If Luke is nothing else he is careful, isn’t he? That’s his goal, after all. He says it right up front, is quite intentional about it. As he begins his gospel, writing it for someone named Theophilus, he says:
“I… decided, after investigating everything carefully for a long time,
to write an orderly account for you…
so that you may know the truth
concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
“I… decided… to write an orderly account…” And that is exactly what he does. We know Luke as a physician and historian, and his gospel is written in such a way that we realize instinctively he knows what he’s talking about. He’s done his research. He’s been careful to get it right.
Nowhere in his gospel is he more careful, more orderly, than this passage we read a few moments ago. He wants his readers to know when it was that John the baptizer appeared on the scene. That sets the stage for Jesus, you see, and he wants to make sure we know when that was. He couldn’t say it was 29 A.D. or thereabouts. Such method of dating had not yet been invented. The only thing he could do was track the date by those who were the most important people of the day, the top dogs, the ones who held positions of power. It is the closest thing the scriptures provide us to “Celebrity Watch.”
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was ruler of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”
You see, he names everybody who is somebody — doesn’t leave out a person. Luke tells us these guy are the head cheese. Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas… there’s not a person in that area — nay, in the whole world — more important than these fellas. They are in charge.
But when God chooses to do his thing, to bring his Presence to bear upon the world and embody human flesh, God chooses not to come to the people who form the lineup of the rich and famous, the important and highly-placed. God comes to a simple man named John.
Oh, it’s not that John isn’t extraordinary. He is. To prove that point, Luke tells us how he was conceived. It too was miraculous, just like that of his cousin from Nazareth, for John was born to old people, the first-born and only-born. Does that sound familiar? It should, because it isn’t the first time the Bible seizes upon this theme. Throughout the Old Testament, there are stories of God’s visitation upon the elderly and/or the barren… Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Hannah, and Ruth, just to name a few. Following in that line are Zechariah and Elizabeth. Long after they had given up on the idea of having children, the angel Gabriel visits them and tells them they will have a son and they are to name him John. Where John gets the idea later of wearing animal skins, eating locusts, and living in the wilderness, we have no idea. No, you have to admit, there is little ordinary about John.
But important? Not in the least. Not by the world’s accounting, anyway. Oh, he did get Herod’s attention, but that had more to do with Herod’s paranoia than with John’s importance. Yet, it is by means of his ministry that God will introduce his very own Son. It is through John’s voice that God will speak and tell in advance that he is coming into the world.
Yet — and this is very interesting, at least it is to me — Luke doesn’t quote John. John had plenty to say, but Luke looks elsewhere to footnote his story. He quotes the prophet Isaiah. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but he likens John’s message to what Isaiah says. Why doesn’t Luke quote the Baptist directly? The other gospel writers do it. Why does he tell us about John but quote Isaiah? Well, I have a theory, and it is found in the last line of the quote.
“…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It’s taken from Isaiah’s fortieth chapter. You can look it up. Not now, please. But trust me, it’s there, in verse five.
“…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
So? What’s so special about that? Well, let’s dig a bit deeper. Luke is the only contributing writer to the New Testament who is a Gentile and not a Jew. Okay, but what’s that got to do with anything? Let me repeat the last line of his quotation from Isaiah:
“…all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Not Israel shall see the salvation of God, not Ephraim or Judah shall see the salvation of God, not Zion… all flesh. All flesh.
This is important to our friend Luke, and it should be important to us. He sees in Jesus a universal salvation, not provided solely to the house of Israel, but offered unequivocally to all people, to all flesh. It’s a big, big — mega big — idea. God did not send his only Son into the world to save a portion of it, God sent his Son to save it all! This may not be so earth-shaking to us. After all, for years we’ve sent our money and our prayers to support foreign missionaries. If we didn’t believe that God loves everybody, we wouldn’t have bothered. But when Luke wrote about this, the church wasn’t yet convinced that the salvation offered in Christ was meant for those outside the walls of Judaism. This idea of God’s salvation being offered to everyone, regardless of race or ethnic background, was one of the first, if not the first, major hurdles for the church to overcome.
In fact, there is little or no evidence that John the Baptist had this universal concept in mind either. For all we know, had a Gentile come to him for baptism, he might have refused, thinking such grace was afforded only to the house of Israel. But that’s not what Luke believed. So he takes the ministry and the message of the Baptist, slips in a little Isaiah, and comes up with a lofty declaration that is near and dear to his heart, and should be to ours as well.
“…all flesh — all flesh — shall see the salvation of God.”
And then he backs up this message by telling us of the ministry of Jesus and his followers.
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Remember that Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, and he obviously has both his gospel and his second letter of Acts in mind as he writes this story. Years after Jesus walked the earth, Luke is looking back at what has transpired, how the gospel has spread from this place to that place. He considers the struggles and persecutions, the difficulties the followers of Jesus — like his good friend Paul — have endured, and he decides to put it all together in an effort to show how faith in Christ has come to be for all people. With the understanding that comes from hindsight, the ability to interpret things after they have occurred, he looks back on them and says in effect, “This is what happened and this is why it happened.”
On those rare occasions at this time of year when I have the opportunity to play golf, I have to be mindful of the way the sun plays its little tricks in the sky. Because the sun is lower to the earth, in terms of its angle, the light is longer and more directly in the eyes. There are times, when the sun is in front of me, that it is impossible to see where the golf ball has gone after I’ve hit it. Sometimes that isn’t the fault of the sun but of my swing that hits the ball in places I don’t want it to go! In photographic terms, the scene in front of me is backlit. So, the only way to locate my golf ball is to walk past where I think it is, turn around, put the sun behind me, and then go back and find it. I have to put the sun to my back in order to see clearly.
I think that is what Luke is doing here. He has walked past all the events about which he writes. Now, as he goes back to the beginning of his story, he turns around, and locates for us those pivotal events that have led the Christian movement to become what it is. This is what he tells us…
Life in Christ has moved from Jerusalem to Rome, and along the way the gospel has encountered the poor, the lame, the voiceless, and blind. But, it has also confronted high priests, synagogue rulers, city officials, leading women, ship captains, imperial guards, governors, and kings. Finally, in the person of Paul, the compelling message of Christ has been proclaimed even to the one who is considered the most important person in the world — the emperor of Rome. The gospel has not only traveled geographically, but has crossed social, political, and economic lines.* In other words, the good news of Jesus has been offered to everyone. That is what Luke wants us to know. The gospel is for everyone, for all flesh.
Amazing, isn’t it? Luke has at least two or three decades of Christian history to inform his story. You and I, we have about 2000 years. Luke traces the movement of the faith from Jerusalem to Rome. We have Asia and Australia, Europe and South America. The good news of Jesus is known, to a greater or lesser degree, all over the whole world. And it all started with this simple man named John. Who would know? Who would know?
Monday afternoon I was walking down the corridor of Baptist Hospital after visiting two of our church members who were patients. I thought of the healing that takes place in that place… all the way from ankle injuries to heart transplants. As I walked down the mezzanine to my car, I reflected on how all this happens because of one man, Jesus. Think of all that has happened in our history, that might not have happened — probably wouldn’t have happened — had it not been for this carpenter from Nazareth. Universities and hospitals have been established in his name, churches and social ministries have given hope and encouragement to the least of these… all over the world and all because of Jesus.
Do you think John might have had anything like that in mind? I doubt it. Do you think he might have thought to himself, “Hey, we might really have something big here?” I don’t know. It is most likely that what John had on his mind was really quite simple… repentance and baptism. Think about it. Repentance — turning around, changing one’s life, going in the direction of God, getting the Son — S-O-N — behind you — and before you know it, the gospel has spread throughout the world. Baptism — dying to self, being washed clean in the promise of the Lamb, walking into the water as dirty as can be and coming out cleansed and holy — and before you know it, the entire globe is dotted with people wearing white robes and singing praises to God.
The poor receive good news, the lame walk, the voiceless shout, and the blind see. High priests, synagogue rulers, city officials, leading women, ship captains, imperial guards, governors, kings, emperors… they all have the good news proclaimed to them. And before you know it, the world is seized by the message! Before you know it, the world is turned upside down!
I’d love to give John the Baptist credit for saying it, but remember, Luke uses John to quote Isaiah. The prophet said it first, using an imagery that communicates so effectively. He says that every valley shall be filled and every mountain made low. The traveling is easy when good news is told! The crooked is made straight and the rough places are smoothed out. God provides us a flat, straight path for us to travel as we tell his story.
In 1982, a football game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins was played in the middle of a snowstorm. Guess what, it wasn’t in Miami! They were playing to a 0-0 tie, but just before time was to run out the Patriots put themselves in a position to possibly kick a game-winning field goal. They called time out, and to the surprise and anger of the Dolphins, during the time out a groundskeeper came out on a tractor and plowed the snow off the side of the field where the field goal kicker was to do his work. The kick was good and the Patriots won 3-0. Talk about leveling the playing field!
That’s what God has done, Luke is saying, except he has plowed the entire field. He has made it possible for people like you and me to be included in his kingdom.
All flesh shall see the salvation of God. Luke chooses his words carefully here. He doesn’t mean that all people shall see like when you gaze on an eye chart at the optometrist’s office. The word means to really see it, to catch a vision of it, to get caught up in it, to be inspired by it, to change your life because of it. It is a wonderful, idealistic, if not impractical, vision of the way things will be when God does his salvation thing.
Well, Luke is saying that when John comes on the scene, God is about to do his salvation thing. All flesh will have the opportunity to be told, to see, the good news that Jesus brings. Not just the Herods and Pilates and Tiberiuses — the rich and famous and powerful of the world — everybody.
If I understand what Luke is saying, God doesn’t pick and choose who he will save. In Jesus, the One who is coming into the world, God throws out his mercy and grace to all who would believe. That includes you and me… and everybody. God doesn’t discriminate and neither should we.
Jesus tells the wonderful parable of the sower who casts his seed upon different types of soil. He doesn’t pick and choose where the seed will go, he just throws it everywhere and anywhere, hoping that some of it will take to the soil and produce a great crop. So it is with God’s mercy and grace. All flesh will see the salvation of God, and that includes you and me.
It would really be something, wouldn’t it, if this Christmas season we were to see — to really see — the salvation of God. Who knows? Like Jesus’ seed-thrower, we might find it in ourselves to be more grateful for the greatest gift of all. For when it comes to all flesh, we are counted in that number. Thanks be to God.
Father, thank you for your wonderful salvation. May we accept it freely and in gratitude share it with others, regardless of what color flesh they wear. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
*Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation: Luke (John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1990), p. 47.
— Copyright 2003, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.