As a Gentile convert to Christianity, St. Luke’s Gospel is primarily addressed to a Gentile audience. St. Luke chooses to place the birth of Christ within the context of the political backdrop of the Roman Empire and the religious historical record of Palestine.
The details contained in Luke’s Gospel reveal that John the Baptist emerged as a public figure under the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who was the second Roman emperor, after Augustus Caesar. The 15th year of Tiberius’ reign would have begun in 28-29 A.D., at the same time that Pontius Pilate served as governor of Judea (roughly southern Israel). After Herod the Great died in 4 B.C, he divided his kingdom into four parts or tetrarchs. It was during this time that Herod Antipas ruled Galilee (roughly northern Israel) and would become the tetrarch who would order the beheading of the John the Baptist. Meanwhile, Philip and Lysanias ruled the other two parts of the remaining pieces of Herod the Great’s kingdom, while Pilate ruled the southern part of the country.
Not satisfied with placing the emergence of John the Baptist within the political context of the day, Luke offers details regarding the religious backdrop at the time. Luke notes a peculiarity in the religious history of Palestine: the mention of both Annas and Caiaphas as high priests. There was never a time when two men shared the office of high priest, who was both the religious and civil head of the Jewish community. Annas only served as high priest from 7-14 A.D., and so was not in office when John the Baptist began his preaching. Yet, Annas is mentioned because he was Caiaphas’ father-in-law, who was the high priest in Jerusalem at the time of John the Baptist’s and Jesus Christ’s public ministries and who was the power behind the throne during Caiaphas’ reign. This is precisely was Jesus was brought to Annas’ house after the Lord was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
One my legitimately ask, “Why does Luke include so much detail in placing the timing of the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth?” The answer is quite simple: Neither John the Baptist nor Christ’s coming were random or incidental — these events were ordained from all eternity and occurred with a specific purpose in mind: to redeem the human race. This idea was not lost on St. Paul, who wrote in Galatians 4:4, “But when time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
In preparing the way for Christ, John the Baptist was viewed by Luke as a courier or messenger for a king. The quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5, “Prepare the way of the Lord … ” refers to the custom that kings practiced in the Middle East of sending messengers ahead of them to prepare the roads for their arrival. Rather than prepare actual roads, John the Baptist exhorts his hearers to prepare the roads of their hearts and their lives to receive the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Just as God chose the precise moment in which to enter history, we are called to make straight the way of the Lord in our own day, in our own moment in history. May we respond to the Lord Jesus Christ, whose entrance into human history forever changed the course of world events and who now invites us to sanctify all time in His name.