Commentary on Luke 3:1-22
For a passage that is supposed to be about Jesus’ baptism, Luke 3 seems strange in its avoidance of the moment.
The baptism seems almost an afterthought. It happens off-stage, mentioned alongside the baptisms of “all the people” (verse 21), occurring after the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus may have been baptized by John prior to his arrest, but the text doesn’t seem overly concerned about pinning down that detail. Jesus and John do not even appear in the same visual frame.1
Luke also leaves out the earthy details of John’s appearance that show up in Mark’s account. There is no mention of camel hair or locusts. Luke cares about what John says and where he says it. The “word of God” comes to John in the “wilderness” (verse 2)—creating an echo of Isaiah’s prophecy (see Isaiah 40:3-5)—and Luke does not want readers to be distracted by John’s wild demeanor or his strange diet. Luke wants us to hear John’s words, John’s proclamation of “good news” (verse 18). It is not every day that the word of God comes to a prophet.
This sermon from John is the most complete account we have of his preaching, so it is worth paying attention to its content and impact. It is notoriously fierce, declaring the crowd a “brood of vipers” (verse 7) before moving on to threats of unfruitful trees being “thrown into the fire” (verse 9). John is calling the crowd to “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (verse 3), and his words are full of danger and coming judgement. But spiritual cleansing is not all John has in mind.
This “good news” is materially concrete in how it calls the crowd to live in a work-a-day world. Three times his listeners ask, “What should we do?” (see verses 10, 12, and 14), making clear that while baptism is a start, it is not the end. John’s answers are telling. They describe the faithful distribution of possessions, the rejection of corruption, and a legal system that refuses to use violence for its own preservation. For Justo González, John’s call to obedience is about more than individual purity; it has to do “with justice and the well ordering of society.”2 There is something deeply political in John’s message, which may be why Luke places it within bookends of secular authority. Continuing Luke’s historical attentiveness (see 1:1, 1:5, and 2:1-2), a lengthy list of imperial and religious rulers begins Luke 3, and John’s sermon ends with Herod shutting him up in prison. But consistent with Luke’s historical reframing, the halls of power are not where the real action takes place. The spiritual action happens in stables, dusty towns – and in the wilderness. It is “the people” (verse 18), not the rulers, who receive the good news. And good news it is for those who have no coat, those who have been cheated out of their wages, or beaten by soldiers. It is good news because there is one more powerful than John who is coming to thresh the world, baptizing with Spirit and with fire.
How strange that when we first glimpse this mighty “winnower” as a man, he is on his knees. His baptism is over and done, and he is praying. Perhaps he is praying because his friend has been unjustly thrown into a tyrant’s prison. There is no unquenchable fire burning up chaff. There is a dove—an embodiment of the Holy Spirit—that descends. And there is a voice that claims him as beloved Son.3
In this account of Jesus’s baptism, there is a foreshadowing of the descent of the Spirit that will fall in Acts. In that narrative, too, there is a call to “repent” (Acts 2:38). There is the promise of a Spirit poured out on ordinary people and on their beloved children (Acts 2:39). And most importantly, there is the difference that baptism makes in the fabric of society, in the ways that possessions are shared (Acts 2:44-45), relationships prioritized (Acts 2:42), and generosity amplified by teaching and worship (Acts 2:46). Following Jesus’ example, in Acts baptism is followed by ardent prayer.
Luke’s account of baptism opens up homiletical opportunities for naming the social implications of our baptismal vows. The United Methodist baptismal liturgy includes the promise to “renounce the spiritual powers of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”4 Many liturgies echo this call. John’s sermon provides an opportunity to reflect on what that resistance might look like and what repentance may require. And then, with Jesus, a congregation might be moved to pray for those without coats, without paychecks, living in fear of violence—or those unjustly thrown into prison. John’s sermon is an opportunity to remember that the point of baptism is not ecclesial maintenance, but an outpouring of the Spirit and a revelation of God’s Beloved where one least expects it. Such an outpouring has the power to reframe and restructure the world.
- Luke 3:15 suggests that people were wondering whether John was the Messiah—a detail unique to Luke. Playing down John’s role in Jesus’ baptism may be the gospel writer’s attempt to foreclose these speculations.
- Justo L. González, Luke (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 50.
- Brittany Wilson notes that this moment is one of three places where God shows up in Luke’s narrative (see also the “glory of the Lord” in 2:9 and the transfiguration in 9:34-35), The Embodied God: Seeing the Divine in Luke-Acts and the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming April 2021).
- “The Services of the Baptismal Covenant” are found on pages 32-54 of the United Methodist Hymnal.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry ELW 249, H82 76
Songs of thankfulness and praise ELW 310, H82 135
O Morning Star, how fair and bright! ELW 308, UMH 247, NCH 158
How bright appears the morning star H82 496, 497
Gloria! Carolyn Jennings