The Holy Trinity Near the Jordan River


Luke 3:15-38

In Luke chapter 4 we have so far read the account of the ministry of John the Baptist and its remarkable effect. Now we can continue with what remains of Luke’s account of John’s ministry and then the genealogy of the Lord.

Text Comment

v.15     This is very interesting isn’t it, that the power of the Word of God in the mouth of John, felt as it had been in the hearts of so many, made them wonder if John might be the Christ. The point is certainly that John and his preaching were something remarkable, something that had never been seen or heard among the Jews for a long time. It is a mark of the greatness of the Messiah that his forerunner should have been mistaken for him. They had no one to compare John with, but, of course, as soon as Jesus appeared there would be no more thought of John as the Messiah. The very point John will now make!

v.16     John makes two points about the one who is coming after him: he is greater in himself and his baptism will be greater. Untying a man’s sandals was a slave’s work, demeaning. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that among the Jews even a Hebrew slave was above such work. [Bock, i, 320-321] So it is noble humility for John to say that he wasn’t worthy to untie the sandals of the one who was coming.

v.17     The two aspects of the Messiah’s baptism – the Holy Spirit and fire – appear to be explained in the gathering of wheat and the burning of the chaff. So the Messiah will bring both salvation and judgment. Remember, we have already heard from Simeon that Jesus would cause both the rising and the falling of many in Israel.

v.18     This is not the only place in the New Testament where a message that included eternal judgment was nevertheless described as good news. There can be no good news without the bad news; there can be no great salvation if there is nothing to be saved from. What is more, if those who are being saved are not assured that there will be a final and eternal conquest of evil, there can be no ultimate good news. [Morris, 115]

v.20     As I mentioned last Lord’s Day morning, Herod had divorced his wife to marry Herodias, who had divorced her husband to marry Herod. Herodias’ husband was Herod’s half-brother, though he was a private citizen and not a king. So, beside the immoral divorces, the new marriage was incestuous and John had boldly pointed that out. Remember, this is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who was king when John and Jesus were born.

            Luke is not writing chronologically here; in talking about John’s imprisonment he has advanced the story considerably. Luke is simply completing his account of John’s ministry. We know from the other Gospels that John continued his ministry after Jesus had begun his and wasn’t arrested until some time after the public appearance of Jesus.

v.21     When you compare this account with those in Matthew and Mark it is clear that the opening of the heavens and the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water. The earliest artistic depictions we have of Christian baptism – and they are early, from the 2nd century – show the minister who is baptizing and the one who is being baptized standing in a shallow stream, with the minister pouring water over the catechumen’s head. Whether that is what happened or Jesus was immersed in the Jordan River no one can say.

            It has long been discussed why Jesus would have wanted to be baptized by John, whose baptism was a baptism of repentance when Jesus had nothing to repent of, sinless man that he was. It is apparently, on Jesus’ part, an act of identification with sinners and with their sin, an identification that will eventually take Jesus to the cross.

            Luke alone tells us that Jesus was praying at the very moment he was coming up out of the water. Here is Alexander Whyte:

            “My brethren, will nothing teach you to pray? Will all his examples, and all his promises, and your own needs, and cares, and distresses, not teach you to pray? What hopeless depravity must there be in your heart when, with all He can do, God simply can’t get you to come to Him in prayer. … Only pray, O you prayerless people of His, and the heaven will soon open to you also, and you will hear your Father’s voice, and the Holy Ghost will descend like a dove upon you.” [Walk, Character, and Conversation, 90] There is, you see, a powerful inducement to our prayer here and the need for prayer. Our Savior was a perfect man, there was no sin in his heart or life, he had very few worldly wants and sin and want is what takes up the lion’s share of our prayers is it not; but he still felt all the time his great need for communion with his heavenly Father. How much more we sinners need to pray!

v.22     It is very interesting that there is no antecedent to the Holy Spirit being likened to a dove. Here is where the dove is first introduced as a symbol of the Holy Spirit: it was not taken so far as we know from either Jewish or Greek sources; it originates at the baptism of Jesus when at least both Jesus and John saw the dove and understood it to be a sign of the Holy Spirit.

c.38     As is well known, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus differs greatly from the one provided by Matthew in the first chapter of his Gospel. Luke gives the line from Adam to Abraham which Matthew does not (Matthew starts with Abraham); the two genealogies are quite similar from Abraham to David; but diverge substantially from David to Joseph. Some have sought to solve the problem created by the differences by suggesting that Luke gives us the genealogy of Mary not of Joseph, but there are insurmountable problems with that suggestion, not least that it is not what Luke says he is giving us, namely the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph. There are a variety of other complicated suggestions to account for the differences, but in our present state of knowledge it is impossible to be sure which explanation is most likely to be correct.

            The fact that the genealogy goes all the way back to Adam serves to “tie mankind into one unit. The fate of every human being is wrapped up in Jesus. His ministry, as seen from heaven and from the beginning of human history, represents the focal point of that history.” [Bock, i, 360] And, of course, as the genealogy confirms, Jesus is also the legal heir of David the king, as the Messiah must be.

In his typically extravagant way of saying things, Martin Luther said that the New Testament begins at the Jordan and at the baptism of Jesus. It is here that Jesus is first introduced to the world and here that his ministry begins. It is at this time, we learn in the Gospel of John, that it was first publicly proclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world. The baptism of Jesus marks the commencement of the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ of whom we have heard virtually nothing for nearly thirty years of his life.

We don’t know what prompted Jesus to leave Nazareth, his trade, his family, and his home to make his way south the seventy miles or so to where John was preaching to the great crowds that gathered to hear him. Perhaps it was simply the news that John had begun to preach and that great congregations were listening to him gladly. Jesus must have known how John’s life and calling and his own were inextricably bound together by the circumstances of their birth and by what the angel had said to both parents before the boys were born. In any case, somehow Jesus knew that God’s hour had struck and that the time had come for him to begin his life’s work. And so it was that he left his home and walked south, apparently by himself, to meet John and his destiny near the Jordan River.

One day shortly thereafter, perhaps at the end of a long day of preaching and baptizing – v. 21 suggests that Jesus was baptized after everyone else – John saw Jesus approaching and knew at once who he was. He was abashed to learn that Jesus wished to be baptized; indeed at first he refused. We read in Matthew that John said, “I need to be baptized by you…” But Jesus insisted that it must be done “to fulfill all righteousness” and so John performed the rite. Jesus had to be baptized for the same reason he had to be circumcised when he was eight days old, which circumcision, like John’s baptism was a sign of cleansing from sin. It was an act of identification with sinners; Jesus was taking their place as sinner and bearing their sin. As we will understand more fully as the Gospel and the rest of the New Testament proceed, because we who believe in him are united to him – as all that he did he did for us and in our place it is as if we were there where he was – when he was washed in the Jordan we were washed in the Jordan because he was washed for us. When he received the Holy Spirit, we received the Spirit as well; and when the Father expressed his love and approval that was spoken over us as well.

But his baptism was also his ordination if we might call it that. It was his outward coronation as the Prince of Life, his official, public installation as the King of Kings. No merely human inauguration or royal coronation was ever remotely like this! The entire Trinity, the one God in three persons, gathered for the ceremony that day near the Jordan. The Father spoke aloud from heaven of his love for and approval of his Son and the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove, equipping the Son for the work that he was now to begin. And, of course, we already read that Jesus would impart the Holy Spirit to others. [cf. R. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 141, 217]

Now it is perhaps too much to say that at this early stage the doctrine of the triple personality of the one, living and true God was fully understood by John or by John’s disciples who would soon become the disciples of the Lord Jesus. Monotheism had been dinned into them until it was the first and foremost article of their faith: there is but one God. The fact that God exists in three persons could only have been revealed on top of and after the revelation of God’s unity had been completely and permanently embraced by the people of God. One must first be a monotheist before one can become a Trinitarian. One must first confess the one and only God before he can then do justice to the three persons. We must be at one and the same time and with equal commitment monotheists and Trinitarians. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are but one God, and each mysteriously is the whole God, not simply a part of God, a third of God if you will. It is the highest conceivable mystery, but the mystery that explains all that is.

So here at the Jordan, if it were not yet clear to anyone that Jesus was God the Son incarnate – an unfathomable mystery in its own right; the second person of God who now has taken a second nature, a human nature into his person – I say if that was not entirely clear, it is certainly not to be assumed that John, who witnessed the Lord’s baptism, heard the voice of God from heaven, and saw the dove, interpreted it all in terms of the presence and activity of the triune God.

But looking back on the baptism from the vantage point of later events and later revelation, it is perfectly and unmistakably clear, as it would have been to Luke when he wrote this account, that the three persons were present and active at that moment near the Jordan. The Father blessing and approving the Son, the Son receiving the Father’s approval and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit descending upon the Son. Through the rest of the Bible we hardly ever see the three persons at once as we see them here at Jesus’ baptism. This is one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of mankind!

We stand before a great mystery here, to be sure, as we always do whenever we must reckon with the life and work of the Triune God. But we also have here something impossibly grand and important: God himself in his fullness at the outset of the saving work of Jesus Christ. There is an adage in Christian theology: opera Dei ad extra indivisa sunt, the external works of God – that is all of God’s works of creation, providence, and redemption – are undivided, which is to say that they are the works of all three persons of the triune God together. Since the Godhead is one in essence, one in knowledge, and one in will or purpose, it would be impossible for any work of God not to be the work of all three persons. To be sure it is the Son who comes to earth as a man, it is the Spirit who anoints and equips and accompanies and enables the incarnate Jesus to perform his ministry, it is to the Father that the Son prays, and so on. In that respect there is a differentiation, but all of this is the will and the work of the Godhead together. At every single point all three are active to the same end.

Indeed, it has sometimes been asked by curious theologians if one of the other persons of the Godhead might have become a man instead of the Son. Perhaps the Father would have become Mary’s baby or the Holy Spirit. In Christian theology generally it has been held, however, that the relationships between the three persons that are revealed in the work of redemption are reflections of something in the very nature of the eternal relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is, it had to be the Son who came to earth because of who the Son is in relation to the Father and the Spirit. It has to be the Spirit who came upon the Son because of the nature of the relationship between the Spirit and the Father and the Son and so on. We may not understand what those relationships are that are that are described by those terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but those eternal relationships explain what happened and, in particular, why each person of the Godhead had the role that he did in the grand drama of redemption. It was the Father who had to send the Son, it was the Son who had to come to be a man, it was the Spirit who had to equip and enable the Son to fulfill his calling on earth.

But what is absolutely clear and made clear here at the crucial first step of the Lord’s ministry – something that will be made still more clear as we proceed through the history of redemption in Luke and Acts – is that our salvation is the work of the Triune God, couldn’t have been anything else but the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and is what it is, takes the form that it does, precisely because it is the work of the Triune God. It is because God is triune that we, made in his image as we are, are persons at all, persons as we all know ourselves to be, individual centers of self-consciousness in relation to others, and it is because God is triune that there is such a thing as redemption and so good news to proclaim.

Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit met at the Jordan, so they would meet at the cross, and at Pentecost, and so they would meet in your life and your heart, astonishing as that is to believe. There is nothing more mysterious and nothing more practical than the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. However, most of us struggle, I think, fully to appreciate the practical importance of the Trinity to our understanding of life and our own salvation.

One theologian wrote, some years ago speaking of our difficulty of reckoning with the Trinity in the course of our life as we think about and work out our salvation:

“We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”  [Karl Rahner, cited in Letham, 291]

He was admitting that most Christians do not have a Trinitarian theology except in theory and they don’t think of their daily lives and the outworking of their salvation in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’m sure that is true, far too true. At least I know it has been so for me. This is all so mysterious that it is difficult for us to reduce it to daily life.

In a scene at the Porter’s house, in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress, Christina’s young sons are catechized – that is, asked doctrinal or spiritual questions – by Prudence, one of the daughters of the house. She asked James, the youngest son: “Canst thou tell me who saves thee?”

And being the well-taught boy that he was, James replied, “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Parents, do you think your children would answer the question that way? Would you have answered the question that way? Then Prudence asked Joseph, the next son: “What is supposed by [your] being saved by the Trinity?” To which question Joseph replied: “That sin is so great and mighty a tyrant, that none can pull us out of its clutches, but God; and that God is so good and loving to man, as to pull him indeed out of this miserable estate.”

And that is surely a great lesson we should learn from the fact that all three persons of the Godhead are one in the work of our salvation; that our rescue required and received the full attention of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Your salvation and mine is so great an achievement that only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together could accomplish it! What good would the Son be to us if the Father had not sent him on his mission to earth? What could the Son have done if the Spirit had not enabled his human nature to fulfill his calling perfectly and in every way? And what could the Spirit do for us, even by his indwelling, if the Son of God had not first taken our sins away?

Where would you and I be if the Father would not forgive our sins because of the sacrifice of his Son? And what use would that sacrifice be to us if the Holy Spirit did not illuminate our minds and bend our wills to make us believers in Jesus Christ?

But if all of that is true and if the Holy Trinity were gathered at the Jordan that day, then there is something else for us to ponder. In the matter of our salvation, in all that which bears on our future happiness and the fulfillment of our lives, there is a particular place, a particular honor, a particular glory to be given to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, God’s Son incarnate. You know that in the creeds, as we sang the Nicene Creed earlier, the long paragraph is always about the Lord Jesus Christ; a line or two regarding the Father, a line or two regarding the Spirit and line after line regarding the Son and his work.

The Father was there at the Jordan, but what did he say? He said that he loves his Son and that his favor rests upon him. The Holy Spirit was there but what did he do? He descended upon Jesus as a dove. Such a thing as happened that day never happened to anyone else. It happens to us, to be sure, but in a secondary way and only because it happened to Jesus in the first place in a primary way. God loves us and pronounces his favor upon us; the Spirit comes upon us because and only because the Father and the Spirit had first done that for the Son. The same point is made in this way that is made by Luke’s genealogy. Jesus Christ is the man, the fulfillment of human life, the man of all men. Every other human being will be, must be, happy or sad, a success or failure, an heir of salvation or eternal woe entirely as he or she related to this one man, united to him or not by true faith. The father’s good pleasure and the Holy Spirit’s enablement of life come to us only as we come to Christ. His relation to the Father and the Spirit was eternal, perfect, immediate, and essential; our relation to the Father and the Spirit come only through our relationship to him.

For us everything depends upon Jesus Christ and everything we hope for and long for comes from him or it does not come at all. That is surely what the Father and the Spirit want us to carry away from the account of their presence at his baptism. It is Jesus, God’s son, whom the Father adores and it is Son upon whom the Holy Spirit came to accompany him every step of the way from Jordan to Calvary and on through the tomb to endless life. This is how important Jesus, this is the index of his glory as our Savior and our King!

We have yet to read of his miracles, his teaching, his compassion for the needy, his terrible sacrifice for our sins, or his resurrection from the dead, but already we know that the entire world is going to revolve around Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Already we know that the Father in heaven loves this man, his Son, whom he has sent into the world to save his people from their sins. Already we know that the Holy Spirit, who conceived his human nature in the womb of his virgin mother, will serve him to the end and, at last, raise him from the dead, so that he might save the world.

The Bible has so much to say about many important things. It has so much to teach us about how we should live, about the purpose of our lives, about the way we can give glory to God. But first and foremost the Bible is a revelation of the Son of God. In a way it is not even a revelation of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as it is a revelation of God the Son and God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ. This is the way the Father and the Spirit intended it to be. Through the remaining pages of the Word of God, the Father and the Spirit will never be revealed in anything like the clarity and comprehensiveness in which Jesus is revealed to us. Why this is the case, who can say? That it is the case, who can deny?

The Bible, as the old writers used to say, is sermo Christi, a word about Christ to a degree that it is not a word about the Father or the Spirit. We know that even if we cannot explain it. But it is what the Father and the Spirit want us to know and proved that by their presence at the Jordan that day: our greatest concentration must be on the Son, even as we pray to the Father and depend upon the Holy Spirit. This is how they would have it to be.

John Newton, in one of his wonderful letters published in the collection of his letters that bears the title Cardiphonia, that is, the Utterance of the Heart, tells his friend, the celebrated Bible commentator Thomas Scott, what happened to another friend of his, a fellow Anglican minister who had been for years a complete rationalist. For this man Christianity was a system of ethics, a way of life only. He was a Christian minister, but like many other Anglican ministers in his day, he was not a Christian. He was a stranger to the grace and the power of God; he did not understand the gospel as a message of redemption and the forgiveness of sins; and he had no relationship of his own with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. For him Christianity was being good and doing good; neither more nor less. He was a faithful minister, as he understood the ministry. He had a large parish and he worked hard to exercise a positive moral effect upon the people of the parish, but he couldn’t lead people to Christ because he didn’t know Christ himself, though, of course, he didn’t realize that.

One day John Newton’s friend was reading in his Bible and he came across the statement of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:8 that Paul had been called to preach “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” He was stopped by that word “unsearchable,” which, of course means both utterly wonderful and impossibly mysterious. For the first time in his life the word of the Lord had come to him as it had come to the great multitudes that heard John the Baptist. He was arrested by that one word “unsearchable.” He had never found anything so unsearchable in the message of the Bible. It had always seemed quite pedestrian and predictable to him. But here was Paul talking about height and depths, the riches of Christ’s glory, and the love of Christ surpassing knowledge. Well the fellow began to think and ponder. Here was Paul using these remarkable expressions, speaking in these remarkable superlatives where I have found everything to be quite sensible and ordinary. Paul found mysteries of love where I have never found a one. And it occurred to him that Paul’s view of things must have been very different from his own. And that led him to a careful examination of Paul’s writings and, at last, to his own faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose life and whose death – highest conceivable mysteries that they are – can alone restore us to God and take us to heaven.

All of that we find at the Jordan the day of our Lord’s baptism. A voice from heaven that was none other than the voice of God the Father. The descent of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Triune God, upon the Son. Utterly remarkable things that foretold the salvation of the world. No one can view that scene, not with an honest mind and an open heart, and not realize that any life in which Jesus Christ is not the center, any heart that is not full of love for him, any mind that does not trust him for salvation, I say, any person who does not define himself or herself in terms of Jesus Christ must be a person who is lost and has yet to find the way, is a person who does not think about things as God does, does not value what God does, does not trust himself or herself to the provision God has made for the salvation of the world.

Sometimes we can see every truth emanating from a single event. The cross is certainly such an event; so is the Lord’s resurrection from the dead on the third day. But so too is his baptism. Here we find the nature of our problem – sin from which we must be cleansed, the very symbolism of baptism – but here even more we find the meaning of human life, the way to heaven, how to live while we are going there, to whom we must submit our lives, and, supremely, what matters most to the one, living and true God.

Look once more at the scene as Luke paints it for us. You cannot possibly believe, if you have any conviction that this is what happened that day near the Jordan, that there is anything in all the world that would more bring down upon you the favor of Almighty God and the transformation of your heart and life as only the Holy Spirit can bring that to pass; you cannot possibly believe that there is any other way to that life that is worthy to be called life, than that you should make and ever more seek to make the Father’s beloved Son both the foundation and the goal of your life, and help others to do the same.