Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 3.15-17,21-22 
Baptism of Our Lord - Year C
1st Sunday after the Epiphany - Year C

Other texts:

"Epiphany" is a word that means "to appear" or "to make known." In the Lutheran (and other) traditions, The First Sunday after the Epiphany is always the Baptism of Our Lord -- a time when the voice from heaven "makes it known" that Jesus is "my son." The Last Sunday after the Epiphany in our tradition is always the Transfiguration of Our Lord -- a time again when a voice from heaven "makes it known" that Jesus is "my son."

The Lucan account is much less about the actual baptism of Jesus than Christological statements about Jesus. "The purpose of this passage is to introduce and begin to answer the vital question of Jesus' identity and mission in the Third Gospel as well as to highlight the work of the Holy Spirit in anointing people for ministry" (Sheila Klassan-Wiebe, "Luke 3:15-17, 21-22," Interpretation, October 1994, p. 397)

In Luke, we aren't told where Jesus is baptized. We aren't told who baptizes him. The tradition that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John comes from the other Gospels, but not in Luke. The baptism itself involves only two words in the Greek -- a genitive absolute = a subordinate clause. Luke's main interest is not the baptism, but what happened after the baptism.

The first part of our text, vv. 15-17, was reported on for 3 Advent C. Most of the comments on these verses come from that posting. These three verses seem to have come from three different sources:


Only Luke has this verse about the "people" wondering if John might be the Messiah. The question of John's identity allows him to clarify the distinction between himself and the one who is to come. We know from other passages that there were people in the first century who maintained an allegiance to John rather than to Jesus. We need to examine if our allegiances are in the right place -- following the right person or not.


John's response to the people's wondering first comes from Mark (1:7-8 // Mt 3:11-12). In this verse, John differentiates himself from the "stronger" one in three ways.

(1) John is not competent even to untie the thong of his sandals. Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) writes: "Untying sandals was such a menial duty that it was expected only of slaves; disciples were not expected to untie their master's sandals (see Acts 13:24-25)." The word translated "worthy" (hikanos) in NRSV is not the same word used early about "worthy" fruit. This word seems to carry more of the meaning of "being up to the task," "being adequate."

(2) John uses the phrase "stronger than me" or "more powerful than me" to indicate a difference between himself and the coming one.

(3) John baptized with water. The stronger one has a different baptism. While we usually connect "holy" with Spirit/wind; it could also be applied to "fire". The sentence could be: "He will baptized you in holy wind and (holy) fire." Only Luke includes "fire" as part of his description of Jesus' baptism.

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) offers the following:

What is the relationship between Spirit and fire in this saying? The following interpretations have been advanced: (1) fire describes the inflaming purifying work of the Spirit; (2) the repentant will receive the Spirit, while the unrepentant will experience the judgment of fire; (3) since the Greek term for "Spirit" can also mean "wind," the meaning is that Jesus' baptism will bring the judgment in a mighty wind and fire; (4) as might be implicit in the first option, "Spirit" or "wind" and "fire" reflect the Christian interpretation of the Pentecost experience; or (5) John saw in Spirit and fire the means of eschatological purification: the refiner's fire for the repentant and destruction for the unrepentant. The last combines elements of (2) and (3) and fits both the historical context of John's preaching and the literary context in which the saying about winnowing follows. Luke, of course, may have seen the fulfillment of this saying at Pentecost in ways John could not have imagined. [pp. 85-86]


This verse comes from Q, but it is connected with the preceding by the image of wind and fire. John presents a strange picture of Jesus. We usually think of Satan as one standing with a fork in his hand. John says that Jesus comes holding and using a type of fork!

Wheat was separated from chaff by throwing both up into the air with the winnowing fork. The heavier wheat would fall back down and the wind would blow the chaff away. Robert Tannehill (Luke) writes: "The Messiah, according to John, will preserve what is valuable and destroy what is worthless, just as a farmer does. This may apply to good and bad individuals or to good and bad aspects of each individual" [p. 82].

Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) offers this summary of this section: "When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is good news (v. 18). The primary aim is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff." [p. 49]

Joel Green (The Gospel of Luke) notes:

... the language John uses actually presumes that the process of winnowing has already been completed. Consequently, all that remains is to clear the threshing floor, and this is what John pictures. This means that John's ministry of preparation is itself the winnowing, for his call to repentance set within his message of eschatological judgment required of people that they align themselves with or over against God's justice. As a consequence, the role of the Messiah is portrayed as pronouncing or enacting judgment on the people on the basis of their response to John. [p. 182]

Does Jesus come to judge and separate or to gather together those who have responded to John's proclamation?

Klassan-Wiebe offers her summary: "The first scene, then, is not about baptism but about the identity of Jesus: the Coming One who is more powerful than John, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the eschatological judge. He, not John the Baptist, is the Messiah."


I had a professor who stated that whenever the lectionary skips over some verses, those are the ones we should look at most closely. These two verses are not part of any lectionary reading.

Luke relates no encounter between Jesus and John. In fact, before we are told about Jesus' baptism, we are informed that John has been put in prison! A traditional way of understanding this order of events is that Luke divides history into three separate and distinct eras. The first is the time of the prophets, which includes John the Baptist. That era ends with the imprisonment of John. John will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of Jesus begins with a statement in our text about: (1) the opening of the heaven, (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (dove); and (3) heavenly speech. This era of Jesus ends with his ascension -- related only in Luke & Acts. Jesus will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of the Holy Spirit (or the Church) begins with a statement in Acts 2:1-4 about (1) something coming "from heaven," (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (tongues of fire), and (3) heavenly speech.

For Luke, the movement from an old era into a new one required a break from the old -- John is put in prison -- Jesus ascends into heaven. Yet, at the same time, there are common elements in all three periods, such as the fulfillment of promises/prophecies and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The fact that we are living in the third era sometimes needs to be emphasized. There are those whose faith is so centered on the historical Jesus, that they can't live their lives in the new period under the power of the Holy Spirit. If all we do is talk about the historical Jesus, e.g., arguing about the virgin birth, the miracles, the physical resurrection -- we may be making faith nothing more than believing historical events really happened, i.e., a history lesson. While such teachings are certainly part of our Christian confession of faith, for the early believers in the Book of Acts, faith was relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for life today. They recognized that Jesus had left this earth. In order for the ministry of Jesus to continue, it would have to be done by all the believers who had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit -- not by Jesus nor by particular Spirit-filled people, i.e., the prophets.

Unfortunately for my sacramental bias, the descent of the Holy Spirit in Luke/Acts seems more connected with prayer than baptism. In our text, it is after Jesus has been baptized (aorist tense) and while he is praying (present tense) that the Spirit comes upon him. In the Second Lesson for the day (Acts 8:14-17), Peter and John are sent to pray for the Samaritans that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Although there is no mention of prayer on the day of Pentecost, we know that those early believers "devoted themselves to ... the prayers" (Acts 2:42).

Using the theme of the three eras, I have frequently quoted from J. B. Philips book, Your God Is Too Small.

"Do you think God understands radar?" In nearly every case the reply was "No," followed of course by a laugh, as the conscious mind realized the absurdity of the answer. But, simple as this test was, it was quite enough to show that at the back of their minds these youngsters held an idea of God quite inadequate for modern days. Subsequent discussion showed plainly that while "they had not really thought much about it," they had freely to admit that the idea of God, absorbed some years before, existed in quite a separate compartment from their modern experience, knowledge, and outlook. It was as though they were revering the memory of a Grand Old Man, who was a great power in His day, but who could not possible be expected to keep pace with modern progress! [p. 24]

To update Philips' question, I have asked, "Does God understand computers (or the internet)?" In more recent years: "Does the Creator comprehend quanta?" (I like alliteration.) What is your first reaction to such questions? What do you think would be the reaction to the people in the pew? (How many of them understand computers, the internet, or quantum physics?) There can be a tendency to keep God in the historical Jesus and that period of history rather than in our modern age. There can be a tendency to understand God's anointing to be on just a few "ordained or spiritual-type" people, rather than the Pentecost proclamation that God now pours out the Spirit upon all flesh.


It happened that
    in the baptizing of all the people
    and [after] Jesus was baptized (aorist tense)
    and [as] he was praying (present tense)
the heaven was opened
and the Holy Spirit came down
    in a bodily form
    as a dove on him,
and a voice came out of heaven,
    You are my son
    the beloved
    with you I am well-pleased.

The lines about Jesus' baptism and his praying are subordinate clauses (genitive absolutes in Greek). They are not the main point of the sentence. The aorist tense probably indicates that the baptism had happened sometime prior to the praying. The present tense indicates that Jesus was still praying when the main actions occurred: the opening, the coming down, and the heavenly speech.


Jesus' baptism identifies him with "all the people" who were baptized. Jesus' identification with humanity is also indicated by his genealogy which immediately follows our text and concludes with "son of God" (3:35d) thus forming a bookend with "you are my beloved son."

Richard A. Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) relates this story about the importance of genealogies.

There is a story told of a man who translated the Bible into one of the many languages of the people of Papua New Guinea. His translating procedure was to translate a passage, have his assistant read it to the people, and revise the translation accordingly. In doing this the translator skipped the genealogy for the same reason we pay so little attention to it: boring! At the end of the task, however, he did translate the genealogical list and he was present when it was read to the people. As the names of the ancestors were rattled off the translator noticed that a hush fell over the room. So quiet did it get with the crowd pressing in on him that he thought he must have violated some tribal taboo in his translating. But no! When the reading was finished the people stood in amazement. "Why didn't you tell us this before?" they asked. "No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings but only of real persons. The Bible must mean to say that Jesus is a real person! Jesus was a real man on our real earth and not just a part of some spirit world; not just some of the white man's magic!"

Jesus is a real flesh and blood person. He identifies with sinful humanity by undergoing the same things that they need to undergo: Birth, death, and, here, the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke skips right over any christological problems that Jesus' baptism might have created. It's a subordinate clause.

Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) adds another meaning to this genealogy:

In contrast to Matthew, [Luke] extends the genealogy past Abraham all the way back to Adam. By so doing, he touches again the note of universality sounded by 3:6: the significance of Jesus is not only for the "children of Abraham," but for all the descendants of Adam, all the nations of the earth. By placing the genealogy where he has, furthermore, Luke points less to Jesus' human ancestry and more to his status as "God's son," and this is to be understood above all as a "sonship" mediated by the Holy Spirit. [p. 72]


Jesus praying is an emphasis in the Gospel of Luke. In all of the following events taken by Luke from Mark, Luke adds the fact that Jesus was praying!

Luke emphasizes that it is Jesus' praying that motivated the disciples to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. Jesus gives them the Lord's Prayer (11:1).

Only in Luke does Jesus tell the parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart (18:1-9). Only in Luke does Jesus tell the parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector going into the temple to pray (18:10-14).

Prayer, especially seeing Jesus at prayer, is an emphasis in Luke (and in Acts).


"heaven was opened" -- I'm not sure that Luke intends to imply anything more about this than to provide a means for the "coming down of the Spirit" and so that the "voice from heaven" might be clearly heard.

In some ways, heaven was opened earlier in the writing when the "multitude of the heavenly hosts" appear and praise God and then return to heaven (2:13, 15).

The next time "heaven" is used following our text is in 4:25 (which is only in Luke and is part of the lection for 4 Epiphany C), which is part of Jesus' sermon in Nazareth, about which I will say more later. Jesus makes reference to the time of Elijah "when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land."

Although it might be stretching the image, if the "shutting up of heaven" resulted in famine and all that goes along with that: hunger, sickness, death; could not the "opening of heaven" symbolize the coming of plenty, health, and life?

The same word for "opening" (anoigo) is used in some variant readings of 4:17 (the better attested word is anaptusso = "unroll"), which takes place in the synagogue at Nazareth. Jesus opens the scroll and finds Isaiah 61:1-2.

Again it might be stretching the image that both the opening of heaven and the opening of the scroll allows God to make a declaration about Jesus.


Only Luke includes the phrase "in bodily form". Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) makes the point that

Bodily descent has the character of permanence. The Spirit not only descended upon Jesus; the Spirit of God came in bodily form and it will remain upon Jesus.

He makes a contrast between Jesus and Israel's "charismatic judges" on whom the Spirit of God descended temporarily. However, he doesn't support this interpretation and no other commentaries that I read mentioned this symbolism.

I've already mentioned some connections between our text and the Pentecost event, but I don't believe that the descent of the Spirit on Jesus can be understood separately from Luke 4:18-19 (which is part of the lection for 3 Epiphany C) where Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 (with a bit of 58:6 thrown in -- even Jesus didn't have scriptures memorized all that well <g>):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus was an anointing (and empowering) for his ministry on earth. Too often, I'm afraid, the Holy Spirit has become for us a topic of discussion, rather than a power for ministry.

At the same time, prior to this event at Nazareth, we are told: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned form the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil" (4:1-2a). At the end of the temptation, we are told, "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee" (4:14a). Did Jesus' "power" for his ministry come just from the descent of the Holy Spirit or from his successful battle with the devil in the wilderness? The answer is probably "both". If we want to experience the power of the Spirit, it may mean that we have to do more than pray. We may have to enter into the battle with Satan -- evil forces wherever they may be in our communities or within us.

Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) writes:

The coming of the Holy Spirit does not make Jesus the Son of God; Luke has told us who Jesus is from the time of the annunciation. The Holy Spirit comes to empower Jesus for his ministry. He will soon be led by the Spirit into the desert (4:1), and then he will return "in the power of the spirit into Galilee" (4:14). [p. 52]

Both the temptation story and the Isaiah quote indicate that Jesus' Spirit-led ministry is to battle and defeat evil in whatever form it appears. And, that Spirit-led ministry continues after the ascension through "all flesh" upon whom God has now poured the Spirit.


The voice in Luke, as in Mark, speaks directly to Jesus. We overhear the words. In Matthew's account of the baptism and all three accounts of the transfiguration, the voice speaks to those around Jesus: "This is my son...."

What does it mean to be the "Son of God?"

Luke provides answers to this in the larger context. As I noted earlier, the baptism in Luke is followed by a genealogy which ends with "son of God." This is followed by the temptation story where the devil tries to help Jesus get a "better" understanding. Twice he states: "If you are the Son of God" (4:3, 9).

Next Jesus reads in Nazareth from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Lu 4:18-19). With these verses, we come to understand more clearly the meaning of the descending Spirit at Jesus' baptism.

Being the Son of God means facing temptation and being servant to all in need. It is not a life of glory, but a life that will lead to the cross.

Tannehill (Luke) suggests that the devil tries to tempt Jesus "with another understanding of his role as Son of God, for it could be understood as privilege rather than calling. Through struggle, Jesus must arrive at the right understanding of his position as Son of God" [p. 85].

A proper understanding of Jesus' role is indicated by Luke's other use of the term "beloved" (agapetos) in 20:13. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard decides to send his beloved son to the tenants of the vineyard after they had mistreated the slaves he had sent to them. He says to himself, "I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him." They don't. They kill the beloved son, which is what will happen to Jesus. [This word also appears in variant readings for 9:35, and included as a footnote in NRSV.]


I find it interesting that God is already "well pleased" (eudokeo) with Jesus. Jesus hasn't done anything yet within the narrative, except the incident in the temple when he was twelve (2:41-51). In fact, it is in the verse following God's indication of pleasure in Jesus, that we are told that Jesus begins his work. God's pleasure in him began before Jesus started his public ministry.

Is God "well pleased" with us because we do things that please God; or does God's positive attitude towards us because of who we are, before we have done anything pleasing or non-pleasing, motivate us to seek to do what is pleasing to God -- to live up to what God has already declared us to be?

Tannehill (Luke):

God is affirming a special relationship with Jesus and uses words that express the closest kind of familial and emotional bond. Jesus is "my Son," he is "the Beloved," and he is one with whom God is "well pleased" (an indication of God's special favor). With these words, God confirms a special relationship with Jesus and expresses confidence in him. But with the relationship goes responsibility, for the relationship implies obedience and the gift of the Spirit implies a mission. God's expressed confidence in Jesus binds God's cause to Jesus, who is now responsible for it. Jesus must respond to God's trust by doing God's will [p. 85].

I don't think that Luke tell us about Jesus' baptism just to inform us about what happened to Jesus. He relates this story also to indicate something about our baptisms, our need to be in prayer, our anointing with the Spirit, and our subsequent battles with evil and ministry in the world. We have a "beloved" and "well-pleasing" relationship with God. With that comes the responsibility to live out of that relationship -- to fulfill the mission God sends before us -- to live up to the confidence God has placed on us. Jesus' baptism prefigures Pentecost. The era of Jesus' ministry prefigures the era of the Church's ministry -- our ministry -- in the world.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901