Bible Interpretation: Baptize With the Holy Spirit & Fire

In my recent article Interpreting the Bible, I discussed our need to consider the intended audience of each verse of the Bible that we study and that this practice will give us incite into what the speaker meant and how we should interpret it.

In light of this, I was recently studying the book of Matthew and the speech given by John the Baptist in the third chapter. This is the declaration in which the Baptizer proclaims that the Messiah to come will greater than John himself and that He will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11).” I had never looked much closer at this statement because it seemed apparent that it was merely a description of the soon-to-come ministry of Jesus. However, upon studying Matthew 3 today I began to get a different picture of John’s words. Consider the larger context:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (emphasis mine).

Two things struck me about the passage upon reading it today (keep in mind this is a passage I have read many times before). First John directed the statement about Jesus baptizing with Holy Spirit and fire to the Pharisees and Sadducees. And he does not stop there. He then makes a statement that concerns judgement: “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” There is more going on in this passage than just a cursory description of Jesus’ ministry and the later sending of the Holy Spirit. He was relating something to these Jews. Clearly he was not trying to flatter them or give them hope because he began his address with by calling them a brood of vipers. And then asked who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. As I read, it seemed that this was not about the Holy Spirit but about judgment upon the Jewish religious system (which came to fruition with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD).

Of course my next move was to see how this passage read in the other gospels. This proved to thicken the proverbial plot. Compare the following passages with the one from Matthew, focusing on the statement about the type of baptism Jesus was to bring:

And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost (Mark 1:6-8).

And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people (Luke 3:15-18).

And they which were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose….And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God (John 1:24-27, 32-34).

We can see the obvious similarities but what bugs me is the differences. Only Matthew and John state that John the Baptist was speaking to Jewish leaders (or the messengers thereof). Only Matthew and Luke mention the Holy Spirit and fire. And also only Matthew and Luke mention the “winnowing fan” which is clearly a symbol of judgment against wickedness. So my question is, what was truly the point of the speech in Matthew given by Mr. the-Baptist? Was it to point to the judgment against apostate Israel who would reject her own messiah, or was the point to differentiate between John’s own baptism and that of the Coming One? And what is the significance of his saying it to the religious leaders specifically? Help a brother out!

Josh H.

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