The gospel lectionary reading for the First Sunday of Epiphany/the Baptism of Christ in this Year C is Luke 3.15–17, 21–22. We have recently been exploring Luke 3 during Advent, having read the first six verses of this chapter with the announcement of John the Baptist’s ministry in Advent 2, and the detail of his preaching in Advent 3.
Since we have just been celebrating Jesus’ birth, and his baptism happened as an adult, this is one of the odd moments where the lectionary year rather telescopes Jesus’ life and makes him a fast developer! I think the selection of the reading is very odd, not so much in cutting out Luke’s interpolation of Herod’s opposition to John (which the other Synoptics place elsewhere) but because of the way it truncates John’s teaching as the context for Jesus’ baptism. It is as if we can think of Jesus’ baptism in isolation from the ministry and teaching of the one who baptised him—which we can’t. (Here again, James Cary’s plea that we read longer passages of Scripture has purchase. This Sunday, consider doing something more sensible than the lectionary and read a long extract from Luke 3!)
The short account of Jesus’ baptism is very similar in the three Synoptics. (Interestingly, John 1.29–34 agrees with the Synoptic accounts at key points—but fails to mention that the Spirit descending on Jesus was actually at his baptism. It is almost as if John assumes we have already read one of the other gospels, perhaps Mark.) But there is one point where Mark’s account seems to be ambiguous, and Matthew and Luke clarify it in different ways. Mark 1.10 explains that the Spirit came down on him ‘when he came up out of the water’, and popular imagery pictures Jesus surfacing from full immersion, but still standing in the river, as this happens. Matthew 3.16 corrects this impression: after his baptism, ‘Jesus went up immediately from the water’ which can only mean that he has climbed out of the river. And Luke 3.21 makes the same thing clear in another way: ‘when Jesus had been baptised and was praying’, including his distinctive and customary emphasis on prayer. But Luke doesn’t include Matthew’s highlighting of the incongruence of Jesus’ baptism in his conversation between Jesus and John (Matt 3.14–15); instead, he emphasises the role of the Spirit. When Jesus goes into the desert after his baptism, he is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4.1) though this on its own is not enough to equip him for ministry. On his return from the strenuous demands of the testing in the wilderness, he returns to Galilee ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14), both Spirit references being unique to Luke.
But when I was reading this passage, the thing that leapt out of the page came several verses earlier, in John’s description of the one who was to come after him:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3.15–18)
There are several significant images of eschatological judgement here. First, the promise of the Holy Spirit being poured out (‘baptism’ means being immersed in or overwhelmed by) is connect with ‘the last days’ in Joel 2.28. Although we might naturally associate ‘fire’ with the tongues of flame at Pentecost in Acts 2, but in fact it is an image of judgement, as the phrase ‘unquenchable fire’ makes clear. (Two interesting things to note here. First, the Greek term is asbestos from which we get, well, asbestos! Second, fire is primarily an image of destruction, not torment.) John seems to expect Jesus to be one who will bring the judgement of God to his people and to the wider world.
Mark’s account of John’s preaching and ministry is very brief, but in Luke and Matthew the writers both make strong links between John and Jesus—Matthew even recording John as preaching ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand’ (Matt 3.2), and an exact parallel with his account of the preaching of Jesus (Matt 4.17). But at the same time, Luke and Matthew (with John 1) also include clear differentiation: John’s ministry is preparatory; Jesus is greater than him; he is not worthy; and his baptism foreshadows a more powerful experience. Jesus confirms this differentiation in his own teaching:
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than him. (Luke 7.28 = Matt 11.11)
Whilst John anticipates the coming of the kingdom of God and the eschatological gift of the Spirit, in Jesus and his ministry the kingdom has come and the Spirit is (after Jesus’ ascension) outpoured. This is the moment of the turning of the ages.
Luke’s account of John’s ministry is longer than Matthew’s, and has some distinctive emphases. (This is evident if you look at a Synopsis, such as Throckmorton; you can also see the texts in parallel in an online synopsis such as the one hosted by the University of Toronto, though the layout does not make the differences quite so evident.) He includes John’s specific commands clarifying what repentance looks like in response to three sets of questions, from the multitude, from tax collectors and from soldiers. Once more we see a Lukan focus—that the ‘good news’ includes those who might be considered beyond the pale, as well as those who are more respectable. (I am intrigued to note that Matthew’s mention of the ‘Pharisees and Sadducees’ in Matt 3.7 becomes for Luke 3.7 a much more general ‘multitude’. See the later explanation in Luke 7.30.) The inclusion of the hated toll collectors finds fullest expression in Luke’s unique account of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.1–9, forming a contrasting pair with the encounter with the ‘rich young ruler’ in the previous chapter. The soldiers need not necessarily have been Gentile Roman soldiers, but could easily be Jews serving with Herod’s forces. This good news is indeed inclusive: all face the coming judgement of God, and all without exception need to repent. This good news comes as a gift, but demands a response; the phrase ‘What shall we do?’ occurs regularly in Luke and Acts (Luke 10.25, 18.18, Acts 2.37, 16.30 and 22.10). And the ‘fruit’ of repentance does not consist of nice personal qualities but (as all through the New Testament) specific ethical actions of obedience to God’s commands. The connection between judgement and repentance is made clear by Luke as he sandwiches this teaching on repentance between the two warnings of judgement in verses 7 to 9 and verses 15 to 18.
But was John right to see Jesus as eschatological judge? He first talks of God’s judgement in terms of the axe at the tree (note the parallel in Luke 3.7 with John 15.6). But then he talks of Jesus as the one who executes this judgement. The winnowing fork is used to thrown harvesting grown in the air, so that the wind blows the chaff away and the heavier, valuable grain falls to the ground to be collected. It is not clear whether John sees Jesus as actually doing this sorting himself, since he has the winnowing fork ‘in his hand’ and on the metaphorical threshing floor wheat and chaff have already been separated—so perhaps Jesus will pronounce judgement over the separation that John’s ministry has already brought about. But, as the gospel unfolds, does Jesus fulfil what John anticipates?
There are two pointers to suggest that he doesn’t. The first is his ‘sermon’ at Nazareth, the so-called ‘Nazareth manifesto’. In Luke 4.16–19 Jesus reads from Is 61.1–2, but it is striking that Jesus (or Luke) omits the final phrase of the Isaiah passage ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’ suggesting that judgment has given way to mercy. The second pointer is John’s own puzzlement about Jesus’ ministry, expressed in a message sent from his captivity (which the lectionary cuts out of Sunday’s reading!) which contrasts strongly with the confidence we find in this passage: ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ (Luke 7.20). Jesus’ answer focusses entirely on the things he has mentioned at Nazareth about healing and restoration and again makes no mention of judgement.
But in contrast to that, there is other very clear language of judgement on the lips of Jesus. Luke gives this a sharp edge in his (again unique) account of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19.41–44:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Rather awkwardly (for us as readers), Jesus is here connecting directly the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans with judgement by God for not recognising Jesus’ arrival as the presence of God himself visiting his people.
Secondly, Jesus himself talks about the division that he will bring, and makes mention of the fire of judgement that John has talked about:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother–in–law against daughter–in–law and daughter–in–law against mother–in–law.” (Luke 12.49–53).
John is right about judgement and Jesus, with two important qualifications. The first is that this judgement is postponed—in the case of Israel until the destruction of the temple in 70AD, and in case of all humanity until the return of Jesus as judge at the end of the age. And the second qualification is that the basis of judgement shifts; for John it is avoided by repentance, baptism and the fruit of that change in tangible change of life. In Jesus’ teaching this is taken up into the question of decision about following him: judgement is no longer on the basis of being part of the ethnic Jewish people of God; nor on the basis of whether we change and begin to obey God’s just commandments; but it is now on the basis of being incorporated into the renewed people of God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and living a new life of holiness empowered by the Spirit. And all this is possible only because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection for us.
This is confirmed by the imagery in the brief language of the baptism of Jesus itself. In Mark’s account, the focus is on Jesus’ experience: he saw heaven opened and the Spirit descending, and the divine voice addresses him. Here in Luke, the divine voice is addressed to Jesus, but the opening of heaven and descent of the Spirit ‘bodily’ appears to be a public event. Matthew’s account leans more to Luke than Mark; we are to ‘behold’ the sudden opening of the heavens, and the divine voice affirms Jesus to the crowd. The splitting open of the heavens alludes to the longing expressed in Isaiah 64.1, that God would come down and rescue his people, vanquishing their enemies, and the opened heavens are an apocalyptic sign of God’s revelation in both Ezekiel and Revelation. The sending of the Spirit is an eschatological act in Joel 2.32 brought to completion in Acts 2.
The language of ‘my son, my beloved, in whom I delight’ take us back to at least two significant OT passages. The first is Gen 22.2, where God calls Abraham to offer his ‘son, whom you love’ as a sacrifice; the end of that narrative is the fulfilment of Abraham’s claim that ‘God will provide the sacrifice’. The second is the Servant Song in Is 42.1, where God’s servant ‘in whom I delight’ will be anointed with God’s Spirit, will bring justice to the nations, and has been called ‘in righteousness’ (Is 42.6).
But the whole episode suggests a range of other OT passages as well, some more strongly signalled than others. The combination of a dove and the Spirit over the water reminds us of the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God broods over the chaotic deep. Do we have here a suggestion that Jesus is the one who brings the new creation (2 Cor 5.17?)
A dove also comes across the water in the account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6–9. Noah’s father believed that Noah would bring people ‘rest’ and relief from the curse of sin (Gen 5.29), and he leads a faithful remnant, rescuing them from the judgement of God on the sin of the world after the ‘heavens were opened’ (Gen 7.11). Could Jesus be the one to rescue us from judgement, and give us true rest (Heb 4.1–11)?
Ezekiel (Ezek 1.1, 2.2) stands by a river, sees heaven opened, and receives a vision of God in which he is commissioned for is prophetic ministry promising God’s people a return from exile. Is Jesus the one who will finally bring his people home?
And as we have seen, passing through the waters of the Jordan was a key moment in the saga of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, when they finally completed their journey and entered the promised land (Joshua 3–4). Is Jesus (his name being the Greek version of Joshua) the one who will finally deliver God’s people from all their slavery to sin, and complete the promise of God’s deliverance?
As the gospel unfolds, we discover that the answer to all these questions is ‘Yes’—Jesus really is the one who was to come to liberate his people, and not just them, but the whole world.