Friday, October 7, 2011

The Baptism of Jesus in Water and the Spirit in Luke 3:21–22

The story of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist frequently raises questions for some Christians. Many have asked the question: if the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (as per Luke 3:3), then why would Jesus be baptised by John if he was, as Christians believe, totally without sin?

It is true that the baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but it is also true that Jesus didn’t have any sins that he needed to repent of. What then is going on here?

The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but the deeper significance of John’s baptism was that it marked a formal commitment to obedience. In other words, John’s baptism was also a sign of offering oneself in proper service to God, a sign of one’s commitment to walk in obedience to God’s commands.

And this was the significance of Jesus’ baptism in water by John. Jesus was baptised as a sign of his commitment to walk in the way of obedience to his Father’s commands. Jesus was baptised as a sign that he had come not to do his own will but the will of his Father in heaven. And this will required that Jesus would suffer and serve as the promised Messiah. This is indicated by fact that after Jesus was baptised, a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). Jesus was the beloved Son of God. In Jewish thinking, the title the Son of God (following Ps 2) designated the Messiah. This heavenly voice was God the Father identifying Jesus as the promised Savior King. And according to God’s words here, Jesus was fully obedient to his Father. Jesus fully pleased his Father.

The presence of the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism helps us to see that Jesus’ baptism marked the point in his life when his Messianic ministry officially began. We are told in Luke 3:23 that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” when he began his ministry. It is clear from this statement that Luke viewed Jesus’ baptism as marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in his official capacity as the Christ, the Son of God.

But Jesus’ baptism not only marked the official commencement of his ministry. It is also evident that his baptism in water by John corresponded to the point in time when when God baptised Jesus with the Holy Spirit: “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:21–22a).

But what does it mean that the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus like this? Christians sometimes wonder about the idea of Jesus being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Does that imply that Jesus didn’t have the Spirit prior to his baptism? The answer is “no and yes.” Prior to his baptism Jesus was filled with the Spirit. He had God’s word written on his heart, and he lived an obedient life. Jesus had the Spirit present in his heart, but he hadn’t yet received the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit. He hadn’t yet received the outpouring of the Spirit that was associated with the Messianic age, which was the outpouring of the Spirit that would also equip him in his offical role as the Messiah. So the outpouring of the Spirit at the time of Jesus’ baptism was in reality the beginning of the end-time outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets had prophesied about.

In order to understand the significance of Jesus being baptised with the Holy Spirit, we need to understand what the role of the Holy Spirit is according to the Bible. The Holy Spirit has many functions. One of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function as being the invisible presence of God throughout the universe. Being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is God. Christians traditionally talk about him as being the third person of the Trinity. But being the invisible presence of God, the Holy Spirit is also described in the Scriptures as being an agent of God’s power. Indeed, one of the key functions of the Holy Spirit is his function of providing power.

The Holy Spirit can be thought of as being like an electric current that empowers everything in the universe. On a general level, God’s Spirit empowers all living things. This is clear, for example, from Ps 104:27–30. The psalmist praying to God says: “all [the animals] look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:30 teaches that it is God’s Spirit who gives life to the animals, and who renews the surface of the earth by making plants and trees grow upon the ground. The flowers that grow in a person’s garden only do so because of the energy of God’s Spirit that gives them the power to live and grow.

Back in 2005 I remember being amazed to see pictures of the surface of Planet Mars that had been taken by the Mars Rover. Those pictures helped draw attention to the stark difference between Earth and Mars. Earth is green and blue, so full of life; but Mars is red and dry, beautiful in its way, but barren and devoid of life.

But why are these two planets so different? The scientists have their theories, and some want to think that maybe once upon a time there was life on Mars; but the Bible’s more theological answer is a little different yet quite simple. Why are Mars and Earth different? Because God has focused the life-giving power of his Spirit on Planet Earth. Out of all of the planets in the solar system, God’s focus is Planet Earth, and this planet is where his Spirit is most active. Life currently exists on Planet Earth, but not on Mars, because ultimately God’s Spirit is focused on Planet Earth, providing the power necessary for life on the planet that we inhabit.

This life is the life-force evident in every human being. Each of us commenced life as a tiny embryo in our mother’s womb. We began as a little speck, growing bigger and bigger until the day when we were born into the world; and after that, we’ve gradually grown up and matured. We—indeed all people, all living things, the cats and dogs and goldfish—we all have life thanks to God’s Spirit who gives us the necessary life-force. All living things experience the physical life that God’s Spirit gives to all living things generally.

But the Holy Spirit not only gives physical life; he also gives spiritual life. What theologians call the special operations of the Holy Spirit (in distinction from the common operations of the Holy Spirit) involves God’s Spirit empowering specific individuals whom God will use in some way in his plan of salvation, either in a specific way or else in a general way. The Old Testament, for example, identifies particular individuals who were empowered by the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. The Spirit came upon Moses, Joshua, Samson, David, and the prophets, empowering them to lead God’s people, to teach them, even to deliver them. And more generally, the Holy Spirit was also active in a special way during the Old Testament age, writing God’s word on the hearts of a faithful remnant, leading them in the way of righteousness.

Whether specific or general, the special operations of the Holy Spirit have in common the providence of power, a special power which can be called new life power. The climax of this new life power is seen in Jesus’ resurrection. The power that was evident on Easter Sunday, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, this is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit: resurrection power.

This power can be distinguished from the general life-force experienced by all living things. The general life-force that we currently experience in this world fades over time as we get older and weaker, and it eventually disappears when we die. The power of death is actually greater than the power of life in this world, but the power of death is no match for the power of God’s Spirit. Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this. New life power or resurrection power is the power of the kingdom of God. The special power of God’s Spirit is not the power of this world, but the power of the world to come. It’s a power that doesn’t grow weaker with time, but which continues at great strength forever. In fact, the full extent of that power has not yet been revealed, although we have seen a small glimpse of it in the resurrection of Jesus.

When Jesus was baptised, he was energised with this special power. Having been baptised with the Spirit, God’s Spirit would now direct Jesus’ every step in his ministry. The Spirit would strengthen Jesus, and enable him to teach and prophesy, and to perform miracles.

But did you notice how the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus? Was it with blinking neon lights or with a blaring horn? No, the Spirit descended “in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22)! This seems a little strange perhaps. Why the form of a dove? The form of an elephant would have been a little easier to notice, if potentially a little dangerous; but why the dove?

Normally when people today think of a dove, they think of peace. The dove is particularly common as a symbol in anti-war demonstrations. It’s common at such demonstrations to see banners with a white dove holding a small olive branch in its beak. Some may not realise, but this image is taken from the Bible, from Genesis in the story of Noah and the flood. After Noah had been in the ark for ten months, he released a dove which eventually flew back to the ark with an olive branch in its beak (Gen 8:11).

So does the dove with the olive branch symbolise peace in this story? Yes, but it’s more than simply the idea of peace thought of as being the absence of war. This dove and the olive branch actually symbolise peace in the sense of new life returning to the world after a period of God’s judgment. The dove and the olive branch symbolise more than anything else … new life. The green olive branch in the dove’s beak meant that life had returned to Planet Earth after the devastation of the flood. The dove, therefore, is a symbol of new life after death.

In the light of this, the significance of the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the form of a dove is clear. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in this way in order for us to understand the significance of that event by understanding the significance of the symbolism of the dove. There on the day of Jesus’ baptism the Holy Spirit was himself proclaiming: This man is the new ark of salvation; this is the man who will bring new life to God’s world through the power of God’s Spirit. This is completely consistent with the Old Testament teaching that the Holy Spirit is the Giver of life in general, but especially the Giver of new life in the context of death.

It was this Holy Spirit who would empower Jesus in a ministry whose purpose was to bring new life into a world dominated by death. With the Holy Spirit coming down upon him in the form of a dove, Jesus was in effect being presented as being a new Noah’s ark. Just like the ark, Jesus would pass through the stormy seas of God’s judgment against sin. And just like the ark, Jesus would be the vehicle through whom life would be preserved in the world.

Being filled with the Spirit, Jesus was able to do the work of his ministry of bringing new life to the world. Luke records in ch. 4:1 that it was the Spirit that led Jesus from the Jordan River into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. Afterwards we read that Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (Luke 4:14). These two details show that Jesus’ whole ministry was conducted under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it is thanks to the Holy Spirit that Jesus was able to complete his mission of bringing new life to the world. Christians celebrate this victory of Jesus over sin and death, the victory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit co-operating to bring peace to our world.

Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus provides a wonderful picture of the Trinity co-operating. Here is the Trinity working together so that Jesus might fulfill his ministry of salvation. God the Father sends God the Spirit to empower God the Son. And because the Trinity was a unity in the ministry of Jesus, Christians can experience the power of new life even in the midst of the decadence of the world around us by participating in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But to participate in the power of the Holy Spirit, we, like Jesus, need to be baptised in the Holy Spirit. In fact, one of the questions that everyone living on this planet needs to ask is: How can I be baptised with such power? How can I have the power of eternal life running through my veins?

In answer to this question, Christianity proclaims that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit, and that he freely baptises those who come to him acknowledging that he is the Christ, the promised Savior King. Because Jesus has been filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, he is able to baptise us with the Spirit. As John the Baptist proclaimed: “I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming … he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16).

This baptism in the Holy Spirit is the baptism that Christians receive at conversion. Christians have various opinions on this issue, but I take it that the normative situation for Christians generally is the same as that which was taught by the Apostle Peter in his famous Pentecost sermon. Peter called upon the people moved by his preaching, saying: “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The normative situation in the early church regarding baptism in the Spirit saw the official reception of the Spirit by a believer as being closely tied in with water baptism. In fact, the very reason why water is used in baptism is because water (the free-flowing source of life) is a wonderful symbol of the Holy Spirit.

In this way, Jesus’ baptism follows the standard model. Jesus’ baptism is recorded in Scripture, not only because it helps us to understand more about Jesus’ identity as the Spirit-filled Son of God, but also because it functions as a model for what typically happens at the baptism of a Christian. Jesus’ baptism was a baptism of water and the Spirit. There was a conjunction of water and Spirit for Jesus, and it is similar for Christians today. The water which surrounds the body of the baptisand is a symbol of how God’s Spirit is poured upon believers in an official and formal way as we submit to Jesus as Lord.

This is why Christian baptism is significant. It marks our formal union with Christ, and the official beginning of our participation in the life-giving power of the Spirit. It links us to Jesus, and to the new covenant outpouring of the Spirit that commenced with the baptism of Jesus, the obedient Son of God.

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