On Fire or In the Fire
It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Such was the situation when John made his first appearance in public. The Ceasars ruled from Rome—a reign both corrupt and malevolent. As the leader leads, so do the followers follow. Alfred Edersheim writes that this was the moment in history for either “ruin or regeneration” (Jesus the Messiah, p. 177). The rot of Rome threatened to swallow its territories, including that of Palestine. The Jews resisted, but like the Borg’s warning to the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the message from Rome was this: “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
In the midst of decay and desperation, John appears with this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [or ‘the kingdom of God’] is near” (Matthew 3:1). This was no mystery to the Jews—the whole Old Testament was all about the rule of God over His people. What they didn’t understand was just what the nature of this rule was to be and how its Ruler would appear.
But the call to repentance involved more than a “change of mind.” It demanded a change of lifestyle as well. In the record given to us by Luke, John tells his listeners to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). The kingdom was not going to be populated by hypocrites who said one thing and did another. It would not be made up of those who claimed belief in God but lived like the devil.
In the culture of that day, it was believed that claiming Abraham as father, i.e. being a Jew, was like a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. John warned his audience that they could not ride into God’s kingdom on the coattails of even Abraham. Likewise today, being brought up in a Christian home, hearing the Gospel from childhood, going to church, or whatever other “coattail” we might claim, is not enough to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. John’s message to “repent” still applies today as it did those many years ago.
The people who listened to John wondered if perhaps he was the Christ. His answer to them was prophetic: “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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” (Luke 3:16, 17).
John MacArthur comments: “Three types of baptism are referred to here: (1) with water unto repentance. John’s baptism symbolized cleansing; (2) with the Holy Spirit. All believers in Christ are Spirit-baptized (1 Cor, 12:13; cf. Acts 1:5; 8:16-17;); and (3) with fire. Because fire is used throughout this context as a means of judgment, this must speak of a baptism of judgement upon the unrepentant” (One Perfect Life, p. 71).
John, who like Elijah, wasn’t known for soft speech, had already warned his audience that failure to truly repent and produce the fruit of righteousness would result in judgment. He said: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9).
Jesus would refer to this in His last message to His disciples before His crucifixion. “I am the true vine and my father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he trims clean so that it will be even more fruitful…no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can your bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:1-6).
I read a post recently that referred to the evangelical church of today as being “functionally liberal.” The phrase stuck in my mind. The author of the article reminded his readers that often what the evangelical church says in its doctrinal statement and what it says it believes about God and the Scriptures is negated by what its members live out. As I read this account of John’s message this morning, I understood anew the importance of the Baptizer’s warning and of the reason why Jesus felt it necessary to hammer into His disciples’ minds the need to “abide” and to be fruitful.
There is not much worse than to be “functionally liberal.” It was of this that the Lord spoke to another John in Revelation 3:15, using a different image, when He said: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
May God’s Spirit make us red-hot.