♦ ♦ ♦ LUKE 3 : 15 – 17 and 21 – 22 ♦ ♦ ♦ JOHN THE BAPTIST PREPARES THE WAY AND THE BAPTISM OF JESUS ⇔
Baptism is not uniquely Christian. It literally means a ‘washing’ and can be used to refer to any cleansing or purification with water – and there was plenty of that in ancient Judaism. There is some evidence of baptism being used as an initiation ceremony for converts to Judaism, both men and women. In the first century, Jews in general believed that it would be God who would bring in the Gentiles at the end time, but meanwhile converts were welcomed.
John’s baptism was specifically for Jews and was part of a movement of national renewal. It was a baptism of repentance, cleansing and forgiveness. It was an anticipation of God’s cleansing of the nation from its individual and collective sins. It seems also to have been a preparation for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, a new anointed king of Israel who, John says, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v.16). Fire is a biblical symbol of the presence of God – as in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and at Pentecost (Acts 2). Indeed, John suggests that the messianic baptism will be a terrifying affair with a judgement, and the chaff burnt with ‘unquenchable fire’ (v.17). It is typical of Luke that he makes the reader uncomfortable: his Beatitudes are matched with curses (Luke 6), and throughout the Gospel the rich seem to be in big trouble. Today, repentance remains in Christian baptism for adults, but there is no place for fear.
Luke describes Jesus’ baptism simply and calmly. He goes into the water after everyone else and prays. But with the cleansing – what did he need to be cleansed from? – there comes a moment of revelation. The Spirit descends ‘in bodily form like a dove’, and thus has the Spirit been represented ever since. Some hear the voice of God acknowledging Jesus as his Son, whom he loves and with whom God is pleased. Here Luke gives us a Trinitarian scene that reflects all that: dove/Spirit, fire/God the Father, and the recipient Jesus.
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