If you’d like to get a look at God’s battle-plan, a good place to start is the opening paragraph of Luke 3:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:1-3)
It’s a chunky paragraph, but Luke is working “carefully” (his self-description in 1:3) to set the scene. In a sense, it’s a microcosm of his whole approach to history, since it includes the political, geographical and spiritual points of reference. They form the map references, the coordinates, the lines of triangulation wherein his story must be located.
So, first off, it happened in the reign of Tiberius Caesar.
Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias are merely the local underlings representing that mighty authority.In a couple of broad brushstrokes Luke nails down the movers and shakers, the power players of the Imperial East.
And it happened “during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” We have moved now from political to religious authority. Both authorities demanded taxes and wielded influence. In a sense, the religious authority might have seemed as oppressive as the political authority since its influence was more immediate, more pervasive.
Think of the intense criticism that Jesus brought to bear on the Scribes and Pharisees (in Matthew 23 and Luke 11).
But then Luke makes his point.
In the reign of Tiberius, under the authority of his local governors and despite the control of the High Priests “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Don’t miss that last phrase. It’s the final irony.Despite all the proud dictators, the busy and important, the powerful and rich, God speaks to Mr Nobody in the Middle of Nowhere.
This is exactly what Mary prophesied in Luke 1: “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
And then the real story begins, in a call to spiritual renewal made by a rather wild country preacher. “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Perhaps the phraseology here (baptism…repentance… forgiveness”) is so cosily familiar that we fail to understand its radical import, but don’t forget that the perpetrator was considered high-risk and quickly imprisoned and executed; and so popular that his followers were to be found in Ephesus (over a thousand kilometres away) a few years later (according to Acts 19).
Look at it again. “He went into all the country” despite being unsanctioned, unordained and unvalidated, on a wing and a prayer. The threat of rabble-rousers and political activists was always taken seriously by the Roman authorities. The Jerusalem Temple authorities also feared any voice that they could not control. This was exactly how Saul of Tarsus first came to prominence, in helping to stamp out these pesky religious fanatics.
But this is how Luke sees the story – the Jesus Movement- beginning… in the preaching of John. It’s like a stone thrown into a lake; but before we examine the effect of its cast, Luke describes the lake itself: it’s the reign of Tiberius, the governorship of his local men, and the High Priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.
And despite the apparent authority of the Power Players, the real voice to listen to is always that of God, through His servant John. And the stone is cast into the hearts of the people, urging them to repent and get right with God.
And that message never changes.
The shape of the power-structure may look a little different today, but once you think about, it’s perhaps rather similar! And God’s solution is still to speak into the hearts of ordinary people, wherever they are, and to call them into radical heart-obedience.
And that’s where history happens, when people get caught by an Idea and don’t let go…