Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 3:10 Holman “Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the
trees! Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
With every fiber of his being, John tried to awaken Israel from a false confidence. God was dividing the crowd, separating the good from the bad.
It was not too late to repent; the ax was “ready to strike”, but not wielded yet. However, trouble was imminent. God was taking aim to decide where to hit. With not a minute to spare, the hearers needed to repent pronto.
Israel was counting on glorious yesterdays, but being right with God entails not what we did in the past, but what we are doing right now, in the present. Proof of salvation is not found in yesterday. It has to manifest itself today. This is the theme of Hebrews. The issue is not sinless perfection, but rather the regular producing of good fruit–using the spiritual disciplines to love God more, ministering to others in Jesus’ name, reaching the lost.
God seeks confirmations of His directly working in our individual lives. He is patient, but as our text indicates, at some point God has to set down His fruit basket and pick up His ax. Unfruitfulness invites disaster.
Matt. 3:11a “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who
is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not
worthy to remove His sandals.”
Though nationally famous, Israel’s most popular preacher in four centuries, John said He was not worthy to do for Jesus the work of a slave, to loose His sandals. The man Jesus deemed worthy to lay his hands on Jesus’ head for baptism was the man who felt unworthy even to touch Jesus’ feet. Jesus loves humility. It is one of the good fruits He wants to see in us.
Humility is a virtue much aspired to, but we too often have trouble defining it. Some wrongly consider it a matter of posture. They walk slumped over, hunkered down, with a sullen defeated look on their face. Some incorrectly think humility is low self-esteem, running yourself down all the time, believing you are worthless, unable to do anything that matters.
True humility is not poor posture or low self-esteem. It is rightly assessing what we have, and have not, been gifted to do. When humble, we do what we have been gifted to do, fully realizing God’s grace bestows abilities on us; bragging and smugness are disallowed. Humility also entails knowing what we cannot do well. John knew his limits. There was no false modesty here. John did with all his might what he was gifted to do. Beyond this, he spoke humbly. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John was fiery, in your face, righteously angry, etc. But in the main moment, when the focus came on him, and all the glory could have been his, all these headstrong traits of a lion melted into the mild humility of a lamb.
It is hard to find a believer who effectively combines both sides of humility. The Baptist did it well. In this he is a prime role model for us.
John’s statement in our text not only evidenced humility. It also stated unmitigated truth, stating how much greater Jesus was than John. Jesus said John was the second greatest man ever, yet John rightly knew he was unworthy to remove Jesus’ sandals. Don’t miss this remarkable lesson here on the Person of Christ. An infinitely vast chasm exists between Jesus and all others, the difference of being God/man vs. being only human.
Matt. 3:11b “He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John’s water baptism was a symbol picturing a real baptism in “the Holy Spirit and fire”. Blessed is the Bible reader who can separate symbol from reality. Baptism is only a symbol. Believers do not believe in magic.
The value of baptism or any other spiritual exercise is not inherent in the act, or in the one receiving it, or in the one administering it, even if it is John the Baptist. We humans can assist in the symbolic visible gestures, but it takes a Mighty One to accomplish the transformation signified. My hands can immerse only in water; Someone Else has to supply the needed power.
We do only an outward picture. Jesus does inner reality. We baptize the physical body in water. He baptizes a heart in “the Holy Spirit and fire”.
The Father, the First Person of the Trinity, gave us Jesus (John 3:16), the Second Person of the Trinity, who in turn gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26), the Third Person of the Trinity, who is ever remaking us.
Baptizing us in “the Holy Spirit and fire” means Jesus gives us God-life that constantly improves us. We leave water baptism behind, but Holy Spirit baptism stays with us. This is one reason immersion in water is a good picture. It symbolizes what we want in Holy Spirit baptism. We don’t want a pouring or sprinkling of the Spirit, we want to be forever immersed in Him.
Holy Spirit baptism is a continual baptism of fire, a vivid picture of what God wants to continuously do in us. Our relationship with Him should consume us, and burn away pollution, even as fire purifies gold. Since Jesus baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire, let us burn out in His worthy cause.
Christianity is always supposed to be the religion of a heart on fire. No cold allowed. I was born in December, and have been physically cold ever since, sometimes miserable to the bone. This bodily discomfort is bad enough, but even worse is being cold to the soul. We have stains dyed deep into every thread of the warp and woof of our existence. We need something to penetrate every part deep down in us. We need fire, and only God can do this. Even Elijah on Carmel could apply only water; God had to send fire.
Let me speak on behalf of us all. I want something to burn the sin out of me. “Lord, do away with my spiritual coldness. I want warmth.” To be cold, to yawn in God’s presence, is a sin. Pray for a heavenly anointing.
We need what A. C. Gaebelein called “Spirit-fire baptism”. We need for the Holy Spirit to use His divine fire to melt our icy hardness. We need a purifying flame that burns away the false in us and leaves behind only the true. At the creation (GN 1:2), it was the Spirit who hovered over the chaos and brought order out of it. He alone can unravel the disorder in each of us.
Matt. 3:12a “His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His
threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn.”
Wheat was valued. It was an effective image to use to picture God’s attitude toward His people. Jews often carved out underground granaries in solid rock so that wheat could be kept in them for years. Heaven is the carved out garner where God’s wheat is gathered. Not one grain will be lost.
We are valuable to God. “Precious (meaning valuable) in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (PS 116:15). At death, we enter Paradise with Him (LK 23:43), and are at home with the Lord (2 C 5:8). We’ll never feel like strangers there. Our passing is considered as a falling asleep (1 TH 4:13); as I age, I more and more appreciate the concept of rest, blessed rest.
The Bible (PS 23) says we believers walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Someone well said, the shadow of a gun never killed anyone; the shadow of a lion never tore anyone. We also celebrate the fact, where there is a shadow, there has to be a light on the other side casting it.
For believers, the best is always yet to come. The outline of a sermon on Heaven I preached when young suddenly came to mind. We shall behold Jesus; we’ll see Him face to face. We shall be with Jesus; this is the Heaven of Heaven. We shall be like Jesus; the never-ending quest of our lives will be accomplished. We shall beatify Jesus; we will never make Him sad again.