We finally meet Jesus, in a scene dripping with symbolism. Anyone who’s interested in literature and understands the strength of archetype and metaphor, these two verses will thrill and excite. Baptism was the symbol of death and resurrection, so right from the beginning—the first time we see him as an adult he is pointing symbolically to what we now know to be the end of his life and the focal point of history and faith. There is no notion that his is a baptism of repentance, but instead a figure. He started by taking his stand at this: death, and resurrection.
And he’s praying. About what? Well, given the symbolism it would make sense that he is looking forward to his death and resurrection, already praying about them, and thinking about the next 3 years that will lead up to that event. Is that assuming too much? I don’t think so, given the nature of the writing.
While he was praying, but not necessarily in answer to his prayer, the text says “heaven was opened”. Gosh, now this is a common motif about expectation of the end times, but is also a common expression at turning points in history. Whoa. So the symbolism of the heaven open is Messianic, and the beginning of “eschatological happenings” (the end times). According to Jewish tradition, there were three things that signified the inauguration of God’s kingdom: the heaven opening up and the bestowal of blessing, the Spirit descending from heaven, and a voice from heaven. Well, this fits like a key in a lock.
Then Luke says the Holy Spirit (which many believed was no longer available in their time, while others believed he was sort of at rest and not active as he had been in previous times) descended on him in bodily form like a dove. Now, the dove symbolizes a new era (a la Noah), purity, innocence, and peace. In Isaiah (11.1-3), the Spirit symbolizes wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. The Jews say that the dove is a symbol of Israel. Jews also equate the Spirit that moved over the water at creation with the Spirit that would come upon the Messiah at the end time. Here it could also symbolize God’s presence and power.
So without speaking a word, Jesus is in the middle of an event symbolizing a turning point of history, bringing in death and resurrection, God’s kingdom, God’s presence, and God’s power, peace, purity, innocence, wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. We have ancient symbols of creation, Messiah, and God’s activity.
And this all in two verses. Either pure genius or something more (as Christians claim).
But we’re not even done yet. A voice, but it’s still not Jesus’. It’s from heaven, and it’s not just to accompany the phenomenon of the dove/Spirit. There’s a prophecy in Ps. 2.7 about the Davidic king, the Messiah, as God’s Son. But the voice isn’t conferring an identity on the guy, but instead is the summons to a task. The son was the ambassador of Father, bringing peace and the promise of God.
He is not only the Son, but “beloved”, with the sense of “only” son. Jesus is to be the focus of God’s activity.
We have yet to hear his voice, except in the temple at age 12 where he said, “Don’t you understand that I need to be taking care of my Father’s business?” But here, without a peep, he stands on the precipice of history, symbolizing a spiritual world of completeness, power, expectation, presence, and love. Holy smokes; again: this set-up is intense.