Matthew 3:7-12. 7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 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. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to take off His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out” (HCSB).
The typical answer concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit is that this baptism was what took place upon the apostles and the apostles alone. But, it is important to notice the audience of John’s words. First, we need to consider that there were not yet any apostles for John to be speaking about. Second, carefully look at the audience. In Matthew 3:5 we read that the people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all of the vicinity of the Jordan were coming to John. John is speaking to the Jewish people who are flocking to him. Further, in verse 7, we see that John begins this lesson when he sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming among the people. John is speaking to the whole nation of Israel. The nation was going to experience a baptism of the Holy Spirit, and a baptism of fire.
Baptism of Fire
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:
Isaiah 66:15-16. “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.”
Ezekiel 22:20-22. “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.”
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).
Even the Qumran community of the first century understood fire as the wrath of God. In interpreting Psalm 2, the Qumran community declared, “The m]eaning [is that the na]tions [shall set themselves] and con[spire vainly against] the chosen of Israel in the Last Days. That will be the time of persecution that is to co[me upon the House of J]udah, to the end of sealing up [the wicked in consuming fire and destroying all the children of] Belial. Then shall be left behind a remnant of [chosen on]es, the pre[des]tined. They shall perform the whole of the Law, [as God commanded through] Moses. This is the [time of whic]h it is written in the book of Daniel the prophet, [“The wicked] will act ever more wicked[ly and shall not understand.] [[a]] But the righteous will [be purified, clea]nsed and refined” (Daniel 12:10). So, the people who know God shall be steadfast” (4Q174f1, 2i:19-3ii4).
Notice that the baptism of fire is a description of judgment and the wrath of God. 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 Matthew 3:10, “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 Matthew 3:12 which continues the picture of wrath and judgment. “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” (ESV). We simply cannot argue that the baptism of fire is speaking about the tongues of fire that appeared upon the apostles’ heads. John is speaking to the Jewish leaders and 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
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. As we noticed in the last lesson, the pouring out of the Spirit was a picture of the restoration of the people, restoration of the nation, and a return of God’s blessings to the people. In fact, we see this in John’s message in Matthew 3:12:
“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” (ESV).
Notice that the Messiah will gather His wheat into the barn. This is a positive 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.
Malachi 4:1-3. “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.” Notice how Malachi prophesied about a day of fire where the evil were set ablaze. But notice that the good tidings are also prophesied, as those who fear His name will tread down the wicked.
Joel 2:28-3:1. “After this I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out My Spirit on the male and female slaves in those days. I will display wonders in the heavens and on the earth: blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and awe–inspiring Day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved, for there will be an escape for those on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, as the LORD promised, among the survivors the LORD calls. Yes, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem….”
Again we see the good 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. The righteous would receive the blessings of God while the wicked would receive judgment and destruction.
Rather than think in terms of miracles, notice that the context would tell us that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is the restoration of the blessings of God. In fact, everything we noticed in the last lesson about the prophets promising the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is in view. Recall that we saw there were at least three aspects that the prophets promised in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit: (1) restoration of the kingdom of God, (2) restoration of God’s covenant with the people, and (3) restoration of God’s blessings upon the people.
John the Baptist preached, “the kingdom is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). John is telling the Jewish leaders that the Messiah is coming. With the Messiah will be two events: (1) the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that is, the arrival of the kingdom of God, restoration of God’s covenant with Israel, and blessings to the people. (2) Judgment. The Messiah was also bringing judgment, as John the Baptist describes. John’s message was very simple. Repent, because the restoration of the kingdom was near. The prophets warned that when the Messiah restored the kingdom, judgment would also follow.