John the Baptist spoke to the crowds about one who would come after him. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. 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 gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:11-12). There is a lot to be said about this passage. This week I am going to begin with the idea of baptising with (or in) fire.
There are a number of concepts which need to be explored here. The most basic is the idea of baptism. In secular Greek the word baptizō means to immerse, cover, overwhelm or perish. Baptism is not something found in the Old Testament, but there is evidence that Gentiles who wanted to become Jewish proselytes were baptised as part of their conversion to Judaism. Some people believe that this must have been going on before the time that John came baptising in the wilderness. In some late, non-biblical writings the word baptizō was used to describe washing for cleansing from ritual impurity, such as the kinds of impurity outlined in Leviticus. Although the baptismal ritual that John the Baptist performed in the Jordan was not described in the Old Testament, there are several Old Testament passages which express the need for cleansing from sin (Isa 1:15-17; Jer 4:14). Some promise cleansing (Ps 51:7; Ezek 36:25; Zech 13:1).
John came, baptizing and calling people to repentance because the kingdom of God was near (Matt 3:1-2). To understand what John the Baptist was speaking about it helps to look at what his mission is described as. In Mark there are two passages which are quoted with reference to John. “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’—‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”’ (Mark 1:2-3). These two passages are both about preparation for the coming of the LORD. These verses are intended to evoke the wider passage. The first is from Malachi 3.
“‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. ‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Mal 3:1-5).
When the LORD comes he will refine his people so that they will offer true worship. He will judge the people and condemn those who do wrong. This is the reason why John the Baptist was calling people to a baptism of repentance. The unrepentant cannot endure the coming of the LORD.
The second passage is from Isa 40.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa 40:1-5).
When the LORD comes he will bring the good news that their sins had been paid for. He comes to comfort his people instead of to punish. This is a different experience to the experience of the LORD’s coming described by Malachi.
We can conclude that the coming of the LORD will be both good and bad. For those who are prepared for his coming there will be comfort. It will be good news. For the unrepentant the experience will be terrifying because the Lord comes with judgement. This makes sense of what John the Baptist said about repentance, since it is the preparation for the coming of the Lord. It also makes sense of what he said about baptism in Spirit and fire.
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:7-10).
This is likely an allusion harking back to Jeremiah 11.
“What is my beloved doing in my temple as she, with many others, works out her evil schemes? Can consecrated meat avert your punishment? When you engage in your wickedness, then you rejoice. The LORD called you a thriving olive tree with fruit beautiful in form. But with the roar of a mighty storm he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken. The LORD Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the people of both Israel and Judah have done evil and aroused my anger by burning incense to Baal” (Jer 11:15-17).
John the Baptist mentions fire again when he says that the coming one, the Messiah, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. The fire that the people will be baptised with is not “passion” as I have heard many Pentecostals claim. There is no biblical indication that fire means passion. Fire has more than one meaning. But in the immediate context it means judgement as it did in verse 10. Verse 12 should convince you of this. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Unquenchable fire is the fate of those who fail to keep the Sabbath holy. “But if you do not obey me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying any load as you come through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in the gates of Jerusalem that will consume her fortresses” (Jer 17:27). The final verse of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the fate of those who rebelled against the LORD: “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” Jesus made reference to this when speaking about hell (Mark 9:48). John the Baptist was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi, which tells us that the prophet Elijah will come to announce the dreadful day of the LORD (Mal 4:5). “‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them’” (Mal 4:1).
To add to this picture of judgement, the ones who are burned with unquenchable fire are called chaff. The chaff is the wicked. Psalm 1 makes reference to their fate. “Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous” (Ps 1:4-5). The chaff can only ever be the subject of God’s wrath. “Gather together, gather yourselves together, you shameful nation, before the decree takes effect and that day passes like windblown chaff, before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the LORD’s wrath comes upon you” (Zeph 2:1-2).
So in the first instance the baptism with fire that John the Baptist refers to is the judgement which will overwhelm the wicked because they are unprepared for the coming of the Lord. Those who do not repent will be immersed in the fire of God’s wrath and judgment. This is not something which we want to happen to us. It is not something to aspire to.
However, there is more to the idea of baptism with fire than simply God engulfing the wicked in his fire of judgment. The baptism with fire accompanies baptism in the Spirit. Therefore it has another nuance to it. Fire has a purifying effect on the people of God so that they become holy before the LORD. “In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel. Those who are left in Zion, who remain in Jerusalem, will be called holy, all who are recorded among the living in Jerusalem. The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire” (Isa 4:2-4). The fire of God will purify the people so that they become true worshippers. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years” (Mal 3:3-4).
This purification of the people of God by fire is possible because Jesus took the fire of God’s wrath and judgement upon himself instead of immediately pouring it out upon Israel as John the Baptist seemed to have expected. From the moment that Jesus turned up to the Jordan River, he set himself on the path to the cross. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented” (Matt 3:13-15). Clearly Jesus did not need to undergo a baptism of repentance on the basis of his own sins. He had none and John the Baptist knew this. He did it “to fulfil all righteousness” so that all that was required by God would be done. His was a vicarious baptism, done on behalf of sinners. This was the point at which he prepared himself to be plunged into the baptism with fire. When he came out the water he was baptised with the Spirit so that he would fulfil his mission (more about that later).
“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). On the way Jesus spoke of bringing fire on the earth in conjunction with the baptism he had to undergo. “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:49-50). The baptism he had to undergo was the cross [compare this with Mark 10:38, where he mentions “the cup” he must drink and his “baptism” in the same sentence. The cup is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath (Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17; Ezek 23:32-34; also mentioned in Gethsemane – “take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).)]
The expression “kindle a fire” always refers to judgement in the Bible when it is used metaphorically. Example: “For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains” (Deut 32:22). Other examples: Isa 10:16; Jer 15:14; 17:27; Lam 4:11. So the saying about kindling a fire on the earth must refer to the wrath of God. The coming of Jesus precipitates the division of people into two groups—those who follow him and are thus saved, and those who refuse him and are thus under condemnation. People will either be prepared for the judgment or not. The whole of Luke 12 speaks in various ways about God’s judgement and being prepared for it.
But most importantly, it is Jesus himself who bears the wrath of God. This is the baptism which he had to undergo. It is the baptism with fire, in which the judgment that should fall on sinners fell on him. On the cross Jesus bore the judgement of God himself. He drank the cup that the Father gave him (John 18:11). Drinking the cup of God’s wrath is simply another metaphor for judgement, just as fire is a metaphor for judgement. (see earlier—Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17; Ezek 23:32-34). But the wrath of the lamb will ultimately fall on those who reject his sacrifice. “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb’” (Rev 14:9-10). Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath and all who trust in him, accept his sacrifice, and follow him are no longer under the wrath of God. But those who refuse him will have to drink that cup themselves.
The baptism with fire is transformed because Jesus has taken it upon himself on the cross. Therefore, the people of God experience the baptism with fire as a purifying fire rather than a fire of terrifying judgement. How does the purifying fire mentioned here relate to what Jesus did in taking the fire of judgement upon himself? The answer is twofold. First the cross, the blood of Jesus, cleanses the people of God (Tit 2:14). We are cleaned by his sacrifice for us and by his word to us (Eph 5:25-26). The conscience is cleansed by the blood of Christ in a way that Old Testament sacrifices could never accomplish (Heb 9:14; 10:22). Second, because we have been purified by the blood of Jesus and made into the temple of the living God, we then actively become holy in practice (2 Cor 6:16b-7:1). This involves repentance, through a change of heart and mind (James 4:8). As we walk in the light, bringing our sins out into the open and confessing them, the blood of Christ purifies us (1 John 1:7-9). Therefore, repentance is an appropriate preparation for this purification and indeed part of the purification.
In effect, then, the baptism in fire that the Messiah comes to bring is twofold. Those who are repentant because they trust in Jesus will not experience the fire of his judgement. He has taken the judgement, the unquenchable fire, upon himself for our sakes. But those who refuse him and thus never repent will experience the unquenchable fire themselves. They are the chaff that is thrown out. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31) “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).