Do I miss out on hearing God’s Word?

In Luke 3:2 we find a surprising scenario where the Word of God doesn’t come upon the high-priest, but rather upon John in the wilderness. This causes me to ask ‘Why?’ It also challenges me to think about my own situation and whether I may be in danger of missing out on the Word of God coming upon me.

Here’s how I came upon this intriguing question and challenge:

Upon Who?

The text for discussion is provided here below in both English and Greek.

English translation:

“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” (Luke 3:1-2, NIV).

Greek text:

“Ἐν ἔτει δὲ πεντεκαιδεκάτῳ τῆς ἡγεμονίας Τιβερίου Καίσαρος, ἡγεμονεύοντος Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας, καὶ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Γαλιλαίας Ἡρῴδου, Φιλίππου δὲ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Ἰτουραίας καὶ Τραχωνίτιδος χώρας, καὶ Λυσανίου τῆς Ἀβιληνῆς τετρααρχοῦντος, ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Ἅννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν Ζαχαρίου υἱὸν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ” (Luke 3:1-2, SBLGNT).

The main section for discussion comes in verse 2:

ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Ἅννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν Ζαχαρίου υἱὸν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.” (Luke 3:2, SBLGNT).

Notice that the preposition ἐπὶ is used to refer to both:

  • The high priests
  • John the Baptist

This seems to suggest (hint at) a question:

Should not the word of God rather have come upon the priests? Isn’t this their role?

The uses of ἐπι

Even though it is true that ἐπὶ + genitive is used to denote “in the time of” (Wallace, 1996, p. 376), this same construction is often used to denote ‘upon, on’. I am not suggesting at all that this should be translated any different.

However, the surprise for me is that ἐπὶ + genitive has been used at all to refer to the high-priests (although Luke uses the singular [priest] the plurality of the two high-priests mentioned here also is indicative of a historical indictment on the Jewish priestly system). The high-priests are tagged on at the end of a long list of leaders (3:1) who have clearly been listed to give the reader a sense of the time at which the subsequent events were to occur. This list was initiated by ἐν + dative: “Ἐν ἔτει δὲ πεντεκαιδεκάτῳ τῆς ἡγεμονίας Τιβερίου Καίσαρος” with four other leaders being tagged onto this by use of kαι + genitive.

I almost would have expected that the high-priests would be added to this list in the same way (i.e. και + genitive). This would have accomplished the same meaning (i. e. “in the time of”).

The surprise

The surprise for me is that the verse:
ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Ἅννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ

could be understood as:
“A Word of God came upon the high-priests Annas and Caiaphas”

Of course the punctuation would suggest otherwise. However, the punctuation was only added to the original text much later. Furthermore, this would be the expectation – the word of God should and often used to come upon the high-priests. After all, it was their role to stand before God on behalf of the people in the holy of holies.

It would only be as you read on that the narrative itself would correct this initial miss-interpretation. And this too, would be a surprise to the reader. The word of God comes upon someone other than the high-priest – upon a man in the wilderness. However, Luke (the Gospel-writer) has prepared his readers for this moment by previously describing the significance of this man (John).

In the end, the syntactical structure of this narrative leaves us with no other possibilities other than:

ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Ἅννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην
“During the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came upon John…”.

The Question

It is this syntactical structure that has forced me to ask the question: “Why did the word of God not come upon the high-priest?” Could it be that they had become distracted by pomp and position or maybe by politics? Maybe they had become corrupt like the priests described in the Old Testament (Micah 3:1; Jeremiah 5:31; Hosea 6:9; Ezekiel 22:26; Zephaniah 3:4). These are the same high-priests that put Jesus to death and mocked him as He hung on the cross (Matthew 27:20, 41).

God chose to use John because the high-priests were ‘unusable’. They missed out on hearing the Word of God.

Am I like the high-priests? or am I like John? Do I miss the Word of God? or do I hear the Word of God?

This is a sobering thought for us today. Am I unusable? Have I become so distracted that God needs to find an alternative? Maybe it’s not that I have become corrupt, but I could be distracted or busy – even if it is with good things. I would hate to miss an opportunity for God’s word to come upon me. I suppose for me, I should take care to spend time daily listening out for God’s voice to speak to me through His Word.

This is a habit that I am already in, but the danger is that I can come to these special times of devotion with my own agenda and spend the time academically analyzing the text and somehow miss the message from God.

May God help me not to be like the high-priests, but rather like John in the wilderness.


Wallace, D. B, 1996. Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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