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The closest modern parallel to Jesus' baptism—though of course it is not at all the same—is the selection of a presidential candidate at a political convention. At this ancient "convention," however, there is only one elector who speaks, only one vote that counts. This is the first of two times in Luke's Gospel that a voice from heaven addresses Jesus (the other is in 9:28-36). Both events represent a divine endorsement of him (Acts 10:37-38; 13:23-25). This first endorsement contains two elements—the descent of the Spirit and the word from heaven; the second is marked by a cloud and a divine word.
After almost two thousand years of established theological teaching about Jesus, it is hard to appreciate how revolutionary the baptismal endorsement was, even though in all likelihood Jesus experienced it privately. The description of this miraculous event, unlike accounts of other miraculous events, gives no indication of bystanders' reactions (compare Paul's conversion, Acts 9:7; 22:9). There is simply a word to Jesus. Luke's presentation of the event, like the parallel Synoptic accounts (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11), pulls the curtain away from the heavens and lets us see how God views Jesus' arrival.
The divine word from heaven explains who Jesus is and uses Old Testament language. As important as this description is, the environment in which the remark appears is also significant. Jesus, by submitting to baptism, identifies with humanity's need for cleansing. Luke will return to the connection between John and Jesus' ministry in 20:1-8; Matthew makes more of this identification by speaking of the need for fulfilling all righteousness (Mt 3:15). But the point here is crucial. The temptations will show that Jesus is different from Adam; he is able to resist the temptation to go his own way selfishly in sin. So Jesus does not accept baptism for the sake of his own sin. His participation in the rite indicates his readiness to take up humanity's cause in salvation. Here begins the realization of what John preached, the opportunity for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 1:76-79). John baptizes in water to picture cleansing, but Jesus brings the Spirit to wash away sin, to bring God's presence into people's lives and to guide them into the way of peace. This hope is why the Spirit descends on Jesus: God both endorses Jesus and pictures the enabling presence that comes in and through him.
A second key element associated with this event is that the Spirit descends after prayer. Luke alone notes this detail. With this unique mention of prayer the theme of devotion and nearness to God emerges. Jesus looks to God during every step of his mission.
The endorsement is clear, direct and filled with Old Testament background. There are three points of Old Testament contact.
First, Jesus is my Son. This is an allusion to verse 7 of Psalm 2, a regal psalm that probably has roots in the promise to David that God would be a father to David's descendant (2 Sam 7:14). Hebrews 1:5 explicitly links these Old Testament texts together.
Second, the quality of this relationship emerges in the description of Jesus as the beloved Son, the one whom I love. Here the emphasis may well be on Jesus' elect status (Is 41:8), highlighting that he is uniquely chosen for his task. Others suggest the allusion is to Genesis 22:12, 16 and to Isaac typology, but then Son would have both regal and national meaning simultaneously. Since Luke lacks Isaac typology elsewhere, this sense seems less likely.
Third, this Son is one with whom God is well pleased. This portion of the statement alludes to Isaiah 42:1 and serves as an initial Lukan description of Jesus as connected to Isaiah's Servant figure (on the evidence for this allusion, see Marshall 1969:336-46). As Servant, Jesus will carry out both prophetic and representative roles.
So in this short event heaven places its endorsing stamp on Jesus. He is the promised regal Son, the chosen one, unique in his call. He reveals the will of God and serves him. This is the one for whom John prepared the people. Anointed with the Spirit, Jesus is truly the Christ, a term that means "anointed one" (4:18). He is ready to minister and carry out his call.