“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Matthew 3:11-12 (NRSV)
Here, John brings up that baptism is a coin with two sides. On the one hand is deliverance and rebirth, but on the other hand is judgement. Baptism is a trial where those who have God’s favor come out the other side, but those who have earned His wrath are destroyed in the trial. It was this way in the Red Sea, and it’s the picture John paints for us, now.
While John is enacting this trial symbolically in the waters of baptism, one is coming who is going to bring this trial to Jerusalem, and it will not be with water, but with the Spirit and fire.
This is a very direct allusion to Joel 2 that predicts this very thing – a Day of the Lord when God will come with a judgement that also saves – His own faithful will be delivered while the rest of the world comes crashing down in apocalyptic terms. This will deliver His own people whom He will restore – a restoration that is capped by the pouring out of the Spirit.
This vision leaves us with a prelude – a sign that this day is at our doorstep:
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
Joel 2:30-32 (NRSV)
It is this complex of events that Peter explains to us was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21), and the tongues of flame that appear above the disciples but do not consume them is a nice touch.
But at this point in the story, we are in John’s shoes. We do not yet know how God is going to accomplish these prophecies, but we know they are imminent, and we know the Messiah is on his way to enact them. We also know that the damage done will be permanent, as John talks about the “unquenchable fire” used by the prophets to describe the utter destruction of Edom (Isaiah 34:10).
So, when John talks about being baptized in the Spirit and fire, he is referring to these events that will save the remnant and destroy the world around them. His conviction that the Messiah is going to do this even throws him for a loop in Matthew 11:3, when John ends up in prison. Where’s the baptism of the Spirit and fire? Where is the apocalyptic event that will free faithful Israel from her oppressors and bring them down never to rise again?
But we see this defining what John is doing out in the wilderness. He is baptizing faithful Israel into repentance because the imminent destruction of the world as they know it is at hand, and Jesus is coming to do it.
This is not a mistaken notion, because this is exactly what Jesus does – he just does it in a sequence and time frame that John wasn’t expecting. The outpouring of the Spirit, the conversion of the Gentiles, the destruction of the Temple, and the overthrow of the Empire were things that John died before seeing. And we don’t know how John felt about Jesus’ response to his question in 11:3, but given the way Jesus talked about John the Baptist, I think it’s a fair guess that he died in faith, seeing the promise from afar.
We do not have the upcoming historical realities in common with John the Baptist. Their judgement events came and went. God’s people continued to flourish and spread by the power of the Spirit and the corrupt Temple power structure and the Roman Empire were taken down.
But even in our new “present evil age,” we can be tied to it and pass away, knowing that God opposes such evil, or we can leave it and join a new way of life with a new community identified with Jesus.
- Without the outpouring of the Spirit and the judgement against the world that John spoke of, would you even be a Christian, today? What might have happened to the people of God without these events?
- What are some things that you identify with that belong to a world system that will pass away in the new creation?