READ : Luke 3:21-22
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:21-22 rsv
Every career that has altered the course of human history seems to have had an identifiable beginning, a moment when the vast influence began. For Moses it came on the back side of the desert, before a bush that blazed but was not consumed. For Paul the apostle, it was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, when his life was suddenly turned around. For a general, it may be his first military engagement, for a literary genius, the first published work. We can usually point to one period, one event, one set of circumstances that somehow launched the fateful career.
That is certainly the case for Jesus, arguably the most influential person in history. One moment, one event, one particular historical situation clearly marks the beginning of His ministry. At this point, He goes public, begins to evidence gifts heretofore hidden, passes from obscurity to the beginnings of fame. Before this, we know almost nothing about His thirty years of life. After it, we know more about what He said and did for the following three years than we know about the entire lifetime of any other figure in ancient history. What was the watershed? What was the turning point? When did this career, on which so much would depend, take its rise?
It was in the fifteenth year of the reign of Rome’s Tiberius Caesar. It was at a wilderness point in the Jordan River where John the Baptist had been preaching repentance. It was when many in the crowd had been baptized for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus had stepped into the water among them. By the time He walked up onto land again, His life work was before Him, His ministry had begun. Let me read you about that from Luke, chapter 3, verses 21 and 22, “Now when all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
WHY WAS HE BAPTIZED?
When I think about this scene, when I try to visualize it, a number of questions occur to me. The first is the evident one, “why?” Why was Jesus there to be baptized? John had been thundering, you remember, by the Jordan about the need for repentance, that people should turn back to God from their evil ways, submit themselves to baptism as a sign of that repentance and open their lives to God’s forgiveness. But here is Jesus coming on the scene, the only one who had no need to repent and be forgiven, in whom love for God and love for people was passionate and pure. Why?
John the Baptist felt the difficulty right away. Listen to Matthew’s version of the event, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John; to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, `I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?’” This seemed a strange reversal of what was fitting. John could say of the coming one, “I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals.” How could he, John, administer baptism to Jesus?
But the Lord was determined to go through with it. He answered, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He could understand John’s reluctance. But what seemed so inappropriate to John, Jesus could describe at a deeper level as “fitting,” as “right,” as what needed to happen. In some strange way, this would be a “fulfilling of all righteousness.”
I can only understand this in terms of personal identification. Jesus was somehow becoming one with the sinners who were baptized in the Jordan River, confessing their wrongs. He was throwing in His lot with a guilty people, submitting for their sake to what He personally did not need.
Here was foreshadowed the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ work. He came for the lost, the wayward, the ungodly. He came not to call righteous people but sinners to repentance. He came to seek and save those who were lost. At the terrible climax of His ministry, He would take upon Himself the sins and sorrows of the people and die in their place. And here, at the Jordan River, He stooped first under the load of responsibility that He would carry at last to a cross. There began His ministry of sin-bearing love, becoming one with His people, even to death.
WHO WITNESSED THESE THINGS?
Now I’m trying to picture the scene as though I had been there. Jesus has been baptized by John. At that point we read that “the heavens were opened and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove and remained on him.” A voice came from heaven then saying that Jesus was God’s beloved Son, with whom He had been well pleased. My question at this point is, Who saw this phenomenon of the heavens opening up and the dove swooping down? And who heard the voice from the glory with its astonishing witness to Jesus? Would I have taken it in as an ordinary onlooker, as someone in the crowd along the riverbank? We learn in the gospel according to John that John the Baptist indeed saw the dove. Did anyone else? Mark tells us that Jesus saw the heavens opened. Was He the only one? And that heavenly voice, was it for the ears of the multitude, or was it a word from the Father directly and only to Jesus?
Another angle to the question is, “How did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John find out about this incident? It’s conceivable that some of them were there at the time, possibly John, or Matthew. But Jesus would have been unknown to them then. After the Baptist’s death, the only person that anyone could have heard this from in detail was Jesus Himself, or perhaps Mary, if he had confided in her about it.
It seems clear to me at any rate that the main significance of the opened heavens, the dove and the voice, was for Jesus Himself. What did the opened heavens mean in the Old Testament? Listen to these words from Isaiah’s prophecy, chapter 64, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence!” (v. 1). And the psalmist says of the Lord, “He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet” (Ps. 18:9). This is a way of expressing God’s visitation in judgment and in grace, when He suddenly and powerfully breaks into history to make Himself known. In the crisis at the Jordan, it became clear to Jesus that God was indeed coming to His people in a new and powerful way.
The dove was a sign of the Holy Spirit’s hovering, brooding presence coming upon Jesus. He knew from the Old Testament that the Spirit would rest upon God’s Messiah. He would later quote from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.” The dove was a sign to Jesus that the God who had opened the heavens was now descending to clothe Him with the Spirit’s power and equip Him for the mission that would be His. He knew that He would be filled, guided and empowered by the Spirit for all that lay ahead.
And the voice from heaven, what did that mean to Him? He had probably been told at His mother’s knee about the strange words spoken before His birth. He had read of His destiny in the scrolls of the Old Testament. He had known at the age of 12 that God in a particular way was His Father and that He needed to be about His Father’s business. Now comes the Father’s voice, confirming all of that: “You are my beloved Son.” For Jesus, it was not the word after baptism, “Your sins are forgiven,” but rather a witness from heaven about His blameless life: “In you I have been well pleased.” All of this gave to Jesus, with unforgettable vividness, a witness from beyond about His identity and His mission.
HOW WAS HE PREPARED?
Now for the aspect of this event which only Luke tells us about. You may wonder what was in the mind of Jesus or what His feelings were when the waters of baptism flowed over Him. About those things we can only conjecture. One thing we do know: When Jesus had been baptized, just before the vision of the opened heavens and the descending dove, just before the voice from heaven about His identity and mission, He was praying.
One of the notable features of Luke’s gospel is the way in which it pictures Jesus in this way at prayer. Only Luke lets us know, for example, how before Jesus chose His twelve disciples, He had continued in prayer throughout the night. Only Luke informs us that Jesus that had been in prayer just before Simon Peter’s great confession of faith. Only Luke prepares us for the transfiguration account by telling us that Jesus went up on that mountain to pray and that the miracle occurred while He was praying. Only Luke makes us aware that before Jesus taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, He had Himself been in prayer. He seemed to prepare for every major milestone in His life by this communion with His Father. Each new opportunity for ministry, each crossroads of decision, found Him expressing this dependent trust.
We’re introduced to that pattern in our Lord’s life at the time of His baptism. This is the first mention anywhere in the gospels of Jesus having prayed. We have hints of it in His experience at the temple when He was twelve years old. Remember how He said to His parents when they came seeking Him, “Did you not know that I must be in the things of my Father?” Jesus was there at the temple where the things of God were being discussed by the learned rabbis. He was there where God’s people offered their worship. And His phrase “in the things of my Father” speaks at the deepest level of His communion with God. Already as an adolescent, Jesus was conscious that He stood in a unique relationship to His heavenly Father. He had a calling to do the Father’s will, to seek the Father’s glory, and to live out His whole life as in the Father’s presence.
This note about Jesus’ praying in the waters of Jordan sheds a welcome light on the whole event. What was there about Jesus’ life during those first 30 years, with which the Father was well pleased? Obedience surely, expressed in the boy’s filial submission to His parents. But it was more than that. Jesus had already learned what it was to live as a well-loved Son of His Father in heaven. He had listened to the Father’s voice speaking in the Scriptures, pondering the Word, dwelling on it, memorizing it. He responded to the Father’s love with an answering love.
Someone has said that by “love” we mean at least these attitudes and actions: rejoicing in the presence of the beloved, gratitude, reverence, and loyalty toward Him. All these things had grown up in Jesus’ life as He responded to the Father’s gracious call. And all those elements found expression in His life of prayer.
The opened heavens and the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus mean so much more to us when we realize that He had been praying. Here was a young man conscious that His heavenly Father had called Him to a mission of identification with sinful people. He has now taken that upon Himself in the waters of baptism. He is looking to God for wisdom about the path that lies before Him and for a heavenly anointing to equip Him for the task. That sense of need, that trust, that dependence are all expressed in the suppliant Jesus, the praying Christ.
Why is Luke so concerned to show us this prayerfulness in Jesus? Remember, he already has in mind his second volume, the book of Acts. There he will show how the life and ministry of Jesus provides a pattern for that of the church. Just as the Spirit comes upon Jesus in the Jordan to prepare Him for His ministry, so the Spirit descends upon the apostolic company on that first Pentecost. Just as He is sent to bring good news to the afflicted, so they are thrust out to bear the good news of salvation everywhere. And just as he was praying before the Spirit came, so they are continuing with one accord in prayer until the Spirit descends at Pentecost.
So that’s how Jesus started His career; that’s how the apostolic missionaries began theirs: praying. And that’s how we are to begin, continue and end all our service and witness in the name of Jesus. So as you prepare for whatever God has in store for you, be sure you begin each new venture by opening your whole life to Him in prayer. Remember: the Father keeps on giving the Holy Spirit in fullness and power to those who keep on asking Him.