Scripture: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:11-12 ESV
Observation: John the Baptist, having called those seeking a message of hope to repent and having admonished the hypocritical religious leaders to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, understands his subordinate role (to prepare the way for the Messiah) is concluding. Thus, John tells his audience that he is not worthy to even act as a lowly servant of this yet nameless Messiah who is far superior to him (referring to carrying his sandals). For Christ will baptize them with Holy Spirit and fire that will either sanctify the sincerely repentant or consume those who are self-justified. And he will expose true believers from the pretenders as a farmer separates the chaff from the wheat.
Of note, the concept of baptism of the Holy Spirit is not unique to the New Testament. Ezekiel (36:25-27; 39:29) and Joel (2:28) draw on this cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, but only Matthew and Luke add the purifying agent of fire to their accounts of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah. Also of note, regarding separating the wheat from the chaff, the farmer would toss both into the air, where the wind would blow the chaff away, leaving only the desired grain that the farmer would gather and store for safekeeping.
Takeaway: John the Baptist’s message is both terrifying and comforting as it points to the mission and work of Christ. While the Son of God came into our world to bring forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with the Father, and abundant life and eternal joy in his presence, his Gospel message remains scandalous and divisive to this day. Its shocking mandate to confess our sins and repent separates the chaff from the wheat. Indeed, the self-justified and self-sufficient take umbrage. And while they may prosper in this life, sadly, at life’s end, their Creator will thresh them with his winds of judgment, resulting in eternal anguish separated from his perfect love, joy, and peace. But we who trust in Christ’s completed work on the Cross will find rest in him (Matthew 11:30) and know his love, joy, and peace.
So how should we respond to John the Baptist’s message? Since we are incapable of overcoming our propensity to sin, we appropriate Christ’s sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) and cooperate with his Holy Spirit, who matures us in our faith and inspires us to prepare the way for others to discover the joy of his salvation. And as servants of Christ who are not worthy to carry his sandals, along the way, we worship and glorify our King with gratitude, remembering that he came into our world to serve and give his life as a ransom for us (Matthew 20:28).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who baptized us with the Holy Spirit and fire. Would you please help us rest in his sufficient grace and cooperate with his Holy Spirit so we might gratefully worship and glorify him and prepare the way for others searching for hope? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling