"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.Matthew 3:11(NASB)
John the Baptist was speaking directly to many unrepentant and prideful Pharisees and Sadducees whom he scolded with various blistering accusations. He called them 'a fruitless generation of vipers', whom God in His wrath was preparing to chop down and cast into the fire.
They boasted of being 'children of God' because they were Abraham's physical descendants. However, they were ill-prepared to harken to John's voice in the wilderness concerning the need to repent. John the Baptist was calling for individual repentance as well as a collective, national mourning - for the nation's past sin, their spiritual adultery, and gross apostasy.
John was the forerunner of the Messiah, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. He came to prepare the way of the Lord. He was that voice crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord! Make ready the way of the Lord! Make His path straight! John burst onto the Israeli landscape proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and that the prophesied King had arrived.
Jesus was the king of the Jews and He was now in their midst. He had come to set up the kingdom which had been promised to King David, but the nation had become apostate and had to repent FIRST - both individual and national repentance was required. The people were to repent - to turn from their wicked way back to God. Inner repentance of heart was needed and Israel's change of heart was to be demonstrated through an outward sign - a 'baptism-unto-repentance' with water.
The apostate nation that had turned against the God of their forefathers, was being called to repent of their sin. To be baptised with water for repentance was to demonstrate their change of direction. For centuries, prophets had called the nation to run from their evil ways and return to God, and John's baptism of repentance was to be the outward sign of their inner change of heart.
This act was to be a preparation for the arrival of Jesus - their promised Messiah and King of the Jews. When Joshua entered the Promised Land, the people had to re-commit themselves to the Lord which they did through the outward act of circumcision. In the same way, the people in John's day had to recommit to their faith in God by an inward change of heart. They were challenged to repent of their sins. And water-baptism was to be the outward display of their inner change of heart. Jesus had come to give Israel their long-awaited promised rest.
The people considered John to be a great prophet and yet his ministry was a partial preparation for the good news of the gospel that was to follow. He confessed that the One Who was coming after him was much greater and mightier than he was. We read that John was the greatest of all Old Testament prophets and yet Jesus would completely overshadow John - just as He eclipsed all the former prophets old. Indeed, John admitted that he was not sufficiently worthy to bend down and unlace His sandals.
John warned that although he himself baptised with water - for repentance, the One Who was coming after would baptise in two very different ways. First, He would baptise with the Holy Spirit - for salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life, and second, He would baptise with Fire - for judgement, condemnation, and eternal separation from God. The former took place at Pentecost, but the latter is yet to come.
Some suggest that these two baptisms of Christ are one and the same. Indeed, they erroneously give Pentecost as evidence!! However, when seen in its correct context, we discover that 'baptism of the Holy Spirit' refers to salvation while the 'baptism of fire' refers to judgement.
At salvation, we see a separation of the good wheat, (true believers - baptised with the Holy Spirit) who will be stored in the granary... and the bad chaff, (unbelievers) who will be burned forever with unquenchable fire - the baptism of the fires of judgement.
Praise God that having been saved by grace through faith, we have been baptised into the Body of Christ and placed in union with Him. And thank God that we will never have to face the future baptism of fire and judgement about which John spoke.
Sadly, there are many who do not know the glorious gospel of grace. May we use the time that we have to share the good news of Christ and warn of the bad news of rejecting His offer of salvation.
Heavenly Father, thank You that I have been baptised into Your Body and will never face the wrath of God and the judgement of fire. I pray that my life would be a light to the unsaved - for the glory to God and that You would look down in mercy on those who have not yet trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin and life everlasting. This I pray in Jesus' name, AMEN.