This is the first appearance of the adult Jesus in Luke’s narrative. This and the following passage record his preparation for public ministry, which will begin in 4:14. The sequence from 3:20 is not strictly consecutive, in that John is here apparently still at liberty to baptize Jesus. Luke has rounded off John’s story, and now he goes back to locate the beginning of Jesus’s story within it.
The declaration that Jesus is God’s Son is a pivotal moment, picking up Gabriel’s announcement in 1:32, 35 and initiating a christological theme that will be developed in the recognition of Jesus by supernatural beings (4:3, 9, 41; 8:28), in a further divine announcement in 9:35, and in some pregnant sayings by Jesus himself (10:22; 20:13) before it finally comes into the open at Jesus’s trial in 22:70.
Most of this section is taken up by a lengthy family tree. Whereas Matthew put this at the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke has fitted it in here at the beginning of Jesus’s adult story, perhaps because his non-Jewish readers might have found the genealogy to be an unappealing way to open the book, or possibly in order to bring together God’s declaration that Jesus is his Son with a genealogy that traces Jesus back to “Adam, the son of God.”
Historical and Cultural Background
The many genealogies in the Old Testament illustrate how important ancestry was to the Jews. Josephus, writing at the end of the first century AD, lists his own ancestors for six generations and claims the support of publicly available genealogical records (Josephus, Life 1–6; Ag. Ap. 1.30–36). It is not unlikely that such lists were kept, either orally or in writing, especially for the (royal) family of David.
But Luke’s list differs substantially from that in Matthew 1:1–17, not only in that it goes in the reverse direction and extends back from Abraham to Adam but also in that between Jesus’s father, Joseph, and David there are only two names in common, Luke’s list being significantly longer. The popular suggestion that Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy and Luke gives Mary’s is unlikely because Jewish genealogies at that time were not traced through the mother (in contrast to modern Jewish practice), and in any case Luke begins his list explicitly with Joseph (who has already been introduced as a descendant of David in 1:27; 2:4). No explanation is generally agreed upon, but one helpful observation is that Matthew’s focus is on the royal throne succession (he follows the Old Testament list of the kings of Judah down to the exile), whereas Luke traces Joseph’s ancestry not through Solomon the king but through another son of David who did not become king. Is Luke’s then more a biological genealogy, as against an official throne list presented by Matthew, the two lists coming together briefly in Shealtiel and Zerubbabel and then again with Joseph?
Key Themes of Luke 3:21–38
■ Jesus is baptized along with other people.
■ A special revelation marks him out as different.
■ The Holy Spirit comes upon him in preparation for his mission.
■ He is declared to be God’s Son.
■ Luke provides a family tree that links Jesus back to David, to Abraham, to Adam, and so to God.
3:21 Jesus was baptized. Later Christians, who taught that Jesus was sinless, were embarrassed that he had submitted to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke shows no such embarrassment, perhaps because he regarded this as an act of solidarity with John’s religious revival movement rather than as a matter of personal consciousness of sin. By speaking of Jesus as being baptized along with “all the people,” he allows the reader to reflect on Jesus’s identification with those whom he had come to save from sin.
Luke 3:23–37 is a genealogical record for Jesus. The “Jesse tree” shown in this photograph is one example of an artistic way to represent the ancestry of Jesus. A typical Jesse tree has a reclining figure of Jesse at its base with a branch coming out of his side. Side branches, foliage, or tendrils embrace figures that represent the ancestors of Jesus, and the number of ancestors shown depends on the genealogy used and the space available for the tree. Mary is usually included just beneath the topmost figure, which is Jesus. This ivory carving from Bavaria (AD 1200) shows a Jesse tree with two prophets on either side of Mary and Jesus.
Luke will mention Jesus at prayer more frequently than do the other Gospel writers. Here, at his first adult appearance, Jesus is already a man of prayer.
heaven was opened. Mark’s account of this event can be read as a private experience of Jesus, who “saw” heaven opened and to whom alone the heavenly voice was addressed. Matthew’s version makes it more objective: heaven “was opened,” and the voice spoke about Jesus in the third person (as at the transfiguration). Luke maintains the second-person address, but his description of the Spirit coming “in bodily form” suggests something that other people could see (as indeed John did “see,” according to John 1:32–34). The opening of heaven is an Old Testament way of alerting the reader to a divine communication (Ezek. 1:1).
3:22 The Holy Spirit descended on him. In the Old Testament the Spirit “came upon” people to empower them for God’s service, and Luke will speak in Acts about the apostles being “filled with the Holy Spirit” on specific occasions. But this visible “descent” of the Spirit sounds more like an initial endowment that sets the tone for the whole of Jesus’s ministry to be in the power of the Spirit (cf. the visible coming of the Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost [Acts 2:3]). Endowment with God’s Spirit was to be a mark of the Messiah (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). For the sequel in Jesus’s ministry in Luke, see 4:1, 14, 18.
in bodily form like a dove. The dove was one of the commonest and most familiar birds in Palestine, and there is no need to search for any more specific symbolism in the “bodily form” in which the Spirit appeared. As the dove (or any other bird) can be seen coming down to alight on a perch, so the Spirit was seen coming down on Jesus.
A similar divine declaration in 9:35 will authenticate Jesus to his closest disciples as God’s true messenger. In the New Testament God’s voice is normally heard either internally or through a prophet. A directly audible communication like this (cf. John 12:28–29; Acts 9:4–7; 10:13, 15) marks out a very special act of revelation.
Commentators sometimes devote so much attention to the possible Old Testament background to the words from heaven that they fail to focus on what the voice actually says. Jesus, the hitherto unknown man from Nazareth, is the Son of God. The reader should not be surprised, in the light of 1:32, 35, but this is a declaration addressed to Jesus himself, confirming what he has no doubt already been told by his parents, and what he was already aware of at the age of twelve (2:49). Most interpreters find in these words an echo of the first introduction of God’s servant in Isaiah 42:1, upon whom God puts his Spirit, and possibly also of Psalm 2:7, which was understood as looking forward to a messianic king of the line of David. Such echoes would indicate Jesus’s messianic role as well as his special relationship with God. A further possible echo of Genesis 22:2 would suggest the thought that God himself, like Abraham, was prepared to sacrifice his own son.
3:23 about thirty years old. If Jesus was born just before Herod’s death in 4 BC, he would have been about thirty-three at the time that Luke specifies in 3:1. Thirty was probably the age at which a priest began his official service (cf. Ezek. 1:1). It was also the age at which David became king (2 Sam. 5:4).
Luke uses careful language here because he has made clear in 1:34–38 that Jesus is not biologically Joseph’s son. So what is the point of the following genealogy? Socially speaking, Jesus would be known as Joseph’s son (see above on 2:41–52). This genealogy therefore establishes his official place in society. But it does more. It links Jesus with David, the king and prototype of the Messiah, and with Abraham, the revered ancestor of the Jewish people. So much is in common with Matthew, though the names listed are different (see the “Historical and Cultural Background” section above). But Luke then follows the Old Testament story right back to creation, thus showing Jesus’s solidarity with the whole of humanity, not just the Jews.
3:38 The son of Adam, the son of God. No other known Jewish genealogy includes the name of God. Clearly, by adding “the son of God” Luke is wishing to make a point (see the “Theological Insights” section below).
R. T. France, Luke, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton