Once there was this restaurant owner. His business was floundering. And here’s why; his employees were lazy. But the owner didn’t want to make anyone feel bad. So, he gave his employees a hug and told them things like, “Good job!” or “Look at you doing nothing all day! We’re lucky to have you.” As a result, his employees felt secure in their laziness and he was forced to go out of business. And here is a difficult truth for you: salvation and judgment walk hand in hand. We can see the truth of this when it comes to a business. Sometimes problems need to be named and people need to be fired – difficult decision have to be made. We may wish it to be different, but real change sometimes demands judgment. We especially don’t like this when it is applied to Jesus. We want to wrap ourselves in the snuggly warm “eating with sinners” Jesus and we are tempted to discard the seemingly cold judgment Jesus. But salvation doesn’t come without judgment.
All of John’s talk of bearing fruit and repentance has worked the multitude into a frenzy of expectation. His job after all was to prepare the way for the Coming One. But the crowd began to reason through his message and wonder if he wasn’t the Christ himself. He must have been pretty charismatic; drawing large crowds out into the wilderness to be baptized of all things. And wasn’t it about time for the Messiah to show up and deal with those reprehensible Romans? Maybe this fiery preacher was the man for the job.
John responds with an emphatic denial. The Messiah is coming, but as for John – nope! He is not the one. He baptized with water – a preparing the way baptism; a smoothing the path baptism; a baptism for forgiveness. But the one who is coming is greater than John. I mean a lot greater. For John it would have been a privilege to untie his sandals. He isn’t worthy of that privilege. You couldn’t even force your male slave to untie your sandals. It was considered too demeaning. In comparison to the Messiah, John is less than a slave. Notice the comparison is to Jesus. John doesn’t look around and say, “Even though I am a lot better than you lot, I am not the Christ.” And how do you compare to the Christ? Are you too important to untie his sandals – too important to be considered less than a slave?
This Coming One is going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Many will leap to Acts here and say that this is comparing Christian baptism with the baptism of John. But what if he is saying something else? What if he is saying that my baptism may offer you a preparatory forgiveness, but the Coming One will immerse you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And what if this is not two separate things. What if this is a reference to Isaiah 4:4 which says “When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning”? Isaiah 4 is about salvation. But it is also about judgment. The daughters of Zion are filthy; Jerusalem is full of bloodshed. Ignoring this will not change anything. Calling the daughters of Zion clean when they are filthy will not change anything. Patting Jerusalem on the back for being good at shedding blood will not change anything. Salvation and judgment are a package deal.
This seems to be confirmed by the whole winnowing fork and cleansing of the threshing floor in verse 17. The purpose of the winnowing fork is to separate the chaff from the grain so that the grain can be gathered up and stored in the barn. The chaff is then burned up in an unquenchable fire. The grain needs to have the chaff removed. Don’t go complimenting the grain on its nice chaff. Name it as chaff and burn it up. The coming one will immerse with salvation and judgment; with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus loves everyone, but his salvation is about judgment. Love and judgment also dance. Can we accept the truth of it? And notice that John very pointedly said, “He will baptize YOU with the Holy Spirit and fire.” They believed the judgment was reserved for those filthy Gentiles. We’re like that aren’t we?
Do you want to be saved? Just so you know; salvation is a blazing fire that will burn you clean. Will you be immersed with that fire burning you from the inside out? That is salvation son. Jesus loves you, but he will never compliment the chaff in you. He will judge it to be worthless chaff. Let him clean your threshing floor! Let him gather the grain into the barn! Let him separate the chaff and burn it once and for all! Let him immerse you with the Holy Spirit and fire. It may be painful, but you will be refined. Grace.