The Holy Spirit Descended and a Voice Came from Heaven
As we’ve seen so far, one of St. Luke’s key themes is the identity of Jesus. Verses 21-38 of Chapter 3 establish Jesus’ unimpeachable credentials as the Messiah, but as we see the Father and the Spirit at work in Jesus’ baptism, we also see the Father and the Spirit at work in John’s ministry and the activity of the Father and Spirit in John and Jesus’ ministries points to the Father’s and the Holy Spirit’s roles in our ministry as the Church, as the people of God. As we see Jesus’ identity and mission confirmed here in his baptism, watch too this theme: God speaks and calls us through his Word and he anoints and empowers with his Spirit.
Last week, in the first half of Chapter 3, Luke showed us John as he received the “word of the Lord” and went out into the wilderness around the Jordan, calling the people to a baptism of repentance. Back in 1:15 the angel had announced to Zechariah that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and as we’ve seen, the Spirit’s role in the story so far has been to reveal the Messiah—to make him known as he empower a witness of praise and thanksgiving. John’s ministry was one empowered by the Spirit as he prepared the way for Jesus. He called the people to repentance and in calling them to repentance he was calling them to make a choice: turn aside from your own ways, your own priorities, your own wills and instead choose to submit to God and to his plan and his ways. John forged a trail to lead the people to Jesus. Luke quoted Isaiah to describe that ministry: John filled in the valleys and flattened the hills, straightened the crooked and levelled the rough to pave a highway leading the people to Jesus. Notice: God called John with his word and he empowered him with his Holy Spirit. That established John’s ministry. And John was faithful to that ministry, even as we read last week, as it resulted in being imprisoned by an angry Herod.
In verses 21 and 22 Luke now takes us back to some point before John’s imprisonment:
Now 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; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke shows us a scene sometime earlier in John’s ministry. This was the day when John fulfilled his mission; this was the high point of John’s ministry. A crowd had come to hear him preach his message of repentance. Many of them had been baptised, deliberately aligning themselves with God’s plans for deliverance. And then last of all, coming through the crowd came Jesus. Matthew tells us in his gospel that John was surprised. Jesus didn’t need his baptism; Jesus had nothing to repent of. And yet Jesus came anyway and insisted on being baptised and John submitted and baptised him.
The reason for Jesus insisting on baptism is as much a mystery to a lot of Christians as it was to John. John’s baptism was a call to repentance, but Jesus was sinless. Why would Jesus need to pass through those waters? But think about what repentance means. John wasn’t just calling the people to give up sin because it’s self-destructive or because it hurts others. At its very core, repentance is about choosing to follow God instead of self. It’s about renouncing past allegiances to the world, the flesh, and the devil and instead pledging allegiance to God and to his kingdom. John was announcing a new exodus, not from the slavery of Pharaoh, but this time from the slavery of sin, but to take part in that exodus meant giving up on all the old false hopes of deliverance and turning instead to the Messiah who was to come. That’s what the people were doing as they asked John to baptise them. They were choosing to submit their lives to God’s purpose and plan.
Now, consider Jesus. He had nothing to repent of. He was already following God’s purpose and plan. But in passing through John’s baptismal waters he began his ministry with a public statement that he was committed to God’s will. Through baptism, John had prepared all these people to him the Messiah where he would lead. And now Jesus, in preparation for leading these people, shows his solidarity with them. The people are committed to God’s plan and are ready to follow, and now Jesus has made the public statement that he’s committed to God’s plan too and ready to lead them.
And in accord with his calling, by allowing himself to be baptised with a baptism of repentance that he didn’t need, Jesus identified himself with the sins of the people he came to redeem. This was the first step in his ministry, and having taken that first step, his person—his identity as the Messiah—and his ministry as the Saviour are confirmed by the Father and the Spirit. Again, Jesus confirmed his commitment to the will of his Father, he confirmed his calling as Messiah, and he took the first step of identifying with the sins of his people. And so as he knelt to pray after his baptism, Luke tells us that the heavens were opened.
And the opening of heaven is the perfect manifestation of God’s glory to inaugurate Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ identity as God’s deliverer was announced from the beginning to Zechariah and Elizabeth, to Joseph and Mary, to the shepherds, and to Simeon and Anna. And yet as much as these people knew that Jesus had been born to fulfil the plans that God had been laying since Adam and Abraham, the “how” of it all was no doubt a mystery. How was this simple man from a country town and a poor family going to deliver Israel? Sure he was born of the line of David, but so were lots of other people. But more importantly, consider Jesus. God was his Father, but remember that Mary was his mother. In the Incarnation, the divine Word took our flesh upon himself with all its limitations. His union with the Father and the Spirit was never broken, but his knowledge was limited by his humanity. As he grew up, he had to learn the way we all do. He would have come to gradually understand his identity and his calling as he reflected on the announcements made at his birth. As he learned and studied the Scriptures, in his divine wisdom he would have learned his calling as he came to understand the law and the prophets better than any man had ever understood them. And yet he could have chosen to walk away from his calling. He could have said no. But here, as he aligns himself with the will of his Father, his Father commissions him with the opening of heaven. The mission of the Messiah was to defeat sin and death and to restore earth and heaven and so here, as he commits himself to that mission, the Father give a foretaste of the eventual fruit of Jesus’ ministry as he gives a glimpse into heaven. With Jesus public announcement of his commitment, his ministry begins.
And so we’re told that as Jesus was praying and the heavens were opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him bodily—corporeally or physically—in the form of a dove. The dove is interesting. The Spirit never appeared this way in the Old Testament, but remember that the dove took on symbolic significance in Noah’s story. In Genesis God unleashed his judgement on sin by flooding the world. For a year Noah and his family were enveloped in the saving hull of the ark, riding out the waters and waiting for God’s wrath outside to subside. And it was the dove that Noah sent out that came back with the olive branch, showing that the waters had subsided and showing that God’s wrath was quieted. Remember when Noah left the ark, God covenanted with him never to destroy humanity again with a flood and as a symbol of his peace, he directed Noah to the rainbow. Rather than God’s bow of war aimed down from the heavens at humanity, God’s bow was pointed up and away. His wrath was quelled and he was at peace with his people.
Now as Jesus commits to his ministry of redemption and reconciliation, the Holy Spirit comes and as he comes he draws on that same imagery of peace. As the dove came to Noah as a symbol that God’s wrath was over, so now the heavens open and the dove descends: God is ready to make peace with men and women and Jesus is the one through whom that peace will be established.
And why the Spirit? Unlike us, Jesus had no need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. As God Incarnate he was already fully empowered for his ministry. He never ceased to be in union with the Father and the Spirit. And so the Spirit comes down to confirm him in his person and his role and to commission him for his ministry. Throughout the Gospel and Acts, Jesus speaks of “his” Spirit and here, as the Spirit descends to him, he confirms that the Spirit is in fact his to send and his to confer on his people.
But it’s not the Spirit alone who manifests himself to confirm Jesus in his role as the Deliverer. As the Spirit descends, the Father speaks: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The words “You are my Son” echo the words of Psalm 2 where God speaks of the king:
As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:6-7, 10-12)
The announcements that surrounded Jesus’ birth told of the one who would come to establish the throne of David. And so when the Father speaks from heaven to identify Jesus as his Son and when he does so using the words of Psalm 2, what he’s doing is confirming Jesus as the promised and long-awaiting King. He’s confirming him as the Messiah. The way Luke presents the story draws a parallel between John and Jesus and Samuel and David.
Think back to the book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. In Chapter 16 we read about Samuel, the priest and prophet. God called him to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king for Israel. Samuel went and Jesse paraded his sons before Samuel and Samuel looked hopefully on each one of Jesse’s fine and strapping young sons. Any one of them would have made a good king, Samuel thought. But God warned him: “Don’t look on the outward appearance.” And so all of them came before Samuel, but God didn’t choose any of them. And so Samuel asked Jesse if he had any other sons. And that’s when Jesse told him that there was one more, his youngest, David, who was out tending sheep. Jesse had David called home and the Lord said to Samuel: “This is him! Get up and anoint him king.” And 16:13 says that “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.” That day was the high point of Samuel’s ministry as he anointed God’s king. And now we see John, priest and prophet like a new Samuel, fulfilling his own ministry as he anoints the King in the baptismal waters of the Jordan and as the Spirit rushes on him as he did on David. This is the one. This simple man from Nazareth is the one for whom David and his descendants had kept warm the throne of Israel. This is the true and eternal King.
The second part of the Father’s proclamation confirms this. Not only is this his Son, but the Father says to Jesus, “With you I am well pleased.” He echoes the words he had spoken through the prophet Isaiah centuries before:
Behold 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 aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
Jesus isn’t just the promised King; he’s the promised and long-awaited Servant. And the Father links his pleasure with the anointing of the Spirit for mission and for ministry.
Through the angel and through the empowering by his Spirit, God had announced that Jesus was to be the Messiah. But here as Jesus willingly commits himself to his Father’s plan through John’s baptism, his identity and mission are confirmed before the people who were gathered to hear John. The Father speaks. The Spirit descends. And both declare him to be their representative. God will work out his story, his plan, his redemption through Jesus.
What Luke says in verse 23 now should make perfect sense:
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…
His baptism was his commissioning. While a boy was considered to be a man in his early teens in that culture, it was at the age of thirty that he would begin his public career, stepping out on his own. And that’s what Jesus is about to do as he begins his public ministry. And so it’s here that Luke gives us his genealogy. Matthew places his genealogy before Jesus birth, at the very beginning of the story, but Luke places it here for a reason. In that society genealogies played a vital role in establishing identity. Your genealogy told everyone what “group” you belonged to and what your qualifications might be.
We won’t read the whole list of names right now, but it begins:
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli… (Luke 3:23)
Luke then lists another seventy-five names that trace Jesus’ legal ancestry all the way back to Adam and then to God himself. Luke’s genealogy and Matthew’s are significantly different, not only giving different names, but also giving a different number of generations. Some people have tried to argue that when Luke says, “being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph”, that he means to say that this is Mary’s genealogy, not Joseph’s. The Greek wording doesn’t support that at all. This is Joseph’s genealogy and when Luke refers to people supposing that Jesus was Joseph’s son, he’s reminding us that in Jewish society, Jesus was legally Joseph’s son and, even though Joseph wasn’t his biological father, Jesus would have been heir to Joseph’s inheritance and line. Both Matthew and Luke give Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph. The differences have been explained with some very complex and convoluted speculation based on reading things into the text that we can’t confirm—mostly the idea of levirate marriage, where a man might legally marry his dead brother’s wife. The fact is that none of these convoluted and complex speculations can be confirmed. There might be some truth to them, but ultimately it helps to remember that ancient people didn’t treat genealogies the same way we do. They didn’t have a problem finessing them to make a point. We saw this in Genesis. Insignificant names could be left out and the list could be adjusted to fulfil social ideals. It doesn’t mean the genealogy is wrong; it just means that it ancient people treated them differently than we treat ours.
But however we reconcile the differences between Matthew and Luke, the important point that Luke makes in his genealogy is that Jesus is the legal descendant of David and Abraham. Luke also traces his genealogy back further than Matthew does to make a second point: Jesus is the son of Adam and therefore, as Luke says, “the son of God”.
As the heavens opened the Father spoke and confirmed Jesus’ identity as the promised Davidic king. He also confirmed his sonship. Just as Jesus is the true King of which David was only a shadow, Jesus is also the true Son of which humanity’s natural sonship is only a shadow. But now in his genealogy, as Jesus, being thirty years old sets out on his public career and ministry amongst the people of Judea, Luke shows his “earthly” credentials. God may have confirmed him as David’s son, but as the son of Joseph, those credentials can be confirmed by his human ancestry too.
But the genealogy goes two steps further. In tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, Luke points to the way in which Jesus is about to fulfil God’s promises to Abraham. He also echoes Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus shows his solidarity with the people he came to save by submitting himself to John’s baptism, here we see that just like them, he too is a son of Abraham. But here’s Luke’s final point. Jesus isn’t just a son of Abraham; he’s a son of Adam. Jesus didn’t just take on Jewish flesh in his Incarnation; he took on human flesh and in that sense we see that the Son of God (with a capital “S”) has truly become a “son of God” (with a little “s”). He has truly taken our flesh upon himself that he might reconcile not only the Jew, but the Gentile to his Father. He has come to fulfil the promises made to Abraham and David that he might fulfil what Israel herself had failed to do. He has come to reveal and to establish his kingdom and to be light in the darkness that all might be reconciled to God. Luke brackets Jesus’ baptism and his genealogy with these affirmation of his being the Son of God and in that he reminds us that the Son of God came that we all might be restored to the sonship that Adam and that we have all rejected by our sin. Heaven opens at his commissioning to give us a glimpse into the final fruit of his work: through the Son of God our broken relationship with our Heavenly Father will be restored and his kingdom, now waiting in heaven, will one day be manifest on earth.
Through the witness of John you and I are called to repentance—to reorient our lives away from sin and instead towards God. Through the witness of the Father and the Spirit that repentance leads us to faith in Jesus, the Servant King, sent to reconcile us to God and to establish his Kingdom. And yet in both John’s ministry and in Jesus’, there’s a call to us as kingdom people. John fulfilled his ministry as the forerunner as he listened to the Word of the Lord and followed it through the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence. As Jesus began his ministry, God again spoke and called and his Spirit was sent to anoint. The rest of Luke’s Gospel is the story of Jesus fulfilling this mission that was confirmed at his baptism. But brothers and sisters, you and I too have received the Word of the Lord. In the Gospel and in the rest of Holy Scripture, God speaks to us and he calls us, and in his Baptism, he has poured his Spirit into us and united us to his Son. He calls us to the work of his kingdom and he empowers us with his Spirit to do the work to which he has called us. Like John’s work and Jesus’ work, it’s often hard, it’s often confrontational, it often divides. It often leads to persecution, to imprisonment, or even to martyrdom. And yet we’re also reminded that it is a joyful ministry. That glimpse into heaven that the people saw that day over the Jordan reminds us that our ministry is ultimately one of reconciliation and restoration and resurrection to the Father and his kingdom through Jesus Christ. Dear friends, never forget that our ministry as the Church is to give the world a glimpse into heaven and to proclaim that what the world sees in that glimpse will one day be manifest on earth when the King returns.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, at the baptism of your Son in the Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with your Holy Spirit. We who have been baptised into Jesus and filled with your Spirit now ask for grace to faithfully follow him and to boldly proclaim him as Lord and Saviour; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.