First Sunday after Epiphany
Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2019
Epiphany is always observed on January 6, which usually falls on a weekday. Since many church traditions that follow the lectionary do not have weekday services, they observe Epiphany on either the Sunday before or following January 6. The Readings for Epiphany can replace the regular lectionary readings on either Sunday to observe Epiphany.
Commentary on the Text
While certainly related in context, this reading overlaps two narrative units, the first dealing with the activity of John the Baptizer (3:1-17), climaxing with the short summary and transitional section that serves to shift the story line away from John (vv. 18-20); and the second dealing with Jesus' baptism as an introduction to his activity (vv. 21-22). While the lectionary readings have already dealt with the first part of chapter 3, these verses must be considered with the understanding that they comprise the conclusion of the larger unit relating to the activity of John.
While this unit begins with the expectation of the people (v. 15), that expectation is the direct result here of the preaching and activity of John and must be seen against that background. Already in previous passages, the dual emphasis of John's preaching, repentance and bearing fruit as a positive dimension (vv. 3, 8) and the threat of judgment as a negative dimension (vv. 7, 9), has emerged. And it is clear from the immediately preceding verses (10-14) that the people were responding to John's message, although the motivation for that response is not stated by Luke. Luke does note that the response involved a concern with living out in real life the implications of the forgiveness of sins. This defines the nature of the "fruit" that is to mark true repentance, and in doing so picks up the fundamental OT theological perspective that grace (or example in the exodus) calls for faithful response in the realities of life (Sinai and the living of Torah).
John's preaching had stirred the expectations of a significant action of God in the world, the coming of the Messiah. There is no connection made in Luke between John and the expected Davidic Messiah, and there is no indication that the people made such a connection. Yet, John's preaching of repentance and the obvious condemnation that gripped the people as they responded seems to have led the crowds to begin thinking of their accountability to God and his judgment on sin, a theological idea long rooted in Old Testament traditions in metaphors of the "coming" of God to the world and his people (See The Day of the Lord: Metaphors of Accountability).
The nature of that expectation is not developed here, even though it is clearly set against the background of the dual nature of the coming for which they are called to "prepare" (v. 4). We could spend time talking about the historical development of the messianic hope and the specific nature of those expectations in first century Jewish culture. But we probably would do better to stick to Luke's contextual definition of that expectation by noting both how John talks about the significance of what was "to come" (v. 7), as well as how he describes the work of the one who "is coming" (v. 16).
The crowds' aroused interest in the coming of a messiah led them to begin speculating about John ("questioning in their hearts" is the equivalent of "wondering"). Yet, as Luke has consistently portrayed John, he steps into the background. He does this by three striking statements, which not only serve to defer the primary role to Jesus, but also function as testimony, as witness to Jesus. First, he uses a graphic metaphor of humility, placing himself lower than a Gentile slave who would untie a master's shoes. John's deferral here to Jesus confirms the earlier prenatal acknowledgment of the superior role of Jesus. This is not to deny the validity of John's role to help prepare the way; only clearly to distinguish the one who prepares from the One who comes.
While it is not developed, there may well be some further indication here, not just of the personal deferral of John to Jesus, but Luke's literary foreshadowing of a subtle but significant theological transition unfolding. John represented the last of the prophets, whose primary role was to call Israel back to covenantal faithfulness to God. Although there were positive dimensions to prophetic activity, it was most often to denounce the sins of the people and nation, to point out the failure to respond faithfully to God. John serves much the same role here.
Yet the coming One to whom John is deferring will focus far more on the positive side of faithfulness. That is not to imply that there is no negative dimension to Jesus' teaching. Certainly there is, even here in John's message (vv. 17). And it is not to discount the positive aspects of John's preaching, since it is rooted in grace. But Jesus' role is "good news" in a way that the prophetic preaching was not. It is perhaps this shift in emphasis that allows Luke to refer to the preaching of John as he points to the Coming one as "good news" (v. 18).
This statement of deferral to Jesus on the level of John's humility is surrounded by a second statement of deferral to Jesus on the level of Jesus' power. Jesus will be more powerful, will accomplish more and greater things, than John (v. 16). This is specifically expressed in John's own comparison of his water baptism with the "Holy Spirit and fire" baptism of Jesus. It is only John who expands the metaphor of baptism to refer to the work of Jesus, and it is only he who connects baptism metaphorically with the Holy Spirit (all NT occurrences refer back to John). Even though "spirit baptism" is applied today to various phenomena and to express certain doctrines of the church, it is important to focus on John's use of the metaphor here in terms of the role of Jesus in relation to John.
There has been a lot of debate concerning the meaning of the metaphor of baptism used here to characterize Jesus' activity, most often related to the interpretation of Pentecost in Acts 2. Some connect the symbols here directly with Pentecost (working backward to this passage from the Pentecost events) and see the wind, as the word spirit may also be translated, and fire as symbols of the Holy Spirit, with baptism understood as a metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit among Christians (working this metaphor forward from this passage to Acts).
As appealing as this may be on the basis of the metaphors in Acts 2, the parallel metaphors here in Luke (v.17) do not seem to support this view. There is no direct equivalent in Acts 2 to the imagery of winnowing, so it does not seem viable to interpret the symbols of spirit/wind and fire here based on Acts 2 when there is no corresponding parallel to use in interpreting the imagery of winnowing.
It is also important to note that even though Luke picks up the confession of John in Acts as Jesus gives the instructions to wait for Pentecost, the symbol of fire is notably omitted (Acts 1:5). And when Luke actually recounts the Pentecost experience, he uses the term filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:13), not "baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:4). And on other occasions in Acts where Luke clearly has the opportunity to characterize the work of the Holy Sprit in terms of baptism, he does not do so and uses other terms: came (1:8, 19:6), pour out (2:18), receive (8:15, 17, 19:2), fell (8:16, 11:15), give (11:17; note Luke 11:13).
The only times baptism is associated with the Holy Spirit are places where John's preaching is specifically referenced (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:32, Acts 1:4, Acts 11:16). All this simply says that even though there are clear connections, Acts cannot be used as a interpretive key to understand the metaphors John uses here in Luke. And they certainly cannot be pieced together with parts of each used to interpret parts of the other. In terms of both literary and canonical shaping, the metaphors here must be understood in this context first, and then Acts examined in terms of how they are used here.
Some other ways of understanding the metaphors are equally unconvincing. For example, some have suggested that both spirit/wind and fire are judgmental images, especially in the context of the obvious threatening overtones of both John's preaching (vv. 7, 9) and the role of the Coming One (v. 17). But this neglects the balancing positive dimension of both, and as such would not be considered "good news" (v. 18).
A more productive approach seems to be to try to understand these images in terms of the dynamics of this passage without moving elsewhere for interpretive keys or for doctrinal formulations as a lens through which to read this passage. Also, especially since Luke has been careful in these first three chapters to build on many Old Testament images and concepts, it would be better to follow Luke's lead and see these images more in the context of antecedents within OT tradition. Finally, we need to take seriously the juxtaposition of the metaphors here as somehow mutually informing.
There is some background for seeing wind and fire as symbolic of the presence of God. There are many instances in the OT where both, singly or together, serve that purpose (and occasions where either or both are combined into the idea of the "glory" of God, e.g. 1 Kings 8:11). Exodus traditions represented the presence of God among the Hebrews as they escaped from Egypt as a pillar of fire and a cloud (smoke and cloud are often interchangeable with wind as symbols for God; Exod 13:21-22). God appeared to Moses in the fire of a burning bush (Exod 3:1-6). The presence of God on Sinai was portrayed in terms of fire and smoke (Exod 19:16-18). The presence of God in the tabernacle and temple was described as smoke filling the whole place (1 Kings 8:10-11). The wind of God was used in Ezekiel's vision to symbolize the active presence of God in restoring the nation after exile (Eze 37). Jeremiah spoke of the wind of God's judgment (Jer 4:11-12). There are many other places where similar imagery is used. Both fire and wind/smoke/cloud/spirit were metaphorical ways of talking about the active presence of God in the world with both positive and negative results (from human perspective). It was not just that God was present, but that he was active in the life of the nation and of individuals.
But there is an even more pointed usage of the metaphor of fire to consider that has more direct relation to this passage. Perhaps even more importantly, it is most often used in contexts where there is a view to some future work of God in the world. This is the metaphor of refining, in which the presence of God will come as a "refiner's fire" (Mal 3:2), to separate the good from the unusable. This is a major metaphor in Malachi, in the exact context in which he also speaks of God sending a "messenger who will prepare the way before me." This seems to be the referent that Luke intends by the juxtaposition here of the symbol of fire and the preparatory messenger in the person of John.
As already implied by other means in these passages, this imagery again carries with it a double application, depending on whether the focus is the purified metal or the waste that is discarded. This imagery is used frequently with various applications (Jer 6:26-30, 9:7, Dan 11:34-35; cf. Rev 3:17). While there is often an eschatological overtone in the imagery, a close examination reveals that it is mostly applied to the work of God in purifying his people so that they may live out being his people in the world (Zech 13:9, Isa. 1:24-26, 48:9-11). That is, the refining is aimed at enabling God's people to be what they were created to be in the world, for the "glory" of God (Isa 48:11), a witness to the world of who God is.
While there is no question that this entails a negative dimension, the emphasis tends to fall on the positive result of the refining. The ultimate purpose of the refining process is not to destroy, but to make fit for use. It is this dimension of the imagery that works out in the passage.
While the refining aspect of the fire is not directly mentioned in the Luke text, the fact that a second metaphor is immediately introduced as soon as the fire is mentioned suggests that this second metaphor is a further definition of the first one. The metaphor of winnowing refers to the process of using the wind to separate usable grain from the husks and straw that are discarded. It is clear that this dimension of separation is in view here in Luke. This also serves as the third statement of John's deferral to Jesus' role. While John can only call people to repentance, Jesus will be able to actually make the separation of usable wheat from worthless chaff.
It is easy because of certain cultural or theological perspectives to focus on the negative aspects of the burning of the chaff, and so emphasize judgment and the destruction of the wicked in some future eschatological or apocalyptic scenario. Yet, both of the metaphors taken together clearly go a different direction. While there is waste to be discarded in both metaphors, and the implications of that cannot be glossed over in terms of accountability to God, the whole purpose of both refining and winnowing is to end up with something usable. That is, the process is not for the purpose of destroying the waste, but for enabling that which is useful for service.
While the implications of this are not drawn out here in Luke, it seems obvious that here lies the legitimate connection with the Pentecost narratives in Acts. If this is true, this passage is eschatology only in the sense that the eschatological future has now become a present reality in the life of the church. It is not something that lies far in the future; it is a work that God is in process of doing at the very time that John is preaching (cf. 17:20-21), and which Luke traces into the Pentecost narratives (Acts 1:6-8, 2:32-33).
All three of these dimensions of John's deferral to Jesus serve to emphasize Jesus' work. While John could speak of baptism with water and call for repentance and forgiveness through God's grace, Jesus would call for a new relationship between God and humanity in terms of separation, partly in the future, but also partly in the present as the people of God become useful in living out in real life the implications and consequences of the purifying wind and fire of God. John's application of the metaphor of baptism to this process of becoming useful and empowered by the Holy Spirit is unique, although it is picked up by others later as a way to emphasize that dimension of God's work in the early church (Acts 11:16).
The second section of our text is the actual transition between the ministry of John and the work of Jesus. John had been imprisoned because of his denunciations of King Herod, which leaves Jesus at the center of the story. It is interesting that the actual baptism of Jesus is not recounted by Luke, who does not even tell us that John baptizes him. Whatever the reasons for this omission in Luke, the result is clearly a focus on the event after Jesus "had been baptized" v. 21).
There has also been a lot of debate, even from the early days of the church, on why Jesus submitted to baptism. Since John had been preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v. 3), there was concern that Jesus might be seen as somehow sinful and needing forgiveness. There may even be some of that concern lying behind how Matthew recounts this incident, with John being reluctant to baptize Jesus and did so only at his insistence (Matt 3:13-15).
What is important to note in interpreting the Lukan text is that those issues are simply not part of it. There is great risk of mishearing or misunderstanding a text if we allow issues from outside the text to overshadow what the text itself is addressing. Luke is simply silent on the motivation for Jesus' baptism, and we probably need to leave it at that.
There is a small clue, however, in how Luke understands the event, or at least what point he wants to make about it within his Gospel. While the other Gospels focus on the baptism of Jesus directly, Luke is the only Gospel that places Jesus among the crowds of people responding to John's preaching: "when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . . ."
Apart from the theological issues of whether Jesus was sinful or not (which, as noted, cannot really be addressed from this passage), this emphasizes Jesus' identification, not only with the truth of John's message and therefore indirectly with John's confession about him, it also emphases Jesus' identification with the people. While the voice from heaven rather immediately sets Jesus apart, yet Luke sees in Jesus' action one of the basic aspects of the Incarnation. Luke will work out this idea of Jesus' identification with humanity throughout his Gospel as Jesus reaches out to the outcast and powerless, as he touches lepers, and laments over Jerusalem.
There is also significance in the fact that it was while Jesus was praying that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended (v.21), a detail also unique to Luke's Gospel. Luke later will tell us that Jesus often prayed, especially at important junctures in his ministry (5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 28-29, 11:1, 22:32, 41, 23:34, 46). There is far more here than the mechanics of religion. For Luke, it communicates the direct relationship of Jesus' life with the Father. It is in that context here of submission to God in prayer that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit affirmed and empowered Jesus and His work in the world. There can be little doubt that Luke intends to draw a parallel between this event and the fact the early Christian community was gathered together in prayer when the Holy Spirit was given to the church (Acts 1:14). It is in submission to God that the power of the Holy Spirit comes.
And yet there is more than just a simple correspondence between this event and Pentecost. There have already been indications of the eschatological overtones of the entire passage, but in the sense that the eschatological future has now become a present reality in the church. So rather than using end-of-the-world kinds of apocalyptic imagery, Luke is more concerned with emphasizing the newness that is coming into the world in the present as a result of the coming of Jesus. That suggests that heaven opening is really the inauguration, not only of Jesus ministry as the Christ, but also of a new way of God's working in the world through the Holy Spirit active in the Church.
This perspective is reinforced by Luke's emphasis on the physical form of the dove that descended upon Jesus (v. 22), marking this as a revelatory event within history. This links to the Pentecost event on a far deeper level than simple equivalence. That event, as well as the subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in the Church throughout Acts is not simply a repetition of this event, but arises out of it and is grounded in it. In other words, it was the coming of Jesus and his unique role in opening heaven for the Spirit that provided the foundation, the grounding, the possibility, of the filling of the Holy Spirit in the church at Pentecost and throughout Acts.
That means that Luke is making some profound theological and Christological claims in these few verses. As he has already done, and will continue to do, Luke is writing with a view to the church that is already rapidly growing as he writes his Gospel. He points to the coming of Jesus, his teachings, life, death, and resurrection, as the foundation of the church, as the beginning of a new work of God in the world, and calls us to participate in that newness, in that new beginning of the future by participating in the process of refining, of winnowing, and of allowing the Holy Spirit to enable us for being God's people, the church, in the world now.
The confirmation of Jesus' role by the voice from heaven reinforces this dimension (v. 22). The pronouncement is a conflation of two OT passages, "You are my son" from Psa 2:7, and "with you I am well pleased" from Isa 42:1. Psalm 2 is a coronation Psalm, drawn from the liturgy of Israel to celebrate the beginning reign of a new king. Israel's kings were understood to rule for God as his "anointed." Using cultural metaphors common to the ancient Near East, the king of Israel could be called the "son of God" when he took the throne (cf. 2 Sam 7:14), and the coronation hymn of Psalm 2 expressed that metaphor in a liturgy that subsumed the power of the king under God, and attributed the origin of the King's power to God. That metaphor here in Luke serves to emphasize the sovereignty of God as he acknowledges Jesus' role in the world. The implications of the royal imagery as it would relate to Jesus as King and the Kingdom that he would bring into reality is not yet clear at this point in Luke. That will unfold throughout Luke and Acts. Yet at the very beginning, there is this confession of that royal sovereignty of God at work in the world.
The second half of the pronouncement comes from the section of Isaiah that speaks of the servant of the Lord. It is important to note that the verse from which this short section is taken also includes a reference to the presence of God in the metaphor of wind/spirit: "I have put my spirit upon him and he will bring forth justice to the nations." There is debate about the identity of the servant in that section of Isaiah, with a general consensus that it is the nation of Israel. However, it is not really important to decide that question to understand the significance of the reference. While the first part of the heavenly pronouncement brought forth royal images of power and authority, the image evoked here is that of a servant to the nations, one who proclaims and brings justice.
This dual role of Jesus as King yet as servant is an important faith confession for Luke, because, as already suggested, Luke is not just recounting historical events about the life of Jesus here. He is developing a theology of the church that is grounded in the revelatory actions of God in the Incarnation itself. For Luke, the nature of the church is shaped by the nature of the one who called it into being. The descent of the Spirit marks the beginning of Jesus ministry, and defines that ministry both in terms of God's work of power in the world (v. 16) evoking the imagery of a King, and the work of a servant bringing justice to the nations.
That same Spirit in the same two dimensions will also mark the beginning of the church as this new beginning makes it possible. As the Holy Spirit empowers Jesus for his task in the world, so the Holy Spirit empowers the Church for its task in the world. And that implies that the power of the King is really the power to serve. And if Luke is really here dealing with a theology of the church, then the confession about Jesus, and the confession about Pentecost becomes a call to the church in all ages to respond to the same spirit, and live out the same mission.
Several Preaching Paths have already been suggested in the course of the commentary, and there are a variety of ways to apply the truths of this passage. At the heart of this text is a theology of the church firmly grounded in Christology. We can proclaim from this text some lofty affirmations about Jesus the Christ. And perhaps in some cases that should be done, especially since this is the first Sunday following Epiphany. In some contexts in may be important simply to present Jesus to the world as the Christ.
Yet, that does not seem to be the sole thrust of Luke's narrative here. He seems to have something more in mind. It is not that he fails to manifest Christ to the world here, only that the Christ he presents here is already beginning to be defined in a certain way. This Christ is coming to find usable wheat and pure refined metal. He has identified himself with humanity, and he is empowered with the Holy Spirit to carry out a mission of power and service to the world.
And in the larger context of the book, we know the rest of the story. And because we know the rest of the story, we also know that Jesus has already become the example, the model of what we as the community that he has called into being are also called to become. He has modeled the prayerful submission to the Father that has opened heaven to the active and enabling presence of God the Holy Spirit in the world. And he has been commissioned in the power of that Spirit to take the power of God into the world in service.
Whether or not we make the connection to the Pentecost narratives of Acts 2, we cannot escape the implications of this confession of Jesus here. We are called to the same kind of prayerful submission to the Father, the same kind of reception of the Holy Spirit in commissioning, and the same empowerment for service. We are confronted in Jesus the Christ with the refiner's fire, and the winnowing wind. There is a separation that comes from an encounter with this Jesus. John called for a decision that involved repentance of sins that resulted in forgiveness if accepted and "wrath" if rejected. Jesus confronts us with a fire to purify and a shovel to be gathered for service.
There is danger here. Dross is cast out and chaff is burned. But there is good news! The good news is that Jesus has come to open heaven, to usher in a new era in which we as people of God can be refined, sifted, and empowered, and in which we can live out in the world the example of the Servant.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Color this Sunday:
Green or church colors; White and Gold if observed as Baptism of the Lord
Reading also used: