Now the people were waiting expectantly, and all of them were debating in their minds whether John might be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to untie the strap of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out.” Then, along with many other exhortations, he proclaimed good news to the people.
—Luke 3:15-18 (HCSB)
Working in the entertainment industry, I enjoy watching a lot of movie trailers. Unfortunately, the excitement, energy, and drama the trailers present are too often better than the actual film, presenting an expectation that the film itself doesn’t meet.
Sometimes the trailer tells all the good parts of the movie and gives everything away, so that when I see the movie, it fails to meet expectations because it provides no more entertainment than the trailer did. It's nothing new.
In these passages, we read about John the Baptist, who was at the height of his ministry and popularity. John said there was One coming who’s greater than himself.
Many were waiting in expectation, questioning whether John might be the Christ because the voice of God was unmistakable in John's preaching. In Malachi, written about 450 years before the days of John the Baptist, we read:
"See, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple… But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2).
“‘For indeed, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘not leaving them root or branches’” (Malachi 4:1).
Sounds a lot like: "His winnowing shovel is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with a fire that never goes out" (Luke 3:17).
The axe is at the root of the tree, and so on. But John denied being the Christ, the expected Messiah, saying that He who is coming was mightier. He was Someone whose sandals John wasn’t worthy to untie. So what was Malachi looking forward to, and what was John the Baptist preparing the people for?
John the Baptist said, "I baptize you with water, but One is coming who is more powerful than I. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16).
In essence, what could be done up to that point was being done. But when Christ came, that which wasn’t possible before was ushered in with great power.
To quote Matthew Henry's commentary, "John can only speak comfort to those that receive the gospel, but Jesus will give them comfort. John can only promise that they shall be safe; but Christ will make them so."
The baptism of John was with water in preparation of the greater baptism of (or full identification with) Christ in the Holy Spirit and fire. The Spirit transforms the believer in Christ from the inside out. His baptism isn’t an outward symbol, but a powerful working in the life of a believer to transform, redeem, cleanse from sin, and free from sin’s power in Christ Jesus.
Those things John couldn’t do. Only the Messiah could bring that powerful work into the world. Like fire that consumes what it burns, our God is a "consuming fire" as we read in Hebrews, to change completely the spiritual state of the believer from vile enemy of God to redeemed and precious in His sight.
In those days they waited for a breezy day to thresh the wheat after harvest. They would beat the grain to split the husks and free the kernel from it. Then they would gather it all into a pan and toss it up into the moving air over and over.
The kernels, which were full and heavy, would fall back into the pan, but the chaff and husks, which had no substance and were light and no longer useful, would blow away with the wind. That chaff was swept up and burned.
It’s a picture of the substance and health of the gospel compared with the flightiness and emptiness of the world around it. What Christ would usher in would be better that the trailer. In fact, it would change the world forever and how all humanity would now relate with the God who created it.
- What do we expect when we come to Christ to be saved?
- Is what John the Baptist said of Christ still true for the world today?
- John the Baptist could’ve accepted the praise of the people but he didn't. Why not?
- When people see how we as Christians live out our lives today, do they see people "baptized with fire" and transformed by God?