Luke 3:21-22

Jesus Accepts Solidarity with Humanity

Luke 3:21-22  -  Jesus is Baptised

21 All the people had been baptised,
and Jesus, too, had been baptised
and was praying.  
Heaven  was opened:
22 the holy Spirit came down on him
in visible bodily form, like a dove;
and a voice came from heaven:
"You are my son, my beloved, in you I delight."

Luke used Mark’s Gospel, but he recognised the need to retell the story for the benefit of his own community. Mark’s Gospel had been quite explicit that John baptised Jesus. Luke seemed reluctant to be so direct - his reference to Jesus’ baptism was in the passive voice with no mention of John’s activity. Perhaps his intention was to preserve the superiority of Jesus to John. He also separated Jesus’ experience of God from the baptism, and connected it to Jesus’ prayer rather than directly to the baptism.

Why Did Jesus Choose to be Baptised?

Luke did not say what moved Jesus to be baptised. Why did Jesus freely choose to undergo a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? Perhaps the same question could be asked of why he went regularly to celebrate the great feasts at the temple in Jerusalem where sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins were central to the action.

Though Luke did not actually say so, other Scriptural writings are quite clear that Jesus never personally sinned. When faced with appealing alternatives, he always opted for life and truth. He was tempted in every way that we are; he knew the ambivalence of the human heart. And simply by living in a dysfunctional town in a dysfunctional society, he was unavoidably involved in networks of destructive relationships. His own habits of prayer gave him insights into the chaos of the sin of the world. 

For Jesus his baptism was the acceptance of solidarity with the human condition. What attracted him to John may well have been the vision of a world saved from sin and its social destructiveness.

Baptism and the Spirit. Baptism had become common practice in the Christian community. With many members of the community it was accompanied by a significant inner experience, interpreted as an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit. Christian baptism was seen as distinct from the baptism of John. In the light of the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus it was seen to effect what John’s baptism had only signified. As Luke crafted his narrative, Jesus’ own experience of the Spirit was not the effect of John’s baptism, but separate from it. It happened as he was “praying”.

Prayer. For Luke prayer had crucial significance. He would show Jesus praying frequently. Jesus would in turn teach the disciples much about prayer. For Luke it seemed that prayer provided the context for growth in intimacy with God and with it for increased self-knowledge and maturity. Prayer would be the setting in which the Spirit of God would work in the heart of the disciple.

As the story unfolded, Luke stressed how acceptance of the chaos in one’s own soul, highlighted by prayer and corresponding insight into the unbounded mercy of God, was the only way to truly human growth.

Given the emphasis on the prayer-setting, it would seem that, whatever about the reality of the event described, Luke interpreted the coming of the Spirit and the reassuring voice from heaven as some sort of mystical experience of Jesus. In this he may have read the scene differently from Mark.

The heaven opening referred to the cry of Isaiah. Centuries before, an impatient Third Isaiah had cried out: 

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down 
and make your name known to your adversaries. (Isaiah 64:1)

Like Isaiah before him, Jesus (and Luke) would have operated on the basis of the cosmology of the era that considered the earth flat, with the empty sphere of the heavens above it, across the inside surface of which moved the sun and the moon, and in or through which the stars twinkled at night. God resided above the heavens. Isaiah had pleaded that God would tear apart the separating dome of the heavens and come down to earth. With the coming of Jesus, God obliged. God’s was the voice declaring Jesus to be my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

The Spirit’s descent in bodily form may simply have meant “visibly” or “tangibly”. The image gave an impression of a gentle descent, like a hovering dove, certainly not the consuming, unquenchable fire expected by John.

The words uttered by the voice from heaven were a combination of the opening words of a song of Second Isaiah and of the second Psalm. No doubt, they were intended to mean what they said, but they also carried the further echoes contained in the songs. 

The passage from the Psalm, a messianic psalm, reflecting temple spirituality (and therefore tightly wedded also to the monarchy), spoke of the son who would conquer the nations. 

I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you...” (Psalm 2:7)

Second Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” may have been a symbol of the people of Israel themselves, the faithful remnant of Israel, or even the prophet and his small band of followers. Luke saw the reference as neatly fitting the role description of Jesus.

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.
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. (Isaiah 42:1-4)

Second Isaiah, written after the humiliation of the monarchy and the captivity in Babylon, looked to salvation of a quite different kind coming from a quite different direction. There were four “Servant Songs”, making together the following points:

  • The Servant’s role would be to establish justice without violence
  • He would bring back Israel to God
  • He would be a light to the nations
  • He would be made to suffer unjustly
  • Through his suffering he would ensure the salvation of the peoples

The temptation scene soon to follow would spell out more clearly the two options to be faced by Jesus.

Was Jesus Aware That he was God?

The question is ours, not Luke’s. “Son of God” was not for Luke a statement of trinitarian theology. The title had already been used of a variety of people in the Jewish Scriptures, and in the Gentile world had been applied to the (deceased) Emperor Augustus. For Jews it conveyed a sense of particular closeness to God. For Romans it simply meant another “god” added to their pantheon. 

Jews defended fiercely their faith that God was one, unique. Early Christian believers did not have the theological sharpness or language to express the mystery of the Trinity. Clear expression of that belief took over four hundred years to be formulated.

Later Reflection. Christian faith generally since the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) has been quite clear that Jesus was both human and divine. To assist their speaking about the mystery they used the words “nature” and “hypostasis”(or “person”), as those words were understood in the Greek philosophy of the time. Jesus had a divine nature and a human nature, though the word “nature” as it applied to God was necessarily used analogically [basically unalike, but not in all respects]. There was no way that the human mind could directly understand the nature of God. The two natures of Jesus were totally distinct and complete in themselves. Jesus was not a mixture of the divine and the human.

The two natures of Jesus were united in (or belonged to) the one “hypostasis” or “person”. How that can be is beyond human capacity to imagine or to comprehend. What the bishops at the Council understood by the word “person” was a strictly metaphysical reality. At that time the word did not carry the psychological overtones that it has today.

Consciousness. Another Council some time after (Third Council of Constantinople in 681 AD) declared that Jesus had two separate wills, a divine will shared equally with the other two persons of the Trinity, and a human will. This is the closest the Church has got to addressing the question of Jesus’ consciousness.

It would seem, however, that the historical human Jesus unaided could not have understood his divine nature, any more than other people can. (The humanity of the risen Christ is different. Christ now lives with a thoroughly enhanced human life, as believers, too, hope to do eventually.) 

Human like Us. Was the human nature of the historical Jesus especially aided (elevated, as it were)? The Scriptures do not answer the question. However, from their developing insight, some Scripture writers spoke of Jesus being totally like us. The Epistle to the Hebrews stated that Jesus

... had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect (Heb. 2:17). 
It spoke of his being
... one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). 

It maintained that he grew in perfection, particularly through his suffering. Luke had already spoken of Jesus “growing in wisdom”.

Ordinary persons can understand human experience. They cannot understand divine experience. It would seem more respectful to avoid conjecture about the consequences of the divinity of Jesus, and to focus on what can be understood, his humanity. There is no need to suppose that Jesus knew the future, that he could supernaturally read people’s hearts with certainty, that he could “save himself”, or that he could control the forces of nature.

The humanity of Jesus is the fullness of God’s self-revelation. If people distort his humanity, there is danger that they distort also their image of God.

Next >> Luke 3:23-38