Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/08/94
3:15 Now while the people were all in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered and said to them all, "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 with fire. 17 And his winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So with many other exhortations also he preached the Gospel to the people. 19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reproved by him on account of Herodias, his brother's wife, on account of all the wicked things which Herod had done, 20 he added this to them all, that he locked John up in prison. 21 Now it came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized, and while he was praying Heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of Heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased."
Last week we saw how John came striding out of the desert to prepare the way for Christ by preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. We saw the radical nature of that message and that baptism, how they stood the expectations of the Jews on their heads and called them to forsake their religion of merit for the Gospel of Grace that God was bringing. It called them to forsake their hope in a military Messiah , accepting instead the Savior from sin that God was sending. Today as we conclude our study of John's ministry, the focus shifts from that preparatory repentance to the One whose coming it responded to and to his mission. And, meeting Him here at the very beginning of his public ministry, we see him, not as a military Messiah, but as the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.
Jesus declared his intentions at the very inception of his public ministry by beginning it with a profound symbolic act: he came to be baptized by John (v. 21). What exactly did this mean? A number of theologians--beginning with John himself--have had a hard time understanding this. John, we read in the other Gospels, tried to dissuade Jesus. "I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?" But Jesus insisted that it was necessary "to fulfill all righteousness." And so John agreed.
What was the problem? Well, John's baptism was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins in preparation for the Messiah's coming. So what need did the Messiah himself have of it? Specifically, what need did Jesus have of it? He was sinless. He had done nothing for which he needed to repent. Surely John felt the incongruity of his giving such a baptism to Jesus. When Jesus over-rode his objections, we do not know whether he understood it or not. He may have yielded out of sheer faith and obedience.
Whatever solution to the dilemma might have been in John's mind, we know that later theologians have offered their explanations. One is that this passage simply proves that the very earliest Christians did not think of Christ as sinless. But that solution is clearly incorrect. In the first place, it simply shifts the difficulty from why Jesus asked for the baptism to why John objected to it. In the second place, it is in conflict with some of the very earliest testimony to Jesus' messianic status. When Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man," his statement would be meaningless apart from its implied contrast between Peter and Jesus. No, there is no evidence that the early Church ever thought of Christ as anything but sinless. Others have suggested that Jesus perhaps requested baptism to show his support for and approval of John's ministry, giving the baptism his own unique, private meaning as it were. There are at least two problems with this view as well. First, there is simply no evidence in the text that this baptism ever meant anything to anybody except repentance for the remission of sins. And second, it makes no sense of Jesus' own explanation. How would showing support for John "fulfill all righteousness"?
There is only one explanation that really does make sense in the context not only of the passages which record the baptism but also of the total New Testament witness to the meaning of Christ's whole career. The Baptist himself hints at it in his words recorded in the Apostle John's account: "Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world" (Jn. 1:29). Why did Jesus request a baptism of repentance which he did not need? It was an expression of his identification with those who did need it. It was a profound expression of his solidarity with a sinful race. It was thus a declaration at the outset of his ministry of what his central role would be. By accepting our baptism, he formally identified himself with us in our need and took on the role of Substitute as who could stand in our place. His identification with us was so strong that he gave up his heavenly glory and took on our very nature (sin excepted) in the Incarnation. Now he literally stands in our place, the place we should have occupied, the place of repentant sinners. It was our sins, not his, that he was confessing in that baptism. But from now on in a sense they would be his, and that is why he would bear their punishment on Calvary. This was the offer he was making, and God the Father accepted it with pleasure, approval, and pride: "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased."
Now, we must not miss the fact that, not only does Jesus' baptism by John help us understand his work and his mission and our atonement, but it also has important implications for how we understand Christian baptism. Christian baptism is different from John's--those who had received only John's baptism but not been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, were not yet fully Christians (Acts 19:1-7). But certainly Christian baptism was built on John's. It was in fact the fulfillment of John's baptism; it is more but not less. And the important connection between the two at this point is this whole concept of identification. We see this in Rom. 6:4-5. Just as Jesus identified himself with us in our sin, so by the same symbolic act we identify ourselves with him in his death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus was saying, "I identify myself with these people. I accept their sins as if they were my own. I authorize the Father to impute or reckon them to my account so that my death will atone for them and my righteousness can then be counted or reckoned as theirs." And so when we are baptized, we are saying, "I identify myself with the Lord Jesus Christ. I accept his death as my death, the basis on which God forgives my sins. And therefore his resurrection is the hope of mine. I accept him as my Lord and Savior and publicly identify myself with him, with his people, with his Gospel, with his Kingdom and his cause. These things are mine, just as my sins became his." The parallel is powerful. In believer's baptism, this is what we are saying to the whole world. "As Christ identified himself with me so long ago, so I now identify myself with him. I am his and he is mine, and I want the whole world to know it!" For those Evangelicals who practice infant baptism, this is what they are claiming by faith for their children, believing that it will become their possession and their identity when they ratify this covenant being made for them by personally accepting Christ with their own faith when they come of age. Whatever your church's practice of baptism, let it proclaim this message clearly with understanding. And if we have been baptized into such an identification, then let us live in the light of it.
Jesus came to be our sin-bearer so that he could also grant us the blessings (and the curses, if we do not repent) of the Kingdom. John baptized people with water, but the one who was coming, the one mightier than John, would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In other words, when Christ came he would grant people the reality of which John's baptism was only the symbol.
What does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit? Well, what are the ministries assigned to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament? To be given the Holy Spirit is to be joined to Christ intimately as the body is joined to its head, for the Spirit is the vital power which unites and animates the members of the Body. It is to be regenerated, brought from spiritual death to life. It is to begin the process of sanctification, being brought into conformity with the very character of Christ. It is to be sealed for salvation, protected by the power of God. It is to enter into a communion with God the Father through the Son that is as potentially as intimate as anything that can be imagined, for the Holy Spirit comes to indwell us, to live inside of us as the very personal agent and representative of Christ himself. It is to be granted boldness of access to the throne of God in prayer. It is to be granted an inheritance with all the saints, to be made a partaker of eternal life. All these things Christ will give to those who are his when he "baptizes" them with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he gives them to us when we become Christians, when we receive him as Lord and Savior by faith. The water that was used by John as a mere symbol of this coming reality continues in Christian baptism as a powerful symbol of what has now become a present reality. That is what it means to say that Christ will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
But what does it mean to say that Christ will baptize people with fire? I think this statement has been often and tragically misunderstood. People tend to associate it with the tongues of fire at Pentecost, with revival "fire," and thus to see it as parallel with the prophecy that the coming Messiah would baptize his people with the Holy Spirit. The associations with Pentecost have given rise to the assumption that being baptized with the Holy Spirit must be something "extra" that happens subsequent to conversion. But look at the context! In the immediate context there is another reference to fire. The Coming One has his winnowing fork in his hand, and he will gather the wheat into the barn--but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire! Clearly and without question, this is the fire of eternal judgment. It is impossible that the fire into which Christ will baptize people in the very same passage could suddenly mean something different without any explanation. Neither John who said it, Luke who wrote it, nor the Holy Spirit who inspired it were such incompetent communicators as that. What John is saying is that when the Messiah comes, it will be a time of decision for everyone. Everyone is going to be undergo a baptism. It can either be a baptism with the Holy Spirit that confers all the blessings and benefits of the messianic kingdom, or it will be a baptism of unquenchable fire which brings the curse of the Kingdom on those who reject its authority. And what is the difference between the wheat, carried to the barn by the Spirit, and the chaff which burns forever? it is faith and repentance. It is how we respond to this One that God is sending. And that is why John's message is, "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Have you done so? Now that Christ has come, the decision is inescapable. And he came to identify himself with us in our sins! Surely we can come to him with confidence that he will never cast us out. But come we must, or our destiny will be with the chaff.
John had promised that the One who was coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And in verse 22, the Spirit comes visibly to rest on Christ as the Father's response to his acceptance of his mission as sin-bearer. It is not that the Spirit was absent from Christ before, but now he comes on him specifically to empower him for his public ministry. The Spirit was given to Jesus to enable him to serve. And when he was exalted, he was given that same Spirit to bestow on his own people (Jn. 16:7, Acts 2:33). The implication is that the Spirit not only brings to us the blessings of the Kingdom, but he also empowers us for sacrificial service in the Kingdom as well. For he is the same Spirit who came upon Christ here. That is why the Spirit is connected so closely with baptism: not that baptism confers the Spirit magically, but because baptism symbolizes the identification with Christ that is central to the relationship we have with him that causes him to baptize us with the Spirit--or results from his baptizing us with the Spirit (both are true). This reinforces the teaching that baptism with the Spirit is not something "extra" added to salvation later, but is a way of talking about conversion itself. And it therefore means that all believers should see themselves as called to sacrificial Kingdom service and should therefore explore the ways in which they have been empowered for that service--in the language of the Epistles, they should seek to discover their spiritual gift(s). It is as much a part of our identity as those who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit as it was a part of Christ's, on whom the Spirit came.
Baptism is the central symbol in this passage that pulls all these truths together. Baptism is like the old silver certificates we used to use as money in this country. The silver certificate certified that there was one dollar worth of silver on reserve in a federal bank to back up the money, and you could take that certificate to the bank and trade it in for the silver. The paper bill was actually worth nothing in itself; it was valuable because of what it represented. So the water of baptism is like the paper, and the Holy Spirit is the silver in the vault. The water does not save you. It only symbolizes the fact that Christ has sent the Spirit to those who believe. Apart from the identification with Christ which baptism symbolizes--apart from faith, in other words--it is only counterfeit money. Communion, the Lord's Supper, works in exactly the same way. The bread and wine are the paper; the Lord Jesus Christ is the silver in the vault; and faith is the connection between them. To eat and drink without faith is to spend counterfeit money; to eat and drink with faith is to commune with Christ. And so I invite you in that spirit to come to the Table and share with us in this feast in honor of the Christ who came to identify with us, to bear our sins, and to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 10/11/2004 4:20 PM