As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize 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 baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His 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.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.’
Translation: But as the people were in expectation, all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered, saying to all, "I baptize you in water, but one stronger than I is coming. I am surely not worthy to release the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you in a holy spirit and fire, whose winnowing fork (is) in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather together the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
But it happened, when all the people had been baptized, and Jesus had been baptized and he was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily shape, just as a dove, upon him. And a voice out of heaven happened, "You are my son, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased."
"What, then, are we to do?" the crowd asks. John tells them they must share, and mentions two specific forms of sharing, tunics and meat. (Tunics were made by women, meat provided by men. John's instructions encompass the actions of both genders.) Tax collectors and soldiers ask for more specific instructions. Both are told to be honest in their dealings with the poor.
John's responses seem to have impressed the people, and all of them wonder if John might be the Messiah--"...all were wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah." Here begins our lection.
Holy Spirit and fire: The desire for the Messiah was particularly strong in the period from 200 BC to AD 100. Since Alexander's conquest, and subsequent rule by the Seleucids and Rome, the situation of the people had deteriorated, and they were crying out for someone to deliver them from it. Beyond that general desire, however, the people seemed to have little specific understanding of what the Messiah might do or how the Messiah would accomplish making their lives better.
First, John makes it emphatically clear that he himself is not the Messiah. He says to "all" that there is a marked contrast between himself and "the one stronger than I." John considers himself not even worthy to do the common work of a slave and untie his master's sandals to remove his shoes.
Second, John says that he baptizes with water, and sharply contrasts that with what "the one stronger" will do, which will be baptism in "a holy spirit and fire." (The Greek text does not capitalize "holy spirit" and there is no definite article in front of it. Considering the importance of the Holy Spirit in Luke's gospel, however, and his repeated references, "Holy Spirit" is an appropriate translation. Additional Lukan references to "baptized with the Holy Spirit" are Acts 1:5 and 11:16.)
More than any other gospel, Luke emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit. The phrase "in the power of the Spirit," or something akin to it, is frequent in Luke, and probably one of the reasons that some have called Luke an "up and out" gospel--that is, one propelled toward outward mission.
This emphasis is present in both of Luke's works, his gospel and the book of Acts. In the story of Pentecost (Acts 2), Luke cites the prophet Joel who affirms that God "will pour out (God's) Spirit on all flesh" (2:17). Throughout Acts, the Spirit is associated with enlivening the ministry of the church and broadening its reach.
The reference to fire has prompted much comment throughout the history of the church. Perhaps fire is connected with the Spirit, as the experience of Pentecost would indicate (Acts 2:3). Or, perhaps fire is an image independent of Spirit, and recalls "the refiner's fire" of Malachi 3:2. In Malachi, the "refiner's fire" is associated with the "messenger" who will "prepare the way before me."
The only other use of the word "fire" in the immediate context is in verses 9 and 17, both of which indicate judgment and destruction, especially 19: "...whose winnowing fork (is) in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather together the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Fire is a purifying element. See Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15 where he says that "fire will test what sort of work each has done." Whatever is built on Christ survives the fire. Whatever is not is burned up. This is not bad, but good. Christians often seem to forget two things--first, that judgment is for our benefit, and second, that the one who judges us is the one who loves us the most.
The Baptism of Jesus: The lection omits verses 18-20, which is too bad because, in them, Luke tells his readers that John has been arrested and thrown into prison by Herod. (This Herod is not Herod the Great, but rather his son, Herod Antipas). Presumably, John was still in prison in verse 21 when Jesus is baptized. In Luke's gospel, we do not know who baptized Jesus. (It's hard to avoid the suspicion that these verses were left out of the lection because they raise this question.)
All four gospels have their qualms about telling this story. Having Jesus baptized by John implies the subordination of Jesus to John. It would imply that Jesus is John's disciple, and not vice versa. This would have been a problem for the early Christians, especially since the ministry of John the Baptist appears to have continued through his disciples, even after the resurrection appearances of Jesus.
The evangelists felt they had to deal with this in some way. Mark, the earliest gospel and a major source for both Matthew and Luke, reports the baptism simply and straightforwardly, "And it happened in those days, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee, and he was baptized into the Jordan by John."
In receiving this story from Mark, Matthew felt it important to add that John resisted baptizing Jesus because he felt he wasn't worthy to do it. In both Mark and Matthew, the baptism itself is briefly mentioned.
In Luke, John is even further removed from the scene. He is in prison, and somebody else did the baptizing--or, if somehow John had been released from prison, he is not specifically mentioned as doing the baptism.
In addition, while Mark says that the Spirit descended upon Jesus as soon as he came up out of the water, Luke puts more distance between the two events. For Luke, the Spirit descends after the baptism and while Jesus was praying.
In the fourth gospel, John is mentioned as a baptizer, but the fourth gospel never states that he baptized Jesus. The fourth gospel eliminates the baptism entirely, and goes straight to John's affirmation of the Spirit descending on Jesus. For all four of the evangelists, then, the baptism of Jesus is something to be "negotiated" in light of what was really important, which is the descent of the Spirit.
Descent of the Spirit: The descent of the Spirit is narrated through three infinitive clauses, the first of which is: "the heaven was opened." The opening of heaven means that the barrier between heaven and earthly reality is transcended or torn aside. In a rare act of God, heaven communicates directly with earth. Joel Green sees the opening of heaven as an apocalyptic image, "the unveiling of divine mystery." (See, for example, Ezekiel 1:1, Rev. 4:1, 19:11.)
The second infinitive clause is: "the Holy Spirit descended." The Spirit is a source of power and dynamism in Luke. Even though the Spirit has been involved with the Jesus story all along (1:35), the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus ignites his mission.
In Luke's gospel, Jesus speaks for the first time only after he has been said to be "full of the Holy Spirit" (4:1). To underline the point even further, Jesus' first public statement of his mission begins: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (4:18).
The third infinitive clause is: "a voice happened." We have been told before of Jesus' special status (1:32-35, 2:11, 2:27-32). Previously, however, this special status had been communicated by angels (or Elizabeth). Here, it is affirmed by God himself. One might even argue that the first three chapters of Luke culminate in this moment, i.e. when God affirms Jesus and says, "You are my son, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased."
The pronouncement has connections to Psalm 2:7: "You are my son. Today I have begotten you." In fact, some early manuscripts of Luke have that phrase in 3:22. (The more familiar text, however, is the more strongly attested.)
In addition to Psalm 2, one should also note Isaiah 42:1: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations."
Robert Tannehill notes that Psalm 2 refers to God's anointed king and Isaiah 42 refers to God's appointed servant. Thus, major aspects of Jesus--his kingship and his role as "suffering servant"--are affirmed through the relationship of Luke 3:22 to both Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42.
God affirms Jesus in strikingly familiar and emotional tones. He is "my Son, the beloved." With Jesus, God is "well-pleased." The word is eudokeo--dokeo means "to seem." The prefix eu- means "good"--hence, "good seeming."
In Mark, the Spirit and voice seem to be apprehended by Jesus alone. In Luke, this is less clear. "All the people who had been baptized" seem to have still been on the scene. Unlike Mark, Luke does not say "he (Jesus) saw." Instead, we have a more general pronouncement describing an event that seems to have been made available to everyone.
Finally, one should note also the corporeal reality of the dove. The Spirit "descended in bodily form." The reality of earthly flesh is important to Luke. Later, in chapter 24, he will underline the corporeal reality of the Risen Jesus (24:39).
Luke retains the image of the dove from Mark. Later in Luke, the Spirit will be associated with fire (Acts 2), but in this first manifestation of the Spirit in earthly reality, the Spirit is associated with a dove. The dove is symbolically associated as an harbinger of good news, an "herald of good tidings," says Joel Green.
The most natural Biblical association for dove is that of Genesis 8:11 where the dove appears as a sign of the renewal of the earth following the flood. That, indeed, is the work of the Spirit, and of Christ, in the New Testament. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus will indeed renew the earth. He will not do it, however, by supporting the status quo, or by waving a magic wand. He will do it in this way (4:18-19):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Image: Mosaic based on detail from The River by John August Swanson, St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Glendale, CA.