16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire
For many years when you wanted to say that a preacher had gone to be alone with God, to pray, to study, and to renew himself, you would use the biblical phrase, “He has gone to the desert.” Since the scandals of recent days have revealed the opulence and the luxury of many television evangelists, if today you say a preacher has gone to the desert, you usually mean he has gone to Palm Springs. The Bible tells us about a preacher who came out of the desert. He wasn’t at some resort area enjoying the life of luxury and opulence, but he was a man alone with God, and his name was John.
Luke 3:1-18 introduces us to John the Baptist and his marvelous ministry. Perhaps you remember that the book of Luke begins with the announcement of the angel to John’s father that John would be born. Following that, there is the announcement that Jesus would be born. In due time, these two men—these two cousins—were born. John the Baptist was born first and then came Jesus.
The first two chapters of the gospel of Luke have to do with the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. Then as we study this morning, the latter part of Luke chapter two tells us of the only event recorded in the scriptures from the time of Jesus’ birth until he is a grown man who comes preaching the kingdom of God.
We are about ready for that, but before Jesus comes to preach and then eventually to die on the cross for our sins, preparation must be made. The world must be alerted and warned and prepared for his coming, and that is the great mission of John the Baptist. The Bible says that the word of God came to John while he was in the wilderness, while he was in the desert, and it commissioned and authorized him to become a preacher to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
I want you to notice that before we get into the message and the ministry of John the Baptist that Luke, who is ever and always the careful historian, dates for us this event in three different ways: he dates it by the world situation, by the Palestinian political situation, and by the religious situation of his day.
He begins by telling us that all of this happened in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, who of course was the emperor of the Roman Empire. He was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the first of the Roman emperors. Luke dates all that is about to happen politically by relating it to the emperor of the Roman Empire. Then he speaks to us of Pilate (who was the governor of Judea at that time) and he names for us three tetrarchs.
The word tetrarch means “a ruler of the fourth part.” Wherever Rome controlled a territory, a governor was appointed. Under that governor there were local rulers who were ruled on behalf of Rome. Luke not only dates the coming of John the Baptist by mentioning the Roman emperor of the time, but Luke also mentions the Palestinian political situation of the day and names for us the governor and three of the four tetrarchs of that region. Then he dates for us the religious situation by saying that Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests.
When all of that was happening in the world, the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist. That would not be a very spectacular event in the minds and the hearts of many people. If you were trying to record the great historical events of that century you would not have recorded the word of the Lord coming to John the Baptist. You would have looked to the palace of the emperor in Rome for the great and monumental events that were taking place. Or you would have looked to the governor’s mansion in Judea where Pilate was in control if you wanted to know what really important events were taking place. Or you might even go to the Temple where the high priests Annas and Caiaphas were performing their religious duties. If you wanted to find out the really important things that were happening in that day and time, the last place you would ever have gone to try to find out something significant would have been out in the desert region where there was a preacher living by himself living almost as a hermit. It is in that exact place that the most important thing that was happening in the world at that time took place.
God has a most unusual way of working in our world and in our lives. He comes to the most unexpected people, in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times to do his spectacular work. Looking back on that world from our vantage point 1,900 years later, the most important thing that was taking place in that day was not in the palace in Rome, it was not in the governor’s mansion in Judea, and it was not in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was out there in the wilderness when the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist.
As the word of the Lord came upon John the Baptist, he went forth to proclaim that word that God had given to him. Verse three tells us that John came preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sin. John’s message had to do with man’s sin and man’s dealing with that sin. Before a man can ever be right with God, he must deal with his sins.
Charles Spurgeon said a long time ago, “You and your sins must part, or God and you cannot be friends.” Now, you understand that. It is probably not news to you. You cannot continue to live in your sin and live in fellowship and friendship with God at the same time. You and your sins must part or you and God cannot be friends. John the Baptist began by announcing that people should repent of their sins, and then they should be baptized for the remission of their sins. It was the message that had to do with sin and the taking away of sin so that they could get ready for the coming of the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
The Bible says in Luke 3:4-6 that all of this was in fulfillment of prophecy. “As it is written in the book of the words of [Isaiah] the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Isaiah paints for us the picture of valleys that are being filled up, and of mountains that are being cut down. It is the idea of taking rough and rugged terrain and smoothing it out so that one can travel across it easily. The picture is that John has come to make everything ready and as easy as possible for the coming of the Son of Man. His message is a message to prepare people for the salvation that Jesus would bring.
Verse six is worth noting: He says that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” We are hardly into the third chapter of the book of Luke, but already, again and again, God has said that his salvation and redemption are for all of mankind. Never was it the plan of God that salvation and redemption should be restricted to a few select people. Never did he send the Savior just to the Jews. Ever and always his purpose was to redeem the entire world because God wanted all flesh to see his salvation.
John became a very popular preacher, so the merchants closed their shops and the cities virtually shut down as they emptied themselves and went out into the wilderness to hear this fresh-out-of-the-desert preacher proclaiming the message of repentance and baptism. John was telling them that they should get ready for the coming of the Savior. I don’t think there is any place where the difference between the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist and the preaching and ministry of Jesus is even starker than in verse seven. It says, “Then said [John] to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” When they came out to see him and to hear him, John called them a generation of vipers. He called them a bunch of snakes in the grass.
Jesus brought good news, but the message of John the Baptist struck terror into the hearts of people. John’s was a message of judgment and of condemnation. He was pointing out their sins and reminding them that they must get right with God if they were ever to be saved. He told them that they were to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, that they must have a change in their hearts, that they must turn away from their sins, and that they must begin to produce good fruit in their lives.
Some of these people—at least the scribes and Pharisees—believed that because they were Jews, and because they were the descendants of Abraham, that they had some corner on God, that they had the favor of God. So they said to John, “You keep saying to us that we need to repent of our sins, that we need to be baptized, and that we need to bring forth the fruits of repentance. Listen, we are the children of Abraham. His blood courses through our veins. We are the chosen people of God.”
Probably there were rocks all around where he was standing. And John replied, “Let me just remind you, if God wanted to, he could make children of Abraham out of these stones. Don’t you trust in your heritage. Don’t you trust in your ancestry. Don’t you trust in the fact that you are a part of the Jewish race will make you right with God. This is a personal matter. There is sin in your life and you’ve got to get rid of that sin, and you need to give evidence of that repentance and that turning by being baptized and then showing the change in your life.”
The people came to John in verse 10, and they asked him, “What shall we do? John, you keep saying, ‘repent,’ you keep saying, ‘be baptized,’ you keep saying, ‘bring forth fruit of repentance.’ What shall we do?” The people were basically saying, “We want to know in practical terms what you expect out of us.”
Oswald Chambers was once congratulated on a sermon he preached, and he responded by saying, “Yes, but what did it do?” The test of preaching is “What does it do in a person’s life?” The test is not “Is it interesting?” or “Is it eloquent?” or “Is it relevant?” The real test is “What does it do in your life?”
John’s preaching did something in the lives of people. They came to him and asked, “John, what shall we do?” I want you to notice what John has to say to these people. There were three different groups who came to him. In verse ten, “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:10-11).
John began by demanding that the people share. It was a social message. John was saying that God will never absolve a man of his sins who is content to have much when his brother has too little. If you have two coats, then you share with the man who has no coat; if you have plenty to eat, then you share with the man who does not have anything to eat. It was a message of sharing, it was a message of love, and this is one of the fruits of repentance that John the Baptist talked about.
In verse 12 we read, “Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?” Remember the publicans were tax collectors. They were Jews who were working for the Romans. Wherever Rome ruled, they taxed the people and they hired local citizens to collect the taxes for them. These people were frowned upon and looked down upon. They were considered to be traitors because they were working for the enemy who controlled them and dominated them. Usually Rome gave a tax collector a quote, and any amount of money he could collect above that quote he kept for himself.
These were usually unscrupulous and dishonest men. They milked people for every penny they could. They squeezed every dime they could out of them. Many of them—like Zacchaeus—were exceedingly wealthy men. Some of these tax collectors heard the preaching of John the Baptist. God struck conviction in their hearts, and they came and said, “What shall we do?” John said to them, “You exact no more than that which is appointed unto you.”
He not only demanded that people share what they have with one another, but he demanded honesty in business dealings. You have a quota. You have been assigned a certain amount of money. Don’t try to milk the people for every penny you can. Don’t squeeze every dime you can out of them. You exact no more than that which is due. You must be honest. That’s the fruit of repentance.
Then in verse 14, it says, “And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” In many ways this is the most amazing statement in this whole experience. These soldiers are Roman soldiers. They are Gentiles. They are pagans. But somehow they have heard the preaching of John the Baptist and God has convinced them of their sin and their need to repent. Now they want to be baptized just like the Pharisees and just like publicans. These Roman soldiers come and they say, “Look, what do we need to do to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance?” And John replied, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.”
He was saying that you not only must share what you have, you must not only be honest in your dealings with other people, but you must be kind and merciful and content. When he said, “Do violence to no man,” you must understand that these Roman soldiers were cruel, violent, and heartless men. They delighted in hurting other people. I imagine they relished the opportunity to nail Jesus and other people to the cross. They lived a violent kind of life. John said, “If you are going to be right with God, do violence to no man.”
He also said, “Don’t falsely accuse another.” The truth didn’t matter to them. If they wanted to get a man, they would trump up charges and they would lie for one another. It meant nothing to them to get on the witness stand (if there were such a thing) to falsely accuse another person and have him punished for something that he had not done. And John said, “Look, if you are sincere and you want to be right with God, then you must not only do violence to no man, you must not falsely accuse another.”
Then John added another strange thing: “be content with your wages.” These Roman soldiers—like people everywhere in all ages—loved to mumble and grumble about how little they got paid and how much they did and how unfair things were. John said that one of the fruits of real repentance is not only that you deal kindly with other people by having an honesty and an integrity about you, but there is also a fruit of contentment; there is a satisfaction down deep inside of you.
John the Baptist called on people to turn from their sins, to give evidence of that repentance by being baptized, and then to show that change in their lives in these practical ways: be generous with other people; be honest in your dealings; and be kind, merciful, and content in all of your activities. In the most practical kinds of ways, he says, “Your turning from sin and turning to God ought to affect your life.”
I remind you that this is not the Gospel, but what John had to say in principle here is a word for you and for me. We must deal with sin before we can ever be right with God. Real repentance always affects the way we treat our brother. It always affects the way we act in business. It always affects the relationships of life, and it affects our attitude toward things and toward our work. Unless God is doing that kind of work in your life, there is something wrong with your relationship to him.
John’s ministry and message was so powerful that some began to think and to wonder, “Is it possible that John is the Messiah? Is he the Christ? Is he the Savior who is to come?” And John wanted to make it very clear that he was not. In verse 16, he answered and said unto them, “Look, I baptize you with water, but there is one who is coming after me and I am so unworthy that I shouldn’t even be able to reach down and untie the latches on his shoes. He is so much greater and so much more important than me that I’m not even to be compared to him. I baptize you with water, but he shall baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost.”
I want you to think with me for just a few moments about that promise—that the one who was to come would baptize you with fire and the Holy Ghost. John is in a sense saying, “Men, I can do something to you, but the one who is coming will do something in you. I will baptize you with water. I can do that to you. But he will baptize you with fire and the Holy Ghost. He will do something in you that will change you and will enable you to carry out what I have been preaching to you.”
They understood part of what John had to say because they knew what baptism was all about. The word baptize means “to submerge.” It means “to put under.” It was a word that was often used to describe the dyeing of a garment. In order to dye a garment, you have to put it completely under. You cover it up completely. He was saying, “What I’ve been doing with you with water, the Lord Jesus is going to do with you through the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The people understood something about fire. They understood that it represented the presence of God. Do you remember when the Lord appeared to Moses out there in the wilderness and the desert, that he appeared in a burning bush? That fire represented the presence of God. As the children of Israel traveled through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, there was a pillar of fire that led them. That pillar of fire represented the very presence of God. All throughout the Old Testament, fire symbolizes the presence of God. And John said, “I baptize you with water, but there is one who is going to baptize you with the presence of God.”
The Holy Spirit represents the power of God. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came upon special people for special tasks. The Spirit came upon prophets and priests and kings. He could come and go. So the Holy Spirit came upon Gideon and led him in his victory against the Midianites. The Holy Spirit came upon Sampson and led him and empowered him for his victory against the Philistines. Again and again the Holy Spirit of God came upon people and empowered them for special tasks. So the fire represents the presence of God, and the Holy Spirit represents the power of God. And John said, “I have baptized you with water, but there is one who is coming and he will submerge you in the presence and the power of God.” This was a great promise that he gave. That promise had its fulfillment in the book of Acts. In Acts 1:4 Jesus is talking to his disciples just before he ascends into heaven, and here is what he said to them: “You are to stay here in Jerusalem. You are not to scatter out, but you are to wait here.” Then in verse five he says, “For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.”
The promise of John at the beginning of his preaching—that there is coming one who shall baptize you with fire and the Holy Ghost—had its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit came there was a sound of a rushing mighty wind, there were tongues of fire, and the Spirit of God fell and God’s people experienced his presence and his power like they had never experienced it before.
When the Holy Spirit came, he came to stay. He came once and for all, and what John predicted has come to pass. When we receive Christ as Savior, we are baptized in the Holy Spirit. We are baptized in fire, and if we stay in fellowship with him, if we stay up to date in the repentance of sin and the bearing of fruit, then God’s presence and God’s power abides with us always.
What does it mean to be baptized in fire and in the Holy Ghost? It means three things:
First, it means that the abiding presence of God is with us. Robert Browning wrote, “God is in his heaven, all is well with the world.” It is a beautiful phrase. It just ain’t so. God is in his heaven, but all is not well with the world. And what we desperately need is not a God in the heavens—we need a God who is with us on this earth. David knew God, and so he said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4). Note that he doesn’t say, “Thou art up in the heavens somewhere.” He says, “Thou art with me.”
The apostle Paul could stand before the Roman emperor and say, “All men forsook me … notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:16-17). What Paul needed was not a God off in the heavens somewhere. Paul needed a God who was by his side; he needed to be baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost.
Second, being baptized in fire and in the Holy Ghost means that we have adequate power in us. It is the difference between Simon Peter the coward and the Simon Peter who stood and spoke boldly on the day of Pentecost, who withstood the religious and political leaders of his day and was cast into prison for his commitment to Jesus Christ. The difference was the presence of the Holy Spirit in him. When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in you and in me, he gives to us adequate power for the task of living day by day.
Canon Streeter defined power as the ability to accomplish purpose. When you start talking about power you have to ask, “Power for what?” An ax is marvelous power for chopping wood, but it is not too good for cutting butter. Dynamite is a marvelous power for blasting rocks, but it is not too good for rocking a cradle. The power of God in our lives is the power for victorious living. When he promised he would baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost, he was saying that there will be an abiding presence with you, and there will be adequate power in you.
And third, being baptized in fire and in the Holy Ghost means that there will be equal opportunity afforded to you. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God came to select people. Not everybody. Just a few. The presence of God was revealed to his special servants. But the significance of Pentecost—when they were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost—was that all the barriers were broken down. It means that what God has, he has for every last one of us, from the youngest to the oldest, men and women, Jew and Gentile—it’s for all who will welcome and receive the Savior.
So the words of John are words to us: “I baptize you with water. There will come one who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Ghost.” That promise has been fulfilled, and it is available to us today. There is abiding presence, adequate power, and equal opportunity to those who will come to God through Jesus Christ.