Luke Bible Study (Journey with Jesus)

Luke 3:15-17, The Baptism of the Holy Spirit

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One of the topics that initiates great interest is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to be baptized by the Holy Spirit? Is it a supernatural experience? What does it look like? These are things we will consider in our lesson today because John is going to preach the coming of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The text for the lesson is from Luke 3:15-17.

Messianic Expectations (3:15)

John is preaching in the desert and crowds are coming to him. John is preaching a message that the wrath of God is coming. The ax is laid at the root of the tree and the nation is about to endure God’s judgment. The people needed to repent (turn away from sin and turn their lives to God). The people needed to live their lives in a way that showed they had turned away from sin and turned to God. This is the picture of producing fruit consistent with repentance (3:8). People are being baptized by John, a baptism that signified their commitment to God to turn to God and away from sin. In baptism the people are asking God to wash away their sins, defilements, and mistakes.

John is generating excitement among the crowds. The nation of Israel had a heightened expectation of the arrival of the Messiah at this time. About 190 years earlier, the Jews had regained some independence from the Grecian powers. The Jews gained control of their temple, cleansed it, and dedicated it to the Lord. But about 85 years earlier the Romans exerted control over Judea and over the nation of Israel. The Jews were looking for a Messiah who was going to overthrow the Romans and initiate the age to come in Jerusalem. It has been more than four hundred years since there has been a prophet of God. It has been more than four hundred years since the people of Israel had received a message from God. Now here is a person who is preaching the words of God, declaring judgment upon the people, and salvation to those who live a life turned to God. The people are questioning whether John is the Christ. They think that John is their deliverer king. John is going to respond to their thoughts and questions concerning who he is.

John’s Role With Jesus (3:16)

John begins by saying that he is baptizing them with water. I am baptizing you to prepare you for the one who is coming. I am not baptizing you to follow me. I am baptizing you to get your hearts ready for the coming of the Lord. John says that this is not about him, but about the one to come. The one coming is mightier than John. The one to come is much more powerful than John. John is not the Christ. But when the Christ does come, he will be far more powerful and mightier than John.

Notice how much greater the Christ will be over John. John says concerning the Christ, “The strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” We need to let the weight of this statement sink into our hearts. John says that he is not worthy to even take off the Christ’s sandals. To understand this image, we need to learn a little about the background. In those days, one of the duties of a slave was to untie the sandals of the master’s feet. In Judaism, the act of untying one’s sandal was such a degrading act that a Hebrew slave was not to undertake it. John says that the Christ is so great that he is not worthy to perform the degrading act of untie his sandal straps. Don’t forget that Jesus would later say of John that John was the greatest born of woman. John said that he is so inferior to the Christ that he is not worthy to perform the most menial, degrading task for his master.

What does this say about us in our pride, in our esteem, and in our arrogance? We need to get in our minds and hearts this very same attitude. If Jesus said John was the greatest person born of a woman, and John said that he is so nothing and so inferior that he was not worthy to perform a demeaning task for the master, then what should be our attitude about ourselves? We need to stop thinking of ourselves as someone great, as someone important, or as someone valuable to the world, and see ourselves only as servants of Jesus.

Baptism of Fire (3:16)

John is preaching to the crowds and he is explaining the greater work that the Christ will accomplish. How did the Jews who heard John’s words understand the baptism of fire? Was the baptism of fire a good thing or a bad thing? Let us look to the scriptures first:

“For behold, the LORD will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the LORD will be many” (Isaiah 66:15-16; NASU).

“As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the LORD; I have poured out my wrath upon you” (Ezekiel 22:20-22; ESV).

It is shocking to see scholars argue the baptism of fire was a good thing. I read one scholar describe it as a picture of God’s grace. But scriptures always speak of fire as being bad. Even being refined by fire, while ultimately having a good outcome, describes a painful process in the meantime (see James 1 and his description of trials).

John the Baptist is telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that they are the ones who are going to receive God’s judgment of fire. Notice Luke 3:9, “Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (HCSB). Also notice Luke 3:17 continues the picture of wrath and judgment. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (ESV).

Further, the baptism of fire is not speaking about the tongues of fire that appeared upon the apostles’ heads. The Acts 2 event is not called a baptism of fire. In our context John is speaking to the Jewish leaders and the crowds, telling them that they will experience the baptism of fire because they have not repented. The ax was laid at the tree, Israel, and the tree would be chopped with the coming of the Messiah. The wrath of God was coming in judgment against Israel.

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (3:16)

Since the baptism of fire is a description of judgment and wrath (see Malachi 4), what then is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Before we answer this question, we need to again notice that these are two events John is speaking about. Can we say that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a bad thing, like the baptism of fire? Not at all. The explanation of John’s imagery is found in Luke 3:17.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17; ESV).

Notice that the coming Messiah is going to gather His wheat into the barn. This describes a blessing event tied together with a judgment event. The Messiah is going to gather the people who are His, but destroy those who are not. John the Baptist is not preaching something new. The prophets spoke of two events that would take place when the Messiah came. One event would be good, but the other would be judgment.

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3; NASB). Notice how Malachi prophesied about a day of fire where the evil were set ablaze. But also observe that good tidings are also prophesied as those who fear His name will tread down the wicked.

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that 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. 1 For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem…” (Joel 2:28–3:1; ESV). Again, the good is tied together with the bad. The Spirit will be poured out and the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem will be restored. However, at the same time, the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood. These are images of judgment. In effect, Joel prophesies that it will be “lights out” for the nation of Israel.

Therefore, there is nothing unusual about John the Baptist preaching that the good will come with bad when the Messiah arrives. Israel is going to receive a baptism, either a baptism of blessings or a baptism of judgment. The righteous would receive the blessings of God while the wicked would receive judgment and destruction. John is preaching to the crowds to be saved from the wrath to come.

The Sorting (3:17)

Verse 17 amplifies what verse 16 is saying. There is a sorting that is going to take place. A division of the people is going to occur. The Christ is going to come and he is going to sort out who are his true people who are living lives that bear the fruit of repentance and those who are not, just like a farmer winnowing the wheat from the chaff. The chaff are put into the fire. When Jesus spoke of unquenchable fire, he always related it to eternal punishment of hell (see Mark 9:43). Thus, the baptism of fire is the same as the unquenchable fire, that is, the eternal punishment of hell. John is calling for the people to be prepared for the coming of the Christ before it is too late. God’s wrath is coming upon the disobedient. God’s wrath is coming on those who pretend to be Christians. The people needed to live in such a way that showed a life turned away from sin and turned to God. These will be the ones gathered into his barn.


You must choose what you will be immersed in. You can either be immersed into the grace and blessings of God (the baptism of the Holy Spirit) or you can be immersed in God’s wrath and judgment (the baptism of fire). Be saved from the coming wrath and receive the blessings of God’s grace today. Follow the teachings we have learned in Luke 3. Make the commitment today to turn away from sin and turn to God. Mark that commitment by being immersed in water, asking God to wash away your sins. God will do it if you will come to him.

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