The Baptism of the Lord: Luke 3:15-22
The seriousness of baptism is made clear by the metaphor of the threshing floor. It is a discriminating rite. It is not an act that one may undergo lightly, but is linked to salvation in opposition to judgment.
The Holy Spirit is not inclusive but excludes all unrighteousness and sin. Baptism is not a mere welcoming rite but a rite that signifies one’s separation from evil. Any theology of judgment has fallen on hard times recently in favor of a softer and gentler message of peace and justice. But with justice comes judgment. It cannot be otherwise.
To ignore judgment leaves the preacher with no reason for preaching the gospel. It is not a matter of scaring people into heaven. It is a matter of revealing the need for salvation and why Jesus is so important. If he is only a common messiah who does what the people expect, then he is no use to us. But if, on the other hand, he is the Messiah who lays bare the pretenses and false expectations of the people and reveals their deep seated need for personal and inner transformation, then he is someone surprising and filled with ultimate and eternal meaning. For preachers to leave out the fire is to let go of the reason for the gospel and thereby cheapen the good news.
Luke is careful to sequence his verbs in verse 21. While Jesus was being baptized and praying, the heavens were opened. Praying is very important in Luke’s Gospel. It signifies Jesus’ deep devotion to God, the Father, and also signals important events.
The baptism itself signifies Jesus’ solidarity with sinners. The descent of the Spirit in bodily form may be a concession to Luke’s ancient Gentile readers who would appreciate such a detail after hearing about so many animal omens in their lives. It is clearly not the dove that is important however, but the Spirit’s descent upon the “un”-expected one. Jesus’ identity is confirmed by this event when the voice from heaven marks him out as not only a man of great worth and note, but as the very offspring of God.
At this point, all the expectations of the people have been left in doubt, but not for the reader. The baptism is Jesus’ inauguration in Luke, but it is not an apocalyptic event such as the people would have preferred. One dove hardly signifies the end. Nor is this Messiah someone who merely exacts vengeance upon the enemies of Israel. He is another kind of figure, approved of quietly by heaven, having the power to divide between good and evil, devoted to sinners and to his Father’s will.