Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 3:11 - 3:11

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 3:11 - 3:11

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The Two Baptisms

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.—Mat_3:11.

This text is a contrast between two baptizers, John and Jesus. Jesus is mightier than John, in the purity of His character, by so much as an immaculate one is superior to a sinful one; in the power which He holds, in so much as omnipotence transcends temporary, limited, and derived power; in the dignity of His character and of His office, by so much as all authority in heaven and on earth surpasses a brief earthly commission; and in His ministry, inasmuch as one was to decrease and cease and the other to increase and endure “alway, even unto the end of the world.” There stood the two baptizers; and of the one it is said that he was as great as any man ever born of a woman. Hence it is not instituting a comparison between an insignificant man on the one hand and a greater man on the other, but it is instituting a comparison between the greatest man and a Being infinitely greater than the greatest man.


The baptism of John was merely preparatory and negative. “I indeed baptize you with water.” There is something extremely beautiful and pathetic in John the Baptist’s clear discernment of his limitations, and of the imperfection of his work. His immovable humility is all the more striking because it stands side by side with as immovable a courage in confronting evil-doers, whether of low or of high degree. To him to efface himself and be lost in the light of Christ was no trial; it brought joy like that of the friend of the Bridegroom. He saw that the spiritual deadness and moral corruption of his generation was such that a crash must come. The axe was “laid at the root of the trees,” and there was impending a mighty hewing and a fierce conflagration. There are periods when the only thing to be done with the present order is to burn it.

But John saw, too, that there was a great deal more needed than he could give; and so, with a touch of sadness, he symbolized the incompleteness of his work in the words preceding the text, by reference to his baptism. He baptized with water, which cleansed the outside but did not go deeper. It was cold, negative. It brought no new impulses; and he recognized that something far other than it was wanted, and that He who was to come, before whom his whole spirit prostrated itself in joyful submission, was to bestow a holy fire which would cleanse in another fashion than water could do.

The bounds of our habitation are fixed; so are our talents, so are our spheres of influence; so are our ranges of ministry. John knew exactly what he had to do, and he kept strictly within the Divine appointment. His was, indeed, an initial, or elementary, ministry, and yet God was pleased to make it a necessary part of His providential purpose. Men must work up to date, and people must be content to receive an up-to-date ministry, and their contentment need not be the less that they have an assurance that One mightier than the mightiest is coming with a deeper baptism. “I indeed baptize you with water,”—that is what every true teacher says, qualifying his utterance by the special environment within which his ministry is exercised. This is what is said by the schoolmaster: “I indeed baptize you with letters, alphabets, grammars; but there cometh one after me, mightier than I, who shall baptize you with the true intellectual fire.” The schoolmaster can do but little for a scholar, yet that little may be all-important. The schoolmaster teaches the alphabet, but the spirit maketh alive. There is a literary instinct. There is a spirit which can penetrate through the letter into the very sanctuary of the spiritual meaning. The schoolmaster has an initial work; the literary spirit develops and completes what he could only begin.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]

John’s perfect freedom from jealousy, leading to the frank and glad recognition of One who would supplant him through the greater fulness of His Divine gifts, seems to have been that which most impressed the Evangelist in the character of the Baptist. It was this self-effacement, this entire devotion to the duty which God laid upon him, that gave the Baptist such truth of discernment. It was the single eye which gave light to his whole body, the simplicity and purity of heart which enabled him to see things as they really were. We are not disciples of John; but we should do well to honour and to imitate his noble simplicity, which so entirely subordinated self to the righteousness which he proclaimed. If we have any good cause at heart, we must unfeignedly rejoice when others are able to promote it more efficiently than we can do; otherwise we are loving ourselves more than the good cause. The same is true of every gift which we can legitimately prize; we must see with pleasure its higher manifestations in another, for otherwise we are prizing, not the gift, but the glory which it brings us. Though not formally a disciple of Jesus, John was a better Christian than most of us; for he had the simplicity of Christ, an entire forgetfulness of self in his devotion to God and goodness.1 [Note: James Drummond, Johannine Thoughts, 26.]

Also of John a calling and a crying

Rang in Bethabara till strength was spent,

Cared not for counsel, stayed not for replying,

John had one message for the world, Repent.

John, than which man a sadder or a greater

Not till this day has been of woman born,

John like some iron peak by the Creator

Fired with the red glow of the rushing morn.

This when the sun shall rise and overcome it

Stands in his shining desolate and bare,

Yet not the less the inexorable summit

Flamed him his signal to the happier air.2 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, Saint Paul.]


A more effectual baptism was called for—a baptism with the Holy Ghost and with fire. This would carry with it a deep and supernatural change. Fire is an element which has always affected the human mind with peculiar awe. It is in every way so strange and mysterious and, as it were, preternatural. Whether glowing on the hearth, or racing in forked darts across the heavens, or carrying all before it in a hurricane of flame, it is always weird and wonderful. And accordingly, from the first, man has felt towards it a fear and dread with which he does not regard any other force whatsoever in nature. In primitive times, as he saw it crawl out of the dry sticks he rubbed together and writhe about his fingers like a live thing, or was dazzled by the splendour of it in the midday sky, he even found a god in it and worshipped it; and where his religious conceptions have ceased to be so crude as this, he has nevertheless taken it as the most natural of all emblems under which to speak of the Divine. In the Old Testament itself every one will remember how very often fire is associated both with the real and with the visionary appearances of God to man. It is from the burning bush that Moses is commissioned to undertake the deliverance of the people. It is a pillar of fire (and cloud) that leads them through the wilderness. Long after, when rival worships have been set up in Israel, and the controversy between them is to be finally decided, it is by the falling of fire from heaven upon the faithful prophet’s sacrifice that the people are constrained to cry, “Jehovah, he is God; Jehovah, he is God.” Later still, when the prophetic spark kindles the heart of an exile by the river Chebar he can find no better words in which to describe the Awful One who has appeared to him, than these: “Behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself.” And, finally, in the New Testament, where, however, such language has at last become frankly metaphorical, you have such a statement as this: “Our God is a consuming fire.” So closely has this unaccountable, uncontrollable, and everyway mysterious element associated itself in men’s minds with the nature and operations of the Deity, that they have felt instinctively that existence furnished them with no more apt or suggestive figure under which to think and speak of Him.

When, therefore, it is said of Jesus that He “baptizes with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” we see what is implied. It is implied that the influence He sheds around Him is something more than natural. The spiritual power He exerts, the inspiration He gives, the communication of inward life He makes is altogether different from the ordinary. It does not belong to the common sphere of resources which are at the command, or of powers which are within the gift, of man. It is superhuman, supernatural, Divine.

In course of a letter to Lady Welby, Bishop Westcott writes: “The full thought of God as Love and Fire on which you dwell is that which is able to bring hope and peace to us when we dare in faith to look at the world as it is. Again and again the marvellous succession rises: God is spirit—light—love: our God is a consuming fire.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, ii. 72.]

Fire represents the Divine nature as it flames against sin to consume it (Heb_12:29). This is the fire of God’s anger. But there is also the fire of His love. We may have the fire of sunshine, or the cheery fire of the hearth, or the fire which melts away the dross, as well as the fire of the conflagration which burns and destroys. It is this beneficent ministry of fire which symbolizes the Spirit of God. The emblem speaks to us of the Divine love kindled in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, the love that purifies and cleanses. The very same word is used (Act_2:33) to describe the outpouring of the Spirit which is employed (Rom_5:5) to express His shedding abroad of love in our hearts: evidently the gift of the Spirit and of love are one and the same. As St. Augustine says: “The Spirit is Himself the love of God: and when He is given to a man He kindles in him the fire of love to God and his neighbour.” So Charles Wesley speaks of the “flame of sacred love,” and likens “all-victorious love” to the refining fire of the Holy Spirit. “The same idea is expressed by the common phrases of every language. We talk about the warmth of affection, the blaze of enthusiasm, the fire of emotion. Christians are to be set on fire of God”—that is, the celestial flame of love is to burn intensely in their hearts. The Spirit’s baptism of fire is His baptism of love.2 [Note: J. H. Hodson, Symbols of the Holy Spirit, 35.]


The baptism of fire searches and cleanses as water cannot do. There are some deeply established uncleannesses for which the action of water is not sufficiently stringent. In many cases of contagious disease, if we are to rid ourselves of every vestige of corruption, there are many things which must be burnt. The germs of the contagion cannot be washed away. They must be consumed away. Water would be altogether insufficient. We need fire. Fire is our most effective purifying minister, a powerful and relentless enemy of disease.

There can be no doubt that it was mainly this thought that was before the Baptist’s mind when he spoke the words with which we are dealing. The symbol of his own work was water, and there is a great deal, in the way of cleansing, that water can do. It can remove the worst of the defilement to be seen anywhere, and make unsightly things fairly pleasing to look at. As he preached and pleaded with men his words had a certain, even striking, effect; the reformation that set in for the time being changed the face of society. But there are stains which no water can erase, inward impurities which it cannot reach. These must be burned out if they are to disappear. And this Jesus effects through His gift of the Holy Ghost. He breathes flame through men’s hearts, and makes them pure.

In 1665 London was in the grip of that terrible Plague, the horrors of which may still be felt through the pages of Defoe. The disease germs were hiding and breeding and multiplying everywhere. Every corner became a nest of contagion. Nothing could be found to displace it. In the following year the Great Fire broke out, and the plague-smitten city was possessed by the spirit of burning. London was literally baptized with fire, which sought out the most secret haunts of the contagion, and in the fiery baptism the evil genius of corruption gave place to the sweet and friendly genius of health. Fire accomplished quite easily what water would never have attained. And so in a comparison of fire and water as cleansing and redeeming agencies, common experience tells us that fire is the keener, the more searching, the more powerful, the more intense.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism, 209.]

To me it seemed that God’s most vehement utterances had been in flames of fire. The most tremendous lesson He ever gave to New York was in the conflagration of 1835; to Chicago in the conflagration of 1871; to Boston in the conflagration of 1872; to my own congregation in the fiery downfall of the Tabernacle at Brooklyn. Some saw in the flames that roared through its organ pipes a requiem, nothing but unmitigated disaster, while others of us heard the voice of God, as from heaven, sounding through the crackling thunder of that awful day, saying, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire”!2 [Note: The Autobiography of Dr. Talmage, 231.]

1. The fire has a refining power on true character. Partly by the fiery trials of human life, partly by the test of sore temptation, partly by the fire of disappointment, partly by the shattering of vain ideals and the scattering of earthly hopes, partly by all that sobers and deepens us, by the fire of bodily pain, by the fire of mental anguish, by every action of the Eternal Spirit of the living God, instructing, guiding, warning, rebuking, judging, haunting, condemning, up to the sorrows of death and beyond it; by all these each soul is tried in the baptism by fire whereby the good is refined and the evil destroyed.

The great glory of the gospel is to cleanse men’s hearts by raising their temperature, making them pure because they are made warm; and that separates them from their evils. It is slow work to take mallet and chisel and try to chip off the rust, speck by speck, from a row of railings, or to punch the specks of iron ore out of the ironstone. Pitch the whole thing into the furnace, and the work will be done. So the true way for a man to be purged of his weaknesses, his meannesses, his passions, his lusts, his sins, is to submit himself to the cleansing fire of that Divine Spirit.

Did you ever see a blast-furnace? How long would it take a man, think you, with hammer and chisel, or by chemical means, to get the bits of ore out from the stony matrix? But fling them into the great cylinder, and pile the fire and let the strong draught roar through the burning mass, and by evening you can run off a glowing stream of pure and fluid metal, from which all the dross and rubbish is parted, which has been charmed out of all its sullen hardness, and will take the shape of any mould into which you like to run it. The fire has conquered, has melted, has purified. So with us. Love “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us,” love that answers to Christ’s, love that is fixed upon Him who is pure and separate from sinners, will purify us and sever us from our sins. Nothing else will. All other cleansing is superficial, like the water of John’s baptism.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

Beautiful colours, rich gold-work, exquisite designs, and artistic skill may be seen on the unfinished porcelain vase, but a careless touch may spoil them, there is a needs-be that the vase should be placed in the fire, that the artist’s skill may be burnt in, and then the colours become permanent. The Holy Spirit is the Artist and the Fire. He alone can produce the beautiful colours of a holy life and make the character impervious to the attacks of evil. He alone can make us resolve with Jonathan Edwards, who wrote in his diary these words: “If I believed that it were permitted to one man—and only one—in this generation to lead a life of complete consecration to God, I would live in every respect as though I believed myself to be that one.”1 [Note: F. E. Marsh, Emblems of the Holy Spirit, 122.]

2. The fire will destroy everything that is not sterling metal. This is the alternative before every human being—either to be purified by the baptism of fire, or else to meet that central Holiness as a flame of judgment. Of course it must be so. For the holiness of God cannot change its character. It is man’s heart that must be changed. To the obedient it is a savour of life unto life, to the evil a savour of death unto death; to the one remedial, to the other retributive. The Spirit of God must sanctify, or else it must destroy.

The gold is gold, and cannot be anything worse if it would. The chaff is worthless by nature, not by fault. The fire must of necessity purify the one and burn the other. Neither gold nor stubble can change. But that which is tested by the fire of the Divine Holiness is the will and the character of moral and responsible beings. Man can become pure as the gold or worthless as the stubble. From the same material issues the sinner and the saint. It must depend upon the soul itself whether the Divine Holiness shall be to it the fire which purifies or the fire which destroys. God cannot deny Himself, or be anything else than moral Perfection, or He would no longer be God. It is the creature that must change. The human will must change. The human will must so submit itself to the action of the grace of God that the evil shall be burnt out and the good refined. Our destiny is in our hands. The love and mercy which created us has no pleasure in our ruin. And if any soul hereafter meet that holiness of God in the form of unquenchable fire, it will be because that soul has refused to meet Him as the power which cleanses.

The same pillar of fire which gladdened the ranks of Israel as they camped by the Red Sea shone baleful and terrible to the Egyptian hosts. The same Ark of the Covenant whose presence blessed the house of Obed-edom, and hallowed Zion, and saved Jerusalem, smote the Philistines, and struck down their bestial gods. Christ and His gospel even here hurt the men whom they do not save.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]


The baptism of fire imparts to the life an unmistakable glow and ardour and enthusiasm. This certainly is one very prominent trait in the life of Jesus Himself. The spirit of holiness in Him included a great zeal in the service of the Father. Once at least it blazed up even fiercely—when the desecration of the Temple had stung Him to the quick, and in wrath He overthrew the money-changers’ tables and drove the offenders before Him. But it was not only in an instance so dramatic as this that “the zeal of his Father’s house” was apparent in Him. It was the habit of His life and it appears all through. The holy enthusiasm—if we may use the word reverently of Him—in which He had given Himself at the first to the work that brought Him here never flagged during all the years He was engaged in it. Occasionally we see it manifesting itself in short-lived gleams of thankfulness at what has been accomplished for the Kingdom or of anticipation of its future triumph. Oftener it takes the form rather of a quiet, invincible, sustaining power that enables Him to hold on His way. It comforts His heart under the disappointments He meets with, strengthens Him under His heavy burden, and carries Him through all opposition; so that, because of His zeal for the truth and the kingdom and the glory of God, He did not fail nor was discouraged till He had set judgment in the earth.

What is greatly to be desired is that, in the lives of those who follow Jesus, there should be a large measure of the enthusiasm that glowed in His own—a serious, intelligent, glowing sympathy with God, a supreme thankfulness because of the purposes of grace He entertains towards our race, and a great readiness to spend and be spent in the carrying on of these so far as opportunity offers to every man. That is Christian enthusiasm—Christ’s own enthusiasm, which He shares with all in whom His influence has free play. As for the forms it will take, they will be endless; for men are endlessly different, nor is there any need why any man should violate his own nature in order to serve God faithfully. In the world there are all sorts of men and women, possessed of all sorts of temperaments and dispositions, and in the work of building up God’s Kingdom on earth there is a place and a work for every one of them. What is imperative is that at the bottom of all our hearts there should be this deep, unchanging, burning desire to help that great work on for Jesus’ sake.

Suppose we saw an army sitting down before a granite fort, and they told us that they intended to batter it down: we might ask them, “How?” They point to a cannon-ball. Well, but there is no power in that; it is heavy, but if all the men in the army hurled it against the fort, they would make no impression. They say, “No; but look at the cannon.” Well, there is no power in that. A child may ride upon it, a bird may perch in its mouth; it is a machine, and nothing more. “But look at the powder.” Well, there is no power in that; a child may spill it, a sparrow may peck it. Yet this powerless powder and powerless ball are put into a powerless cannon; one spark of fire enters it—and then, in the twinkling of an eye, that powder is a flash of lightning, and that ball a thunderbolt, which smites as if it had been sent from heaven. So is it with our Church machinery at this day: we have all the instruments necessary for pulling down strongholds, and oh for the baptism of fire!1 [Note: William Arthur, The Tongue of Fire, 309.]

1. Passionate religious enthusiasm attaches itself to a person; and the more near and real our intercourse with the person, the more beautiful will be our holiness, and the more fiery-hearted will be our service and devotion. Just think for a moment what magnificent import this revelation in the Person of Jesus had for those Jews who became His disciples. The religion of the Jews had become an obedience to precept and law. The germ of their national faith is to be found in those ten laws which we call the Ten Commandments. But to these ten laws the Rabbis had made countless additional laws—petty, trying, and irritating laws, which had come to be regarded as of equal importance with the original ten. To the earnest Jew, the warm, loving purpose of God had become buried in a mountainous mass of man-made traditions. It was no longer God with whom the Jew was dealing, but this vast dead-weight of Rabbinical law. God had become to them an earth-born system, a burdensome “ism,” a heavy and smothering tradition. Then came the Christ, and the first thing He did was to tear these miles of wrappages away.

Christ gives fervour by bringing the warmth of His own love to bear upon our hearts through the Spirit, and that kindles ours. Where His great work for men is believed and trusted in, there, and there only, is excited an intensity of consequent affection to Him which glows throughout the life. It is not enough to say that Christianity is singular among religious and moral systems in exalting fervour into a virtue. Its peculiarity lies deeper—in its method of producing that fervour. It is kindled by that Spirit using as His means the truth of the dying love of Christ. The secret of the gospel is not solved by saying that Christ excites love in our souls. The question yet remains—How? There is but one answer to that: He loved us to the death. That truth laid on hearts by the Spirit, who takes of Christ’s and shows them to us, and that truth alone, makes fire burst from their coldness.

In the times of the Crusaders a band of valiant knights traversed the sunny plains of France, to sail from Marseilles for the Holy Land. There, along with others who were bound on the same enterprise, they embarked on the stately vessel that was to carry them across the sea. But, eager as they were to do, day after day they lay helplessly becalmed. The hot sun beat upon them, and was flashed back from the unbroken surface of the waves. They lounged wearily upon the deck; they scanned the heavens in vain for the signs of an approaching breeze. It seemed as though some adverse fate resolved to hold them back. But in the stillness of an even tide, from a group of warriors assembled at the prow, there rose the swelling strains of the Veni Creator Spiritus—“Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.” And straightway a breath came upon them from the dying sun; the smooth, shining surface of the sea was ruffled, the cordage rattled, the sails were filled, and the vessel sped joyously over the dancing waves. Whether the story is true or not, it contains a very grand truth. Without the Spirit of Love all is dark and dead.

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire

And lighten with celestial fire.

2. This enthusiasm needs nurture. There is a danger that the wide divergences of our interests in modern life diminish and impoverish the intensity of our devotion. How did our fathers keep the fire burning? There are some words found very frequently in their letters, and diaries, and sermons, which awaken similar feelings to those aroused by types of extinct species that are sometimes unearthed from the deposits of a far-off and unfamiliar age. Here are two such words, “meditation” and “contemplation”—words which appear to suggest an unfamiliar day, when the world was young, and haste was not yet born, and men moved among their affairs with long and leisurely strides. Our fathers steeped their souls in meditation. They appointed long seasons for the contemplation of God in Christ. And as they mused the fire burned. Passion was born of thought. What passion? The passion which Faber so beautifully describes as the desire which purifies man and glorifies God:—

But none honours God like the thirst of desire,

Nor possesses the heart so completely with Him;

For it burns the world out with the swift ease of fire,

And fills life with good works till it runs o’er the brim.

Let us muse upon the King in His beauty, let us commune with His loveliness, let us dwell more in the secret place, and the unspeakable glory of His countenance shall create within us that enthusiastic passion which shall be to us our baptism of fire, a fire in which everything unchristian shall be utterly consumed away.

Oh then wish more for God, burn more with desire,

Covet more the dear sight of His Marvellous Face;

Pray louder, pray longer, for the sweet gift of fire

To come down on thy heart with its whirlwinds of grace.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism, 224.]

The Two Baptisms


Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 315.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 277.

Harper (F.), A Year with Christ, 134.

Ingram (A. F. W.), Into the Fighting Line, 77.

Jowett (J. H.), Apostolic Optimism, 209.

Maclaren (A.), Sermons Preached in Manchester, ii. 227.

Maclaren (A.), The Victor’s Crowns, 207.

Martin (A.), Winning the Soul, 81.

Moore (E. W.), The Christ-Controlled Life, 39.

Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, v. 183.

Robinson (W. V.), Angel Voices, 28.

Simpson (W. J. S.), The Prophet of the Highest, 110.

Wilberforce (B.), The Secret of a Quiet Mind, 114.

Children’s Pulpit: Fourth Sunday in Advent, i. 262 (A. M. Cawthorne).

Church Pulpit Year Book, 1906, p. 156.

Expository Times, xxv. 306 (J. Reid).

Preacher’s Magazine, xii. 326 (A. Tucker).