Luke 3:21-22, the baptism of Christ: “the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove…”
Brothers and sisters, we are reading here about the Holy Spirit, so what is there for me to say? Lift up your hearts: the Holy Spirit is as mysterious as the wind that blows wherever it wants to; the Holy Spirit is the Lord and the Giver of Life; the Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who we know we do not fully comprehend.
Every word of scripture is from the Holy Spirit, but some of those words from the Holy Spirit are also about the Holy Spirit, and those words about the Holy Spirit are the moments where the mystery of God breaks the surface and shows through as mystery. This is one of those passages: “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove.” What does it mean?
If you’ll permit me, I want to sneak up on this passage by taking a moment to look ahead at something that happens in Luke 10:21-22. Jesus has sent out his disciples, and they have returned with reports of the spiritual power they have in the name of Jesus; they also report that some cities received the good news, while others didn’t. Jesus has the following response to their report:
In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit.” He loved it, he basked in it, reveled in it, delighted in it. He is absolutely delighted that the gracious will of the Father is being carried out, and he just gushes, “such was your good pleasure!”
There are not a lot of stories in the New Testament about Jesus being this happy. Here in this passage we have a heavy load of positive, emotional language: Jesus rejoiced, thanked God, he said God’s gracious will or good pleasure was being carried out. And out of that joy he burst forth with a little tiny, impromptu lesson in trinitarian theology here, too: “No one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” If you know the Father it’s because you know the Son, and the Son chose to reveal the Father to you; and if you know the Son you know someone only the Father knows; and every one of those words Jesus spoke there are words inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that is the Holy Spirit in whom Jesus rejoiced.
You know what makes God happy? God makes God happy. The Son loves the Father and rejoices in the Spirit. The joy of the Lord is his strength. The Father loves the Son and rejoices in the Spirit.
Here’s what Philip Ryken and Michael LeFebvre say about this passage:
Because Jesus is God the Son, his joy is a divine rejoicing. It is a perfect joy, unspoiled and undiminished by sin. But here his joy is especially intense because he is rejoicing in the revelation of the Holy Spirit and in the secret, saving work of his Father. Luke is showing us the joy at the heart of the universe, the rejoicing that takes place within the Godhead, where God is both the subject and the object of his own joy. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit glory in one another (p. 106).
What we’re seeing here in and above and around Christ is the trinitarian happiness of God; the blessedness of the blessed Trinity; the joy of the Lord.
I wanted to show you that because I think it’s the right way to understand what’s happening at the Jordan River when Jesus is baptized and “the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove…”
I think that Jesus, in the very act of stepping into saving solidarity with sinners, was looking into the heart of heaven and rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. That is, I think that what we see and hear clearly happening in other places of Luke’s gospel is the clue to what we see happening in this baptism story which is, on its own, less clear and precise. Why is it less clear here in Luke 3, at the baptism?
It’s less clear and precise because at the baptism of Jesus it’s acted out in some kind of dramatic, symbolic, visionary sign language. “The Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove.” The Spirit here sort of pantomimes visibly what is going on invisibly between the Father and the Son. In chapter 10 we know Jesus rejoiced because it says so. We know the Father is pleased in the Son because he says so. But in addition to all that clear speech, we also get an amazing outburst of symbolic action, in the language of bird movement.
John Donne once prayed to God (in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions),
My God, my God, thou art a direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all that thou sayest? but thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphorical God too; a God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such curtains of allegories, such third heavens of hyperboles, so harmonious elocutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinews even in thy milk, and such things in thy words, as all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.
God is direct and literal, and ALSO figurative and metaphorical. Both. He gives a clear word and a mysterious sign. In his words there is a height of figures. At the baptism there is the ringing out of a voice and the descending of a dove.
Imagine God not only clearly saying what he has to say, but also adding to it something like a little show. “Here, let me act that out for you. In visible form, it would go something like this.” [Flaps arms, makes bird-like motions.]
Descending. Coming down like a dove. I’m not going to say very much more about this; it is what it is. It’s coming down like a dove. Dove rhymes with Love from Above; go and do something poetic with that.
If you could see the Son rejoicing and the Father blessing, you’d see some kind of downward movement always connecting them invincibly, beautifully, and joyfully.
And when you saw it, you wouldn’t be seeing a new thing that had never happened before. You’d be seeing a manifestation, for our benefit as Jesus begins his public work for us, of the eternal love and joy of the eternal Trinity.
It’s important to recognize this because unless you do, this is another way you could misinterpret the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. You might see the dove descending and say, “I guess Jesus didn’t have the Holy Spirit before this.” You might think this is the answer to the question, “when and how did Jesus get the Holy Spirit?”
But you’d be wrong: this is not the origin story of Jesus the superhero, and how he got his amazing powers. This is not the first time the Son of God and the Spirit of God have met! For one thing, the Holy Spirit has been all over the first three chapters of Luke: Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and Anna and Simeon have all been moving in the Spirit… John the Baptist since he was a fetus! Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and grew in the Spirit, and so on. Luke tells us so, directly.
But even before that, the Son and the Spirit were perfectly one in the unity of the Holy Trinity from all eternity. That goes back before the first page of Luke, before the first page of Genesis, before there were pages or books or any creatures, or anything but the Holy Trinity. This meeting in the Jordan doesn’t begin a new relationship for them; it manifests to us how that eternal relation, which has always been going on, is also taking place among us now, and is being put into operation in the work of our salvation.
The story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan means at least this: The Trinity is behind our salvation. That means two things: first, the Trinity is complete and perfect and already itself before God takes up the work of saving us. The Trinity is back there or up there, or just THERE, and is doing just fine. And second, the Trinity is nevertheless really, truly engaged with us in saving us. All hands on deck; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, mighty to save.