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#4 Baptism of Jesus and Anointing
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
with the Holy Spirit (3:18-23a)
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Text: Luke 3:18-23a
James J. Tissot, The Baptism of Jesus (1886-96), watercolor. Larger image.
 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done,  Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.
Preaching Good News (3:18)
By our standards, John the Baptist wouldn't be known for his "good news." He preaches ferociously against sin, even to the point of rebuking a reigning king and queen. He declares a baptism of repentance, he calls listeners "snakes," he talks about the ax being laid at the root of the tree, and the fire that will consume God's adversaries as chaff. Not especially good news.
But our text characterizes his ministry in this way: "And with many other words John exhorted (parakaleo) the people and preached the good news (euengelizo) to them" (Luke 3:18). The word "exhorted" is Greek parakaleo, "2. 'appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage,' 3. request, implore, appeal to, entreat,' 4. 'comfort, encourage, cheer up.' " Like the prophets before him, John was an exhorter. But we tend to see just the negative side of this. There is also the positive side, the hope-giving side that brings encouragement and comfort to his hearers. He is an evangelist; he "preached the good news," as well. The Greek word euengelizo means "bring or announce good news." What good news? The good news that Messiah is on the way, that the time has come, that there IS forgiveness with repentance, that God DOES cleanse people of sin.
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the mid-First Century, writes of him:
"... John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness."
We live in an age when building self-esteem sometimes takes precedence over truth, over exhortation. Somehow we need to come back into balance: affirming the good news, but at the same time condemning unrighteousness. It is the latter that gets John into trouble with the authorities.
John the Baptist's Imprisonment (3:19-20)
When he rebukes the reigning king and queen -- King Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias -- it lands him in prison. Josephus interprets it this way:
"Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death."
Yes, John was a danger to Herod because of his great influence. But Josephus doesn't record the direct reason as do the Gospels: "But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison" (3:19-20).
Herod Antipas had married his sister-in-law Herodias, an act specifically condemned by the Old Testament laws concerning marriage to close relatives (Leviticus 18:16). Pious Jews are indignant about this flagrant sin by their monarch, but most keep their opinions to themselves. However, when John the Baptist, the leader of a growing religious movement begins denouncing the king, Herod takes action. He doesn't execute John immediately out of fear for public opinion (Matthew 14:5) and because of his own fear of John as a holy man. Sometimes Herod would talk with the prophet after John was imprisoned (Mark 6:16). It was only at Herodias' instigation that John is finally beheaded (Mark 6:21-29).
Let's turn, however, from John's illustrious ministry to that of his kinsman Jesus, that begins right at this point.
Jesus' Baptism (3:21a)
Jesus is among his cousin's hearers. It all begins when he follows others wading into the Jordan to be baptized. "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too," Luke says simply (3:21a). But it was anything but simple.
Why would Jesus need to be baptized at all? Of all the people on the face of the earth, before or since, Jesus alone had no need of repentance from sin (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5; Isaiah 53:9; 1 Peter 2:22; John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21). If he were to be baptized along with all these sinners, wouldn't people misunderstand, and believe he too was a sinner?
The Gospel of Matthew records John's protest when he sees Jesus coming to be baptized. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John recognizes who Jesus is; God has revealed it to him. But Jesus tells John, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness," and at Jesus' urging, John consents (Matthew 3:14-15).
How did Jesus' being baptized fulfill all righteousness? It is difficult for John to understand, and difficult for us, too. But the answer is probably found in Jesus' destiny to redeem sinful mankind, to so closely identify with us that he takes our place:
"... By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
... he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:11-12)
We might be concerned with what people think about our own personal holiness, but not Jesus. He has already left his heavenly glory, he has already let go of the prerogatives and perquisites that came with "equality with God," and he "empties himself" (Philippians 2:6-7). He isn't concerned with public opinion or his reputation. He is concerned with fulfilling God's plan. And in order to do that he needs to identify fully with God's people. Those with a heart for the Father are responding to John's message of forgiveness and hope, and so Jesus joins them in the water and is baptized along with them -- along with us -- "to fulfill all righteousness."
But Luke doesn't discuss all this; his purpose is elsewhere. He says simply, "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too" (3:21a).
Descent of the Holy Spirit (3:21b-22a)
Why didn't I ever notice that after Jesus is baptized he is praying? Perhaps because I was so interested in what was happening TO him that I didn't think about what was happening IN him. I suspect that his baptism was a time of dedication, a recognition that his ministry is about to begin, and a communication with his Father. Jesus has long been aware of his mission, but the time was not yet. The Forerunner has needed to come. Jesus now knows that "the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). It is time. I see Jesus' baptism not as an event marking forgiveness and restoration, but an event marking his voluntary commitment to the journey that now opens up before him.
As Jesus is praying, heaven is opened, as if to allow the passage of the Holy Spirit. "And the Holy Spirit descended upon him, in bodily form like a dove" (3:22a). Two words here are key to our understanding: Greek somatikos, "bodily," and Greek eidos, "form, outward appearance." The Holy Spirit isn't a dove, but there was some kind of visible manifestation that could best be described AS a dove, descending upon Jesus. How does a dove descend? Imagine it in your mind, and perhaps you can discern how this appeared to the onlookers, that probably included some of the disciple eyewitnesses who later reported the phenomenon to Luke. It was an important sign to John the Baptist himself, who said,
"I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).
But this event is more than a sign. Something significant happens here in Jesus. No, this isn't the first time he had encountered the Holy Spirit. After all, he was CONCEIVED by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35).
But this was Jesus anointing for ministry, perhaps like David after he was anointed with oil by Samuel and was full of the Holy Spirit thereafter (1 Samuel 16:13). Luke later records Peter's words to a Gentile household:
"You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached -- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:37-38).
The phrase "anointed with the Holy Spirit and power" in Acts 10:38 also recalls David's anointing: "... and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power" (1 Samuel 16:13). The Spirit's anointing is a sign of Jesus' messianic role. He IS Messiah -- which literally means, "the anointed one." (Christ's is the Greek word for "anointed one," Jesus' title.)
After this event of the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus, we see the same concept repeated several times in Luke 4:
"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert" (4:1).
'"Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside" (4:14).
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me..." (4:18)
Luke -- and God who inspired him -- wants to make very sure we don't miss the point of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus has always been divine, but His ministry as Messiah now begins.
Jesus' Age (3:23a)
In a moment we'll listen to the Voice from heaven, but first let's observe a detail that Luke alone give us: "Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began [his ministry]" (3:23). The words "his ministry" are not in the Greek text itself, but are clearly implied. Thirty seems pretty late to us to embark upon a career -- a second career actually -- given a life expectancy in those days of perhaps 35 to 45 years. But 30 was the age at which David began to reign. Perhaps this is a kind of formal statement that echoes the history and reign of Israel's kings: "David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years" (2 Samuel 5:4). Compare this to "Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry." This is followed by a formal genealogy that traces Jesus' lineage to David. We're not going to study the genealogy, or the speculation that it engenders, since these verses 23-37 aren't vital to our quest for disciple lessons. But the words spoken by the Voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism are crucial for us.
Voice from Heaven (3:22b)
The Voice, apparently heard by all, was especially intended for Jesus himself, since it addresses him specifically: "You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased" (3:22b), and is reminiscent of Messianic elements in Psalm 2:7.
I don't see how Jesus' self-awareness as the Messiah, the Son of God, could spring miraculously from his manger-days. He grew and learned as any other boy would (Luke 2:52). But he also prayed, and gradually realized who He was, probably by the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-51). It's very difficult for us to even try to understand this. We have no personal experience from which to compare, but perhaps this is something of the meaning the writer of Hebrews conveys when he says,
"During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:7-8).
The Son knows what it is to yearn and pray and listen to his Father. He is well acquainted with our struggles, since he too lived in human flesh. The difference is we are but creatures; He always was/is God, who had "emptied" himself (Philippians 2:7). And as the Father brings him to full understanding, the time is now right and he is ready. He submits to baptism -- part of "humbling himself" (Philippians 2:8). And now the Father's clear words thunder from heaven: "My beloved Son -- I am so pleased with you!"
His Sonship was no surprise to Jesus, but his Father's words couldn't help but be an encouragement. Like the encouragement of a dad to his child, who says out loud and unashamedly in front of family and friends, "You know, April, I love you. You please me so much!" Those words live in April's heart forever. They're what she needs to step out in life. They are the words she remembers when times are tough. My Dad loves me, and at least I please him. If no one else understands me, this is enough. Dad loves me, and he's pleased.
How we long to hear our heavenly Father breathe those words into our own ears. And he does. He does love us. He loves with a determined passion to redeem us and set us free to our full potential as sons and daughters of the King. Only when we understand how important to Jesus were the words "My greatly loved Son, you please me well," -- only then can we understand the sacrifice that led Jesus to cry out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1).
The Voice of Love for the Son begins a remarkable ministry that assures and imparts that same Father-love to each one of us. Launched by love, Jesus now begins.
Lord, I know that what Jesus experienced at the Jordan was his, and his alone. I'll never have the same relationship to you that He does. But I, too, long for your approval. You are my Father, too. And I long to pause and drink in your love to sustain me in a world that needs to feel that love pass from me to them. Fill me with your love, Lord. Saturate me. I commit myself to you. I humble myself before you, God. As I stand in prayer, descend also upon me, and equip me afresh for your work here on earth. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:22)
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- What do you think Jesus was saying to the Father as he was praying after his baptism? (vs. 21)
- Why would Jesus be baptized along with all the sin-laden people at the river that day? Wasn't he in danger of miscommunicating to them who he was?
- Why do you think God staged the dove to descend in a visible way? (vs. 22)
- What was the significance of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus at this time in his life?
- How did Jesus interpret the Voice that sounded from heaven?
- Did Jesus become the Messiah at this point? Or become divine? Or how do you understand this decisive event?
- Flavius Josephus (translated by William Whiston), Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2. http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/?book=Ant_15&chapter=5#2
- See also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.4. http://bible.crosswalk.com/History/BC/FlaviusJosephus/?book=Ant_15&chapter=5#4
- Leon Morris in The Gospel According to Matthew (Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 64-65, observes that most modern commentators see the reason as Jesus affirming his solidarity with God's people.
- Marshall, 152.
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
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