(Mat 3:11-12 ESV) “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.”
John speaks of the Messiah, declaring that he is, in comparison to him, less than a slave. Indeed, while John baptizes with water, the power of forgiveness is found not in the water but in the covenant promises of God found in the Torah. But Torah has been around for 1,500 years by this time, and it’s proven inadequate. Something needs to change.
And so John distinguishes his baptism from that of the Messiah. The Messiah’s baptism will be “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Some see “fire” as a reference to the tongues of fire at Pentecost, but up to this point, John’s references to the prophets referred to passages in which fire was the fire of divine wrath.
(Jer 7:20 ESV) “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.”
(Mal 4:1 ESV) “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
We miss it because we don’t know our prophets and we don’t read in light of the prophets. But John’s audience unquestionably heard “fire” as a reference to the destruction that comes from God’s wrath.
But the Holy Spirit, well, the Spirit had been promised by Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel — at least — to come when the Exile ends and the Kingdom is established. The usual prophetic language was that the Spirit would be “poured out” — like water.
(Isa 32:14-15 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
(Isa 44:3 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.
(Eze 39:29 ESV) 29 “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”
(Joe 2:28-29 ESV) 28 “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.”
There are also verses that speak of a fountain of forgiveness —
(Jer 17:13-14 ESV) 13 O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. 14 Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.
(Zec 13:1 ESV) “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”
The image of forgiveness through baptism, accompanied by the receipt of the Spirit, would have been powerful in the minds of Jews raised on such passages. Indeed, to “immerse” the Jews with the Holy Spirit would have been heard as a magnificent, glorious promise. It’s one thing to have or possess the Spirit, but to be immersed in God’s Holy Spirit would have been a blessing beyond words. The Spirit would not just be poured out, like an anointing, but there’d be enough Spirit to go for a swim! Forgiveness sufficient for a bath promised to a desert people for whom water was a rare and precious commodity.
So we have to return to —
(Jer 31:31-34 ESV) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
How does the new covenant promised by Jeremiah differ from the Mosaic covenant? Well, the Spirit will write God’s Torah within his children and on their hearts. He will circumcise their hearts so that they can love him with all their mind, soul, and strength. And this will be the Spirit they will receive in an immersion from the Messiah.
As a result of the Spirit and the hearts that are changed, God will forgive their sins — in language that echoes (you guessed it) Lev 26 — speaking of the end of Exile and of the curses that follow from rebelling against God’s Torah.
(Mat 3:12 ESV) 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.”
A winnowing fork is used to toss wheat grains into the air so that the kernel is separated from the chaff. The kernel is used to bake bread. The chaff is burned as waste.
“Unquenchable fire” means a fire that cannot be put out. That is, once judgment is rendered, there is no second chance, no appeal.
The time is short, John is saying, and God’s judgment will soon come.