First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus: 10 January Luke 3:15-17,21-22

The first section of this selection from Luke 3 received some discussion as part of the reading for Advent 3. It includes John’s denial that he was the Christ. In the fourth gospel this becomes a matter of extraordinary emphasis: ‘And he confessed and did not deny and confessed, "I am not the Christ"’ (1:20). Some people were obviously elevating John above what he deserved. Luke will report in his second volume how some people like Apollos knew only John the Baptist’s baptism (18:24 - 19:7), but had no doubt about Jesus. There were possibly others who gave their primary loyalty to John.

In 3:16 Luke draws on his Q source, which partly overlaps with Mark, to have John point to the one who is greater and who would baptise with the Spirit and fire. The Q source continues in 3:17 where it expands the image of fire. Originally pointing to judgement, the predictions have been taken by Luke as finding fulfilment, at least in part, in the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. As the Spirit comes, tongues of fire appear above the recipients. It is Luke’s wonderful word picture which reflects the legend of the giving of the Law on Sinai, according to which fire came down from heaven and split into 70 parts, reflecting the 70 nations of the world who each heard God’s law, but only Israel chose to obey it.

The symbolic narrative of Pentecost in Acts has its counterpart in Luke 3:21-22. As if to shield our eyes from what is happening at one level - John is baptising Jesus; Jesus is taking the junior position! - Luke introduces the scene incidentally: ‘And it happened that while all the people were being baptised and Jesus was baptised and was praying...’ The focus is not the baptism, in which Jesus participates along with everyone else, but what happens in conjunction with it.

Luke often inserts into his sources a comment about Jesus’ praying (eg. 5:16; 6:12; 9:18), almost certainly on the basis that ‘it must have been so’. It was a way of giving detail to the perception which the tradition so strongly preserved of Jesus’ close relationship with God. It also had the effect of enhancing the image of Jesus as a model for believers.

The event which occurred after Jesus had been baptised and was in prayer is dramatic. Luke is drawing on Mark, but also making the scene his own. Mark tells us what Jesus saw, suggesting a visionary experience in which Jesus saw the heavens torn open (Mark uses that language), saw the Spirit come down like a dove and heard words addressing him personally (1:10-11).

Luke, like Matthew, prefers to portray the occasion as an event in itself, not a vision. The heavens were opened. The less dramatic words lose the allusion to Isaiah 64:1 (‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’) and possibly to the tearing of the curtain of the temple at Jesus’ death. The focus moves to what the opening enables. Here Luke paints a scene in which the Spirit comes down ‘in physical/bodily form’ as a dove. Like the tongues of fire at Pentecost the symbolic has become directly visible and physical.

Luke would have known what he was doing. He was creating symbolic narrative. He invites us to play - seriously, imaginatively, with images of the Spirit. He invites us at the same time not to be distracted by concerns about the literalness of the event. The narrative here, and already in Mark, is celebrating a reality: that in Jesus we see the coming to fulfilment of the promise that in the last days God’s Spirit would immerse us (baptise us) with God’s reality. That reality and how it works itself out becomes the theme of Jesus’ ministry in Luke.

In the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering (4:14-30), Jesus will use the words of Isaiah 61:1 to describe the significance of this event. It is about good news, about liberation for life.

Luke describes the voice from heaven, using the form of words he found in Mark: ‘You are my son, my beloved, with whom I am very pleased.’ Matthew converts it into a statement to the onlookers (‘This is ..’), so that it matches the words said to the onlookers at Jesus’ transfiguration. For Luke, the personal address remains central. The words echo Isaiah 42:1: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.’ The passage continues: ‘I have put my spirit upon him’ (42:2). This passage would have helped colour the scene. The effect is to underline the claim that what is happening here is as much sacred history as the events of Scripture and brings its hopes to fruition. Again faith’s reality calls forth creativity and imagination. It cannot be contained in mere statement or literal reporting.

The semantic range of the word 'servant' includes 'child'. It is possible either that an earlier account of Jesus’ baptism had him addressed as servant or that the semantic fluidity invited the richer designation, ‘son’. ‘You are my Son’ probably derives from the adoption statement used in coronations of Israel’s kings, reflected in Psalm 2:7, and so later understood as words which would also be addressed to God’s Messiah, the royal king and Son of David. Some manuscripts of Luke 3:22 quote the whole verse here (see also Acts 13:33). Jesus is what John is not: the Messiah, the Son of God. Perhaps ‘beloved son’ evoked for some also the memory of Isaac as Abraham’s beloved son (see Genesis 22), or even the hint that this Son would become a saving sacrifice, but that is very uncertain. The words from heaven are sacred words woven from sacred scripture, at least, from  Isaiah 42 and Psalm 2.

Within Mark Jesus is the Son, as one who does the Father’s will and pleases him. His identity remains hidden for all but the demons (who ‘must have known’) and the centurion at the cross. For Luke, this is the Son announced in the birth narratives (1:32,35), the Messiah Son of God, shortly to be tested in the wilderness (4:1-11), the one who shares a unique relationship with the Father (10:22), which all should know about. He is especially created through miracle, but not so unreal as to be deemed irrelevant as a model for disciples. They, too, will receive the Spirit. They, too, will be caught up in the work of the Spirit.

The baptism of Jesus, therefore, celebrates both the uniqueness of Jesus and his role as a model for all who will be so baptised with the Spirit. The narrative creatively weaves together a number of biblical allusions. Such a tapestry says something in itself. In a world of above and below, above and below meet in Jesus. The dove, perhaps evoking images of deity in the pagan world, perhaps just a symbol of the hovering Spirit of creation, alights to represent the connection which is to be lived out in flesh and blood in Jesus’ ministry.

On  Baptism see also The Kiss of Baptism and Baptism in Context

Epistle: Baptism of Jesus: 10 January  Acts 8:14-17

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