Matthew 3:11-12 - Greater Baptism Coming
The transitional view, as spoken by John, hints at the nature of Jesus and what His ministry will look like.
1. The position of John relative to Jesus
2. The different baptisms
3. The judging function of Jesus
1. Jesus is, in every respect, mightier than John. Therefore His ministry is also greater. His anointing is greater. The power of His ministry is greater. The sifting of His ministry is greater. John recognizes this. In order for any human being to be in proper relationship with Jesus, there must be no stealing of His glory; no pretense that we are important, or indispensable, or on close levels with Jesus.
Jesus would say of John that he was the greatest man born among men (11:11). But John’s own comparison of himself against Jesus is dramatic. He takes the lowliest of servant positions - one carrying his sandals - and says he is unworthy even of that humble station and smallest of acts of service. John puts the contrast of the person before the contrast of the ministries. In other words, the ministry flows from the person, not the other way around. The ministry does not define the person.
As great as is the contrast of persons, so is the contrast of ministries. The point here, however, is if John was the greatest among those born of a woman, then what is my position relative to Jesus? He was unworthy to carry His sandals. I am hardly worthy then to even mention His name. Dwell there for a moment. Think carefully about “my position” in the face of Jesus Christ.
How much has grace afforded us?...that we should be called His friends? (John 15:15). When I take stock of my life - even my life in Christ - it doesn’t take long to understand how disparate and pitiful my life is in its nature when put beside that of Jesus. Any clearheaded view coming from the comparison of His life with mine is a humbling experience in the extreme. How is it that He would die for me? So much greater is He than I. Great men (Presidents & Prime Ministers; artists; sports heroes, etc.) live above me. They have so much more power and influence and position and recognition for their place or achievements. They make me feel small, weak, of no stature or power. Yet John was greater than all of them!! All of them!! And John had no place but at the feet of Jesus, carrying his sandals - maybe! How great is Jesus?
2. There are two different baptisms mentioned. John’s baptism is a baptism of water for repentance. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The former is preparatory. The latter is for consummation. The former prepares the heart into a state of humility, recognition of the need of forgiveness and posturing to ask and receive from God. The latter is the receiving that comes through forgiveness for the purpose of ongoing relationship of Presence and purging, or conformity to the Holy One who is now within.
The two baptisms represent two ages, with John’s also being a bridge. It is a reminder of the law, sin and death/condemnation under the law. However, it does have a transitional function. For those who are earnest in heart, it prepares for a new and complete satisfaction of sin and for entrance into a Kingdom that is breaking in. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism of permanent life and ongoing relationship. That relationship includes Presence (Holy Spirit = power of life, along with entrance into and dwelling in the kingdom of God) and refinement or conformity to the image of the glory of God (fire = purification, or judgment so we will not be judged in the end; fire admits of ever increasing levels of relationship towards perfect relationship).
Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of what John’s baptism anticipates. It is vastly superior in every respect because it has the power of life. John’s baptism has no power of life. It encourages faith. But Jesus’ baptism offers eternal life through reconciliation and the permanent indwelling of God in the reconciled relationship. It speaks of God’s ongoing activity in the believer to sanctify him/her so that the relationship can prosper towards ever-increasing glory. It is so vastly different and superior in every way that fulfills the idea of John not being worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.
3. Then there is this whole issue of “fire.” The baptism is of Jesus is a baptism of fire. If you check out all the references in Matthew that don’t have to do with literal fire, the reference always refers to judgment. There is not a single reference where fire is used for another image, such as “passion” or “zeal.” Therefore, context would clearly lead us to see the baptism of Jesus with fire as a judging baptism. Because it is bracketed by the use of fire for eternal judgment in verses 10 and 12, it is likely to underscore the difference in the middle use.
There is no doubt we could read this as a separating baptism - Holy Spirit for those who have faith to believe, and fire of eternal judgment for those who do not. However, there is another way to view fire of judgment that is not permanent. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 speaks of a fire of judgment that burns up works that were not pleasing to God and that the person can be saved but only through fire.
13 each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
In other words, there is a judgment of fire that is not eternal. This seems to fit the baptism of Jesus. Paul reiterates this basic idea without the use of fire in 1 Corinthians 11:29-32:
29 For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
In other words, the Christian too can be subject to judgment, but it is a judgment to purge sin here and now. It can be likened to the same fire. It burns. But it is not an eternal burning. It is a purging judgment to get rid of all that is not fit for heaven so that the eternal life of the person being judged is not lost. Peter also repeats this same idea in 1 Peter 1:6-7:
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Here “various trials” are the specific contents of the “fire” that refines. It appears that trials are a significant part of God’s plan to refine the believer with fire so that he/she might not be judged along with the world. Further, if I am interpreting Matthew 3:11 correctly, it means that it is an intentional baptism on God’s part that leads to a death to sin like Christ’s (cf. Romans 6). In other words, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and with a baptism of refining fire in whatever way He chooses to do that. In some significant measure, He accomplishes this by leading us through trials. He intends not just to save us by decision, but to save us completely from all sin through fire.
This is not a pleasant devotional thought. “I love you Jesus. Thanks for burning me!” Yet that is exactly what He does. And that is exactly what we who have been subject to fire and have seen the purging and freedom that comes from it can genuinely give as a response of faith (Romans 5:3-5). It doesn’t make us masochists to respond that way. We who suffer the baptism of fire in Christ come to understand (if we don’t let the trial overcome us to seed bitterness or fear or the like) that Christ also learned obedience through what He suffered and that we too will learn the will of God and obedience to it through suffering. This, when it runs its course, will lead to joy as we experience the release from sins and destructive behaviour patterns that have plagued us and broken down relationships all of our lives. We see our souls becoming as pure gold and it is nothing short of glorious; painful, but glorious.
The ministry of Jesus also has an element of final judgment to it. In the end He will separate out those who would not receive His baptism and they will burn with an unquenchable fire (v. 12). This places the one who dwelt among us as the judge. The image presented here is a separating of those who are now together. He alone is adequate as both God and man to do this separating. In the end, as exalted King He will have the power, authority and omniscience to know the hearts of man. He will also have the compassion and first hand understanding of the plight of the human heart under the burden of living in a sinful world, yet without sin. No being in the universe is as prepared for judging as Jesus. John prophecies this before Jesus’ ministry begins. It is the ministry itself, as Jesus will be perfected through what He suffers (perfected in His priestly and judging role; Hebrews 2:10), that will be the final process to give Him both the right and experience to judge. There is no doubt God could judge us at any time. But Jesus is the “perfected” judge.
The judgment is final. It is unquenchable. All myths about there being a back door in hell, or hell being some mildly negative experience, or there being an end to the duration of hell, would have to rationalize the plain meaning of this text. Both in v. 10 and here in v. 12 Matthew makes it clear that there is a final judgment and punishment for those who are found wanting. He underscores in the former text that it is permanent and in the latter text that it goes on forever. This is reminiscent of the continuing of the prophetic outpouring in Malachi (4:1) and borrows from some of the imagery in Jeremiah (15:7). Judgment in some way is most clearly represented as a burning in fire. It expresses unimaginable pain and suffering, for there is hardly a more painful experience than that of being burned. It may be that there is a literal fire. I would conclude that from the texts. But there is a burning in the soul as well - the burning and unquenchable fire experienced by the person who for a moment in judgment was present in the glory and love of God, but who was excluded from His presence forever because of an unrepentant heart.