Luke 3:21-22

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. 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.

– Luke 3:21-22, NIV

John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing in the Jordan river. Jesus came to John and was baptized, The Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke. We will take up these topics in order. The parallel passages in the gospels are Matthew 3:14-17Mark 1:9-11; and John 3:22.


When Jesus came to be baptized, John felt his own need and wondered why Jesus would come to him. Luke does not record the answer that Jesus gave, but Matthew does. Jesus said (Matthew 3:15): “‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.'” As Beasley-Murray (p. 54) says, baptism “is an instance of the way in which Jesus must fulfill all righteousness.” Later in His sacrificial obedience, both His human and divine righteousness are consummated. We note that Jesus said, “it is fitting for us” to fulfill all righteousness. Thus, John had a role in this as well. Together, Jesus and John fulfilled all righteousness.

Through baptism, Jesus expressed a fourfold identification. First, He identified with John the Baptist, his message, and his baptism. By identifying with John, Jesus recognized his role and scriptural authority. Second, Jesus identified with righteousness. When He was baptized, He upheld righteousness and took His stand for it. Third, Jesus identified with His own mission. Jesus not only preached salvation, but salvation would come through Him. Fourth, Jesus identified with us as sinful men. He was without sin, but he endured the same temptations we experience. It was important for Him to take His place alongside us as sinners.

Descent of the Spirit

While Jesus was praying, heaven was opened. Literally, Luke says “having been baptized” (aorist participle), and “praying” or “continuing to pray” (present participle), heaven was opened. Matthew does not mention that Jesus was praying, but he does add a detail. In Matthew 3:16 we read, “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water.” NASU At this point the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon Jesus. John adds (John 1:33) that the Spirit remained on Jesus.

The Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove.” Both Jesus (Matthew 3:16) and John (John 1:33) saw the Spirit of God descending. Many believe that John and Jesus had a vision and saw the Spirit descending. However, there is no reason not to take the statement literally. The Spirit can appear in any form He wishes. He chose the form of a dove. Ideas vary widely as to why, but Luke does not say. The dove can be symbolic of many characteristics such as friendliness, purity, meekness, graciousness, and others.

What was the purpose of the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus? One view is put forward by Dunn. He defends that thesis that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a part of becoming a Christian. Thus it is an initiatory experience. This impacts His view of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus.

According to Dunn (Baptism, p. 32), Jesus was empowered by the Spirit, but this was just corollary to the main purpose. The main purpose of the Spirit’s descent was initiation. Jesus did not undergo conversion, but it was at this event that the new covenant era begins. Jesus enters the new covenant era as the representative man. The disciples will enter the new covenant later. The descent of the Spirit on Jesus was His first experience of the Spirit under the new covenant.

Among the objections to this view, I will mention two. One is that advent of the new covenant awaited (Hebrews 9:16) the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the testator of the new covenant. Two, Dunn’s view of the relationship of the Spirit to salvation history is imposed on Luke rather than being derived from his writings. The concern of Luke is primarily with empowerment.

The central purpose of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus was to empower Him for His Messianic ministry. This was the anointing (Luke 4:18-19Acts 10:38Acts 4:27) for His ministry (Matthew 12:18-21). Along with being empowered, Jesus was authenticated by the presence of the Spirit upon Him. This was an inauguration of Him as prophet, priest, king, and servant.

Turner (p. 199) writes: “In other words (exactly to reverse Dunn’s emphases), the reader is almost bound to interpret the Jordan experience primarily as an empowering for the messianic task of one who is already the eschatological Son (by the Spirit), and if this brings any developments in Jesus’ own experience of divine sonship these are merely a corollary of that empowering and of the events wrought by Jesus through it.”

The Voice Out of Heaven

A voice out of heaven said (Luke 3:22), “‘Thou art My beloved Son, in thee I am well-pleased.'” The parallel passages are Matthew 3:17 and Mark 3:11. Many scholars agree that this verse cites Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

In Psalm 2 we see the prophesied Messiah in His kingly role. He is the King-Messiah. Psalm 2:7 says, “‘Thou are My Son, Today I have begotten Thee.” The voice out of heaven cites the first half of the verse. Jesus is the preexistent Son of God. Paul quotes the entire verse in Acts 13:33. The fulfillment of the second half of the verse comes at the resurrection. According to Lenski (p. 537), “begotten” is figurative “regarding Jehovah’s placing this everlasting King on His throne.”

In Isaiah 42, the subject is the Servant-Messiah. We read in Isaiah 42:1, “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen in whom My soul delights.” In Isaiah 53:3 the Messiah is the suffering servant. The servanthood of Jesus is emphasized throughout His earthly ministry. He is the representative of the people needing deliverance.

Paradoxically, the kingly role of the Messiah would be realized through His servanthood. Jesus had to suffer, die, and rise again before taking His place at the right hand of the Father. The disciples of Jesus had difficulty understanding this. This paradox was at the heart of who Jesus is and what He taught. We who follow Christ must learn to live the paradoxical life.

Our Pattern

Was the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus unique or is it a pattern for us? Because Jesus was both God and man, His experience was in some ways unique. He was anointed for a special task, and the anointing was complete. Just the same, His experience was in some ways a pattern for us. The Spirit descended “while He was praying.” He was endued with power, and that should be our experience as well. It is, after all, Jesus who pours out the Spirit upon us!


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Copyright 2002 © George M. Flattery

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