DIG: What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? What is the baptism of fire? What does it have to do with doctrine of purgatory? What two metaphors does John use to describe the baptism of fire? Who does Yochanan point to and why?
REFLECT: This message caused quite a stir in Isra'el at this time. Is it still a valid message for all of us to consider for our own spiritual lives today? Why or why not?
Numerous people claimed to be the Messiah in first-century Isra’el, so when the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth prophesied in the wilderness of Judea, the people wondered if he was the Anointed One. The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Mashiach (Luke 3:15). But Yochanan didn’t claim to be the Messiah, only the forerunner, sent by ADONAI to prepare the people for the promised King’s appearance.251
The concept of the Messiah was well established in the Judaism of John’s day; so it was hardly necessary to Yochanan to describe Him. The ancient Synagogue found more references to Him in the TaNaKh than those latter formed in the B’rit Chadashah. This is fully borne out by a detailed analysis of those passages in the TaNaKh to which the rabbis referred to as messianic. The number comes to upwards of 456 (75 from the Pentateuch, 243 from the Prophets, and 138 from the Hagiographa), and their messianic application is supported by more than 558 references in rabbinic wittings of the Targumim, the two Talmuds, and the most ancient Midrashim.
A careful examination of these rabbinical writings shows that the Scriptural references to the Messiah in the New Covenant are fully supported by them. Thus, such doctrines as the pre-existence of the Meshiach; His elevation above Moshe, and even above the angels; His cruel sufferings and mockery; His violent death; His work on behalf of the living and the dead; His redemption, and restoration of Isra'el; the opposition of the Gentiles; their partial judgment and conversion; the supremacy of His Torah; the universal blessings of the latter days; and His Kingdom, can be clearly deduced from passages in the ancient rabbinic writings.252 John could build on this messianic concept in introducing Yeshua as the Messiah.
So Jesus will take up where John leaves off, and this is just what Yochanan said must happen. And this was his message in the wilderness: After me will come One who is more powerful than I, (Matthew 3:11b; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16a). This is a summary of John’s message so that he could focus on his main theme. There would be One coming who would be more powerful than Yochanan. His baptism would be with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John answered them all by saying: I baptize you with, or in, water for repentance (Luke 3:16a). John’s own distinctive ministry of water baptism will give way to a different kind of baptism. This is led some to view Yochanan’s ministry as merely a “warm-up act” for Jesus. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The repentance symbolized by John’s baptism was essential to Yeshua’s future ministry. It could not by itself save people from their sins (Mattityahu 1:21), which was to be Yeshua’s unique roll. While water could cleanse a person’s body, the Holy Spirit could cleanse a person’s life and self and heart. But one who is more powerful than I will come and baptize you with the Ruach HaKodesh and with fire (Matthew 3:11a; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16b-c). King Messiah is coming. That was John’s promise, and he said Jesus is going to perform two types of baptisms. On the one hand, those who believe are going to be baptized with the Ruach HaKodesh.
First, John promises that the Lord will baptize them with the Holy Spirit. While the baptism of Yochanan was important, the baptism of Christ would go even deeper into the spiritual call of Isra’el. Initially there would be an outward call to prepare for the Kingdom. But then there would be the reality of the Kingdom as experienced by the indwelling of the Ruach HaKodesh.
The phrase with the Holy Spirit is en pneumati in the Greek. Some make a big deal out of the change in adjectives. They say, “Well, you were baptized in the Holy Spirit, but have you been baptized with the Holy Spirit?” Or, “You were baptized with the Holy Spirit, but have you been baptized by the Holy Spirit.” All this is a smoke screen because the Greek adjective en can be translated either in,or by, or with (Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5 and 11:16; First Corinthians 12:13). The Ruach HaKodesh is given to believers at the moment of faith(see Bw – What God Does for Us at the Moment of Faith).
The promise of the Holy Spirit goes back to the prophecies of Joel and Ezekiel. Joel predicted a time to come when the Ruach will be poured out on all the people on the earth, especially upon Israel. This must have been especially comforting and thrilling to the faithful Jews among John’s hearers, those who hoped for the day when God would pour out [His] Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28a). Likewise, Ezekiel foresaw a time in the messianic Kingdom (see my commentary on Isaiah Dc – A Shoot Will Come Up from the Stump of Jesse) when He would sprinkle clean water on [them], and give [them] a new heart and put a new Spirit within [them] (Ezekiel 36:25-26). In that day they would at last be baptized in the very power and person of God Himself. In other words, John’s baptism was similar to other types of immersions found in first-century Judaism, but Yeshua’s baptism would be of a different, spiritual nature.
Secondly, He will baptize you with fire (Matthew 3:11c; Luke 3:16b). Fire is usually the symbol for judgment or purification in the Bible. The context here demands that when Christ appears again there will not only be blessing of the Spirit for believers, but that unbelievers are going to be baptized with unquenchable fire (see my commentary on Revelation Fp – The Second Death: The Lake of Fire).
As far as the Roman Catholics are concerned, the word fire here is one of the proof texts for the concept of purgatory. Where, then, does Rome find her authority for the doctrine of purgatory? Four verses are cited, but not one of them has any real bearing on the subject. They are:
(1) He will baptize you with fire, which is the words of John the Baptist concerning Messiah (Matthew 3:11c).
(2) If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames (First Corinthians 3:15).
(3) Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire (Jude 22-23a).
(4) For Christ . . . [who] was made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water (First Peter 3:18-20). As a result, the four passages here cited by Roman Catholic Church surely are a very light cord on which to hang so heavy a weight.
But Rome primarily bases her doctrine of purgatory on a passage in II Maccabees 12:39-45, Douay Version. It is, of course, useful in historical terms but not a part of the cannon of Scripture. The most important verse reads, “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be [delivered] from their sins.” But neither this verse, nor the ones above teach the doctrine at all. Nowhere is there any mention souls being tortured with the same intensity as the fire of hell, except in point of duration. In fact, the word purgatory is not found here. This, again, is a perilous passage on which to build such a false doctrine.253
After speaking of vipers escaping the fire (Mattityahu 3:7), the tree cut down and burned (Matthew 3:10), and the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11) . . . John now adds another metaphor for judgment (also involving fire), that of the threshing floor. He said: 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 (Mattityahu 3:11b-12; Luke 3:17). The verb clear is more literally translated completely clean or purity. In the agricultural imagery it perhaps means that the threshing floor is left bare when all the chaff has been separated and the wheat stored. But metaphorically the verb points to the purpose of ADONAI’s judgment, the complete removal of all sin, leaving a purified people.254
In Palestine, as in many other parts of the ancient world, farmers made a threshing floor by picking out a slight depression in the ground, or digging one if necessary, usually on a hill where breezes could be caught. The soil would then be wetted and packed down until it was very hard. Around the perimeter of the floor, which was perhaps thirty or forty feet in diameter, rocks would be stacked to keep the grain in place. After the stalks of grain were placed onto the floor, an ox, or a team of oxen, would drag heavy pieces of wood around over the grain, separating the wheat kernels from the chaff, or straw. Then the farmer would take a winnowing fork and throw a pile of grain into the air. The wind would blow the chaff away, while the wheat kernels, being heavier, would fall back to the floor. Eventually, nothing would be left but the good and useful wheat. The valued wheat would then be stored for future use, while the chaff would be burned up because it was useless.255
In a similar way the Messiah will separate out everyone who belongs to Him and, like the farmer, He will gather the wheat into His barn, where it will be forever safe and protected. Also, in a similar way to the farmer, He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. This is a striking description of the judgment known as Gei-Hinnom in Jewish literature. In ancient times this valley outside of Yerushalayim was used as a burning trash dump and sometimes was even a place of pagan, human sacrifice. It was therefore a fitting picture for the real place of judgment to come in the messianic Kingdom (see my commentary on Revelation Er – Babylon Will Never Be Found Again). Consequently, these scriptures teach that every person, believer or un-believer, will experience a baptism by Jesus Christ. It will be a baptism of blessing with the indwelling of the Ruach HaKodesh, or it will be a baptism of fire and judgment.
The promise here is of Jesus bringing the predicted times of spiritual filling to those who desire it. This is why Yochanan humbly stated: After me will come One who is more powerful than I. The Immerser pointed people from himself to the Lord Jesus Christ by presenting himself as His servant. In fact he considered himself to be unworthy even to be a servant. He stated that he was unworthy even to be a servant, saying: The straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie, the One he came to introduce (Matthew 3:11b; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16a). John’s obvious humbleness, yieldedness, and modesty compelled people to listen to him.
And with many other words Yochanan exhorted the people continually and proclaimed the Good News, or the Gospel, to them (Luke 3:18). The message of repentance is Good News, for it means that forgiveness is possible. People can still pass from eternal death to eternal life and become part of the family of God if they repent. The tragedy and consequences of sin are not irreversible, and that, my friend, is good news. By his preaching, John was preparing our Savior’s way.