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An Exposition Of The Gospels by The Most Rev. John Macevilly D.D.

In this chapter, the Evangelist, before recording the preaching and baptism of John the Baptist, with a view to determine its precise date, refers first, to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities that governed Judea and the adjacent districts at the time (1–2). He then describes the baptism and preaching of the Baptist (3–18). His imprisonment (19–20). The baptism of our Lord and His genealogy (21–38)

1. “Now in the fifteenth,” &c. Having passed over the long intermediate period, comprising about eighteen years, between our Redeemer’s return to Nazareth, at the age of twelve, and His appearance in public to preach to the people,—among the Jews, this was not allowed till one reached the age of thirty—the Evangelist now determines the precise period of His public appearance. This he does in accordance with the usage observed by the prophets, and other sacred writers of the Old Testament, who usually, at the commencement of their sacred writings, make mention of the reigning sovereigns, and the respective dates of their reign. St. Luke, here, fixes the date of the Baptist’s preaching, and our Redeemer’s mission, by a reference to the civil and ecclesiastical authorities that then governed Judea. “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cesar.” The several difficulties and objections advanced against the veracity of the sacred text by infidels, who assert that the respective dates assigned here by St. Luke are in direct contradiction to the most undoubted historical records, are at once set at rest, by counting the years of Tiberius given here, not from the death of Augustus, when Tiberius succeeded him as sole supreme ruler, A.U.C. 767, but from the time that Tiberius, after having triumphed over the Pannonians and Dalmatians, and having put an end to the wars in Germany, was associated by Augustus, as partner, with equal authority in the administration of the armies, and of the provinces of the Empire, Judea among the rest. This partnership in power and in administration, was conferred on Tiberius by the Roman Senate at the express desire of Augustus, about the year U.C. 764 or 765, as we are informed by Velleius (Hist. Rom. Lib. ii. 121); Suetonius (Tiberius, § 20, 21), thus making the fifteenth year of Augustus, the year U.C. 778, and the year of our Lord’s birth 748, or 749 U.C. It was by no means unusual to date events from the beginning of a proconsular reign. Here, the Greek word for “reign,” ἡγμονία, which is applied to governors and procurators in general, as it is to Pontius Pilate, in this very passage, would imply that the date is not from the beginning of the occupation of the Imperial throne by Tiberius solely, in succession to Augustus, which would be expressed by αρχη; but, from his association with Augustus in the Government. “Collega Imperii et consors Tribuniciæ potestatis adsumptus” (Tacitus Annal. Lib. i. c. 3). (See Patrizzi, Lib. iii. Dissert xxxix.; also, Dr. MacCarthy, in hunc locum.)

“Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea.” The Evangelist fixes another date to determine the time of the Baptist’s preaching. After Archelaus, to whom was assigned the one half of his father’s dominions, with the title of Ethnarch, by Augustus, who confirmed Herod’s will, had been banished to Vienne, in Gaul, on account of his cruelties and proven misconduct, his dominions were reduced to a Roman province, with a governor or procurator dependent on the governor of Syria, and subordinate to him. In this office, Pontius Pilate was the sixth in succession since the banishment of Archelaus. He governed Judea for ten years (Josephus Antiq. xviii. 5), when he was sent to Rome by Vitellius, governor of Syria, to justify himself against the charge of cruelty alleged against him by the Samaritans. He arrived there after the death of Tiberius. Now, Tiberius died A.D. 37; so, Pilate’s procuratorship commenced A.D. 27. He was condemned to perpetual exile by Caius, Tiberius’s successor, and died by his own hand.

“Governor of Judea.” The Vulgate renders this more clearly, “Procurante Judæam.” For at this time, Vitellius, a Consular senator, was governor of Syria; and Pontius Pilate, a Roman knight, was procurator of Judea, which was dependent on the province of Syria.

“Herod (Antipas) being tetrarch of Galilee,” the same by whom our Lord was mocked at His Passion, and the Baptist beheaded.

“Philip, his brother, tetrarch of Iturea,” &c. Whether this Philip, whom Herod the Great, begot of Cleopatra, was the former husband of Herodias, at whose instigation the Baptist was beheaded, is disputed. Some say the husband of Herodias was another Philip, son of Herod the Great, by Mariamne, daughter of Simon the high-priest. This latter Philip was not mentioned in his father’s will, and was altogether excluded from any share in his inheritance; he must, therefore, have lived in a private station (see Commentary on Matthew, pp. 260–62).

“Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilina.” Some maintain that this Lysanias was son of Herod the Great, on account of his having been called “tetrarch,” with Herod’s sons. This is commonly rejected as unfounded and improbable. Josephus makes no mention of any such person among Herod’s sons, which he would have done, if it were the case. The most probable opinion seems to be, that this Lysanias was son, or a descendant of another Lysanias, son of Ptolemy, and grandson of Mennæus—ruler of Colchis, contemporary with Cleopatra—who ruled sixty years before the period here referred to. This Lysanias, who was put to death by Antony, at Cleopatra’s instigation, in the year 34 before Christ, was never styled, “tetrarch.” For, it was only after Herod’s death, the tetrarchal division of Palestine and the neighbouring districts was made, nor did he ever rule at Abila or Abilina.

“Abilina,” so called from the chief city of the district. Abila, seems to have included the eastern declivities of Anti-Libanus, and to be bounded on the south by Mount Hermon. The Emperor Claudius, as Josephus informs us (Antiq. xix. 5), “bestowed on Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, Abila of Lysanias.”

2. “Under the high-priests, Annas and Caiphas.” As, according to Jewish law, there could be only one ministering high-priest at the same time, Commentators are perplexed in endeavouring to explain, why two are mentioned here by St. Luke with the same designation, and, seemingly, with equal authority. Some, with Maldonatus, hold that, in consequence of the corruption induced by the Romans, the office of high-priest, which the law conferred for life, became venal; that the Romans set it up to the highest bidder, and, hence, it became a temporary office, to be exercised at the will and pleasure of their Imperial masters. These hold, that Annas and Caiphas exercised its functions alternately, which is implied by St. John (11:47–49); when treating of our Lord’s Passion, he says, “Caiphas was the high-priest of that year.” implying that somebody else exercised it some other year. Others, hold, that either Annas was deputy to Caiphas, or Caiphas, to Annas. Hence, beth are mentioned. Caiphas was, certainly, high-priest, the year of our Lord’s Crucifixion. Annas was father-in-law of Caiphas, and enjoyed the greatest influence with him. Hence, our Lord is led to Annas before He is brought to Caiphas. (John 18:13). Annas had been appointed high-priest by Quirinus, president of Syria, and exercised the office for eleven years. He was most successful in life, and having once been high-priest, he ever after retained the title, and was called by that name. He was held in the greatest veneration among the Jews, with whom, as well as with the high-priest, he had the greatest influence. He is mentioned by St. Luke in connexion with Caiphas, his son-in-law, who, no doubt, was guided greatly by him in the administration of his office. Different other reasons are assigned by different Expositors, but, those given above seem the more probable, in a matter, regarding which, at this period, there can be no absolute certainty.

“The word of the Lord came to John,” &c. This is a phrase peculiar to the Prophets, signifying that the Lord spoke to him, and implying that the person thus spoken to went forth to announce the will of God, not of himself or self sent, but armed with a heavenly mandate and divine mission, without which John would not venture to exercise the ministry of baptizing and preaching.

Probably, this “word of the Lord,” points to a divine inspiration moving John to go forth and preach “in the desert” (see Matthew 3:1).

3. “He came,” promptly obeying the divine mandate, from the interior of the desert, where he dwelt from his infancy, till the time of life before which no one was allowed to exercise the office of preaching among the Jews, viz., the age of thirty.

“Unto all the country about the Jordan,” the country on each side of the river and contiguous to it, so that the Baptist had always an abundant supply of water to exercise his ministry.

“Preaching”—and administering—“the baptism of penance,” that is to say, his own baptism, which, as a profession of penance, was a protestation of the necessity of performing the penitential works that accompanied it (see Mark 1:4). It also served as a preparation for “the remission of sin”—of which the bodily ablution was a sign—to be conferred by the baptism of Christ, the superiority of which, over his own, John never ceased to proclaim. This “remission of sin” was one of the blessings of “the kingdom of heaven,” which John announced as near at hand. (For the distinctive qualities and effects of John’s baptism, compared with that of Christ, see Matthew 3:6–11, Commentary on.)

4. “As it is written,” &c. (See Matthew 3, &c.) The words mean, that John did this in accordance with, and in fulfilment of, the Prophecy of Isaias, regarding him, “Prepare ye the way,” &c.

5. “Every valley shall be filled.” Here as well as in the following sentence, the future is employed, by a Hebrew idiom, for the imperative. Let every valley be filled; let every mountain, &c. The prophet perseveres in the allusion to the Eastern custom of preparing and making smooth the ways on the occasion of the coming of princes to visit their subjects. St. Luke in this and the following verse quotes from the prophet more fully than is done by either Matthew or Mark, and enlarges more on the Eastern allusion, as he wrote in a special way for the Gentiles, to whom it was necessary to give the assurance, as is here given at the close of the quotation, that they were to be sharers in the salvation announced by the Gospel, as well as the Jews, who hitherto were alone the chosen and favoured people of God.

6. “All flesh shall see,” &c. The words of this verse, although, according to some Expositors, literally and primarily referring to the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity, under the protection of Cyrus, refer in a secondary sense, principally intended by the Holy Ghost, to the good tidings of Redemption, proclaimed by the Baptist as now at hand. They have also a moral signification, and denote the removal of every thing that might prove disagreeable in the eyes of the coming King, of all obstacles to the operation of grace, and to the full effect, on their souls, of the preaching of Christ, the mortification and destruction of the passions and vicious habits, the avoidance of sin and its occasions, the practice of penitential works, and the cultivation of the opposite virtues, for which penance disposes us in future; while, is serves as a reparation and satisfaction for past transgressions. All this served to prepare men for the Gospel of Christ, to level the hills and fill up the valleys,—words which are here clearly used in a metaphorical sense. “And all flesh,” &c. “And” signifies for, giving a reason for this preparation. “All flesh,” every man, be he Jew or Gentile, without distinction; or, rather, many men of every description, of every rank and tribe, “shall see,” by faith, and some shall see with the eyes of the body, “the salvation of God,” the salvation which God will accomplish; or, they shall see the Saviour, the Eternal Son of God, Himself true God, who assumed human flesh to redeem the entire human race. For, “God Himself shall come and save you” (Isaias 35:4). In Isaias, quoted in this passage, the reading, according to the Vulgate, is (Isaias 40:5), “And all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.” In the Septuagint it is “All flesh shall see the salvation of God, because the Lord hath spoken.” But, the sense in all is substantially the same. The prophetic quotation (v. 5), “Every valley, &c.,” is the same as the words of the Baptist, “do penance,” and (v. 6) the same as the other words of the Baptist, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Men of every class shall see and feel within themselves the grace and salvation brought by Christ.

7–10. (See Matthew 3:7–10, Commentary on.)

10. “And the people asked him.” The Scribes and Pharisees, whom John had reproached so sharply, “had despised the counsel of God” (7:30), and therefore, paid no heed to John’s preaching; but, “the people,” who were well affected, touched by his preaching, “asked him, what shall we do?” what works of penance shall we perform? what fruits, worthy of penance, shall we produce, in order to evade the threatened ruin, and be worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven, which you announce as near?

11. “He that hath two coats,” &c. The Baptist specially enjoins works of mercy, and alms-deeds, among the most deserving fruits of penance. Not that they are alone to be performed; but, because they commend themselves most to us. They wonderfully commend us to God, and incline Him to show mercy to us in turn, “peccata tua eleemosynis redime,” &c. He refrains from inculcating severe penitential works, in the first instance, for fear of scaring the multitude away from the way of perfection. He inculcates the exercise of mercy, which will obtain of God abundant grace, to perform these painful works of penance with alacrity, “Quod superest, da Eleemosynam, et ecce, omnia munda sunt vobis” (Luke 11:41). “That hath two coats,” and one of them superfluous, let him give the superfluous one to him who wants it, “that hath none.” The same is inculcated on the man, who hath meat to spare, let him give it to his neighbour, who wants it. Under these two works, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry—the two things most necessary, before everything else, for sustaining human life—are included all the other works of mercy, corporal and spiritual. The words of this verse clearly demonstrate the necessity of exercising the corporal works of mercy, in relieving our indigent brethren; and the Baptist inculcates it on the multitude without distinction, as a precept binding on all classes of persons.

12. “And the publicans also came to be baptized.” Who the publicans were (see Matthew 9:11). The Greek, τελωνης, is not accurately rendered by the Vulgate, publicanus, the publicans being men of rank among the Romans, who farmed the revenue. Here, the word means a tax-gatherer, employed by the Publicani. Among the Jews, the collector of taxes, especially if he were a Jew, was regarded as an extortioner and apostate, and classed with the worst description of sinners, peccatores ex officio (Tertullian de Pudicitia, c. ix) Their occupation was not, of itself, illicit. For, if it was licit for rulers to impose, it must also be for others, to collect taxes. Hence, the Baptist here does not tell them to give up this calling in life, which he would do, in the first instance, if it were unlawful. But, owing to their excessive and unjust exactions, their grinding oppression of the poor, the publicans, as a class, were regarded in the light of public sinners; and they are regarded by our Redeemer frequently in the Gospels, as outside the pale of salvation. Here, touched with the preaching of the Baptist, they come to be baptized; thus verifying the words of our Lord, “the publicans and the harlots will go before you into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 21:31).

13. They asked John what they were to do, in order to avoid the wrath to come. He only tells them, “Do nothing more than that which is appointed for you.” The Greek word for “do”—πρασσεὶν—means also, to exact, the meaning it has here. He tells them, in collecting taxes, to exact no more than is assessed on the people, in each case, by the legally constituted authorities. In this, it is not implied, that cessation from unjust exactions was sufficient for them, or fully constituted the fruits of penance he required them to bring forth. He only imposes this on them, in the first instance, to avoid the sin to which they were particularly liable, and which was ordinarily committed by them, from a belief that their fidelity in this respect, would merit for them grace to do the other things required of them in common with all; to practise works of mercy among the rest. The first thing to be enjoined on all is, the mastery over their predominant passion, and the performance of the peculiar duties of their state. This, however, though necessary for all, is not sufficient; they must, in addition, fully observe the precepts of avoiding evil, and of doing good. From the words of the Baptist, it is clear, the office of Publican was not bad, save in its abuse. He does not enjoin on them to exact nothing, but only to exact nothing beyond their due.

14. “The soldiers,” as a class, though there are many saints among them, are most indifferent, not very susceptible of religious impressions, and greatly exposed to sin. These also are cautioned or warned by John against three vices to which they are subject, viz.:—1st, violence, or, the violent use of the arms which, put into their hands against the enemy, are sometimes employed by them in oppressing their fellow-subjects, for the purpose of unjust exactions; 2ndly, calumny, in falsely accusing their innocent neighbours of crimes against the State, and giving false information against them, in order to partake of their confiscated property; 3rdly, pillage, to support the extravagance and dissipated habits for which their ordinary pay was unequal. The Baptist here taxes the vices peculiar to the military state; inculcates their avoidance, with the firm hope, that if military men overcame themselves in this respect, they would ultimately practise the virtues, which are obligatory on all men, and avoid the vices condemned in all, by the law and commandments of God. From the words of John here it is legitimately inferred, that warfare is a lawful profession to engage in. The Baptist only tells them to avoid the vices incident to that calling. The same is fairly inferred from our Lord’s treatment of the Centurion (Matthew 8:10), and from Peter’s conduct towards Cornelius (Acts 10:36), neither of whom tells those whose faith they praise to abandon the profession of arms.

The Greek word for “calumniate,” συκοφαντησητε—from συκον, a fig, and φαινῶ, to declare, strictly denoting, to inform against the exporters of figs, is allusive to the law prohibiting the exportation of figs in Attica during seasons of scarcity. When there was a plentiful harvest, the law was useless. Still, as it was binding at all times, in consequence of not having been repealed, ill-natured and malicious people took occasion from it to accuse all persons transgressing the letter of the law. Hence, all busy informers, have ever since, been branded with the odious name of sycophants. With an accusative of the person, as here, it signifies, to oppress any one, to annoy him by frivolous accusations, especially under pretence of law. With a genitive of the person and an accusative of the thing (Luke 19:8), it signifies, to take away any thing from a man on the same pretences (Parkhust, Greek Lexicon; Potter, Antiquities, Book i. c. 21).

15. “And as the people were of opinion,” &c. The end of the Baptist’s mission was twofold—to preach penance, in order to dispose the people for receiving the Gospel; and to preach faith in Christ, and render Him testimony. He had already performed the first part, and now he enters on the second object of his mission. The Greek for “opinion,” προσδοκῶντες, means, desiring, hoping. On considering John’s wonderful birth, life, preaching and baptism, which was to be instituted in a new form by the Messiah (Ezechiel 36:25); being also aware that the period of our Lord’s coming was near—the sceptre having passed from Juda, and the seventy weeks of Daniel having been accomplished—the people began to hope, that John might have been the desired Messiah. They were revolving these thoughts in their hearts, when John, either informed by his disciples, of the opinion currently circulated regarding him, or being inspired by the Holy Ghost; or, if we make the testimony rendered by him here to be the same as that given (John 1:20) and rendered on the same occasion, being interrogated on the subject, at once rejecting the high prerogative falsely ascribed to him, proclaims the Divinity and infinite superiority of our Lord over himself. This public declaration of John given “to all,” was providentially deferred until John himself having been reputed to be the Messiah, his testimony regarding our Lord would carry with it greater weight, and would seem still more to proclaim the glory and Divinity of the Son of God. It is disputed whether St. Luke here refers to the occasion described (John 1:20). If both occasions be identical, then, St. Luke and the other synoptists must have described it by anticipation, since, they describe it as occurring before our Lord’s baptism; John thus supplying, as was his wont, what they omit; namely, the circumstances of the deputation from Jerusalem, to whom our Lord rendered this testimony. If both occasions be different—and the words of the Baptist, addressed to the deputation (John 1:26), “there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.” … “The same is He that shall come after me,” &c. (John 1:27) would favour this opinion; for, he spoke of our Lord as Him of whom he before had said, “that He was to come after him”)—then, John learned their feelings from inspiration or from his Disciples.

16, 17. (See Matthew 3:11, 12.)

18. By these and other similar discourses full of grace and holy unction, the Precursor announced beforehand the glad tidings of redemption by Christ which was soon to be accomplished; and by exhorting the people to penance, and announcing the Gospel truths beforehand, he disposed them for faith in the coming Redeemer, of whom he was the Precursor.

19. The Evangelist records, by anticipation, this imprisonment of the Baptist which took place after our Lord’s baptism; because he wished to finish the Acts and history of John before proceeding to other subjects.

“Herod the tetrarch,” &c. (See Matthew 14:8, &c.; Mark 6:17, &c.)

“And for all the evils which Herod had done.” St. Matthew and St. Mark represent the Baptist as reproaching Herod, with truly apostolic firmness, only for the crime of living in scandalous incest with his brother’s wife. From St. Luke here, it would appear, he reproached him for other crimes too, of which no doubt Herod was guilty, to which our Lord refers in His description of him (13:32), “Go, tell that fox,” and which afterwards caused the Emperor Caius to consign him to perpetual banishment, after having deprived him of all his power and property.

21, 22. (See Matthew 3:16, 17.)

23. “And Jesus Himself was beginning about the age of thirty years.” The translation of the words given by Kenrick is more in accordance with the Greek, and better expresses the sense, “And Jesus Himself beginning, was about thirty years old.” He places “was” after “beginning,” and not before it. The Greek, literally rendered, would run thus, “And Jesus Himself was about thirty years old, beginning.” So that the word, “beginning,” refers to His “beginning” or commencing His ministry, after His baptism by John, as in Acts (1:22; 10:37), where the Greek, as here, is αρξαμενος, and not to His beginning to be thirty years old (see Beelen, Gramm. Græc., p. 381). For, if it meant the latter, the particle, ωσει, would have been absurdly introduced.

“About the age of thirty.” No one was allowed among the Jews to exercise the office of Doctor till he reached that age; hence, our Lord began, or was “beginning,” His public ministry at this age appointed among the Jews for the exercise of the teaching ministry.

“Being (as it was supposed) the Son of Joseph, who was of Heli,” &c. (For an explanation of this passage, and the probable mode of reconciling the genealogy of our Lord, as given here by Luke, with that given by Matthew, see Matthew 1:16, Commentary on.)

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