out of the beautiful temple built by Herod to placate his Jewish constituency. It did not come from Jerusalem from which the glory of God had long since departed. It came out nowhere through a man specially raised up by God who was nothing like the darkness of his times. It is typical of God to bypass the elite to choose in the words of Paul in I Cor 1:27, “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” And why did He do that? V. 29 “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God is not interested in the views or boasting of man. He speaks into a hopeless situation His wisdom, His hope, His message and His grace.
Our churches today are enamored with the idea of making the message more palatable to the world in which we live. But I must tell you, Beloved, when the world embraces our message, it has become useless. John is a prime example of the fact that God’s message of the cross is foolishness to the world, His messengers are foolishness to the world and His methods are foolishness to the world. Believers are graciously drawn by His Holy Spirit. People don’t accept Christ because they are smart enough to get a brilliant message. People believe because God draws them. The Apostle John says in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The only hope for a messed up world is the grace of God. So here, against the backdrop of darkness comes the grace of God through John’s message. What man could not do to reach God, God has done to reach man. It’s all by God’s grace. And John, “Jehovah is grace” is God’s man.
III. The Mission (4-6)
Now, let’s look briefly at the John’s mission in vv. 4-6, “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5) Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6) and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” Luke sees John’s mission as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5. The historical context: after 39 chapters of warning that God will judge Israel’s persistent idolatry by allowing the Babylonians to take Israel captive (which happened 80 years after this prophecy), chapter 40 is intended to bring comfort to captives by assuring them that after judgment comes deliverance. But the deliverance (which came 70 years later) came to people with hearts prepared to receive the Lord they had previously rejected.
Isaiah pictures this by describing a king traveling in his domain. Workmen precede him to clear debris, to smooth roads, to cut through hills and fill in valleys making travel easy. The more eminent the visitor, the more effort was expended to create a smooth, broad, road that would appropriately honor the visit. A modern equivalent might be the grand Champes Elysees in Paris constructed to honor Napoleon in all his glory. Luke is seeing in the ministry of John the greater fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy as John steamrolls his way through the wilderness of men’s heart to prepare the way for the King of all kings and the Lord of all Lords, the Lord Jesus Christ. And the means of his preparation as we will see next week is through repentance.
John’s ministry is to set expectations right for accepting Christ. To do that he must cut down the hurdles that have been built up – hurdles consisting of false expectations set by the faulty theology of the false teachers of the day. Men’s hearts then, like men’s hearts today, had been programmed to think that all they needed was outward deliverance. They lost the fact that before He can rule externally, He must rule internally. They were counting on their Jewish heritage and ritual to make them right with God. But those were impediments that would keep them from Christ. They did not realize that God must have our heart before He has our back. They did not realize that you must approach God from the inside out, and not outside in.
John’s mission was to clarify the truth of I Sam 16: 7) and spoken by God to the prophet Samuel when Samuel wanted to anoint David’s brother the next king based on outward appearance only: “But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Beloved, may I say it as reverently as I know how, God’s hands are tied until we give Him our heart. That is what prepares us to receive Christ. It was there in the OT all the time, but missed. The people in Jesus’ time thought they were in with God because they had been circumcised. But God had been saying all along in Deut 10:16, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” God said in Deut 30:6, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” The outward ritual was valid only when it was a sign of inward reality. Do you see?
Conc – Beloved, is your heart prepared by repentance for Jesus. Or are you expecting God to magically take up your cause because you are better than most or you have a certain heritage or you’ve been through certain rituals. All of those are fine only as the expression of a truly repentant heart. Has the way to your heart been cleared of boulders of sin and self so that the grace of God can do its cleansing work? God’s grace is ours the moment we accept that we are hopelessly lost, can do nothing to save ourselves, let alone anyone else, but are now casting ourselves at His feet like the sinner in Luke 18:13 who beat his breast in recognition and his helplessness and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The road to his heart had opened wide and God said he went away saved. Have you been there? Is the way clear?
Mark Twain based the cave that Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost in in Tom Sawyer on MacDougall’s cave, in Hannibal, MO where he grew up. He loved to explore that underground paradise. It was a fascination that never died for him. In Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe dies in the cave. But he did not die there in real life. He was lost there for days before being rescued. On the night of his actual death, with everyone in town knowing that his time was near, there was a terrific thunderstorm which convinced the imaginative Mark Twain at home in his bed that Satan had come in person for Joe’s wicked soul. According to his autobiography, he covered his head and prayed fervently that the Evil One might not decide to save another trip by taking him along too. It was a night filled with terror and repentance on his part. But the coming of daylight dispelled his fear. He says, “In the morning I saw that it was a false alarm and concluded to resume business at the old stand and wait for another reminder.” He got more reminders, including a believing wife, but he went to his grave denying the truth of the gospel and saving power of Christ. Beloved, don’t let the daylight dispel your concerns for your soul. Prepare the way for Christ in your life by repenting your sins from your heart. Let’s pray.