“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.”
– Matthew 3:11 (ESV)
Matthew fast-forwards about 30 years after Jesus’ birth to his relative, John the Baptist, preaching in the desert and calling for repentance. John’s call for repentance was not simply for people to be apologetic for their sins – more was expected. Repentance is the turning away from sinful behavior and aligning ourselves with God’s will in obedience. John gave this call out of a sense of urgency because the kingdom was at hand (). John understood how urgent it was for sinners to turn to God and away from sin because he was preparing the path for the Lord.
If you live in an urban setting, you may see people standing on the street corner or talking into a megaphone calling for people to repent. Now, I will not say that they always do so in the kindest or most effective manner, but we do see something similar in John the Baptist. We cannot lose the necessity of calling for the repentance of sinners. Too many people think they can sin as long as they keep apologizing to God for their wrongdoing. The problem with this is that any apology we give becomes inauthentic because of our continuation in sinning. Only repentance, the deliberate turning away from sin toward God, is acceptable to God.
John was not hesitant to preach the truth even when he came under pressure from the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees. His message was like that of the Old Testament prophets -‘both a message of warning and hope. In , John shuns the religious leaders for coming to his baptism, not in a state of repentance like many others had, but seeking to judge John. He instructs that only bearing fruit will evidence their repentance. The religious leaders would use their relationship to Abraham as credentials for their relationship with God; however, John warns that that relationship is useless without bearing fruitful evidence of repentance to God. It would be similar to a person today saying that they are a Christian simply because their parents are Christians – that is not how it works.
In , John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees that a lack of good fruit leads to destruction. tells us what it means to bear good fruit. We are unable to bear fruit on our own – we must remain in Christ in order to be fruitful. Christ, like a vine, is the source of our power to bear fruit. By bearing good fruit, we bring glory to the Father and live as disciples of Christ.
John’s message is also a message of hope. In , John looks forward to the one coming after him. The baptism that John performed was probably based on a ceremonial washing for Gentiles who converted to Judaism – he used it in a way to renew the faith of the Jewish people back to God. One of the most mistaken things about John’s baptism is that it is not the final form of baptism – his water baptism is only a shadow of what is to come. He says that now he baptizes with water, but that will change soon because someone different is coming – Jesus Christ. Instead of baptizing with water, he will baptize believers with the Holy Spirit! This is the one and only baptism for believers (). He will also, in a way, baptize those who do not believe with fire. As the end of verse 12 states, “…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Christ came to bring salvation to humankind, but he will also return to bring judgment and condemnation.
When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John refused and pleaded that Jesus baptize him instead. It is understandable that John, who must have recognized Jesus to be the Messiah, would not think it appropriate for him to baptize Jesus because of his unworthiness. After all, in , he said that he was not even worthy to carry his sandals! Many commentators suggest that the reason why Jesus chose to be baptized was so that he could identify himself with humanity’s sinfulness and failure. Remember that John’s water baptism was for forgiveness, but Christ had no sin which needed to be forgiven. He used John’s baptism to show that he identifies with us – with our struggles, with our mess, and with our sinfulness – even though he did not sin himself. Since Jesus can identify with us, he could be the perfect, sinless sacrifice to save us from sin.
In , we see a picture of all three persons of the Trinity at once (Father’s voice from heaven, Jesus in the water, and the Spirit descending on him). Jesus was consecrated for his ministry with the Spirit’s power. This is important for us to recognize that the Spirit gives power for ministry. All believers, who are also filled with the Spirit, are given the power for ministry in the body of Christ – the Church. This does not mean that all of us will enter into full-time ministry, but God has equipped us differently to function as one body in the Church (). It is encouraging to know that the same Spirit that empowered Christ in his ministry has equipped us and gives us power in our ministry. The necessary thing is that we use the gifts that have been given to us to bring glory to God and show Christ to others.