In Spirit and Fire

At the Jordan River, John proclaimed a baptism in water “for the remission of sins,” and he announced the arrival of the “Coming One.” John was the forerunner of the Messiah of Israel as promised in the Book of Isaiah - “Behold, I send my messenger before your face… The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” This Coming One is the long-promised King of Israel who now baptizes his people “in Spirit and fire.”

John summoned the entire nation to repentance, including the Pharisees and Sadducees. He warned the latter group, the religious leaders of Israel, of the coming judgment that would befall them if they refused to repent while time remained. A day was coming when it would be too late, the “Day of the Lord” when all men will be judged - (Matthew 3:7-10).

Waterfall Iceland - Photo by Ruslan Valeev on Unsplash
[Photo by Ruslan Valeev on Unsplash]

The baptism administered by John was an invitation for all members of Israel to repent in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom and its King, and this included even its most rigorously religious members.

  • (Matthew 3:11-12) – “I indeed baptize you in water for repentance: but he that is coming after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in Holy Spirit and fire, whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.

In the passage, John contrasts himself with the “Coming One” in three ways - might, worth, and especially, mode of baptism. His baptism in water was preparatory, not final. Both he and Jesus “baptized” penitent men; however, John was baptizing them in water, but the Messiah would “baptize IN HOLY SPIRIT AND FIRE.

The Gift of the Spirit was an expectation of the “Last Days” and foundational to the New Covenant promised in the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. By His Spirit, God would write His laws on the hearts of His people - (Isaiah 44:1-4, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-27, Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:38-39).

The phrase, “in Holy Spirit and fire,” indicates two aspects to the “baptism” provided by the “Coming One.” In the Greek clause, “spirit and fire” do not refer to two separate events or baptisms. Only one preposition governs both nouns, namely, “in” (en), and “spirit and fire” are both direct objects of the single verb “baptize.” Both aspects characterize the one “baptism” provided by the Messiah.

In this context, “fire” can only refer to judgment, whether for the purgation or destruction of the individual or nation. The reference to “spirit and fire” is part of John’s response to the “Pharisees and Sadducees,” the very ones he warned about the “axe” that was about to cut down the fruitless tree. Moreover, the “fire” points to the “chaff” that the Messiah would “burn up with unquenchable fire.”

John’s words were addressed to Israel, including its leaders in Jerusalem. In the Greek sentence, the pronoun “you” is plural (i.e., “He will baptize YE”) - the words are addressed to the entire nation.

According to John, all those who respond and prepare for the Messiah will experience the “baptism in the Spirit.” Those who refuse will endure the other side of the coin - judgment. This warning is applicable both to individual Israelites and the nation as a whole.


When Jesus arrived, John baptized him in water. Upon leaving the river’s waters, audible and visible signs “from heaven” confirmed his status as the Messiah, the one who possesses the Spirit - (Matthew 3:13-17).

In the passage, the “opening of the heavens” means that his baptism in the Jordan was an event of cosmic import. In Jesus of Nazareth, access to the realm of God is now open to all men, and a new era of fulfillment has dawned.

The Spirit descended “upon him like a dove.” This marked the commencement of his Messianic mission. From this point forward, Jesus was separated for service and anointed by the Spirit to bring the Good News of the Kingdom to Israel.

The preposition applied to the descent of the Spirit stresses movement “into” or “onto” something (eis), and the Spirit came to rest upon him. The description is metaphorical. The descent was “like” that of a dove.

In the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit anoints certain men temporarily to carry out specific tasks. But according to the Gospel of John, when the Spirit came upon Jesus, it remained on him for the duration of his ministry - (John 1:32, 3:34-36).

At his baptism, the voice from heaven acknowledged Jesus as God’s “Son.” In doing so, it combined words from two messianic passages:

  • (Psalm 2:7) - “I will surely tell of the decree of Yahweh: he said to me, YOU ARE MY SON; today, I have begotten you.”
  • (Isaiah 42:1) - “Behold, my servant whom I uphold; my chosen one IN WHOM MY SOUL DELIGHTS. I HAVE PUT MY SPIRIT UPON HIM; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Taken together, the two passages describe the identity and mission of the Messiah. He is God’s royal “Son” destined to reign from the Messianic Throne. But the Spirit was given to the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah.

Jesus came to the river “from Galilee.” After his baptism, anointed and equipped by the Spirit, he returned to “Galilee of the nations” and began to proclaim the Gospel – “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But first, the Spirit “drove him into the wilderness” where he was tested by the Devil.

Only after his resurrection and ascension did he begin to baptize his followers in the Holy Spirit as God’s designated Messiah and Lord, beginning on the Day of Pentecost. “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the free gift of the Holy Spirit, for to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all those who are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God will call.”

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