Luke 3:21&22 “And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
Once again we turn to the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ and one unique feature of Luke’s description of the event is the information (which he alone supplies) that when Jesus was baptized he was praying. You will remember that Luke is telling Theophilus about the Lord Jesus Christ, and one theme to which Luke returns again and again is that the Saviour was a man of prayer. There was not a crisis or a high point in his ministry which was not accompanied by prayer. At his baptism he was praying. When he chose twelve apostles to be with him, learn from him, take his gospel out into the world and then write the New Testament he first prayed for a long time. Did he agonize, “Father, is Peter the best man to head the group? Father, should I choose Judas or not?” When Peter confessed Jesus was the Christ the Son of the living God our Lord had been praying. At his transfiguration he was praying. In Gethsemane he was praying. When he was nailed to the cross he prayed; “Father forgive them for they know not what they do . . .” and, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There were also regular times when Jesus felt it important to leave his disciples for an hour or two and he went into the wilderness to pray alone. There were rarer occasions when he spent a whole night in prayer. When God achieved redemption for his fallen creation through his Son Jesus Christ, it was not only through Christ overcoming every temptation and never sinning, but it was by a life of growing love for God which took him into his Father’s presence to speak, to worship, to express his love, to seek for his strength and wisdom. God used Jesus Christ 100 per cent each day, because each day Jesus made himself the usable Son of God coming to God, renewing his love and devotion to his Father. The praying Christ is a wonderful example, encouragement and rebuke to us. If ever there could have been someone who never had any need to pray as the incarnate God it was the Lord Jesus, and yet he was always praying. If ever there were people who needed to pray it was you and me, and yet we struggle to pray.
Can we think what the Lord Jesus prayed for at the time of his baptism? We have seen that it was his public inauguration as the Son of Man announcing that he had come to seek and to save that which was lost. So he prayed with his entire public ministry in mind. “Help me to love you with all my heart. Help me to do only your will.” That would be the theme of his prayers. There was that message that his Father had given him to declare to the world; there was to be a constant battle with the god of this world; there were enemies who daily would provoke him; there was the care of all the disciples; there were great works of divine power which would weary him. He would need all the energy of God for this task. So when we read that he urged his disciples to cry to God for the Spirit – “Ask and it shall be given to you” – surely this was part of Jesus’ own praying at his baptism. Not that Jesus did not already have the Holy Spirit within him – he was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb – but the Holy Spirit is infinite, and consequently always has more of himself to give to us – throughout all eternity. There will always be room in all our lives for more of the coming of the Spirit of God to us. No church is so full of the Spirit that it has no need of more. The holiest saint on his death bed, after a blameless life of serving God, will need to be filled yet again with the Spirit of God. As Horatius Bonar expressed it;
“More of Thyself, O show me hour by hour,
More of Thy glory, O my God and Lord;
More of Thyself, in all Thy grace and power;
More of Thy love and truth, Incarnate Word.”
So we would say that one great qualification for baptism is that the person being baptized is a praying believer. It is not enough that his parents pray, or his wife prays, or his minister prays, does he pray? The three thousand who were converted on the day of Pentecost and subsequently were baptized continued in their praying. When Saul of Tarsus was baptized God told Ananias he would recognize this new Christian thus, “Behold he prays!” When young Spurgeon was baptized on May 3, 1850, within a few weeks of his sixteenth birthday, he tells us, “I was up early, to have a couple of hours for quiet prayer and dedication to God.” Then that evening after his baptism had taken place, the congregation returned to the church where a prayer meeting was held and many years later a Christian who was present recorded, “The most precious memory of that day is the prayer-meeting in the vestry in the evening, where Mr. Spurgeon prayed, and people wondered and wept for joy, as they listened to the lad.” Baptism is to be couched in prayer.
Then three divine signs accompanied his baptism by which God confirmed Jesus to be his only begotten Son. It was not that at that moment Mary’s boy was adopted by God as his Son (we do not believe in this doctrine of ‘adoptionism’), but that at Jesus’ baptism his eternal Sonship was publicly affirmed by God by three signs or miracles. What happened, Luke tells us, was that as Jesus came up out of the water, “heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (vv. 21&22).
Please understand that these signs were not phenomena that Jesus alone ‘saw.’ In other words, this was not something that happened inside the mind and vision of Jesus as he was in prayer. They happened ‘out there,’ in the great objective world of space and time. They occurred in history, and there were other witnesses who saw and heard what occurred. There is the fascinating testimony of John the Baptist who was alongside Jesus when he baptized him. “John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:32-34). So it was not that “the son of Mary became the Son of God then.” No. There was rather a divine declaration to witnesses at the baptism that Jesus was his Son. These three signs were given by God for all Israel to take note so that people across the land would talk together about the awakening ministry of John the Baptist especially his most recent words about Jesus of Nazareth; “Do you know that John claimed that Jehovah spoke aloud from heaven about his ‘Son’ Jesus of Nazareth when John baptized him? He says that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him as a dove and he heard God calling him his ‘Son.’ Isn’t that strange? Do you also know that John claimed, ‘The reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel ’? (Jn. 1:31) They added something like, “What troubled times we live in.” So let us firstly consider the sign of heaven opened:
HEAVEN WAS OPENED BEFORE HIM.
Heaven was torn open. You remember where this word ‘tearing’ occurs again in the gospel? Right at the end, in chapter 23 and verse 45 where we are told that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. There was a magnificent outer curtain which in Herod’s Temple hung before the entrance and was visible from the courts where the people gathered. We know a great deal about that curtain. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, wrote in his Jewish War a description of the temple curtain; “It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colours without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea.”
Imagine this gigantic curtain perhaps 90 feet high and 26 feet wide. Tradition tells us that it was as thick as the width of a man’s hand and that it took three hundred priests to wash it. A huge tapestry made in Babylon, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, coloured scarlet and purple, made with marvelous skill and depicting a panorama of the entire heavens. In other words when you looked at this outer curtain of the Jerusalem temple it was like looking into a huge starry sky! Then, when Jesus breathed his last, that curtain was torn from the top to the bottom. Divine hands, as it were, gripped it and rent it in twain. The image for the worshippers standing in the courts would have been of the heavens being torn apart. So at the beginning and end of Luke we have this sign of the power of the Lord to tear open the panoply of heaven.
Think of it! This was not a sight of some kind of a little break in the clouds, and a shaft of light coming out of it illuminating the baptismal scene. Rather, you must think of it like this, that you are standing on the promenade looking out to sea, and there before you is the whole vault of heaven. The sea is stretching out to the distant horizon, and suddenly that whole heaven, like a vast curtain has been grasped by the hands of God and torn apart. You are seeing through the prospect that was there a moment before – of the Irish Sea, the sky and Bardsey Island and the mountains of North Wales on the Llyn Peninsula – and suddenly you are gazing into heaven in all its glory. You are seeing the presence of God and all his holy angels and the spirits of just men made perfect. You are standing in the bright joyful presence of that reality. That is what Jesus saw and which he would remember so well.
There are treasured times in our own lives when even we might get a tiny glimpse of glory, when the curtain is drawn back for a moment and our sight of the celestial city is clear. In other words, we have high assurance; we see beyond our shadowlands into what is real life. It can happen to us when we are young in the faith, maybe especially then, but not only then. Remember what happened to Paul when he was caught up and given a sight of the third heaven. John Flavel, the author of The Mystery of Providence had a day in which he experienced God’s blessing and we are told that “many years after he called that day one of the days of heaven, and he professed that he understood more of the life of heaven by it than by all the books he ever read or discourses he ever entertained.”
We have to live our lives by trusting in God day by day, obeying God in everything day by day, and then, once in a while there may be some kind of ‘a sunset touch’, a decisive moment given to us by God; ‘heaven comes down and glory fills our souls.’ It might happen as we worship with God’s people, as we hear God speaking in the word. The congregation remains in their seats after the benediction, silent, considering all that has come to them. One of the things that Luke is telling us is this, that we are to look at the life of Jesus as one to whom heaven was not remote. He set God at his right hand every day; he knew that heaven was just a thin veil away. This heaven comes to us as we draw near to Jesus. He brings us to heaven, and he brings heaven to us. “I am the way,” he tells Thomas. “The way where?” To heaven! As you see his life, and hear his voice your affections are set above. In the life of Christ we discover the full heavenly dimension of life; we are no longer mere poor materialists. Without Christ we never see heaven; we are world-bound men, limited by this world’s horizons alone, our feet heavy, clamped to this world, never soaring to heaven. Poor sods of the earth.
2. THE HOLY SPIRIT DESCENDED ON HIM.
“The Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” (v.21). I am very happy to give this truth a charismatic interpretation. I think this is correct, that Christians filled with the Spirit at regeneration can be filled with the Spirit again for ministries God gives to them. My problem with the charismatic movement is their claiming that glossalalia (what is referred to as tongues-speaking), is the sign that you’ve had a filling of the Spirit. Would that it were so! Whether today’s tongues speaking is anything like the New Testament gift is highly debatable, but even in apostolic times the gift of tongues was one of those gifts whereby Christians differed from one another, some spoke in languages and others did not. So tongues could not be made the undeniable sign that someone had been filled with the Spirit for there were those in New Testament times to whom God did not give that gift of languages. Rather you’d need to believe something like this, that the Spirit of God can come again upon regenerate Christians – as he did at Pentecost – so that they enter another dimension of Christian usefulness, for example, testifying to Jesus Christ with great boldness and effect so that many believe. This happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost and a little time later these same people were filled again, and then filled again, for different challenges in the Christian life, to witness powerfully, to withstand persecution, to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to overcome temptation, to confront danger and opposition with boldness, and to complete a work God had given them to do. Those would be the marks of genuine fillings of the Spirit, not glossalalia.
Consider Jesus Christ here; we know that our Lord was begotten by the Holy Ghost. He was overshadowed by the Spirit. His birth was from above, and he was filled with the Spirit from that time forth. He was not living a half-saved life of failure in Nazareth until his baptism. He had been full of the Spirit for thirty years. There had been no area of his life which had been off limits to the Spirit. You say, ‘But if Jesus had been full of the Spirit then what is the significance of the coming of the Spirit upon him now?’
The Holy Spirit came to anoint Jesus for his ministry. Immediately Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Our Lord overcomes him by the power of the Spirit, and then the Lord goes forth and works day and night for three years. The demands on him for teaching and healing and saving are enormous. He can become so weary that he’ll fall asleep on a pillow in a little boat. He will be exhausted, and yet has to get up early to pray. In all the frailty of his human flesh Jesus needs a fresh and greater endowment of the Spirit for all this work, and the Spirit comes without measure upon Jesus. What a great encouragement the coming of the Spirit must have been to the Lord Jesus in the midst in of the trials of his ministry, to be able to look back to that day when the heavens were opened. He could despise all the shame he endured. This opening of Heaven was a prospect of glory and this coming of the Spirit was a seal of his attaining it.
This Lord Christ is one day to pour out the Spirit upon all the church, so he must receive unmeasured possession of the Spirit. Isn’t the need of the church today that the Spirit of God be outpoured upon God’s servants for their ministries? What a dismal future would lie before us if I said to you, “Well, we all possess the Spirit in all his fulness, and there is no theological or biblical reason to ask for him to be outpoured upon us again. Let us simply plod on and be faithful. You will never have a holier, more Christlike, more Spirit-filled minister than the one you have now.” What discouraging counsels! I believe that Christ outpours the Spirit in abundance on the church and that there are special times when he makes lukewarm preachers and congregations burning and shining lights, so reviving his work. I believe it is possible for a man to go to bed like a lamb and get up like a lion, and for extraordinary things to be achieved in the name of Christ with many coming under great conviction of sin and thousands being converted in a very short time. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon God’s servants, upon me, in a new way, as he came upon Christ at the beginning of the most extraordinary three years this world has ever seen.
Luke is saying to Theophilus, if the Lord Jesus had to be dependent upon the Holy Spirit as he worked on our behalf for our salvation, how much more ought we to be dependent on the Holy Spirit? What does that mean? It means a lot of things, but it means at least this; we never think that the best Christian has in and of himself all the resources he needs in order to minister. Did you know that every single act of real ministry is beyond our resources? Do you know that we have not even begun to minister to one another until we minister beyond our own personal capacities, beyond our own talents, beyond our own personalities? We don’t even minister in strict accord with our character. We minister out of the character which has been renovated by God, but ultimately what we minister is heavenly. What in the world can we do to raise men from the dead spiritually? What can we do to bind up the wounded in this world? Nothing, but God, the Holy Spirit, can. And as we minister, we must minister dependent upon him, because we cannot do it alone.
This is why it’s another religion that thinks there’s a human formula for building a church. The ingredients are youth, enthusiasm, contemporary worship music, the band, a worship leader with personality, messages that deal with people’s felt needs, and more money. Then we can achieve anything. No, no, men and women. We are always totally and utterly dependent upon the Holy Spirit, and he can be grieved and he may be quenched by our lives, and he can be outside knocking on the door of the church seeking admission and no one in the congregation for fifty years guesses that he is not there. In the New Year we are going to do our best to give everything we can to God for his cause, our time and courage and intelligence and money so that there might be a building up of the Kingdom in this world, but none of that effort and sacrifice will achieve anything – none of it – unless God himself determines to pity us and sovereignly work by his Spirit. Will you pray that he will do that? Will you pray that he will do it in you, and here? Will you pray that he will do it in our principality, and in our country, and in the world? Will you commit yourself to depend on God? The Lord Jesus was dependent even in his ministry. Will we be dependent? Will we give him everything that we can, and then recognize that we must wait for his hand of blessing?
Then let me ask, what is the significance of the Spirit’s descending in the form of a dove? God answers Jesus’ prayer by sending his Spirit in a visible form. The way the Spirit comes provides an indication of how his power and grace is to be used. The word ‘dove’ occurs on Jesus’ lips at one place in the gospels, namely, Matthew chapter ten and verse sixteen: “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The dove suggests to Jesus purity, meekness, innocence. This bird is not majestic like the eagle, or fierce like the red kite, or flamboyant like the peacock. The dove is simple, common, innocent, the kind of bird poor people could offer for a sacrifice. The third person of the Godhead comes in the form of a dove upon Christ, and that was a directive to Jesus from his Father: “the Spirit with which I anoint you is not for ostentation or for earthly battle.” Then what is the gift of the Spirit for?
An answer comes from the prophet Isaiah speaking in the opening verses of chapter forty-two about the coming of the Servant of the Lord; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged” (Is. 42:1-4). The beauty of this picture is that Jehovah’s great Servant has the power to bring forth justice to the nations, but he will not use it to break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick. That is, he will be tender with the weak and failing. He will be dove-like not hawk-like.
So when God anoints Jesus with the Spirit in the form of a dove, he directs him to use his power in meekness and tenderness and love, which Jesus does: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest . . . for I am meek and lowly. I have the spirit of a dove not a hawk.” He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) – to us bruised reeds and smouldering wicks in the church. To these he comes with his dove-like Spirit and fans the almost extinguished flickering flame into a new blaze, so there is fire in the thatch.
More than that; the Spirit’s coming in the form of a dove signifies the certainty of the new creation that Jesus is to bring in. After God had immersed the earth with the flood of his judgment at the time of Noah, those alone who were in the ark were saved. When would the judgment on the earth end? Many months went by, eight, nine, ten, until finally Noah opened the window of the ark and sent out a dove twice, and the second time the dove returned it was with a fleshly plucked olive leaf in its beak. Noah knew that the waters had abated, and the full judgment of the Lord on that generation had been exhausted. So it was that after Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan the Spirit in the form of a dove appears and settled on Christ. God’s new creation was going to be inaugurated and it is going to be through the work of Christ. “I will begin again by my Son,” God was saying.
Again, the Holy Spirit came visibly in the form of a dove to be seen by John and others in order to bear witness to the significance of Jesus. “The Spirit shall testify of me,” Jesus said. The Spirit was seen to do this by hovering and gently descending just upon Jesus, and remaining on Jesus, like a pigeon owner can put out his hand and his bird will fly to him and remain there at peace. The Spirit never found sin in Jesus to grieve him or drive him away, and throughout Jesus’ ministry as prophet, priest and king the Spirit was there.
3. GOD THE FATHER SPOKE TO HIM.
“And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (v.22). What a wonderful Trinitarian scene is before us, the Son of God rising from the waters of baptism, the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and the Father’s voice from heaven bearing witness of his love. It would be impossible for Jesus to be revealed in all his glory without the Father and the Spirit being there. How the Father encourages Jesus for the ministry that lies ahead. “For thirty long years you’ve lived with your mother Mary and Joseph and their children in Nazareth . You have taken the path of service in obscurity. You have been content to honour me there, loving me with all your heart and loving your neighbours as yourself. Son, I am overwhelmed in admiration for you. I am well pleased with everything you have done. I do love you.”
God says that to every one of his faithful children. “The way has often been hard, and you’ve been misunderstood, but I want to tell you that you are my dear, dear child, and I am delighted with you.” That is what the Lord is saying to all his children today. You may protest, “To all his other children, but not to me.” But I am insisting that he says these words to you especially, because the Good Shepherd tenderly deals with those who fragile, and he carries them in his bosom. We are in Christ aren’t we? And if he said those words to Christ then we also are the beneficiaries of his divine affection for Christ’s sake. Loved with everlasting love; led by grace that love to know. So God sends Jesus forth to work and to resist temptation assured that he was loved by God: “Son I really love you.”
This is what heaven thinks about the Lord Jesus Christ. For the previous two thousand years, for two millennia from the time of Abraham, the people of God had been waiting to see the unveiling of the one who would be the deliverer of Israel , the one who would build the city that has foundations. In Psalm 2, verse 7 we are told that when that one would come then the Father would say of him, “This is my Son.” What do we have here? The heavens open at the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s voice is heard, and he says, “this really is my Son and how I love him.” Two millennia of waiting were fulfilled, and the Father has said, “This is the promised one; this is my Son, this is the voice from heaven speaking; this is my great definitive word as to who Jesus of Nazareth is.” We must remember this as we work through this Gospel in the weeks to come, and we see the Lord Jesus increasingly hated by religious folk, despised, misunderstood, rejected, crucified, dead and buried. When we see the world ignoring him, or thinking that he is crazy, we must say to ourselves that the Father doesn’t see him that way. He always was with God as the beloved Son, and always will be, and never more than when he hung naked on the cross. When all around is darkness and the world is taunting and mocking him we remember that the Father loves him. Any parent in this meeting place can imagine what it would be like to watch your child despised. Any parent in this chapel knows what it is to love that child with all your heart, even if he is rejected by his contemporaries. Every time we see the Lord Jesus despised by men, we ought to remember what the Father has said of him, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The affection of the Father is poured out on this Son. This Son is, as Paul says in Colossians, “The Son of his love.” We will never, never understand how much the Father loves the Son. God alone knows how much he loves his Son and how much his Son loves him.
Men and women, let me close by saying this, if you are in Christ, if you have embraced the Lord Jesus Christ, then the heavenly Father delights in you, just like he delights in his Son and I cannot begin to tell you how much God loves you. It is often one of the hardest things for us to accept as believers. We know how inconsistent and hypocritical we are. We know our prayerlessness and sins, and we can all think that after we have turned over a new leaf and ‘really improved’ our Christian lives that then God will begin to love us, but here in the Bible I discover that my status is “in Christ” and that God the Father delights in all who are in Christ as much as his Son himself. God loves me with the same love that makes him shout out at the baptism, “Son I really love you.”
These words remind us that we can’t be apathetic about this Christ. You see, if the Creator God has spoken and said, “This is My Son,” then there are only two options facing you; you may say, “Well I don’t love him,” or you say, “I love him too.” You can’t say, “Well, that’s nice for you; I am glad you have found religion. I will get to my god in some other way.” No. We haven’t found religion. God found us. The word of the Father from Heaven reminds us that there is but one way. There is but one Son. There is only one that He has said, “Ah, this is my only, my unique Son. You hear Him. He is the only way to me.” We must reject him and perish or we embrace him and find all the blessings of adoption.
Have you embraced Him? Are you apathetic about him? Are you holding him at bay? Are you waiting for a more appropriate time? Now is the day of salvation. Salvation is agreeing with God’s verdict about Jesus of Nazareth. Embrace the one that God the Father has identified as his Son in whom he is well pleased. Never forget what the voice from heaven said. Here at the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus submits to baptism and settles on the kind of ministry he will have, a voice comes from heaven which says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Then at the end we are told that as soon as Jesus breathed his last there was a centurion standing by and when he heard Jesus’ last cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Jesus was more than a brilliant teacher, or a blameless moral leader who practiced everything he preached without fail. The New Testament makes the incredible claim that in the Lord Christ is present nothing less than the incarnate Maker of the universe, one for whom the very sky parted, one upon whom the Spirit came without measure, and one whom God acknowledged to be his Son.
December 9th 2007 GEOFF THOMAS