Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

LukeThis excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22:

Luke’s account, like that of the other evangelists, makes it clear that there are distinctive features setting the baptism of Jesus apart; both the voice and the dove are clearly unique, and John’s Gospel records John the Baptist as saying that he had been prepared for this remarkable event: “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'” John then adds, “And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).

The divine signature, by voice and by the Holy Spirit descending “in a bodily shape like a dove upon him” (Luke 3:22), indicates beyond doubt for all of the evangelists that, however Jesus may have identified with sinful Israel in its need for cleansing and redemption, the meaning of his own baptism has more to do with bearing witness to divine presence and approval at the beginning of his ministry.

Luke emphasizes that “the heaven was opened” when Jesus was praying (3:21). Though bird omens are a well-recognized topos of Hellenic literature, this dove, accompanied by the divine voice out of heaven, seems to have a distinctly Semitic character (Bock 1994-95: 1.338-39). But it is hardly possible to think, as Bock seems to, that the dove is “a simple metaphor without theological significance” (339). Give the memory of the dove in the Noah story, associated there with redemption after the waters of the flood, it seems at the least to be a concrete sign of God’s assurance of his presence and imminent deliverance of his people (Ambrose, Exposition of Luke 2.92).

It is no accident that the dove becomes a symbol for the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christian art; this would seem to be the first New Testament passage in which the Trinity is explicitly present in all three persons. As Bonaventure (2001-4: 1.3.52-56) and other commentators suggest, it is the natural precursor to the Trinitarian formula for baptism commanded by Jesus (Matt. 28:19).

Gregory Nazianzus is among many orthodox commentators who point out that the descent of the dove does not indicate that Jesus received the presence of the Holy Spirit only at this point; rather, the baptism of Jesus occurs to give a new significance to baptism altogether. He adds: “Christ comes also to baptism perhaps to sanctify baptism, but doubtless to bury the old Adam in water” (On Preaching 39).


©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.