The Baptism of Jesus
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
What to do with this educator’s commentary
This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’
This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.
Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.
In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.
Structure of the commentary:
The world of the author’s community
The world at the time of the text
Geography of the text
Questions for the teacher
Text & textual features
Characters & setting
Ideas / phrases / concepts
Questions for the teacher
Questions for the teacher
Meaning for today / challenges
Church interpretations & usage
The World Behind the Text
See general introduction to Luke.
The World of the Text
Text and Textual features
Luke’s Gospel was written after the Gospel of Mark and the similarity in wording and structure indicates he has used Mark’s account within his longer narrative of the birth and early life of Jesus. The genealogy of Jesus follows immediately after the baptism (Luke 3:23-38) thus emphasising the messianic royal line of descent has been fulfilled.
The passage is structured as a clear recount with a beginning, middle and end, but no complication or problem. The event, with its divine intervention and affirmation, goes smoothly: the Holy Spirit is present and in control. Note the presence of the simile for the descent of the Holy Spirit and the imagery of breaking of the boundaries of heaven. Both serve to emphasise the ‘Godliness’ of this event.
The account recalls key images found in Jewish Scripture. Isaiah anticipates the “spirit if the Lord” resting upon a Davidic Messiah (Is 11:4). Isaiah 42:1 also depicts a ‘spirit’ descending on a servant of the Lord who will minister ‘to the nations’ (Is 42:6) and give sight to the ‘blind’ (Is 42:7). The words uttered by the voice from heaven is a combination of the second song of Isaiah and the second Psalm. The passage from this messianic Psalm, speaks of a son who would conquer nations, a person who is a symbol for the nation of Israel themselves. In recalling these Old Testament longings Luke plays into his own theology: he has arrived – this is him.
Characters and Setting
Jesus is the central figure in this account.
John the Baptist does not actually appear in the passage but his presence is assumed and inferred. Luke’s decision to omit mention of John may have been intended to preserve Jesus’ superiority to John.
John the Baptist has proclaimed baptism as a sign of conversion and moral change, rather than the ritual cleansing common in Judaism at the time. Indeed, Luke has stressed John as the precursor, the one who come before he who would baptise with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
Luke’s choice to (re)-introduce John the Baptist at the start of Chapter 3 means readers consider John in light of both religious and civil history.
In Israel there are two seasons: a rainy season from September to April and a dry season from May to September (not unlike the wet and dry seasons experienced in northern Australia). The Baptism in the Jordan indicates it occurred at the beginning of the dry season, when the river and its streams are full and water is at a comfortable temperature.
John the Baptist is inspired by Isaiah’s words and calls the Israelites to renewal. Baptism was a sign of repentance and readiness as a ritual often completed by newcomers to Judaism. In encouraging his fellow Jews to be baptised, John is encouraging spiritual renewal.
The need for Jesus to be baptised is complicated by a later theology that he was without sin. Why then, did Jesus chose to be baptised “for the forgiveness of sins”. If it were not for forgiveness, what was it for. One suggestion is that Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity: another is that it validated the origins of Jesus, signified by the voice from Heaven.
Luke frequently depicts Jesus praying during important and significant moments in his life. In Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. It seems that for Luke, prayer is a context for increasing closeness with God and a way for the spirit of God to work in the heart of the disciple.
The dove is a symbol of peace and innocence. It is used frequently in Christian art depicting the relationship between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The assumption is that Jesus leaves his family and village and comes to John for a baptism. This is significant because family was at the centre of life for Middle Eastern and Mediterranean audiences: an individual had no meaning or existence without their family. Importantly, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens tear open and God declares (publicly) that Jesus is his son. In the ancient world it was impossible to prove paternity (like it is now) – therefore it was only when a father acknowledged a child that they became his son or daughter. God publicly honouring Jesus by calling him God’s son was a public acknowledgement of worth and is important in restoring and establishing honour.
Questions for the teacher:
World in Front of the Text
Questions for the teacher:
Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.
- How do you respond to the text?
- What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
- In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?
- The two seasons in Israel (wet and dry) are not unlike the two seasons we experience in northern Australia. What connections could you, or your students make with our First Nations peoples and Jesus’ baptism?
Meaning for today/challenges
One reason that Jesus’ Baptism is important is because it draws clear connections between imagery and symbolism of the Old Testament and our understanding of Jesus from the New Testament.
Today, a challenge is being open to the voice of God and the work of the Spirit. Jesus’ baptism prompts us to think about the way God’s love is there for all those who are open to receive it and just as the Spirit comes down on Jesus, it will come down on us. When reading the Baptism account we pray for renewal for carrying out the message of Jesus.
As God addresses those gathered at the baptism of Jesus, declaring Jesus to be his son – he is the origin of Jesus. We might hear those words as addressed to each of us – we are all God’s sons or daughters, we are all God’s ‘beloved.’ We should therefore consider what it means to be consecrated to God and anointed in God’s spirit.
Jesus’ baptism suggests that perhaps Jesus had to discover his identity and determine God’s will for him to pursue his discipleship. It is clear his beliefs helped him on this journey. How then, do our beliefs help to lead us? We are called to a life of prayer, service, and devotion – in our words and in our deeds. Hence when we read Jesus’ baptism we are called to consider how we can place Jesus at the centre of our lives and how we can reflect God calling each of us ‘beloved.’
The Church Interpretation is drawn from what appears for Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ baptism, which can be read here.
Whilst the purpose of John’s baptism and current baptismal understandings are different, the Church recognises the need to hear the voice of God and for conversion in service of God’s mission. The Sacrament of Baptism continues to honour this.
You can learn more about Baptism here.
The presence and action of the Holy Spirit is continually affirmed and proclaimed in the life and witness of the Church, and through its liturgy, prayer, and Sacraments.
The first Sunday following the Christmas season is always the Baptism of Jesus. The reading includes the work of John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus.
The other readings in this vigil mass are Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 (the Servant, a light to the nations), Psalm 29 (the Voice of God in a Great Storm – a Psalm of David), and Acts 10:34-38 (Gentiles hear the Good News).