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Matthew 3:10-12 by Robert Dean
Repent! The Kingdom of heaven is at hand! Judgment is near! Listen to this lesson to discover a withering doomsday message proclaimed by John the Baptist. Understand the vivid word pictures John uses to describe the coming judgment and the three uses of "fire". Contrast John's baptism as a sign of repentance with Christian baptism by means of the Holy Spirit as our identification with Christ at the instant we believe. Learn how repentance to John means turning to God and should be followed by obedience to God, just as Christian baptism demonstrates the power of Christ in our lives as we obey Him.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:46 mins 5 secs

Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Fire
Matthew 3:10-12
Matthew Lesson #011
November 10, 2013

Matthew 3:10-12 are not easy verses to understand or comprehend and they are verses that have often been taken out of context and misunderstood. So some of our time will be taken to clarify what the issues are in these verses. The focus is really on verse 11 where John the Baptist announces and prophecies that one will come after him and will baptize by means of the Spirit and by means of fire. So the focal point here is on these two baptisms, but that is within the context of a warning. The warnings of verses 10 and 11 focus on coming judgment. We live in a world that is not independent. It is under the authority of God and eventually there will be judgment. There will be an accounting for everyone at some point in the future.

This emphasis on judgment is one that John the Baptist is bringing to his Jewish audience and at this point the focus is on Israel. Everything that we understand at this point in the Gospels is a ministry that is focused on Israel in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. So when John shows up on the scene and he begins to proclaim his message, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand", is meant something to its recipients. They were schooled in Old Testament prophecy and an understanding of this concept of repentance, that is wasn't simply a feeling sorry for sin, it was not focused on emotion, but the core idea was turning away from the false gods and idols of paganism and turning to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The idea of repentance was something that was understood in Israel; it was the need to turn. And with that turning it wasn't simply an abstract or academic understanding of belief in God but it resulted in a change in life, and it was not to be divorced from that. And the idea of repentance wasn't just a one-shot decision because each and every day that had to be reaffirmed. There was a core change in life's direction. They understood what repentance was; it was not a term that John had to explain.    

Jesus said basically the same thing at the beginning of His ministry. He doesn't have to explain to His audience what repentance is. When He sent out His disciples proclaiming the same thing He doesn't have to explain that. His audience understood its meaning because they were schooled in the Old Testament. We live in a time today when people are not very well schooled in Old Testament theology and so we always have to take a lot of time explaining this, not only because we don't understand the Old Testament context but also because it has been so distorted. Today the emphasis on repentance is feeling sorry your sin and turning away from sin. That wasn't the focal point. It was a call from God to His audience to turn to Him. So here it is a call from John the Baptist to the nation to turn. But it is not just nation; it has a two-fold approach here. And something we have to understand is that he is not only addressing and seeking a national turning to God in preparation for the arrival of the kingdom but it also entails on the part of many an individual turning away from paganism or from the legalism of the religious establishment of the time to turning to God in acceptance of the grace gospel. 

John has a two-fold audience here. He is addressing the corporate entity of Israel but he is also addressing individuals within the nation and their need to get right with God. But then in a third way he is addressing those who perhaps were Old Testament saints, believers who were living in apostasy—either legalistic apostasy or in some form of licentious or immoral apostasy. So it is a loaded term and it is calling upon its recipients to turn from whatever position in life they were in and to change the direction of their thinking and their life because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. If the kingdom of heaven is going to arrive, this political kingdom that would be led by a descendant of David, the messianic King, if that were going to come into effect, it could only come into effect if the people of God (a term that at this point would refer to Israel) were obedient to the Mosaic Law. The thrust of the Mosaic Law was not just correctly affirming the existence of God and their identification with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but as the book of Deuteronomy repeats over and over again they were to be obedient. Moses said again and again and again they were to love the Lord their God and obey Him in every area of life. So there is not a disconnect between turning to God and obeying Him. The two were understood to go together.

What had happened in early Judaism following the exile, in the period called the second temple period with the development of Phariseeism, was that a development of a superficiality, a religiosity, that entered in. If you just sort of went through your religious checklist and did the things they said to do which were external then you were good to go. As long as you were a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob you really were guaranteed entrance into the kingdom. It didn't depend on your behavior, just as long as you were Jewish that got you in but if you wanted to get anything else then you needed to follow the religious checklist. That was the external religiosity of the Pharisees.

John is out in the wilderness. We often think of wilderness maybe in terms of something that is forested but in Israel it is desert. But another way to understand it is in contrast to the city. In fact wilderness is used in several places in the Old Testament not as some barren wasteland but just in terms of the country where it is populated by many small villages, farms and rural areas. That is the emphasis on the ministry of John. He doesn't come from the city, or from Jerusalem which was dominated by the religious aristocracy; he came from the country.

When he appears on the scene and is proclaiming his message it gets the attention of everybody. As we see in the passage it talks about everybody from Galilee, from Judea and from Jerusalem, coming out to hear him. Therefore the religious establishment would send their investigative team out in order to see what was going on and if this had any sort of significance. So the crowds would be composed of a variety of different people from different backgrounds.

Matthew 3:7 NASB "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" This tells us that among the audience he was addressing there was at least one group that was composed of unbelievers. He is not just addressing believers. This is important when we get into this passage, especially verses 10-12, that we decide who he is talking to. Is he talking to unbelievers only, or is he talking to those who are Old Testament saints (believers) only. Of a group of believers there would be those who were obedient and also those who would be disobedient. The disobedient would be those who had fallen into some sort of legalism or pagan immorality. So is he just addressing believing believers of one type or another, or is his address to a mixed audience? I believe that he is addressing this mixed audience. There were such huge crowds coming from everywhere that they would include new believers, unbelievers, and at this point in verse 7 the religious leaders. They are further identified as being those who believe (verse 9) that they are already going to be going into the kingdom simply because Abraham is their father.

But there are a lot of people who mistakenly think that they are going to go to heaven and have eternal life simply because they have always gone to church, or they were brought up in a Christian home, or for whatever reason they think they are automatically going to get into heaven when they have never trusted in Christ as savior. What we see here is that there is a specific message to believe in every era and every generation. At this particular narrow point in time the focal point was on John's message.

He identifies the Pharisees and Sadducees also as a brood (offspring) of vipers. It is the Pharisees and Sadducees who reject Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. They are the ones who have Him arrested and they are the ones who were the primary power pushing for His crucifixion. They are the ones who were responsible for His death on the cross. So this is the first hint of their opposition to what God is doing, and the ministries of John the Baptist and later of Jesus.

It says they were coming to his baptism. This doesn't mean they were coming to be baptized. The Greek preposition epi simply indicates that they were coming our to observe, coming out to a location. They are coming out to watch, so it doesn't indicate that they were coming out for baptism. But when John sees them he zeros in on them. If we compare this with Luke we have this same kind of statement that we have here in verse 10 predicting judgment but it is followed then by the way that John addresses different groups that are present. Matthew doesn't tell us about those groups. Because of Luke we know that John is addressing them in terms of their positive response to his message. He is addressing elements within the multitude that are believers. But in his address to the Pharisees he is addressing them as unbelievers.

He says in Matthew 3:8 "Therefore bear fruit …" It is a singular noun in the Greek. " … in keeping with repentance." There are a lot of people who when they read that, read something that isn't there, i.e. that if you have truly repented then you will produce works that are consistent with that. But that is not what he says. He says after you have repented you have to continue to produce fruit. It is not just a one-shot decision. We have to continue to go in the right direction. This is comparable to things we have studied in the past such as continuing to walk by means of the Spirit, continuing to abide in Christ; it is staying focused in fellowship and advancing in our spiritual life. As a result of that we know in the church age God the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives. But that is not what is going on here. John is simply talking about the fact that their lives should be consistent with a turning to God.

This is clearly supported by the Old Testament passages in Deuteronomy, in chapter 28 especially, where God through Moses tells the Israelites that of they are going to be blessed by God in the land they are going to have to live in obedience to God. And if they are obedient to God He will bring them agricultural prosperity, abundance to the land, and they will be blessed. But if they are disobedient then He will bring judgment on them. That is the same idea that John has here. He is saying that if they are going to turn to God then their life after that must continue to reinforce that turning by living in obedience to God.

Matthew 3:9 NASB "and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham."

His point is that physical relationship to Abraham isn't enough for salvation.

Then we come to an interesting passage in verses 10-12. NASB "The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

In Israel there was an understanding of the Old Testament that before the kingdom arrived there would be a purging, a cleansing, a judgment that would come prior to the arrival of the King.

Isaiah 4:4 NASB "When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning". This is a clear prediction that before the kingdom comes there is going to be a time of cleansing and judgment nationally. But notice the last phrase, "the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning". This indicates that the judgment that occurs in Israel prior to the arrival of the kingdom is indicated by burning—which is related to fire. The reason for pointing this out is that there is some discussion and confusion over whether John is talking about two baptisms in verse 11 or one baptism. I believe it is two baptisms. This is indicating in Isaiah 4:4 that even the Old Testament predicted a judgment of fire just prior to the arrival of the kingdom. That is what John is talking about and warning his generation about.  

Jeremiah 33:15 NASB "In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth." So judgment will precede the coming of the kingdom.

This is also indicated in Daniel 7:26, 27 NASB "But the court will sit {for judgment,} and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of {all} the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom {will be} an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him."

This is important in terms of understanding the order of events. Daniel chapter seven is speaking of the arrival of the Son of Man who has been given the kingdom by the Father, referred to in this passage as the Ancient of Days. First there is judgment and then following that the establishment of the kingdom.

When John is addressing this he is addressing the fact that there is this coming kingdom and that there will be judgment beforehand. So just as the kingdom is imminent, just as the kingdom is near, so would the judgment be that preceded it. This is what he is describing.

One of the questions we have to ask as we try to ascertain the meaning of this is, first of all: Is this a detailed analogy where each element such as the root, the trees, the axe, has some meaning? Or, is it a general analogy where you look at the story as a whole, which is simply depicting a future judgment? There are those who may come along and say the trees represent one thing, the axe represents something else; but a lot of these agricultural type metaphors that are used here and a number of other places are simply depicting a coming judgment. In agriculture, as a farmer would go out into the fields at the end of the harvest he would see the plants that were not producing fruit and were no longer of value and they would be removed and thrown into the fire. I believe that in this verse what we have is a general statement that that which is useless will not go into the kingdom but will go into judgment. Verses 11 and 12 are going to each give us more detail.

The second question we must answer is: Does the fire refer to temporal judgment? There are those who think that this fire refers to the judgment that came on Israel in AD 70. There is another possibility and that is, since the church has not been announced yet and there is no indication of the coming of the church—in fact the rejection of the Lord has not taken place, I don't think AD 70 is at all in view yet—could it refer to the day of the Lord? That is a possibility. But when we look at the next couple of verses it is more likely that the use of fire in this passage is referring to eternal condemnation and eternal judgment, i.e. being cast into the lake of fire.

When we look at these verses together we see that in each verses there is a reference to fire. The way some people piecemeal this section is difficult, because the context here would argue that the fire all refers to the same thing. That which is thrown into the fire in verse 10 is further developed in verse11 in terms of the baptism with fire. That baptism with fire is then given clarification in verse 12 where we are told that there is a separation from the chaff, and then the chaff is then burned with unquenchable fire. That particular event is then identified in Matthew chapter thirteen.

Matthew chapter thirteen is a chapter dealing with the kingdom parables. The first parable is the parable of the soils and the second parable is the parable of the wheat and the tares.  

Matthew 13:24 NASB "Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. [25] But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.'"

Tares refers to darnel which is a weed that grows up in the midst of the wheat, and it is difficult to discern the difference. It is so intertwined with the wheat that you can't pull out the darnell without doing damage to the wheat. 

[26' "But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. [27] The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, 'Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' [28] And he said to them, 'An enemy has done this!' The slaves said to him, 'Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?' [29] But he said, 'No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. [30] Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

He gives the explanation in verse 36: "Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, 'Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.' [37] And He said, 'The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, [38] and the field is the world; and {as for} the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom [believers]; and the tares are the sons of the evil {one;} [39] and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age [the time prior to the coming of the kingdom]; and the reapers are angels…" The angels are the court officers sent out from the Supreme Court of heaven to execute the judgment of heaven. [40] 'So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. [41] The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, [42] and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…' It is a separation of believers from unbelievers. [43] ' … Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.'"

So we see that the separation of the wheat from the chaff is a picture that is used several times in the Gospels and it indicates an event that occurs just prior to the establishment of the kingdom. That helps us to identify the fact that what John is talking about in a somewhat summary fashion this end time judgment. He is warning that if the Jews do not prepare themselves spiritually—he is addressing the Pharisees in this particular section—and get right with God in terms of salvation they will be removed for eternal judgment.

Another thing that comes up here is that at the end of verse 11 John says, "He (referring to the Messiah) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Grammatically this could refer to the same event, but it doesn't have to. There are some who take this as the fire indicating purification, the Holy Spirit comes to cleanse in relation to the baptism of the Holy Spirit. All of that is true but it is more likely because of the fire mention of judgment in vv. 10 & 12 that these are not to be taken as identical.

The reason why the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are not identical is first of all, the context uses fire three times, the other two indicate a future judgment that is distinct. (The first mention of fire in v. 10 and the third mention in v12 speak of a future judgment so therefore the one in the middle must also be speaking about future judgment.) Second, the passage develops the concept by stating it first in verse 9, adding more information in verse 10, and then more details by the time we get to verse 11. The third reason is that the apostles refer to the baptism of the Holy Spirit several times and fire is never mentioned.

The verse 12 statement is the strongest indication that this refers to this end time judgment when at the end of the Tribulation in judgment God the Son is going to purify the population of the earth by removing all unbelievers. Initially they are sent to torments but their final destination is the lake of fire.

In Matthew 3:11 John announces that Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The one who performs the baptism is Jesus. He is the one who baptizes us and He baptizes by means of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says, "For by one Spirit …" In English that could indicate that the Spirit performs the baptism. But in Greek "the Spirit" is in a passive voice construction, and the one who performs the action of the verb is indicated by the preposition hupo, not the preposition en. The preposition en always indicates the instrument used to bring about the baptism. This becomes clear that God the Son uses God the Holy Spirit to bring about this identification with Himself.

We have a comparison here. John says, "As for me, I baptize you with water …" The instrument that John uses to symbolize the cleansing and with identification with the new kingdom is water. What he compares that too is what Jesus will do in the future. Just as John uses water to symbolize cleansing and identification with the new kingdom, so Jesus will use the Holy Spirit to bring about cleansing in the life of the believer and identification with Himself in what we call the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit. And there is only one baptism by the Spirit.

In Matthew 3:11 Jesus is the one who uses the Holy Spirit but it doesn't talk about what the new state is—where there is identification. There is a similar structure in 1 Corinthians 10:2 where the Old Testament Jews at the time of the exodus were said to be baptized by the cloud and by the sea. That was the instrument used to identify them with Moses. Then in 1 Corinthians 10:13 there is nothing said about who performs the baptism but it is done by the Spirit, indicating that the Spirit is used to bring about our identification with the body of Christ. John the Baptist uses water to indentify the person with repentance. In the same way Jesus uses the Holy Spirit to identify the person with Himself in His death, burial and resurrection. It is not the Holy Spirit baptizing us into Christ. The language is consistent in all these passages. Jesus is the one who uses the Holy Spirit to identify us with Jesus Christ. So the baptism by means of the Holy Spirit, by way of a definition, is the work of Christ whereby at the moment of faith alone in Christ alone He uses the Holy Spirit to identify the believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. We become a new creature in Christ; we have a new life.

What does it mean for us? In Romans 6:3 Paul says, "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" There is an identification with Christ that occurs at the instant of salvation that brings about a new identity for us. This is what Paul says in verse 4: "Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." That is not water baptism; that is the Spirit baptism, identification with His death.

John is saying to Israel: You need to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. That means that there needs to be a change, a change that results in a new standard of living and a new way of life because you are not going to get the kingdom if you're not in obedience to the Law. In the same way, when we look at Romans chapter six and look at what Paul is saying, as a believer we have to recognize that we have been identified with Christ, we are a new creature in Christ, and our identification with His death, burial and resurrection has given us a newness of life so that now it is our responsibility to live in light of this new life. We can't continue to live as we did before we were saved because we are no longer that person. We have a new identity. The power of the sin nature has been broken and we have a new identity and capacity to live for Him.

Paul concludes that section of Romans chapter six by saying in vv. 11-13: "Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin {as} instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members {as} instruments of righteousness to God."     

It is the same kind of message as John. There needs to be a change. The changed being talked about in Romans 6 isn't a change so you can be saved, it is a change because you understand what happened when you were saved. You were given a new life, a new relationship to Christ, a new identity as not under the tyranny of the sin nature; and because of that it is now incumbent upon us to live for the Lord and not to live for ourselves or our sin nature.