Commentary: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Similar to last Sunday, this lection is part of a larger pericope, with another brief pericope attached. The question for us is what is the purpose of joining these particular verses for this particular Sunday of the church year.
Function of the Text
There is a two-fold function to this text. First, it puts John in perspective to Jesus. John is less than Jesus; John is not the Christ; John's baptism is less than "the One who is to come.'' Second, this text establishes who Jesus is. The words of the text claim that he is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit rests and he is the beloved Son, presumably of God.
Luke primarily uses narrative to communicate his message. Yet, here he also adds some of John's preaching as well as a little parable. The development of this text is as follows: a brief narrative about the people in expectation, waiting for the Christ; preaching by John, asserting that he is not the one for whom they are waiting; the parable of the winnower; and, the baptism of both the crowd and Jesus, with the mystic story of the dove and the voice of heaven.
Chapter 3 and the beginning of 4 describe the preparation for Jesus' ministry. Our lection is set within this wider context. The ministry of John the Baptist is described in 3:1-20; the baptism of Jesus is told in vv. 21-22; the genealogy of Jesus is listed in 3:23-38; and the temptations for Jesus are told in 4:1-13. After that, his ministry begins. Our text takes part of John's ministry and sets it next to the baptism story. This positioning sets the "predictions" by John at the end of his ministry right next to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry with his baptism. This structure refers back to the first chapter of Luke where John came before Jesus, yet Jesus would be the greater.
The early church wrestled with John's position in history. Luke is using the introduction to his gospel to establish John's importance, yet his subservient position to Jesus. Through Luke's telling, John is aware of his own limitations: he is not worthy even to be the slave of a Mightier One; the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, not just water; and, the Christ will bring judgment. Luke uses John's own words to establish that he is a forerunner to the Christ, not the Christ himself.
Issues Around Baptism
There are at least three issues around the baptism of Jesus in Luke: Luke's version of the baptism itself; the winnower and fire image as they relate to baptism; and the question of why Jesus was baptized.
In contrast to Matthew and Mark, Luke gives slight attention to this baptism. Matthew identifies the place (the Jordan) and offers the argument between John and Jesus about who should be baptizing whom. Mark is briefer, simply identifying that the baptism was done by John in the Jordan. Luke does none of this. He does not give the place nor does he say who performed the baptism. Luke is moving the camera from John and to Jesus. Giving slight attention to the event itself highlights the revelation after the baptism.
The winnowing parable emphasizes that the Christ's baptism would be with the Holy Spirit and with fire. To winnow, the farmer poured wheat from one container to another on windy days. The chaff was blown away, leaving the grain clean. Chaff burned with explosive combustion. (Nebraska farmers had a similar experience in the spring of 1994 when fields ignited spontaneously due to very dry conditions.) The purpose of winnowing was to gather the wheat, not to burn the chaff. Likewise, the Messiah will come to save the world, not to condemn it.
Furthermore, according to G.B. Caird, Luke was following the Q source here, which asserted that the baptism was to be with the Holy Spirit and with fire.1 Caird contends that this is either a hendiadys (an expression of a complex idea by two words connected with "and") or the description of a dual baptism. As a dual baptism, it is "the gracious gift for the penitent and the rigors of retribution for the obdurate."2
However this "complex idea" is understood, it is a foreshadowing of Luke's next book, Acts, when the Holy Spirit comes as wind and fire.
My confirmation students asked why Jesus had to be baptized if he was without sin. Good question. Whether Luke's gospel answers this is not certain. Caird surmises that Jesus was a man with a public calling. As John had summoned all Israel to repentance, Jesus, too, must go. Like Isaiah, he dwelt in the midst of a people with unclean lips.3 It may also be possible that Jesus had been a part of the same sect as John and because of that association he was baptized. Or, it may be that we cannot really know why, but we certainly do know the outcome--and that is what is important. The outcome of this baptism was the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God.
Revelation of the Son of God
There are three parts to the revelation of the Son of God. First, "the heaven was opened" refers to Isaiah 64:1-4. Isaiah prayed that God would reveal Godself as in the days of old. The passage begins, "O that thou would rend the heavens..." At the Jordan river the heaven was opened for a revelation.
Two, the Holy Spirit was given the bodily form of a dove. The presence of the Spirit is made known to those who were present.
Three, there is a voice from heaven announcing, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." This refers in combination to Ps 2:7 and Is 42:1. Ps 2 announces the rise of the anointed king. Is 42 is the first Suffering Servant song. Jesus is revealed as both king and servant. He is anointed for both offices at the commencement of his ministry.
The first Sunday after Epiphany is also known as the Baptism of our Lord. Our exegesis indicates that more important than the baptism was the revelation of who Jesus is. We will walk through the weeks ahead, hearing of Jesus' ministry, with the knowledge that he is king and servant. He is the Son of God.
1. G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, The Pelican Gospel Commentaries (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 74. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid., p. 77.