The Baptism of Jesus:  Saint Luke 3:21-22

By the time Saint Luke reaches the story of the baptism, his infancy narrative already has introduced John the Baptist, who in Luke is revealed as a cousin of Jesus and who shares with Jesus wonderfully parallel  annunciations and births.

Luke extends strongly the slight movement in Matthew away from a direct assertion that John baptized Jesus.  Luke also extends the treatment of the baptism of Jesus as a public manifestation of his authority.  What in Matthew are hints of a development beyond Mark’s perspective become strong tendencies in Luke:

Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (3:21f.)

Before this account by Luke of the baptism of Jesus, Luke gives much the same information as Mark and Matthew about John’s ministry.  John is in the wilderness (3:2).  John preaches ‘repentance for the remission of sins’ and works in ‘the country about Jordan (3:3).  Isaiah is cited (3:4ff.).  Luke, like Matthew and in contrast with Mark, adds information here about John’s preaching and his encounters with various groups (the multitude, the people, publicans, soldiers) (3:7-18).  Luke’s additions to Mark concerning John are somewhat different from Matthew’s.

In Luke, however, the baptism of Jesus does not occur in immediate connection with this mostly familiar material and setting.  In Luke the reference to the baptism of Jesus follows a notice by Luke of John’s arrest and imprisonment by ‘Herod the tetrarch’ (3:19f.).  So when Luke speaks of ‘Jesus also being baptized’ (3:21f.), he either refers to a past event (since John at the time of which the text speaks is imprisoned) or he refers to a baptism by someone other than John.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that the reference is to a baptism by John prior to his imprisonment.  But it also is certainly clear that Luke moves further than Matthew from Mark’s direct statement that John baptized Jesus.

As to the relative authority of John and Jesus, that already has been clarified in Luke by the annunciation and birth narratives of chapters 1 and 2.  See particularly Elizabeth’s words to Mary in 1:43.  Within Luke 3 itself John also in the course of his preaching has prophesied the superior greatness of Jesus:  ‘I indeed baptize you with water; one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose:  he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ (3:16).  Luke does not have the dialogue between John and Jesus concerning the reason for the baptism which appears in Matthew in the midst of Mark’s simpler account of the baptism itself.  The dialogue from Matthew is not necessary for Luke in light of the large amount of material he already has added concerning John prior to the baptism of Jesus.  Luke has dealt with potential concerns about the relative authority of John by chapters 1 and 2, by 3:16, and by moving even further than Matthew from Mark’s simple statement that John baptized Jesus.

Where Mark and Matthew after the baptism say that Jesus saw heaven opened, Luke changes the subjective perception and says objectively that heaven was opened (Luke 3:21).  Where Mark and Matthew both say that ‘the Spirit like a dove’ came upon Jesus as he rose from the waters, Luke more objectively and directly asserts that ‘the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him’ (v. 22).  In summary, in Luke’s version John is more removed from the scene than in Matthew, and much more than in Mark, and the baptism is more objective and impressive than in either Mark or Matthew.

Nonetheless, as we have seen, in Luke also most of the associations with the Old Testament typological system are present.  The wilderness, the prophetic citation, entry into Jordan (in 3:3), the dove, and divine testimony are all present.  A period of forty is absent from Luke’s version of the event itself.  That omission, however, is supplied in 4:2, along with another reference to the wilderness (4:1).  While 4:1f. is half a chapter away from the baptism story, in fact the separation is only created by Luke’s insertion of a genealogy of Jesus in 3:23-38.  Luke, therefore, despite his additions, retains all of the typologically-significant themes concerning water that are present in Mark and Matthew.


The Baptism of Jesus:  Saint John 1:28-34

In regard to the baptism of Jesus, Saint John is quite different from the Synoptic gospels.  John’s gospel does not directly tell the story of the baptism of Jesus, just as later he does not give the institution narrative from the Last Supper.  John seems to assume that his readers already know those basic facts of the gospel story.  John’s goal seems not to recount the facts for his readers but rather to show what those facts, already familiar to most Christians, mean.  All of the gospels have theological and instructive goals, but in John those interpretive goals are closer to the surface.

In the chronological movement from Mark to Matthew to Luke there seems to be a gradual movement away from Saint Mark’s direct statement that ‘Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan’.  The basic facts which Mark gives are also present in Matthew and Luke, though in Matthew and Luke the baptism is stated in a less direct manner and the external authority bestowed upon Jesus by the voice of the Father and by the descent of the Spirit as a dove seems to be more emphasized.

In Saint John, however, there is no assertion of the baptism of Jesus by the Baptist at all.  It is true that some of the facts surrounding the baptism in the Synoptic accounts are also present in Saint John’s gospel:  1.  Isaiah 40:3 is cited (1:23) with its reference to the wilderness; 2.  There is mention of a ministry of baptism near Jordan (‘Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing’, 1:28); and, 3.  the Spirit descends ‘from heaven like a dove’ and there is a message from God to the Baptist about Jesus (1:32f.).  Nevertheless, in John’s gospel the baptism of Jesus is omitted and the role of the Baptist is to bear witness and record to Jesus and his authority (1:29, 30, 32, 34, and 36).  The movement away from the potentially embarrassing fact of John’s baptism of Jesus is now complete, and the subordinate place of John as a voice and witness and sign directing others to someone else is perfectly clear.  In fact, even in regard to baptism Jesus is preeminent, in that he will baptize with the Holy Ghost rather than with John’s mere water baptism (1:30f., 33).  Presumably, of course, the occasion on which John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus and heard God’s testimony to him was the occasion of the same baptism of Jesus recounted in Mark, Matthew, and Luke:  but this presumption is left tacit in John’s narrative.

John 3:22–4:3 contains further information about a baptizing ministry involving John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples of John and Jesus.  This passage is even more different from the Synoptic gospels than is the material in John 1.

While John does not directly recount the baptism of Jesus, the first half of his gospel in particular has water and water symbolism to a much greater degree than any other gospel.  These incidents and sayings and stories concerning water fill in the meaning of baptism and draw on the rich symbolism of water that we have already found in the Old Testament.  We will take up this theme of water in the rest of the Johannine literature later.

Before taking up other water themes that are present in John in a unique way, however, we first will consider two other important and somewhat interrelated themes involving water that all of the gospels share, namely fishing, fishermen, and miracles involving water.


Fish and fishermen in the Gospels

Several of the apostles were fishermen on the lake of Galilee, and several incidents in the gospels during Christ’s ministry take place in the context of their occupation.  These incidents involve water and sometimes assume some of its symbolic meanings.

In several cases the occupation of the apostles as fishermen is taken as a symbol for their apostolic ordination by Christ and their mission to be ‘fishers of men’.  This theme is something of an innovation in regard to the Old Testament themes involving water, for fishing is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament and when it is it does not seem to have symbolic significance.  The call of the fishermen-apostles in contrast is heavy with symbolic meaning.  Sometimes the call from Christ to his fishermen-apostles is direct (in Matthew and Luke) and sometimes it works through symbolic action (in Luke and John).  The fishing business of several of the apostles provides the occasion for the symbolically rich events of Christ’s walking on water and stilling the storm, which will be considered in a later section (Miracles with water).

In later Christian art, fish are a symbol for Christ.  Partly this meaning comes from the association of fish with bread in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which in turn is a type of the Eucharist.  Partly this meaning may be suggested from the nature of fish — they live in water, representing death, as Christ lives and brings life through his death on the Cross.  Also, this meaning might in part be suggested by the fact that the Greek word for ‘fish’, ichthus, is an acrostic for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’ (Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter).  But while fish in later Church art often and clearly represent Christ and baptism, it may be a stretch to read that meanings back into the gospels.


Calling of the fishermen to be fishers of men

In Saint Mark the first event in the public ministry of Jesus after his baptism and wilderness temptation is the calling of four fishmen-disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:16-20).  The same event is also presented early in Matthew (4:18-22).  The accounts are similar and in both cases Jesus calls these two pairs of brothers to be ‘fishers of men’.  Jesus himself invests the fishermen’s occupation with symbolic meaning.

Luke and John have incidents that are somewhat different but probably related to these accounts in Matthew and Mark.  In Luke 5:1-11 Jesus gets into Peter’s boat in order to have a less crowded platform for preaching.  Then he commands Peter to cast out the fishing nets, which cast results in a great, unexpected haul of fish.  Something about this incident leads Peter (with James and John) to faith in Jesus.  This becomes the occasion for a prophecy from Jesus similar to ‘fishers of men’ in Mark and Matthew:  ‘henceforth you will catch men’ (5:10).  In Luke fishing leads to the call of disciples indirectly through the wonderful draught of fish.

John also has a story of a miraculous haul of fish, but in a very different setting (21:1-13).  In John the incident is a post-Resurrection appearance rather than an early event in the gospel.  Despite the later setting, one still might see this miracle in John, as in the Synoptics, as a kind of commissioning of apostles, but now of apostles who serve not only as witnesses of Christ’s teaching and healings but also of his Resurrection.  Also in the fishing story of John 21 the fish that are caught may have a figurative sense as symbols for Christ himself (21:13), though some interpreters doubt that and those who suspect a symbolic meaning disagree about its significance.


Fish multiplied with bread

All four of the gospels have an account of the multiplication of loaves and fish to feed a multitude in the wilderness.  In Matthew and Mark, in fact, there are two such miracles, one to feed five thousand and one to feed four thousand.  This is the only miracle, apart from the Resurrection itself, that is told in all four gospels.  See Matthew 14:15-21 and15:30-39; Mark 6:35-45 and 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; and John 6:3-14.

These miracle stories have an unmistakable Eucharistic significance, because they contain the series of verbs (take, bless, break, give) that also appears in the four accounts of the Last Supper (in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and I Corinthians).  Since bread is equated with Christ’s body by Jesus himself at the Last Supper (‘This is my body’), and since the multiplication of loaves and fishes is quasi-Eucharistic, it may even be that the presence of fish with bread (rather than the wine of the Last Supper) is meant as a kind of anticipation of the Real Presence.  The Bread means Jesus, whether it is the Bread of the Last Supper and its Eucharistic extension or the bread that is accompanied by fish in the foreshadowing of the Last Supper/Eucharist of the multiplication miracles.

At the feeding of the five thousand after the people are fed, all the gospels say that there are twelve baskets of pieces of food left over.  Mark explicitly says that these pieces include bread and fish (6:43), but the makeup of the leftovers is not specified in the other accounts.  In the feeding of the four thousand there are seven baskets of pieces left over.  Both twelve and seven are symbolically significant numbers in the Bible, though the symbolism does not seem to involve water:  rather the point seems to be that those fed by Christ’s bread are the new Israel, with twelve patriarchs, fed by the Lord with new manna in the wilderness to a fullness suggested by the number seven.

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