“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 Taconites, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilee – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)
Luke did his homework. The opening of his account of the gospel includes this phrase – “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3b). Luke never knew Jesus while he walked on the earth. So he went back to the sources. He checked the stories, talked to the eyewitnesses, and confirmed the facts. The gospel of Luke is littered with historical detail, because, as Luke discovered, the events of the gospel actually happened.
Luke’s references serve a historical function. The opening of the narrative of John’s ministry begins by Luke naming its historical context. All the key players are referenced. This helps us pinpoint the story and confirmed that it happened. Luke can cited the dates and reign of emperors and governors, because he knows if someone checks, it will be confirmed. In this way, Luke may be one of the first scientific investigators of the Christian faith. Instead of living in fear, Luke investigates the events he has heard and finds the gospel upheld by the facts of history.
However, this introduction also serves a theological function. In a world of powerful people (Caesar, Pilate, the Herods), the word of God comes to John. God’s word come to a man he chose, not one the world would choose. God’s word comes to a man in the desert, not in a palace. God’s word comes to John and it is through John that God prepares the people for his coming.
And it works. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the people listen to John’s call and come to be baptized. Even as they are rebuked, they clamor to know how to respond to this word from the Lord. It is John’s ministry, not the reign of Philip, Herod, or even Pilate that has left the biggest mark on history. The words of John are far more well known than that of Lysanias.
It comes down to calling. John was called by God. It didn’t matter how powerful or prestigious his background was. What mattered was that God had called him and that God spoke through him.