TEXT – Luke 3: 15–16; 21–22 — Baptism of the Lord
15 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized 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.”
15 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ
“As the people were in expectation” — There was a great expectation that the Messiah was coming. Because of the Roman invasion, these expectations were for a political leader who would free Israel from the Romans and bring about an era of great worldly prosperity.
“and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John” — Luke mentions “all men” to indicate the universal expectation of the Messiah’s imminent coming. He also mentions that this desire was “in their hearts”.
“whether perhaps he were the Christ” — “The Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah. People wondered if John might be the expected Messiah.
16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
“John answered them all” — As in the previous verse where Luke mentions that “all men” were expecting the Messiah, here he uses the same universal expression to indicate that John is telling everyone that (i) Jesus is greater than he, John, is and that (ii) Jesus’ baptism is greater than John’s.
“‘but he who is mightier than I is coming’” — This is the first point: the Christ who is coming is more powerful than John.
“the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” — Only servants were allowed perform this task. A rabbi’s disciples were forbidden to untie his master’s sandals as being too menial a task. John looked on untying Jesus’ sandal straps as too great an honour for him. He saw himself as unworthy of this privilege. He was truly humble.
“I baptize you with water; … he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” — The Holy Spirit is a major theme in Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 1: 15, 35, 41, 67; 2: 25–27; 3: 16, 22; 4: 1, 14, 18; 10: 21; 11: 13; 12: 10, 12). Luke portrays the Holy Spirit as God’s special gift. He filled Jesus who exercised his ministry in the power of the Spirit. A major fruit of the Spirit is joy, mentioned twenty–seven times in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus promised that his followers would be happy and blessed (Lk. 1: 45; 6: 20–22; 7: 23; 10: 23; 11: 27–28; 12: 37; 14: 14–16; 23: 29). This joy is not something outside the person but within because of his or her union with Christ.
“and with fire” — The Catechism of the Catholic Church (art. 696) explains: “While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. [Examples] The prayer of the prophet Elijah, ‘who arose like fire’ and whose ‘word burned like a torch’, brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a ‘figure’ of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes ‘before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,’ proclaims Christ as the one who ‘will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. Jesus will say of the Spirit: ‘I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!’ In the form of tongues ‘as of fire,’ the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. [End of examples] The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
“Now when all the people were baptized” — The purpose of John’s baptism was “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1: 17). All the people are now baptised so everything is ready for the Lord. This means that, in the plan of salvation, everything is prepared for the appearance of the Messiah.
“and when Jesus also had been baptized” — It is interesting that John’s name does not occur in these two verses. The early Church was very embarrassed that John should have baptised the Messiah who did not need baptism. Many, including Luke, played down this episode as much as possible. What was highlighted was the action of the Blessed Trinity: heaven was opened; the Holy Spirit really descended; and the Father spoke.
and was praying” — A theme in Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus prays before important decisions and moments: Lk. 3: 21 (this verse), the heavens are opened; 5: 16, before healings; 6: 12, before the election of the Twelve; 9: 18, before Peter’s confession; 9: 28–29, before the transfiguration; 11: 1, before instruction on prayer; 22: 41, 44–45, his agony before his sentencing to crucifixion; 23: 34, 46, before his death in the cross. The present occasion is a declaration that he is the Messiah coming to inaugurate the Messianic era.
“the heaven was opened” — The Holy Spirit will come down freely and abundantly and people will be able to ascend and enter heaven which had been closed since original sin had blocked it. Jesus will lead the way (Lk. 24: 51).
22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
“and the Holy Spirit descended upon him” — The Holy Spirit has been working previously in this Gospel (Lk. 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2: 25, 26). His function here is to anoint Jesus for his mission of salvation, as becomes clear in Lk. 4: 16–21.
“in bodily form like a dove” — “In bodily from” means ‘in truth, in reality’. The Holy Spirit is a spirit and so does not have a body. The Holy Spirit really did come down on Jesus and he is described as “like” a dove. In Genesis the Spirit is mentioned twice, first (Gn. 1: 2) as hovering over the waters at the moment of a new beginning, creation (the book of Genesis first words are, “in the beginning”); second, after the flood when it returned with the olive leaf and heralded a new beginning (Gn. 8: 11). As described by Luke here, the meaning is that Jesus is inaugurating a new era of peace and reconciliation.
The coming down of the Holy Spirit does not mean that Jesus did not have the Holy Spirit previously. This description is a means of declaring that Jesus is now undertaking a new way of life. He is now ‘anointed’ by the Holy Spirit; he is the Messiah. A great theologian, St. Cyril of Alexandria, wrote, “If we use right reasoning and the testimonies of scripture, Christ did not receive the Spirit for himself, but rather for us in himself: for all good things flow through him also into us”. Jesus is commencing his mission for our salvation which comes through the workings of the Holy Spirit.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” — God the Father speaks directly to Jesus. He tells him three tings. First, as his Son, Jesus is divine. Second, as his “beloved”, he is loved by his Father. It is the God of Love who is coming. Third, his Father is pleased because he is now anointed to inaugurate his mission for the salvation of the world.
These words recall the First Suffering Servant Song (Is. 1–4), indicating that the Father recognises his Son as the Suffering Messiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen [‘beloved’], in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
The words of the Father confirm that Jesus is the Anointed, the Messiah, sent by God and that he is his divine Son.
1. St. Luke opens his gospel with two chapters, 1 and 2, telling of the infancy of Jesus. Chapter three moves on thirty years (Lk. 3: 23) and describes John the Baptist preparing for the coming of Jesus. It speaks of John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. It concludes by saying that John was arrested and imprisoned by Herod the tetrarch (Lk. 3: 19–20). Today’s passage introduces Jesus as he commences his public ministry by being baptised and heaven is opened, the Holy Spirit anoints him and the Father speaks from heaven.
What Luke wishes to establish is the identity of Jesus before he undertakes his mission. The two verses that are given in this passage tell of his divine origins and the following verses of the chapter refer to his human origins in his genealogy.
What are his divine origins? As Son sent by the Father he is the Messiah, the Son of God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “In the Old Testament the prophets announced that the Spirit of the Lord would rest on the hoped–for Messiah for his saving mission [See Lk. 4: 16–22]. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at his baptism by John was the sign that this was he who was to come, the Messiah, the Son of God. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit; his whole life and his whole mission are carried out in total communion with the Holy Spirit whom the Father gives him “without measure” (CCC, 1286).
“The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Already he is anticipating the “baptism” of his bloody death. Already he is coming to “fulfil all righteousness”, that is, he is submitting himself entirely to his Father’s will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. The Father’s voice responds to the Son’s acceptance, proclaiming his entire delight in his Son. The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to “rest on him”. Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism “the heavens were opened” — the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed — and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation” (CCC, 536)
2. Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptised. He came incognito. He did not want to draw attention to himself. John was in prison (Lk. 3: 19–20). Luke has Jesus come on the scene immediately after announcing the Baptist’s arrest to show that Jesus was now centre–stage; he was taking over from John. John had prepared for him; his mission has been accomplished: “all the people had been baptised”. Knowing that John was in prison Jesus knew that John’s fate would be his; he was beginning a mission that would lead to his death. Later he would say “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Lk. 12: 49–50). This means that Jesus set out to save the world with the transforming action of the Holy Spirit. He wished that it were blazing already but that had to await his death and resurrection. That would be his second baptism, his inundation in suffering and death.
3. Luke is teaching us not only history but he colours it to teach theology, a word which means ‘the word of God’, the word about God. He tells us that Jesus came to the Jordan in great humility, as one of the crowd, as an unknown. He who is sinless received the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to identify with sinners. Throughout his ministry he will be accused by his enemies and opponents as one who welcomes sinners into his company. He will even declare that he came primarily for sinners. His mission is to save sinners, to have them repent for their sins. His baptism is a public declaration of his mission of salvation of sinners.
His humility was shown also by his prayer. He was a person of intense prayer, of depending on his Father for every need, his own and those of others. He was constant in prayer throughout his life, a major theme in Luke’s Gospel. Read carefully, “After he had been baptised and was praying” and note that heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit came down upon him to anoint him and the Father spoke are three results, not of his baptism but of his prayer. Could there be any greater incentive to being persons of prayer in one’s own needs and those of others than Jesus’ humble prayer for himself and others?