“The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
– Luke 3:15-17, NIV
A crowd of people gathered at the Jordan to be baptized by John. While he was baptizing, the people began to wonder whether or not he was the Christ. In answer John compared (Luke 3:16-17) his ministry with the expected ministry of Christ. With regard to Christ’s ministry, John emphasizes His baptism “in Spirit and fire.”
The Ministries of John and Jesus
John was the forerunner of Christ. According to Luke 3:4-6, his ministry was a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5. His message contains elements of repentance, forgiveness, salvation and judgment. Salvation and judgment would come through Christ.
A key element in John the Baptist’s ministry was baptism in water. According to Luke 3:3, John “came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s baptism did not produce their repentance and forgiveness; it was an inauguration into the life of repentance. It was a public testimony to the fact that the one being baptized had repented of their sins and had been forgiven.
While John was baptizing at Jordan, a problem arose. Some of the people, including religious leaders (Matthew 3:7-9) were coming to be baptized who had not truly repented. John exhorted them to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. They did not have a right to the kingdom of God simply because they were natural sons of Abraham. John declared that they would be (Luke 3:9) “cut off and thrown in the fire.”
Jesus was the Messiah whom John came to announce. Jesus, too, would preach a message of salvation and judgment, but His ministry would be far greater. In Luke 3:16, John draws a contrast between his baptism and the baptism that Christ administers. He said, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The English word “with” is a translation of the Greek word en that commonly is translated “in.” Literally, the phrase is “in Holy Spirit and fire.”
Then, in Luke 3:17, John tells us about the ultimate result of Christ’s ministry. John declared: “His winnowing fork [ptuon, a forklike shovel] is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The end-time ministry of Christ would sift the repentant and the unrepentant. The repentant would be saved. The unrepentant would be judged with unquenchable fire.
When John spoke of Christ’s baptism “in Spirit and fire,” he may have had in mind Old Testament prophecies. Briefly, I will present two of the prophecies that are of interest.
Isaiah 4:3 speaks prophetically of a day when everyone who is left in Zion will be called holy. This will happen (Isaiah 4:4) “When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning.”
The “spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning” is said by some to be the spirit who judges the unrighteous and morally cleanses the righteous. Thus, the nation is cleansed through the cleansing of individuals.
Over against this view, Menzies (p. 126) holds that the righteous remnant of Israel is cleansed by separation from the unrighteous. The moral cleansing of the righteous is not in view. As for the wicked, the Messiah (Isaiah 4:4) will slay them with “the breath [ruach] of his lips.”
When it comes to the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, we find that Joel 2:28-32 lies in the background. Jesus clearly identified John’s prophecy with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and Peter cited Joel. Joel 2:28-29 speaks about the outpouring of the Spirit on “all mankind.” In 2:30-31 Joel writes about the Day of the Lord. Blood, fire, and columns of smoke will be displayed in the sky and on the earth. Then Joel, in 2:32, tells about those who escape and survive. This suggests, of course, that there are many who do not.
We can put Isaiah 4:3-4 and Joel 2:28-32 together as background for Christ’s baptism “in Holy Spirit and fire.” Joel emphasizes the prophetic empowerment of the Spirit; Isaiah does not. Joel does not directly connect the Spirit with judgment, but Isaiah does. Both passages suggest that there is a separation of righteous and unrighteous and that the righteous will prevail.
Individual Cleansing and Judgment
What did John mean when he said Jesus would baptize you “in Holy Spirit and fire?” Many views focus on individuals. The emphasis is on individual moral cleansing or moral cleansing and judgment. Even though the emphasis in on individuals, the result is that the nation is cleansed as well. There are at least three categories of views expressing this emphasis.
Cleansing by Spirit and Fire
According to one view, “Holy Spirit” and “fire” are two elements in one baptism. Those who hold this view sometimes make a grammatical point. The phrase “in Holy Spirit and fire” includes the word “in” only once. Thus, it literally says “in Holy Spirit and fire,” not “in Spirit and in fire.” Because of this, they say that the two elements have to be taken together in one baptism.
Under this view, the two elements (Luke 3:16) of “Holy Spirit and fire” work together in cleansing those who repent. Many believe the baptism “in Spirit and fire” is the initial cleansing of the believer. Others such as Carter (p. 97), who writes in the Wesleyan tradition, include sanctification as well. When Spirit and fire are taken together, the question arises as to what the fire in Luke 3:17 means. According to Lenski (p. 201), this is the fire of judgment. It is different from the “fire” in Luke 3:16.
Cleansing and Judgment by both Spirit and Fire
Another view is that all people are baptized “in Spirit and fire.” Beasley-Murray (p. 38), for example, favors this view. He writes: “for the people of God it [this baptism] will be their refinement for the Kingdom, as in Mal. 3.1ff; for the wicked it will be with consuming power, as in Mal. 4.1.” The elements of Spirit and fire are held together, but they are differently applied.
Cleansing by Spirit or Judgment by Fire
Ladd (pp. 36-38) is representative of a third view. According to him, the baptism administered by the Messiah is twofold. He states (p. 37) that “The Coming One will baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit and the wicked with fire.” Further, John thought that the two aspects of this baptism would take place simultaneously. The baptism in fire, however, is still to come. It is an eschatological judgment.
This view differs from the previous one in that the two elements of Holy Spirit and fire are separately applied. Although the baptism is said to be twofold, it is in reality two different baptisms–one “in Spirit” and another “in fire.” Horton (p. 85) points out that this view is grammatically possible.
National Cleansing and Judgment
Concerning John’s prophecy, Menzies (p. 124), maintains that it does not refer to cleansing individuals but rather to the national cleansing of Israel. The nation is cleansed by the separation of the righteous from the wicked. All people would be sifted by the powerful blast of the Spirit of God. The unrighteous suffer judgment and ultimately will be burned up as chaff in an unquenchable fire.
How John’s prophecy is fulfilled is important. With regard to this, Menzies (p. 130) writes: “in Luke’s perspective, John’s prophecy finds initial fulfillment at Pentecost and continuing fulfillment in the Spirit-empowered mission of the church. However, the final act of separation, the destruction of the unrighteous in the fire of messianic judgment, still awaits its fulfillment. While it is likely that John viewed the sifting activity of the Spirit and the consuming activity of the fire as different aspects of one apocalyptic event, Luke has separated these aspects chronologically in view of the ongoing mission of the church.”
What John intended by his prophecy and how it is fulfilled are both important for us to know. Briefly, we will discuss both of these points now.
Luke 3:17 represents John’s understanding of what the baptism “in Holy Spirit and fire” would accomplish. With Menzies I agree that the nation would be sifted. The righteous would be gathered into the barn and the unrighteous would be judged. John knew that his baptism in water would do neither of these things. It would not stop pretenders from being baptized. The powerful baptism administered by Christ, however, would do both.
Although this national separation is the main emphasis, I do not think we can rule out entirely the possibility that John may have understood that individuals would be cleansed to some degree in the process of separation. John was concerned that individuals, including tax-gatherers and soldiers, would make radical changes in their conduct. Whether or not, in John’s understanding, this change would come about through the baptism “in Holy Spirit” is uncertain, but not entirely precluded.
Like most metaphors, “fire” is flexible. Apparently, John (Luke 3:16) thought of the “fire,” as well as of the “Holy Spirit,” as being instrumental in the sifting process and perhaps even in individual cleansing. The fire is the Holy Spirit in action. Clearly, the fire in Luke 3:17 represents judgment. However, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit is not involved. As Isaiah 4:4 indicates, the Spirit in action ultimately mediates judgment upon the unrighteous.
The Prophecy Fulfilled
A major question is, “How is John’s prophecy fulfilled?” John did not fully understand how his prophecy would be fulfilled. This lack of understanding no doubt contributed to his action in Luke 7:26. He sent two of his disciples to Christ to ask, “Are You the expected One, or do we look for someone else?” Jesus sent the disciples back with a report of His ministry to encourage John.
Six passages in the New Testament, including Luke 3:16, refer to the baptism administered by Christ. Three of the passages directly cite John: Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; and John 1:33. In Acts 1:5, Jesus connected John’s prophecy with the coming outpouring of the Spirit. Later, in Acts 11:16, Peter recalls that Jesus often cited John’s prophecy. Only Matthew 3:11 includes the word “fire.” All the others simply mention the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere, I will comment on each of these verses more fully. However, a few brief comments now on John 1:33; Acts 1:5; and Acts 1:8 will be helpful. The focus of these passages is mainly on believers. Several points are important.
First, the message of the gospel is paramount in bringing about the sifting and judging of all people. John preached (Luke 3:3, and 9) repentance, forgiveness, and judgment. All of these themes were carried forward and extended by Jesus. The message of Christ focused on the Kingdom of God. Jesus commanded His disciples to preach these same truths. According to Carter (p. 96), John Wesley understood that the winnowing fork was “the word of the gospel.”
Second, none of these passages deal explicitly with the inner cleansing of individuals. It may be that the apostle John thought of the entire work of the Spirit when he quoted John the Baptist in John 1:33. This would include (John 3:6) being “born again.” However, this is not explicitly stated. Both John and Paul deal extensively with the inner transforming work of the Spirit, but this is not a theme of Luke’s. Luke’s emphasis is on empowerment.
Third, in Acts 1:5 and 1:8, Jesus very explicitly identifies John’s prophecy with the outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The outpouring would result in the disciples being empowered to be witnesses. When Jesus baptizes us in the Holy Spirit we are enabled to witnesses and to fulfill the mission of the church. The witness of the disciples would result in the separation of the righteous and unrighteous.
John the Baptist himself (John 1:33) said that he baptized in water “in order that He [Christ] might be manifested to Israel.” Given this, we can conclude that Christ’s baptism in the Holy Spirit would include the purpose of making Christ known to the world. This is in complete harmony with the comments of Christ in Acts 1:5 and 8.
Did John understand that the baptism in the Holy Spirit would empower the disciples to witness? This is not explicitly said, but it is entirely possible that he did. We must remember that John was filled with the Spirit (Luke 1:15) while still unborn. Moreover, he himself ministered (Luke 1:17) in the “spirit and power of Elijah.” Whatever John understood, empowerment is the application that Jesus made of John’s prophecy.
Fourth, at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44), the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles. Then, Peter baptized them in water. While defending his actions, Peter remembered the words of Jesus and how He used to say, “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The presence of the outpoured Spirit was an evidence that (Acts 11:18) God had granted the Gentiles “repentance that leads to life.”
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Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
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Hawthorne, Gerald F. The Presence and the Power. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.
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Copyright 2000 © George M. Flattery