Among the four canonical gospels, John doesn’t mention Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s Gospel actually begins with a very brief description of the event. Matthew summarizes the event in four verses. Jesus comes to John who demurs then consents. Once Jesus is out of the water the heavens open, the spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven and a voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Luke takes over twenty verses, sets the stage with dates, people and places. But let me read it. Luke 3:1-22
3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
What John says next to the gathered is truly important:
8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
That’s a most interesting question. “What then should we do?” Is there some ritual we should perform, some sacrifice to prepare and offer, some special set of words to repeat, some belief to be pronounced? Listen to John’s reply:
11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
It’s an interesting collection of people: those who had clothing and food beyond their own needs but also Soldiers and Tax collectors – most hated among the population and all had come from the same river, the same river from which Jesus will soon reportedly come.
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
That’s been a pretty important verse in Quaker history – the strongly held position that the Baptism of Christ is that of the Holy Spirit whose fire will burn away the chaff of our lives. That Quakers have not employed water baptism has been cause for some to deny that we are Christian.
17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
That sounds like a conclusion but then comes two sentences that seems out of sequence with how we understand things to have played out.
19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
And then Luke goes back to his narrative:
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,
Matthew is clear that Jesus was out of the river before the divine proclamation of God’s being pleased with Jesus is heard but Luke intimates that it was long after – after all the people and Jesus had been baptized and John was locked up in Herod’s jail – while Jesus was praying the Holy Spirit, descended on him in bodily dovelike form and the voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John made real political enemies, especially irritating Herod’s second wife, Herodias, (Luke 3:20). He called Herod’s marriage to his half brother Phillip’s wife an abomination. This priest-prophet baptizer took the Torah seriously: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness” (Leviticus 18:16). Because of John’s condemnation of Herod he was imprisoned, effectively removing him from public life. We don’t hear about John’s execution until much later in Luke’s narrative (see also Luke 9:9).
Luke interpreted John’s baptizing mission in light of Isaiah’s image of “a voice” who prepares “the way of the Lord.” Indeed, John enters the story as any Israelite prophet would: “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah.” We see the same pattern with Jeremiah 1:4; 33:1; Ezekiel 1:3; Jonah 1:1. This priest’s son grew up in the wilderness and entered public life as a prophet. Furthermore, as a prophet he scolded those who came calling them: “You brood of vipers!” (John 3:7). John challenged the special “covenant” Israel had because of Abraham, as if that spiritual heritage was all that mattered (3:8-9). John questioned what people did. Jesus, too, will provide a prophetic voice and action, as he baptizes “by fire,” which will be utilized for the removal of the “chaff” (3:17).
Repentance isn’t associated with religious ritual or belief, it is associated with “acts” of repentance: specifically, John told the crowds to share their goods (Luke 3:11; see also Acts 2) and be fair in one’s profession (3:12-14). Unlike his Gospel counterparts, Luke names “tax-collectors” and “soldiers” as people who received John’s baptism . The Baptist did not tell “soldiers” to lay down their weapons; he highlighted theirs as well as the tax collectors’ desire for greed.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia John’s baptism is to result in holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. This thought is expressed in the well-known passage in Josephus in which he speaks of John the Baptist: “The washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” John symbolized the call to repentance by Baptism in the Jordan; and the same measure for attaining holiness was employed by the Essenes, whose ways of life John also observed. Josephus says of his instructor Banus, an Essene, that he “bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day”, and that the same practice was observed by all the Essenes.
Despite imagining John waste deep in the river he declares that the one who would come after him would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Ghost. A semblance of that notion is expressed in the Talmud that the Holy Spirit could be drawn upon as water is drawn from a well (based upon Isa.12: 3). And there is a somewhat Jewish tinge even to the prophecy of the evangelists Matthew (3: 11) and Luke (3:16), who declare that Jesus will baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Ghost; for, according to Rabbi Abbahu, true Baptism is performed with fire. According to the Christian writer Justin, the expression that the person baptized is illuminated has the same significance as is implied in telling a proselyte to Judaism, after his bath, that he now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God.
While the balance of the chapter is on John’s mission, the climax is still Jesus’ baptism. And God’s announcement of Jesus’ identity (as “God’s son”) was the significant event of the event, the identity the angel had claimed in Luke 1:35. And then, for some reason, Luke doesn’t place “John” at the scene. In Luke’s telling the story he names no baptizer. In the narrative story-line, just before Jesus’ baptism, Luke described Herod’s imprisonment of John. In narrative time John’s imprisonment seems to occur before Jesus came to be baptized. It is an unusual set-up.
For Luke, By the time of Jesus’ baptism, John’s voice in the wilderness (3:4) was replaced by a heavenly voice (3:22) and John’s body was replaced by the Spirit’s “body” in the form of a dove. John’s absence from the baptism scene emphasizes the Spirit’s “baptism” or empowerment of Jesus and God’s acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son (3:21-22).
As Isaiah announces, the coming Messiah will reveal the “salvation of God”. Many contemporary readers of the Gospel narratives usually associate the story of “salvation” with the coming and dying of Jesus. But the language of “salvation” meant much more for first century Jews when we recall Simeon seeing God’s “salvation” in the baby Jesus (2:30). For ancient Jews, Zechariah’s words are representative: “(God) has raised up a mighty savior for us … that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:69, 71). (1:74). Let’s hear that again: The Messiah’s salvation would affect their political realities so that their religious ones would also be unhindered, “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear”
Jesus’ public mission initiates a new stage in God’s plan of dealing with humankind. Repentance implies a preparation of one’s heart, mind, and entire attitude that God desires to engage God’s creation. Then, the Spirit will also prepare the way of the Lord!
As we begin this new year with new challenges and as the Holy Spirit comes first to burn away the accumulated chaff of our lives we too ask with those baptized by John: “What then should we do?” John’s reply is: Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Heavenly Father, With joy and awe we praise you for claiming us as your sons and daughters, and for pouring your Holy Spirit upon us. Help us to prepare this earth for your glory, and shine your light on all your faithful children, for the sake of the one whose birth and baptism brought renewal and transformation to this world, Jesus Christ. Amen