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)
John the Baptist is keen to differentiate himself from the promised Messiah. Great preachers need to be careful not to confuse themselves with God. When thousands are hanging on your every word it is hard sometimes to remember that you are not the answer to their needs and desires. It is essential to clearly state that God, and not his messenger, is the source of the power. John did this explicitly. He knew his role was preparation for “the real thing.” The baptism in water that he challenged people to receive was important, but it was only getting ready for the power and presence of God, the promised Messiah. It was the starter, but the main course was still to come.
Baptism in water has caused all sorts of conflicts among Christians down through the ages. It is an illustration of how easily we humans get sidetracked by minor details, making mountains out of molehills. Baptism in the Holy Spirit has caused just as many conflicts. For John both baptism in water and baptism with the Holy Spirit were legitimate and important, but they were also distinct. They were not one and the same thing.
There has been much discussion down through the ages about whether there is a second blessing. Many today believe that when we put our faith in Jesus and become Christians, we receive the Holy Spirit, indeed that without the Holy Spirit it is impossible to make such a profession of faith. Baptism then is an outward sign of an intellectual decision that we have already made. Since receiving the Spirit is something that happens at the moment of our decision to follow Jesus, whereas baptism in water often comes after that, the order is reversed compared to what John described. In this way of thinking it is impossible to be a Christian without the Holy Spirit.
Others believe that having made our intellectual decision, and being baptised as an outward sign of this decision, that we should pray for the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a kind of “second blessing,” giving us access to the power of God to live the life Jesus calls us to. In this view, it is possible to be a believer without having received the Holy Spirit, but new believers can ask for the Holy Spirit and receive the baptism in the Spirit whenever they so desire.
There are variations of these arguments and many books have been written defending one view or another. The defenders of one model often become quite uncharitable, even judgemental, toward those who do not hold the same view, another example of the way we humans so easily slip into behaviour that is not in any way characteristic of God.
As I read Luke’s account of John’s preaching it seems clear that John saw the baptism that he offered as quite a different thing to the baptism that the Messiah would offer. To confuse matters more it would seem that John refers to a third kind of baptism, the baptism of fire, and this too was something that would come from the Messiah, not from John. I have heard little discussion of this type of baptism in Christian circles, though the expression “baptism by fire” is commonly used even by people who have no faith at all, as a way of describing the experience of going through a difficult time of initiation. Baptism with water is a sacrament in the church, whereas baptism in the Holy Spirit or baptism with fire are not. It is possible that John was simply using the word baptism about the Holy Spirit and fire to denote immersion – “I immerse you in water… but after me is coming one who will immerse you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” John wants to point out the qualitative difference in what he has to offer and what the Messiah has to offer.
Here are some of my own thoughts after reading the text: baptism in water appears to be “natural,” while baptism in the Holy Spirit is supernatural. Baptism with fire appears to be a process of purification, of differentiation, of judgement, and like baptism in the Holy Spirit, is an act of God, not man. Baptism in water is an act of preparation for the Christian life, an introductory rite, a ploughing of the ground (our hearts) to prepare for the planting and growth of the Spirit of God within us (baptism with the Holy Spirit). Baptism in water can be offered by one human to another, as John did to his listeners. Baptism in the Holy Spirit can only be sourced from God, a supernatural work.
The people listening must have wondered what on earth John was talking about. There was little understanding of the Holy Spirit in those days – it was not something that people talked a whole lot about. Not that it was unheard of, but it was seen as something special and unusual, not a part of the everyday. It was seen as something that came and went, giving the affected individual the power to speak the word of God – the power of prophecy – or to perform miracles – supernatural acts limited to supernatural intervention.
Now John was saying that just as he was baptising with water, the Messiah would baptise with the Holy Spirit. John clearly saw that this would have a much more powerful effect on the people than the public stand of faith associated with water baptism. He didn’t suggest that this baptism with the Holy Spirit would be limited to certain times or individuals. The way he talked about it made it sound as if it would be part of the process of pleasing God, of walking with God. Could he be suggesting that the extraordinary things that had happened to the prophets of old would now start happening to the man in the street? That these would become in a sense an ordinary part of being God’s people, rather than extraordinary, for certain times and places?
Perhaps John’s listeners didn’t think so deeply. But Luke, the writer of this account, after all that he had seen, must have had such thoughts in his mind.
The idea of judgement, of weeding out, of separating the good from the bad, if that is what John meant when he referred to the baptism of fire that would be administered by the Messiah, was more familiar to John’s listeners. They understood that God was a judge, the ultimate judge of all people and things. But how would this Messiah, if he was to appear among them, judge them? What would he do? What test would be applied? Perhaps even John wondered about this, as he preached the message. What did Luke, the recorder of this history, think about it?
If the news about a baptism with the Holy Spirit was exciting, the news about the baptism with fire must have been frightening. “First the good news, now the bad news!” These responses to Jesus are still appropriate. Perhaps in our preoccupation with the power that is available through the Holy Spirit we have forgotten the judgement that awaits those who do not bear good fruit. For the fruit is what determines being saved, not the availability or the possession of the power to bear it.
So in John’s preaching, recorded in a very few words by Luke the doctor, we are reminded of these three aspects of the Christian life – the preparation for the Christian life, the power of the Christian life, the products of the Christian life – perhaps the whole of our Christian experience is about baptism! Perhaps baptism is not a one off, but an ongoing process that happens throughout our days on earth