Portable Commentary

9 January 2022

Thought for the day  
The great scenes in the Bible, precisely because of their greatness and indeed uniqueness, can be difficult to access personally. For the Baptism of Jesus, there are at least two potential approaches. Firstly, we could go back in our minds to a life-changing turning point in our own lives, so that we can speak of
before and after. Secondly, we could also turn to our own experience when we felt deeply the affirmation of our identity and worth as “the beloved” of someone. In the case of Jesus, these are combined: his identity and life are one, something we would like to be able say about ourselves too.

Abba, Father, let us hear again today your words of affirmation to Jesus and in Jesus to us all. As your beloved sons and daughters, draw us more closely into your own life of love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Luke 3:15   As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:18   So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

The Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3:21   Now when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Initial observations
The baptism of Jesus by John is found in Mark, Matthew, Luke, the Acts and John. There are, however, differences in the reception and in the interpretation of the tradition. First of all the reception: Mark mentions the baptism without apparent difficulty, although he locates John as Elijah, the one coming before the coming one; Matthew is very uncomfortable and inserts a dialogue in which John the Baptist objects to his baptising Jesus; Luke copes (!) by telling us before the baptism that John was in prison (see the verses above in italics, omitted in the lectionary reading); John gives only the phenomena around the baptism and actually leaves it out when you read the text carefully. All of this means that the baptism of Jesus by John is indisputably historical because Christians would not have made up a story which caused them so much unease and even embarrassment. Secondly, it means that the baptism was highly significant, both historically and theologically. Historically, the baptism marked the moment when Jesus accepted the role and preaching of the Baptist and at the same time began his own awareness of being the Son in a quite special way.

Theologically, each gospel interpreted the event in the light of the faith concerns at the time of writing. The details for Luke are in the comment below.

The link with the Baptist has more importance than is commonly recognised. It looks as if John the Baptist was a prophet, who had departed to the desert and the Jordan, a move which implied some rejection of the Temple cult. He preached conversion of heart (metanoia), illustrated in a once-off immersion rite. His demanding ethics were offered in the light of the coming dreadful intervention / judgement of God. This can be seen in the passage above, which uses the traditional biblical image of harvest to convey the sorting and sifting of the end. What precisely John looked forward to is somewhat unclear: an angel, another prophet, God himself, the messiah? It is historically likely that John proclaimed that the coming one would baptise with wind (pneuma) and fire (both images of judgement; cf. Psalm 1). The text was “Christianised” by qualifying wind/spirit with “holy”, yielding Holy Spirit.

It need hardly be said that Christian baptism, that is the participation in the Easter Mystery and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is significantly different to John’s baptism, a difference noticed in the New Testament itself:

He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)

Then he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (Acts 19:3–4)

Kind of writing
Two short anecdotes (chreiai), linking the preaching of John and the baptism of Jesus.

Old Testament background

The wind
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Ps 1:4) On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulphur; A scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. (Ps 11:6)
The dove
Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. (Gen 8:8–12)

New Testament foreground

Holy Spirit in Luke
Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27; 3:16, 22; 4:1, 14, 18; 10:21; 11:13; 12:10, 12.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. (Luke 4:14)
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. (Luke 10:21)

Prayer in Luke
In the Third Gospel, significant events are associated explicitly with prayer and in Luke Jesus prays about twice as often as in the other Gospels. As well as in the Baptism scene here, we may note other places where Luke adds that it took place in a context of prayer:
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9:28–29)
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)
In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:44–46)

St Paul
And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Gal 4:6–7)

Brief commentary

Verse 15 This makes explicit the implied anxiety about the superiority of John who have given baptism to Jesus. For the reader of the Gospel, this question has been already answered in Luke 1-2 by contrasting the roles of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah. The distinct stories collide at the Visitation, where the action of the prophet, still in the womb, identifies Jesus as Lord.
Verses 16-17 By describing the coming one, John makes explicit his subordination to the one who is to come. Three points of contrast are drawn: John is not worthy, Jesus will baptise with the Spirit and he will bring judgment. Notice the three elements: water, wind (Spirit) and fire. The imagery of wind / spirit (pneuma) will be taken up in Acts 2, the story of Pentecost. Cf. the image of wind from Psalm 1 above.
Verse 18 John’s severe preaching of judgment is good news because it leads to conversion of heart and life.
Verses 19-20 This is a very summary version of a longer story told in Mark and Matthew. Luke omits the martyrdom (except for Lk 9:9) but does underline the imprisonment in Luke 7:18-35. By leaving John in prison before the baptism, Luke does not deny John baptised Jesus but rather he shifts the spotlight adroitly from John to Jesus himself.
Verse 21 It is noticeable that the baptism as such is consigned to a relative clause while the main sentence here is “the heaven opened”. The opening of the heavens points to a new, unprecedented revelation.
Verse 22 Bodily descent is difficult because there is no other way a dove can descend! Luke underlines in this way the objective reality of this descent by externalising it. The gospel writer also makes clear the new time of salvation by making Mark’s metaphor of the dove into a literal evocation of the end of Noah’s flood, marking a new time of salvation.
The voice from heaven declares the identity of Jesus as Son in a unique manner. The words combine Psalm 2:7 (common in the New Testament) and Isaiah 42:1 (the first Suffering Servant Song). Cf. Luke 9:35 at the Transfiguration.

Pointers for prayer
1. The people were searching and John pointed them in the direction of Jesus. On your life’s journey who have been the John the Baptist people for you, people who have pointed you in the right direction?
2. The Baptism of Jesus was a very special moment for him that affirmed him in his identity as Son of God and in his mission. Recall the experiences that affirmed you – either in your sense of who you are, or in relation to the direction you were taking in life.
3. The Baptism of Jesus marks a transition point in his life, and the start of his public ministry. Recall the transition points in your own life. Where did you see the grace of God at work in those times?
4. This experience of Jesus occurred when he was at prayer. What part has prayer played in opening you to being aware of God in your life? What part has prayer played in helping you through a transition point in your life?

Open the heavens, almighty Father, and pour out your Spirit upon your people gathered in prayer.
Renew the power of our baptismal cleansing and fill us with zeal for good deeds. Let us hear your voice once again, that we may recognise in your beloved Son our hope of inheriting eternal life.

We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.