The Holy Spirit: The Synoptic Gospels, Part 1

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar in the teachings on the Spirit, and relate many of the same events, often in nearly the same words. I’ll work primarily in Matthew, but cite to the parallels.

Conceiving the Messiah

The New Testament begins just like the Old Testament — with a creative act done by God through the Spirit bringing order to chaos –

(Mat 1:18 ESV) Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

(Luk 1:35 ESV) 35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God.”

This makes sense. After all, the prophets had credited the Spirit with giving life. Bringing life to the Messiah made perfect sense. And as we’ll see, in the New Testament, the Spirit plays a supporting role, helping to bring the work of Jesus fully to fruition — starting by conceiving the Messiah.

John the Baptist’s Birth

(Luk 1:13-17 ESV) 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,  17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

“Filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” is an astonishing promise. Even David didn’t receive the Spirit until he was anointed king by Samuel.

I find no use of “filled with the Spirit” in the Old Testament. The closest expression is the frequent references to the Spirit “rushing into” or coming upon the person “mightily” (same phrase, differently translated) — and surely the thought of “filled with” is that the Spirit’s presence will be powerfully evident. (How a three-year old might evidence the power of the Spirit is beyond me!)

The angel also declares that John will have the “spirit and power of Elijah,” even though John was not a miracle worker. Rather, the reference is surely to his heart — just as Elijah was willing to stand up to Jezebel and the prophets of Baal, John will be courageous before the powerful — which indeed proved to be true.

Finally, we see that the Spirit is the agency for preparing the nation to receive its Messiah. The Spirit is always busy in support of God’s mission.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire

(Mat 3:7-12 ESV)  7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “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. 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.”

(Compare Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:15-17).

This is a controversial passage — and we’ll see many more as we sort through the many Holy Spirit-verses in the New Testament. Some argue that baptism with the Spirit refers uniquely to Pentecost and the conversion of Cornelius and his household. After all, Peter said regarding Cornelius,

(Act 11:15-17 ESV) 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

The question is whether “we” in v. 17 is “we apostles” or “we Jews.” The context seems clear enough, however –

(Act 11:1-4 ESV) Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order:

Peter was speaking to the apostles, the brothers, and the circumcision party. The conclusion is buttressed by similar language in the preceding chapter. The scene is the conclusion of Peter’s sermon to Cornelius and his household –

(Act 10:44-47 ESV) 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Again, the quesion is, who is “we” in v. 47? Well, he didn’t say “we apostles.” Rather, he was speaking to a group of Jewish believers who’d come with him. And so, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” is a reference to the gift of the Spirit received by all believers.

Now, the next question is what does “baptism with fire” refer to? Some argue that “fire” refers to the tongues of fire that were seen on the apostles at Pentecost. It is, of course, impossible that John’s audience would have understood that meaning. Rather, they’d have taken “fire” from its context –

(Mat 3:7-12 ESV)  7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “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. 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.

The prophets — going back to Deuteronomy — speak of God as “a consuming fire” and as the judgment coming with unquenchable fire. For anyone familiar with the Law and the Prophets, the references to God’s destruction of his enemies are unmistakable.

(Deu 4:24 ESV)  24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

(Isa 66:22-24 ESV) 22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

John’s allusions to these passages would have been plain to his listeners. “Unquenchable fire” refers to those who rebel against God, who will not inherit the new heavens and new earth.

In short, John says, the Messiah will baptize with salvation (the Holy Spirit) and damnation (damnation) — which parallels “His winnnowing fork is in his hand” as well as “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John was a straight talker and meant to be understood. Either repent or be damned! The Messiah is coming, and you’ll have a choice to make!

This means, of course, that all saved people have the baptism of the Holy Spirit and no lost person has the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It’s one or the other, fire or Spirit. No one gets both, and no one gets neither.

Now, this conclusion bothers many among us. After all, some argue that “baptism of the Spirit” refers particularly to the gift of tongues, as the apostles on Pentecost and Cornelius and his household both received the gift of tongues from the Spirit, but that’s not what John is talking about. He’s not talking about miracles, but salvation and damnation.

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One Response to The Holy Spirit: The Synoptic Gospels, Part 1

  1. Robert says:

    I think we need a better understanding of the meaning of the word fire. Paul in Timothy tells warns about quenching the Spirits fire and instructs us to fan the flames. Clearly the fire here does not means judgment. Let take some time to consider what other uses in the old and new testament uses to describe this word. I am not stating the the fire John is describing when he is addressing the Pharisees and the Sadducee was not a fire of judgment. But let us remember that he is giving a warning and his message here is one of repentance. I think we too quickly associate fire with judgment and dismiss that there is a more complex understanding of what is means to to be baptized with fire. To those who reject the message of Christ it is judgment warning. In my study I have found this to have 5 or more meanings associated with the word fire. Judgment clearly being one describe here by John. I would like to hear what you all come up with. I think it is an area that can have a deep impact on how we feel and understand about this baptism of the Spirit and the baptism of fire. I get so excited about what I have come to understand.

    Praise God!!

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