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The Gospel according to Luke 3: 7-18 (NIV)
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptised. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
When people wondered “if John might possibly be the Messiah”, he answered, “I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The difference is significant. John called people to repentance. He baptised them with water. This signified their rejection of sinful living. But John could not forgive sin; “who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5: 21).
The one more powerful who was to come would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples. He taught that, after his departure, he would send the Counsellor. On that first post-ascension Pentecost, they were anointed with the Holy Spirit.
John’s prophecy of fire could refer to that occasion. The context suggests another meaning however. John then said, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” John’s message anticipates a judgement yet to come.
Jesus’ earthly mission led him to the cross. Through his crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection we have forgiveness of sins. Jesus ascended to be with the Father – but that is not the end of the story.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”* As judge, “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
What of the “wheat”? John urged, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. Jesus requires the same of his people. “I … appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15: 16). What a huge mission is that!
* From The Nicene Creed