with Tony W. Cartledge
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Of Water and Fire
Do you remember your baptism? I can, but just barely. My primary memory is that I had “joined the church” and requested baptism without really intending to. On a Sunday evening our pastor loosened up a bit, included some stories and jokes in his sermon, and kept my 9-year-old self interested the whole time.
I considered that quite an accomplishment, so I went forward during the invitational hymn to congratulate him on doing such a good job. Before I could utter a word, though, he put an arm around my shoulders and asked if I had accepted Jesus as my Savior and wanted to be baptized.
I had grown up in church and never considered not trusting Jesus, so I said “sure.” Before the night was over, two other boys followed my unintentional lead, and within weeks we were baptized.
Today’s text deals with a baptism story of far greater significance, and it begins with a most unusual preacher.
A prophetic prediction(vv. 15-18)
John the baptizer, a cousin of Jesus and the son of a priest, came out of obscurity to develop quite a reputation as an unorthodox preacher and a prophet. Feeling called of God but eschewing traditional roles of leadership as a priest or scribe, John took to living in the wilderness, dressing in rough garments of woven camel’s hair, and foraging for his food, which notably featured locusts and wild honey (Matt. 3:4, Mark 1:6). Whether he ate the big insects fresh, fried, or dried, we don’t know.
John’s notoriety as an odd duck, as well as his stern words of warning, may have contributed to the crowds who came out in droves to hear him preach. If judgment was coming, they wondered, what should they do? John taught a simple ethic of just living in which people do not exploit each other, but share with those in need (vv. 10-14). John’s message sparked a broad response, and many responded to his call to repent of their sins and to mark the beginning of a new life by being baptized.
First century Jews were accustomed to dipping themselves in water as a purification measure after becoming ritually unclean through contact with blood or other reasons. John’s practice of baptism as a sign of repentance would not have been alien, with the obvious difference that, while the rabbinic regulations allowed Jews to use streams or rivers as water for their ablutions, they typically dipped themselves in a small pool called a mikveh (plural mikva’ot).
John’s baptism not only took place in the Jordan River, but it also had a different significance: it did not mark a cleansing from ritual uncleanness that had nothing to do with character, but indicated repentance from sin and a desire to change one’s life by following God’s way more faithfully.
John’s authoritative preaching and charismatic appeal created such excitement that some began to follow him as disciples, and many began to wonder if John might actually be the long-awaited Messiah (v. 15, compare John 1:19-28). When they asked him about it, John didn’t disappoint them altogether. He used their questions as a platform to declare that their hopes were not fruitless: the Messiah was indeed living, and he was coming soon.
John insisted that the Messiah would be far more powerful than he, baptizing not with water, but “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 16; note that Mark 1:8 does not mention fire, nor do the parallels in Acts 1:5 and 11:16). Many different views have been proposed to explain John’s tandem use of “Spirit” and “fire.” The best interpretation seems to be that the Spirit of Christ would purify the repentant like a refiner’s fire, while bringing destructive judgment to the wicked.
This image reappears in the metaphor of v. 17, where John says the Messiah would gather wheat (the repentant) into his storehouse, but immolate the chaff (the unrepentant). John took no joy in the death of the wicked, hoping that more would choose to repent and be among the saved. Thus, Luke could say that even John’s hard words of judgment could be considered “good news” (v. 18), because they were designed to lead persons to salvation rather than destruction, to life rather than death.
A parenthetical note(vv. 19-20)
Luke interrupts his account of John’s preaching to insert a parenthetical note that often gets skipped over: John’s bold preaching got him thrown into prison. While proclaiming the good news about Jesus, John had also been condemning the wickedness he saw on every side, and fearlessly included the king in his commentary.
The Herod in question is Herod Antipas, who had divorced his Nabatean wife in favor of his sister-in-law Herodias, who in turn divorced his half-brother Herod Phillip so she could marry Antipas. John publicly denounced the sordid affair, along with “all the evil things that Herod had done” (v. 19). Herod then added to his foul deeds, Luke says, by having John arrested and locked in prison.
Luke does not go on to relate, as Mark and Matthew do, that Herod’s new wife conspired to have John’s head removed from his shoulders and presented on a platter: his main concern is to underscore John’s courage in speaking truth to power, even as he pointed to the Coming One whose power is of real significance.
John’s daring may not inspire us to adopt a locust-and-honey-based diet or move to the wilderness, but his willingness to stand tall and do what needed to be done is an enduring lesson for all who came after.
A promising start(vv. 20-21)
The part of Jesus’ baptism story told in Luke 3:21-22 also appears in Mark 1:10-11 and Matt. 3:16-17. Readers who are familiar with the stories in Mark and Matthew may be surprised to observe that Luke says nothing about Jesus walking up and asking his cousin John to baptize him, nothing about John’s comment that Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing, and nothing about the baptism itself.
Jesus was sinless and had no need of repentance. Still, he chose to be baptized, probably intending to declare his solidarity with humankind. But, even as Christ declared his humanity, God the Father declared Jesus’ divinity.
Mark tells the story from Jesus’ perspective, but in Luke, we see Jesus’ baptism through the eyes of another dripping postulant standing on the riverbank, or even of a skeptic hanging back in the crowd, wondering at the spectacle. Luke implies that Jesus was the last person to be baptized that day. Like Mark and Matthew, he tells us that the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
Just before the dove’s surprising appearance, however, Luke offers a significant detail: he says not only that Jesus had been baptized, but also that he “was praying” when “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (vv. 21-22). Jesus opened himself to God’s Spirit, and God responded.
Why would God choose the form of a dove to depict the Spirit’s presence? Doves or pigeons were sometimes used in the Old Testament as sacrificial offerings, and also appeared in other contexts. None of them make it clear why God chose this particular form as a symbol of the Spirit, but it has proven to be a popular and memorable symbol.
The most important thing about that moment, however, is not what was seen, but what was heard: a voice saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22).
If we understand Luke and Matthew correctly, the others who were present also saw and heard these things. Thus, in one brief act, God validated both the teaching of John the messenger and the identity of Jesus the Messiah.
Do not overlook the significant conjunction of two acts of the Spirit in this text. Through the Spirit, God shows both love for Jesus and an affirmation of his mission – but immediately afterward, the same Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness” to face a season of fasting and temptation to foster Jesus’ continued growth and preparation for ministry.
Sometimes we discover that the more familiar a story, the harder it is to really listen to it. As we read this account of what God said to Jesus, what might God be saying to us? Several things stand out.
- God calls us to commitment. As hundreds came out to hear John’s gospel, repent of their sins, and submit to baptism in proclamation of their commitment to God’s way, so we face times of decision that call for public action.
- Jesus understands our struggles. Although he did not need forgiveness of sins, Jesus chose to be baptized as a declaration of solidarity with humankind. It is no accident that the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness follows the story of his baptism. Jesus was tempted to stray from his commitment just as we are, but set an example of obedience for us to follow.
- Timing is important. Whether we feel drawn to trust Christ and be baptized, to devote our lives to missions, or to show God’s love in a particular situation, we can trust God’s Spirit to let us know when it is time to express our commitment in specific ways.
What is it time for today? BT
Resources to teach adult and youth classes are available at baptiststoday.org
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 10, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Luke 3:15-22
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We all like to be praised. Most of us get the type of smile on our face that we try to hide but we can’t when someone praises us. I’ve found that it is as fun to watch others have the smile come across their face when you heap praise on them. As we minister with our students, we need to heap praise on them as often as we can. We need to celebrate their successes. We need to bring attention when they are being the hands and feet of Christ.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Delmar’s Baptism” from O Brother Where Art Thou? via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Luke 3:15-22