Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Imagine the scene! An audience is in a theatre. They are all waiting expectantly
for their favourite pop singer to stride on stage, the one and only who’s
flown over from America for the first time in ten years; this is a once
in a lifetime chance to see her in the flesh. Will she be as good as on
her CD’s? Will she sing some of the favourite numbers? There is
an air of excitement between the support act and the main attraction.
The lights dim and dramatic music pumps out of the speakers. Will the
performance be worth the long trip to the venue and the high ticket prices?
Will the punters leave after the gig with their expectations fulfilled?
in Bible times
Nowadays the entertainment industry is able to create excitement with
a subtle blend of technology and psychology. We are used to seeing amazing
things and highly charged emotion on our TV screens or in places of entertainment.
But in the time when Jesus walked this earth preachers and healers were
the ones who created a stir. You could say they were the celebrities of
the day providing diversion from the struggles of everyday life, whether
it was in the form of stirring religious speeches or offering some kind
of healing for sickness and injury. I don’t mean to trash Jesus,
for we believe he was genuine, unique and taught both the truth and offered
genuine healing. But I do mean to paint a picture of how such figures
as John and Baptist and Jesus would have been received at that time. Luke
says that the people were filled with expectation especially about whether
John was the Messiah. He must have created such an extraordinary stir
in comparison with other preachers of the time that he seemed a candidate
for top spot in the religious celebrity stakes.
the whole picture
If we take a step back we can see the wider picture that Luke is painting
as he tells the whole story of Jesus. Luke wrote two books which are really
parts one and two of one longer story. He addresses his book to a certain
Theophilus (which means God-lover in Greek). In part one (the gospel of
Luke) he tells the story of Jesus and then in Acts the story of the followers
of Jesus. By the way he puts the stories together he begins to build up
a picture of who Jesus is. One of the ways he does this is through describing
the expectations of those amongst whom Jesus lived. The people of Israel
were expecting that one day a saviour figure would come. Their ancient
prophets had foreseen this kind of a figure. The people were well acquainted
with their Hebrew scriptures and when John the Baptist broke on the scene,
he seemed an ideal candidate. But Luke makes it clear that there is a
fundamental difference between John and Jesus.
last of the old
In various places and ways Luke paints John as a Hebrew prophet, as an
Elijah figure. Despite what the people expected, John himself said that
he was a lesser figure than Jesus. “I might baptise you with water
as a way for you to show that you have changed your ways,” he said,
“but Jesus will baptise you with the energy that really makes you
change: he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” At
the beginning of his gospel Luke describes John’s origins and birth
in ways that connect him with the old, with the Hebrew traditions. His
father was a priest in temple offering sacrifices and the time-frame Luke
places him in is a Hebrew one: in the days of Herod of Judea. It is only
when he begins to tell the story of Jesus that Luke mentions the Roman
rulers. John made a dramatic entrance onto the stage, and the people were
very excited about him. But the stage is an old one, not used for a long
time, but still an old stage. John is the last of the old. He called people
to be ready for the Messiah, but was not the Messiah. He had a great effect
and many people showed they changed their lives in response to his message.
They received a ritual washing in the waters of the Jordan.
first of the new
One of the things that Luke wants to tell Theophilus, a Roman citizen,
is that Jesus was different. He was related to John and he lived at the
same time as John, but he was also very different. There are two reasons
why Luke wants to show how different Jesus was to John. One reason is
political and the other is religious, but both are to do with a proper
understanding of who Jesus is. The political reason why Luke wants Theophilus
to understand about Jesus is that the followers of Jesus are not unruly
Israelites. The followers of Jesus, Christians, were growing all over
the Roman Empire. From time to time there were riots and trouble and Christians
often seemed to be involved. If Jesus was an Israelite, then influential
people like Theophilus would naturally think there was still trouble bubbling
up all over the empire after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
There had been a very bloody and upsetting rebellion in Judaea which had
been brutally put down by the Romans in AD 70. It was easy to assume that
disgruntled refugees were still causing trouble elsewhere in the empire.
Luke wants to emphasise that the followers of Jesus were not part of a
failed rebellion. Although they had connections with Judaea they were
not politically Israelite.
reason Luke wants to show Theophilus that Jesus is different from John,
is that the followers of Jesus had come to believe that he was not just
human. Luke gradually builds up a picture of Jesus throughout the whole
of his gospel and then continues it in the book of Acts. John himself
emphasises that Jesus is qualitatively different from him. John says that
he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal-strap. John says that
Jesus will baptise with things that humans cannot handle: fire and the
Spirit of God. Luke describes how the Spirit was seen descending on Jesus,
even though he was baptised in water by John. The voice of God said, “You
are my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Luke begins
to demonstrate that Jesus is more than human – he is divine. On
one occasion, before AD70, some followers of Jesus had a visit from the
Apostles Peter and John. They discovered that they had not been baptised
in the name of the Father and the Spirit. They could easily be misunderstood
as followers of John and a purely human Jesus. They also needed the baptism
of the Spirit to be truly followers of the Son of God who is both human
So from both
a political and a religious point of view, Jesus was very different from
what might be expected of him. It was important to get a true picture
of Jesus in order to understand who his followers were and not feel threatened
by them or allow injustice to be done to them mistaking them for disloyal
citizens. They might be found connected to social unrest, but it was important
not to confuse why they were involved: they were not part of the old,
part of John’s people, they were part of the new, of Jesus’
How does all of this apply to us?
First, like Theophilus, we need a proper understanding of who the followers
of Jesus are. Although we are connected to the old because the new grew
out of the old, we are part of the new. We are followers of the Son of
God who is human and divine. We are baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity
so that we will have the power to live as followers of Jesus. Without
the Spirit we simply go through a ritual of water-cleansing. Most of us
would have been confirmed at a later stage in life. Confirmation is really
just baptism part two. Receiving the Spirit completes Christian baptism.
We are not just followers of a perfect human, we have fellowship with
God himself through the mediation of his Son and by the effective power
of the Spirit.
Secondly, it is good for us to be reminded that when we commit ourselves
to following Jesus, we have divine power to help us. The Methodist Covenant
service affirms that a human decision to follow Jesus is echoed by a divine
acceptance and gift. God may have said in a unique way to Jesus: “You
are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased”; but God also
speaks to each of our hearts. When you commit or re-commit yourself to
following Jesus, you are to receive the divine affirmation: you are beloved!
You are a daughter or a son with whom God is well-pleased. With this divine
affirmation ringing in our hearts we may move forward into the New Year,
into the future, with confidence and joy. Jesus is one who exceeds all
expectations of him especially when he walks onto the stage that is each
of our hearts and lives!
© Rev Paul Smith