This coming Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. The reading is from the Gospel of Luke (3:15-16, 21-22)
It is interesting to note that Luke relates no encounter between Jesus and John. In fact, before we are told about Jesus’ baptism, we are informed that John has been put in prison! A traditional way of understanding this order of events is that Luke (the rhetorical historian) divides history into three separate and distinct eras.This is something that has been noticed since the Patristic period, in the middle ages, and was the doctoral dissertation of Pope Benedict XVI. It is called the theology of history.The first is the time of the prophets, which includes John the Baptist. That era ends with the imprisonment of John. John will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of Jesus begins with a statement in our text about: (1) the opening of heaven, (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (dove); and (3) heavenly speech. This era of Jesus ends with his ascension — related only in Luke & Acts. Jesus will no longer be in the picture. After that, the time of the Holy Spirit (or the Church) begins with a statement in Acts 2:1-4 about (1) something coming “from heaven,” (2) the coming down of the Holy Spirit in a visible form (tongues of fire), and (3) heavenly speech.
For Luke, the movement from an old era into a new one required a break from the old – John is put in prison – Jesus ascends into heaven. Yet, at the same time, there are common elements in all three periods, such as the fulfillment of promises/prophecies and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The fact that we are living in the third era sometimes needs to be emphasized. There are those whose faith is so centered on the historical Jesus, that they can’t live their lives in the new period under the power of the Holy Spirit. If all we do is talk about the historical Jesus, e.g., arguing about the virgin birth, the miracles, the physical resurrection – we may be making faith nothing more than believing historical events really happened, i.e., a history lesson. While such teachings are certainly part of our Christian confession of faith, for the early believers in the Book of Acts, faith was relying on the power of the Holy Spirit for life today. They recognized that Jesus had left this earth. In order for the ministry of Jesus to continue, it would have to be done by all the believers who had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit – not by Jesus nor by particular Spirit-filled people, i.e., the prophets.