John the Baptizer answers the question posed by all of Judea and Jerusalem: he is not the Messiah. However, John the Baptizer unequivocally announces the Messiah is coming, and He will baptize with the Holy Spirit who is the down payment and assurance of salvation.
The parallel gospel accounts for this passage are Matthew 3:11-12, Luke 3:16-18, and John 1:26-27
After announcing that John the Baptizer appeared in the Judean wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan River (Mark 1:4-5) and describing his strange appearance (Mark 1:6), Mark continues his account by sharing part of what John was preaching and saying.
John was not in a metropolitan area. He was in the wilderness. It required effort to go to him. He did not have a polished appearance to attract a crowd. Quite the opposite. Yet, we are told by Mark that “all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem.” (Mark 1:5) According to Matthew, that “all” included the Jewish religious leaders, from both of the main sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 3:7). It seems that the real reason they came for baptism was to investigate what was drawing so much attention. John sternly rebuked them when they came: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).
Something inspired and motivated all the people of Judea to trek into the wilderness to hear what John was saying. The parallel passage in Luke tells us what motivated the people to come listen to John’s message:
“While the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ.”
The Jewish nation, under Roman oppression was looking for their Messiah. What inspired and motivated all the people of Judea and Jerusalem to hear John’s message? They wanted to know if he was the Messiah, the One who would fulfill their hopes and dreams (Matthew 11:7-9).
John understood the reason they came to him.
John also understood his role as the Messianic messenger (Mark 1:2). He addressed the people’s expectations by saying: After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. The One who is coming who is mightier than I, is John’s expression for the Messiah. John made it absolutely clear, he is not the Messiah (John 1:19-20).
Notice how John did not explicitly say, “The Messiah is coming after me.” Being explicit like this could have brought danger to the Messiah from King Herod or Rome. Neither tolerated threats to their authority. Herod’s father slaughtered the infant boys of Jerusalem when he learned that a potential rival was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-17). John’s expression, the One who is coming is mightier than I, would have signaled that the Messiah was coming soon, without necessarily triggering unwelcome threats.
In addition to being boldly transparent that he is not the Messiah, he emphasizes the exalted status of the coming Messiah. John was also saying to the people, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. John’s remark demonstrates the great gap between his worthiness and valor and that of the Messiah: I am not fit to remove His sandals. According to Jewish custom, removing someone’s sandals was a task for the lowest servant of the house. John is saying that compared to the Messiah, he is unworthy to perform even this lowly task for the Messiah. Given the extent to which John was revered, this was quite a statement.
Having demonstrated his weakness and lowliness alongside the Messiah’s power and glory, John then describes the nature of the Messiah’s baptism.
I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
To reinforce that he is not the Messiah, John contrasts his baptismal mode and method with that of the Messiah. John’s baptism is with water, whereas the Messiah’s baptism is with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism was meaningful but symbolic. It was administered by water and was a public display of a changed heart and mind. John’s baptism indicated that the people he baptized wished to be prepared for the coming of Heaven’s kingdom. John could preach the message of repentance and immerse the penitent in water as a sign of their commitment to God and His approaching kingdom. But John explains that this is the limit of his ministry.
John then described the nature of the Messiah’s baptism. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and “fire” (Matthew 3:11).
John only immersed people in water, in a symbolic ceremony. The Messiah’s elements for immersion are the Holy Spirit and fire.
What did John mean by He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit?
John was prophesying about what would happen after Jesus completed His work on earth and ascended into Heaven: He would send the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26-27).
When John first delivered this message, the Holy Spirit did not indwell believers. The Holy Spirit was still to come. John’s message was prophetic. Just before He ascended into Heaven, Jesus told His disciples that John’s prophecy about the being baptized with the Holy Spirit was about to be fulfilled (Acts 1:5). The Holy Spirit came about ten days after Jesus ascended into Heaven (Acts 2:1-4).
Interestingly, it seems that the Jews of the Messiah’s generation received the Holy Spirit when they repented and were baptized, rather than when they believed in the Messiah (Acts 2:38). Gentiles received the Holy Spirit upon belief in Jesus (Acts 11:15-18; 15:7-9). A possible reason for this may be because the majority of the Jews of Jesus, the Messiah’s, generation already believed in the coming Messiah and were therefore saved through their faith in His coming. But many Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah until after His resurrection. These Jews received the Holy Spirit if they repented of their wrong perspective about who they thought Jesus was (an ordinary man) to who He really was (the Son of God) and chose to publicly identify as one of His followers by being baptized in His name. This was Peter’s call to action following his sermon at Pentecost, when the Jews asked him, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37),
“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
The people who flocked to the wilderness to listen to John’s preaching were Jews of the Messiah’s generation. He was speaking to the Jews who would receive the Holy Spirit upon being baptized in the Messiah’s name after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
Having the benefit of the rest of the New Testament and history, we know that believers receive the indwelling Holy Spirit as a down payment or seal of promise upon receiving the gift of eternal life (Acts 11:15-18; 15:7-9; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13-14). Being baptized with the Holy Spirit means having God’s Spirit live inside a believer’s body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) to guide and empower them to overcome the trials they face in a manner pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 3:16). And for Jewish and Gentile believers after the Messiah’s generation, this indwelling takes place when a person believes in Jesus for eternal life.
Being baptized with the Holy Spirit does not mean that a believer becomes morally perfect or never sins again. They still have to choose to listen to and obey the Spirit’s leading and walk in the Spirit, resisting the opposition of their sinful desires, the corrupt world system, and the lies of the devil (Galatians 5:16-17). Following the Spirit leads to life and peace (Romans 8:2, 6; Galatians 5:22-23). Following the flesh, the world, and the devil leads to ruin (Romans 8:6; Galatians 5:19-21).
Upon the very instant a person believes in Jesus he is:
- is Born (again) into God’s Eternal Family
- Receives the Gift of Eternal Life
- is Justified and Considered Righteous in God’s sight
- Receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit
The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a foundational doctrine of Christianity.
What did John mean by He will baptize you with fire? (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16)
Fire is hot and intense. It burns. Fire purifies by consuming all impurities.
Fire is a frequently mentioned throughout the Bible as a symbol of God’s presence. See God’s covenant with Abram (Genesis 15:17); the Burning Bush (Exodus 2:2-5); the Pillar of Fire by night (Exodus 13:21); Isaiah before the throne of God (Isaiah 6:4); God is a wall of fire (Zechariah 2:5); the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4); God is a Consuming Fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29).
Fire is also a frequent symbol of God’s judgment, both as a means of His wrath and as a means of sanctification. See Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24); the Eighth Plague (Exodus 9:23); the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:24); Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40); Isaiah in the presence of God (Isaiah 6:1-7); Warnings of the minor prophets (Zephaniah 3:8); Christ’s Accounts of Gehenna and the Outer Darkness (Matthew 13:40, 42, 50; Mark 9:43-49); the Judgement Seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11-15); God’s wrath toward the degenerate (Hebrews 10:26-27); the Lake of Fire. (Revelation 20:14-15)
These two common symbolic usages of fire demonstrating God’s presence and judgement need not be exclusive. Both can be applied at the same time.
The Messiah’s baptism is an immersion into God’s presence that burns away all sin and impurity. It is at once painfully intense and wonderfully good. All who enter His kingdom will undergo the Messiah’s baptism. John’s message of repentance and call for baptism was a preparation. A way to lessen the future pain of burning refinement and prepare for the goodness of the Messiah’s baptism.
In Matthew’s account, John elaborates on the severe urgency of his message with an agricultural metaphor describing the Messiah’s baptism.
“His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Luke’s Gospel is almost identical (Luke 3:16-17).
In Matthew and Luke, John the Baptizer describes the Messiah as a reaper about to reap. The Messiah’s winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor. The threshing floor is a hard surface where all the cut stalks from the grain harvest are laid to be beaten (threshed), so that the grains (the useful parts, also called “the wheat”) become separated from their stalks (the worthless parts, also called “the chaff”). The Baptizer’s reference is that the Messiah will harvest all the stalks (everyone) in His field (all of His people) and thresh the grains (the good works) from them at the threshing floor (place of judgment).
That the Messiah will “thoroughly clear his threshing floor” (Matthew 3:12) indicates that He will not lose a single grain. He will not forget a single good work. After He has done this, the Messiah “will gather His wheat” (the productive, edible grains) “into the barn,” but He will “burn up the chaff” (the part that isn’t useful) “with unquenchable fire.” All of the chaff, the inedible leftover stalks and husks, will be burned by Him with an “unquenchable fire.” This term suggests that these worthless parts will be completely burned. They will not last, or be remembered.
John the Baptizer’s fiery warning bears a remarkable similarity to Paul’s fiery metaphor of Christ’s evaluation of believers and their works in the Day of Judgement:
“For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
(1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
Why did Mark omit “fire” from his account about the Messiah’s Baptism?
Mark’s Gospel does not include John’s fiery metaphor as Matthew and Luke do. Neither does it include the additional detail about the Messiah’s baptism with “fire” (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). (The Gospel of John only mentions Christ baptizing, but elaborates nothing (John 3:26-27).
Mark states, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and stops there. The phrase, “and fire” and the subsequent verbiage about “winnowing fork,” “threshing floor,” and “chaff” are conspicuously absent in his retelling.
Before answering the obvious question—“Why would Mark leave this out?” – it is important to point out that Mark’s omission does not create a contradiction with Matthew and Luke’s versions. The other two gospel writers provided more information than Mark, but the information provided is consistent. For instance, imagine two people observing a wall, half of which is painted blue and the other half, red. One of the observers could truthfully state, “The wall is red and blue.” The other observer could truthfully state, “The wall is blue.” Neither statement contradicts the other; one simply provides additional information not supplied by the other.
More importantly, the Bible itself affirms its own consistency and inerrancy.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”
“…the Scripture cannot be broken.”
“All Scripture is breathed out by God…”
(2 Timothy 3:16)
“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
(2 Peter 1:20-21)
Now to back to the question: “Why Mark would stop at “Holy Spirit?”
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, each Gospel writer had a specific and somewhat different intended audience. Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, as he emphatically demonstrated how Jesus was the Messiah. Mark’s likely audience seems to have been geared toward the Gentiles. Mark partnered with Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys throughout the Gentile world (Acts 12:25; 15:39). Both church tradition and Biblical scholars claim that Peter was Mark’s source for his Gospel account. The Bible supports this claim in various ways. When Peter was miraculously rescued from Prison he went to the home of Mark’s parents (Acts 12:12-14). And Peter was with Mark in Rome and calls him “my son” when he wrote his first epistle (1 Peter 5:13).
Again, Mark’s intended audience of his Gospel were Gentiles. Gentiles, in general, would most likely have been unaware of the history and religious history and traditions of the Jews. And so, they would have been ignorant of God’s repeated judgment (symbolized as “fire”) of His chosen people throughout the ages. Therefore, Mark’s omission may not have been a simple oversight. Rather, it was a likely an intentional omission by the Holy Spirit to deliver a concise message to the Gentiles focused on the Holy Spirit.
Mark, by limiting the text to baptism with the Holy Spirit, emphasizes the important doctrine of assurance of salvation using terms his Gentile audience would understand. Rather than including a message of judgment, the Gentiles were presented with only promises and assurances. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was a sign and seal that they were somewhat familiar with, and Mark focuses on this rather than bringing in the terms of judgement and fire. Mark’s omission reflects the desire of God’s heart revealed throughout the Bible, and specifically in 2 Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
And he was preaching, and saying, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. “I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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