What Did He Say?
In addition to introducing Jesus’ ministry, John introduced a number of key spiritual terms. Repentance, confession, baptism, the kingdom of heaven, judgment, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit are all mentioned here for the first time in the New Testament. Each of these concepts will be developed further as we proceed through Matthew and more fully as we consider the whole of Scripture, but it will be helpful to include some basic definitions here. Because we’ve already looked briefly at repentance in connection with John’s calling for a change of heart, and because that is a great starting point for understanding the word repent, let’s move on to consider the other terms.
Baptism wasn’t a new practice in John’s day. Throughout God’s ancient story, those who wished to convert to Judaism were not only circumcised but were often baptized, symbolically cleansing them from their former beliefs. The practice was associated with publicly forsaking idolatrous ways and confessing the God of Israel to be their one and only God. John’s baptism offered a similar feel—a symbolic forsaking of the past and looking forward to God’s promised Deliverer. It’s all right there in the big but of verse 11 that reads: I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one… Do you see it? Change of heart about the past, and looking forward.
John spoke of the kingdom of heaven. It is worth noting that in their gospels Mark and Luke used the phrase kingdom of God. It is reasonable to equate these two terms. This kingdom reign or authority is what the Old Testament prophets had eagerly anticipated. To a Jewish audience, John’s announcing the kingdom of heaven was near would have signaled that their time of waiting was almost over. These were exciting days!
The concept of God’s judgment is clearly a part of John’s warnings. “The axe is already at the root and every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire,” leaves little confusion. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my mother would say, “Just wait until your father gets home!” Uh oh! Just as the kingdom is imminent, so also is God’s discerning judgment. By speaking so graphically, John signaled that God’s coming kingdom that the people had been longing to see, and His judgment of men’s lives, were absolutely linked.
Lastly, John mentioned ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ here. This term is among the most debated and misunderstood in Christianity. Sometimes, painfully so.
Early in my pastoral career a dear couple began attending our church—they had recently retired to our area. They lived for each and every visit from their grandchildren, the stories of which they were never at a loss to share. One evening I received a phone call asking me to visit. I knew from the tone something was amiss. They greeted me with coffee and cookies, then quickly fell to pieces. “Our granddaughter called us today. She said we’re going to hell because we’re not baptized in the Spirit. What does that mean, pastor? We thought we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” As I sorted out the backstory I learned that their granddaughter attended a youth group where she was taught that baptized in the Spirit meant speaking in tongues. Because her grandparents didn’t, a youth worker persuaded her they were on a fast track to hell. Do you see what I meant when I said the misunderstandings are sometimes painful? I mean, wouldn’t you love to … lay hands on that youth worker?
Let us consider a few things that are clearly evidenced here in this text concerning the baptism of the Holy Spirit: It is a baptism that is typified by John’s baptism of repentance; it is a baptism that is the work of Jesus Himself; it is a baptism associated with the Holy Spirit and fire. Nothing of salvation needing to be evidenced by speaking in tongues mentioned here.