Matthew 5:17-20 – Jesus is the Fulfillment of the Law, and Our Righteousness

In the next section of Jesus’ sermon he addresses the Law and the Prophets:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Why would he feel the need to affirm the law and the prophets, that he wasn’t there to overturn or supersede them? Jesus was no revolutionary. He didn’t come to dramatically change the nature of the people’s relationship to God (the law and the prophet’s function was to mediate that relationship, along with the priests), but to fulfill what the law and the prophets represented. What does it mean, then, that he will fulfill them?

Although no revolutionary, think about the how radical that statement is: Jesus claims that he will fulfill all that has defined Israel’s existence, all that they embraced and stood for. For a Jew of the time, the law and the prophets were their own fulfillment; they wouldn’t have needed some Rabbi from Galilee to justify their existence. I imagine there were raised eyebrows in the crowd, even for these people who believed Jesus was something special.

But nobody would have known what he meant until after the resurrection. Jesus himself tell us in Luke 24 as he chides the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

What the people had missed, especially as he says a couple verses later in our Matthew passage about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, was that the law was not an end in and of itself. As we know from Paul, the law was never intended as a means to justify ourselves before God, but a means to show us our need for a Savior. Remember what John said about the Pharisees and Sadducees, that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The law itself could never do that. So Jesus says here that nothing will “disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

This ultimate purpose of the law is related specifically to what he says next about breaking or keeping any of the commandments and teaching others to do the same. Interestingly, both of these, the breakers and the keepers are in the “kingdom of heaven,” so how well we do before the law doesn’t seem to be the ticket to get into heaven. What is, is how he ends this passage:

20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

So it seems that our righteousness doesn’t have anything to do with the law because the Pharisees and teachers of the law were known as the ultimate keepers of the law. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the law rightly understood. Over the hundreds of years since Malachi, what’s known as Second Temple Judaism had developed. In that time there arose these experts in the law, but instead of being experts in the law, they became experts in accretions to the law. And even worse than that, they used the law as they understood it to justify themselves before God and the people. That’s why we’ll see during Jesus ministry that they looked down on “sinners.” Were they not sinners too? Yes, self-righteous sinners.

What Jesus is saying, I think, is that the Pharisees and teachers of the law have it completely backward. Their righteousness isn’t righteousness at all because it comes from the law itself and not the one who has come to fulfill the law. As we know from Paul, we require an alien righteous, one not our own. It is what Martin Luther discovered in the Book of Romans after much grappling with the guilt of his sin, and what started the Reformation: the Lord himself provides to us the righteousness he requires of us. That alone is our ticket into “the kingdom of heaven.”


Matthew 5: 13-16 – The Purpose of Salt and Light is to Glorify the Father

Now Jesus expands his teaching of this upside down kingdom with two metaphors that describe his followers, salt and light. First he says that his followers “are the salt of the earth.” We take salt for granted because it’s a cheap commodity that make our food taste better. In the ancient world it was anything but. Whole civilizations were built up around, and trade routs developed, because of it. Without refrigeration, it helped preserve food, in addition to enhancing taste. The ancients came up with at least eleven different functions for salt. Soldiers could even be paid with it, if they were “worth their salt.” No cheap commodity that.

Jesus concern isn’t what we can do as “the salt of the earth,” but our losing it. Matthew chose to precede these words with the Beatitudes, and as we saw, the blessings Jesus described come specifically because of him, not the actions or attitudes in themselves. That kind of life, though, lived in Christ, makes salt the perfect metaphor for what it can mean in the lives of and among people on earth. Most commentators link the saltiness (the value and transformative nature of salt) to the actions Jesus described previously, but I think it’s more accurate to tie it back to, “because of me” in v. 11. Sure the world would be a better place if people lived the Beatitudes, but that would only make life a bit more pleasant, not a place transformed by the salt of God’s kingdom people. That can only be had, in Paul’s common phrase, “in Christ.” Salt losing its saltiness, and thus becoming worthless as Jesus warned, is done when we lose site of what gives the salt its saltiness, its value and effectiveness in the first place: Jesus!

The second metaphor Jesus uses is light: “You are the light of the world.” Again, this can only be in Christ, not just because we do a good job living the Beatitudes. Jesus’ hearers would not have understood at the time what John tells us at the beginning of his gospel, that “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” We are not the light of the world because we’re more moral, but because we’re in him! If it were the former, the focus would be on us, which would not only defeat the purpose of being blessed, it would turn what is good into evil because when it’s about us it turns to pride. When it’s the latter, about him, our light isn’t ours but his. Only then can it truly shine. And out of being “in him” can flow works that are truly blessed.

Jesus tells his followers that light is meant to be seen, not hidden, and that light is reflected in our what we do:

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

So the antinomians among us can find no comfort in my words that the real value of obedience to Jesus’ words and the law is only “in Christ.” As if you could be “in Christ” with no desire to obey God or his law. Legalists, too, find comfort in Jesus’ words because they focus more on the doing than the being in Christ. Which is why we must always read Scripture only in light of Scripture. Jesus’ hearers at the time could be forgiven for thinking that obedience to his words and the law was its own reward because they had not been given the full revelation of God’s plan of redemption yet. We have, and that is why we must read all of these profound words in Jesus’ sermon in light of the gospel.

Finally, Jesus tells us the ultimate purpose (or my new favorite word, telos) of our good deeds. Notice it isn’t to grease the skids of life, make things more pleasant, easier to deal with. That would again make it about us. No, the proper motivation for our good deeds, is the glory of the living God! Our Father who art in heaven. Then, and only then, will our deeds accomplish their blessed purpose among men (and women too!), and in our own souls. That makes God’s glory, and not our happiness, the only healthy telos in life, and from which true happiness will flow.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Blessings of The Upside Down Kingdom in Jesus Alone!

Before I start with the content of this chapter and the whole Sermon on the Mount, it’s important to rightly understand Jesus’ stream of imperatives. Too many Christians who read these words think that if they do them, they will incur the favor of God. In other words, if they are obedient God will like them just a little bit more. Their relationship with God becomes one big performance metric, and if they perform well, they’re good with God, if don’t they are not. But the Kingdom ethics we read of in these chapters only make sense in light of the glorious indicative we learn about at the end of the story. The favor of God cannot be earned by our performance, but has been already secured by what God has done for us in Christ on the cross before we ever do or don’t do anything. A transformed and grateful heart because of our justification before God, and the righteousness of God given to us in Christ, makes us want to obey these words. However we perform, our acceptance before a holy God is in Christ’s righteousness alone.

Based on this knowledge, the indicative before the imperative, we come to the Beatitudes, as they are called. The crowds are getting crazy because Jesus has been healing any who come to him, so he goes up on a mountainside and sits down to teach. And his disciples, having seen what he can do, are ready to listen. There is something very different about Jesus, and they’ll learn just how much as he begins to teach. Very little that Jesus says could be predicted, or could come out of the wellspring of the human heart as we know it. You might say that he’s introducing an Upside Down Kingdom, and it starts by those he considers blessed.

The word blessed means more than in modern parlance being happy. The Greek word has to do with a state of receiving something from God’s hand. From Strong’s:

makários (“blessed”) describes a believer in enviable (“fortunate”) position from receiving God’s provisions (favor) – which (literally) extend (“make long, large”) His grace (benefits).

The word literally means to “become long, large.” God, by our obedience to his Kingdom ethics, is extending his grace in the right ordering of our existence in a fallen world. In other words, we can succumb to gravity of our fallen condition and do what comes “naturally,” or we can do what Jesus says will bless us. Thus, blessed are:

  • The poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Pride in human accomplishment has nothing to do with this kingdom Jesus is introducing to us. Humility is the calling card.
  • Those who mourn, for they will be comforted. How upside down is this! Especially in a culture like ours which tries to sell us every day that our happiness is the summum bonum of existence. How are we to be comforted? The answers will be forthcoming.
  • The meek, who will inherit the earth. Meekness isn’t mousiness, but a right understanding and display of power. It is power in humility.
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for therein lies fulfillment. As opposed to wanting our own way or perspective. It’s an attitude not obsessed with the self, but with the right.
  • The merciful who themselves will be shown mercy. This is an absolutely necessity of living in a fallen world among fallen people, and grates against our nature to judge and condemn.
  • The pure in heart who will see God. Since this applies to literally not one human being, it’s meaning is best captured by the Greek word: (figuratively) spiritually clean because purged  (purified by God), i.e. free from the contaminating (soiling) influences of sin. This can only be achieved in Christ.
  • The peacemakers (not cheesemakers), who will be seen as God’s children. In God’s house there is no strife or contention or anger, so his children work against such things that destroy peace.
  • Those who are persecuted because they do right, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Wouldn’t you think that doing right would bring praise and acclamation? Not, often, in a fallen world. Doing right in spite of the push back is a reflection of God’s rule in a sin-filled world.
  • Those who endure persecution and evil because of Jesus. It is fitting that he should end his outline of blessings with himself because ultimately is it not about what we do or don’t do, but who Jesus is.

The point is all important. We can do everything Jesus suggests here, but if we miss who he is, all the blessings in this world matter not. But even if (when, for most of us) we stumble and stammer trying to to do the best we can, our understanding and affirmation of who Jesus is really the only thing that matters. I love how he ends:

12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

All of the blessings are to be found in him! And why he ends the beatitudes with the affirmation that his followers, in spite of all they will and do endure (as we saw in the Old Testament, being a prophet in Israel was a tough job), have a great reward to look forward to in the life to come. What a way to call followers: you’ll be blessed if you do what I say, but you are going to pay for it! Fortunately, we don’t judge Christianity by the degree of ease it affords, but by the simple fact it is true!


Matthew 4:12-25 – Jesus Begins His Ministry Ushering in The Kingdom

The narrative continues with Jesus learning that John as been imprisoned. Wow! Realize that because we’re so familiar with the story, Herod, the dancing girl, beheading, we don’t go “Wow!” when we most certainly should. As we read through the gospels there are apologetic points aplenty to be made. If you were making up a story of the founding of a new religion, and the coming of a predicted great Messiah, why would one of the key characters even before the story really gets started be hauled off to prison? We know this often happens to prophets in Israel, but wasn’t this supposed to be different? Apparently not. To me, John going to prison reads real; it wouldn’t have been made up if it hadn’t actually happened.

Jesus now leaves the town he grew up in, Nazareth, to his new home on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum. Matthew says almost in passing, “he went and lived” there. It’s strange for me to imagine Jesus living in a town like every other resident, having a little house with a yard where he eats and sleeps and just lives. He greets his neighbors, helps the little old lady cross the street. Just a normal, sort of, guy. But he doesn’t stay home much. Matthew says this move is a fulfillment of Scripture. He does this throughout his gospel because he’s writing to Jews, and nothing says genuine like fulfilling what the sacred writings said centuries before. Some of these fulfillments Jesus could have arranged knowing what he was supposed to do, but others were out of his hands as we’ll see.

Now Jesus starts carrying on the message John no longer can:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And he starts building his team. He starts with with two pairs of brothers who will prove to be instrumental in his ministry, and the Church he intends to build after he’s accomplished his mission. The first are fishermen Peter and Andrew. He tells them what their new occupation is going to be:

19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Human beings are the ones they will now “catch.” And their response on the face of it is strange: Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” He does the same with James and John, sons of Zebedee. They too were fishermen, and they were in a boat with their father. When Jesus calls them, their response is even a bit more strange: Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” That’s it? See ya pops! It’s been nice. This is a good point to explain the purpose of the gospels, why they were written, and the nature of ancient biography and history.

C.S. Lewis made the phrase, “chronological snobbery” famous. Since the Enlightenment, scholars and intellectuals began to see anything in the past, especially the distant past, as outmoded, inferior, regressive, etc., and the people who inhabited that world benighted. These people lived in a world of superstition without the light of science and reason. The attitude over the years that eventually trickled down to the culture was, “We know better,” wink, wink. So, for example, since we “know” that miracles can’t happen, this whole Jesus story is made up superstition. Another example having to do with our text is the belief that ancient authors, especially those of the gospels, didn’t care about accuracy and true history. They were creating a narrative to make a point, and accuracy wasn’t important. In fact, that is a perfect example of chronological snobbery, judging something as inferior simply because it’s old.

But as knowledge of the ancient world has grown, our understanding of ancient biography and history has grown as well. An author, like Matthew, had a limited space in which to convey his message. If he didn’t think a specific detail was important to that message, he wouldn’t have included it. So it appears that the brothers took up and followed Jesus out of blue, but this was not the first encounter these men had with Jesus as we know from the other gospels (John 1:35-42 and Luke 5:3). In our day with endless distractions, it’s hard to imagine the kind of ruckus Jesus would have made where he lived, and in the cities and towns he visited. Plus after 400 years of silence, the people’s hope that this was in fact the Messiah must have been off the charts. So these first disciples of Jesus knew full well who he was.

We learn at the end of this chapter that Jesus was becoming hugely popular and why:

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria . . . 25 And great crowds followed him . . . 

Nothing in Israel had ever been seen like this before. He was healing every disease and affliction. Imagine a day before medicine and doctors and hospitals what this might have been like. And we know from this passage that “the gospel of the kingdom” has something to do with pushing back against the affects of the fall. This healing, then, is a sort of type and shadow of what’s to come ultimately from Jesus ministry.


Matthew 4:1-11 – Jesus Tested: Satan Defeated by God’s Word

What a contrast between the last verse of chapter 3 and the first of chapter 4. And it’s a contrast that seems strange to us because we tend to assume that God’s blessing leads to ease, not struggle, challenge, or suffering. But in God’s economy as I’ve read up to this point in redemptive history, the struggle is most definitely part of the blessing. The reason can be found in a common sense concept that a pagan, Aristotle, made famous: telos. We often forget that this history, which includes us at this very moment in time, has a purpose toward which God in his infinite knowledge, wisdom, and power is directing all things for our ultimate good and his ultimate glory. This gives our lives profound (understatement!) meaning beyond the moment and beyond the circumstances. People look everywhere and anywhere but their Creator for meaning and significance in their lives, and we have it just by getting out of bed in the morning.

God has just declared Jesus his Son, whom he loves, and in whom he is pleased. Immediately after this:

 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

This is clearly part of the plan because Jesus is led by God’s own Spirit to endure this testing (the word tempt in Greek can either mean that or test). And it’s not just any old testing Jesus will endure, but testing from the Prince of Darkness himself. What’s worse for Jesus, we’re told he’s tested after he’s been fasting for the biblically symbolic 40 days and 40 nights. Matthew tells us that after all this fasting, as if we wouldn’t know, Jesus “was hungry.” But the simplicity of the statement belies its importance: Jesus was a human being, just like you and me. And Satan, “The tempter,” tries to use his humanity against him. He tests him an also biblically symbolic three times.

(1.) “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Satan is immensely talented at lying, and one of the ways he does this is by using just enough distortion of the truth to completely obliterate truth. Go back and look how he did that to Eve in the Garden, and he’s trying to do that to Jesus here. No wonder he’s called “crafty.” Satan well knows that Jesus, the Creator of all things, can change the stones into literally anything he might want. But stones are not bread, and God’s power isn’t magic. His power is always informed by telos, which is why miracles are used sparsely throughout Scripture; God doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. As if he were at our beck and call. No, Jesus’ reply tells us that the true nature of existence isn’t stones or bread:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Yes, man must live on bread, but bread of itself is worthless because our entire existence is sustained by God himself, and his “every word.” By that word alone (and those words) are how we endure the testing that is the crucible of existence.

(2.) Next Satan takes him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, some 200 feet high (notice that Satan had the power to do this).

Now Satan himself quotes Scripture. If Jesus will just throw himself down off the temple, doesn’t Scripture (Psalm 91) say he won’t be harmed? Again Jesus goes back to God’s word to reply:

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Jesus again going back to Scripture (where else is there to go?), quotes Moses in Deut. 6:16, which is a reference to Exodus 7:17. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus will never doubt that the Lord is with him. In other words he, as can we, trusts the Lord in any and every situation.

(3.) Finally, Satan takes him to a high mountain to show him “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Satan implies that he has the power to give all of it to Jesus, which is no doubt a lie too. God has allowed him some power in this fallen world, as Paul tells us, but he’s a mere lackey in the cosmic scheme of things. As Jesus says later in his ministry, Satan is the father of lies, and when he lies he speaks his native language. The sliver of truth in Satan’s temptation is that the kingdoms of the world did not yet belong to Jesus because he hadn’t completed his mission to “save his people from their sins.” And of course Jesus goes right back to Scripture to reply:

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

This says it all. To live life as it was truly meant to be lived, we worship our God and serve him alone. And Paul tells us why: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Why would we ever look to any other person or thing for our fulfillment, significance, affirmation, or purpose? Don’t!

The Devil realizes he can’t win against the truth, so leaves and angels come to attend to Jesus. Remember this salient point: Jesus went through all this for you and me. And he was only getting started.

Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus’ Baptism Points to Ours in Him and Covenant Confirmation

Now we get to the crux of the story with the words, “Then Jesus . . . ” I love how simple and understated this is. The whole of human history is about to change. The Roman empire, the greatest the world has ever know, is about to be turned upside down, and the cause is introduced with, “Then Jesus . . ” And how is this all to start? With this unknown carpenter from Galilee coming to be baptized by John. Once John realizes who is standing in front of him, he is nonplussed (this not well known word is perfect for this situation: “(of a person) surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react.”)

First he says Jesus should baptize him! But Jesus says no, John, you need to baptize me “to fulfill all righteousness.” Nobody is quite sure exactly what this means, but since Jesus is without sin he isn’t doing it to repent. Possibly he’s identifying with “his people” the angel said he came to save when he was named. Paul says were were buried with Jesus “through baptism into death.” So as he identified with us in his baptism, so we identify with his death in ours. I like this as a plausible explanation, but there doesn’t have to be just one.

I also think it can mean what I, as a paedobaptist, believe baptism means. For the first 1700 to 1800 years or so of church history Christians baptized their children. That began to change with the first Great Awakening in the 1740s, and gained momentum with the Second in the early 1800s. As revivalism spread throughout the 19th century, believers baptism, as it’s called, became the default position Evangelical Christians. Simply put, baptism in this concept is reserved for those who profess faith in Christ as a testimony to that profession. As such, baptism’s focus is on the believer and their faith.

By contrast, as a paedobaptist I believe that baptism is an affirmation of God’s covenant promise to his people. Baptism is a God-centered sacrament, not a me-centered sacrament. What this means is that God’s decision to save me is more important, and comes prior to, my decision to be saved. In other words, God’s decision causes mine, not the other way round. And because of what Peter says in the very first sermon in Christian history (Acts 2), to me it’s a no-brainer that Christians should baptize their children:

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

There are many verses in the Old Testament that say or imply this, but one Peter could have had in mind is Deut. 29:29. In the words of Moses:

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Here is why we baptize our children: They are not strangers to the covenant! But that is what those who embrace baptism only for believers in effect do, treat their kids as if the covenant promises of God are not for them. This is simply unbiblical. Fortunately, those well-meaning Christians who “dedicate” their children don’t treat them as strangers to the covenant because they in fact treat them as if they were Christians. But they can’t get around the fact that their position on baptism means their kids are little heathens until they make a profession of faith in Jesus when they get older.

So what does this have to do with Jesus being baptized by John? Well, I don’t think Jesus was being baptized because he had made a profession of faith in himself! Rather, it makes more sense that he was affirming his Father’s covenant promise made to him in eternity past to give him a people to save, just as we affirm that in baptizing our children God’s covenant promise is as much for them as it is for us!

Then once Jesus is baptized the Triune God makes his first blatant appearance in Biblical history, one that makes it very difficult to deny that God is in fact three persons in one being (ὁμοούσιος). After Jesus is baptized, Matthew says he, Jesus, saw the “Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” It doesn’t say (nor does it in Mark and Luke’s version) that anyone else saw this, which is strange because you’d think if others saw it, it would have been big news. Maybe it was just for Jesus’ benefit. He’d laid aside his Godhead, and lived his human life for this moment, the beginning of his purpose on earth to complete the mission the Father had given him. Now he gets the confirmation he was likely looking for:

 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, this scene makes no sense whatsoever, God as Father, Son and Spirit. The Triune nature of God becomes more apparent as we read through the gospels, and then as the rest of the New Testament is filled in, but it took 300 years before the Church finally came to terms with God being one and three. The Nicene Creed is the classic formulation of this doctrine that is embraced by all true Christians.


Matthew 3:7-12 – John’s Baptism Points to a Much Greater Baptism by the Holy Spirit

As indicated in my last post, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not real happy with John or his message, given they were the ones who mediated the religion to the people. Who was this wild man out in the wilderness thinking he could baptize people on his own. And John doesn’t make it any easier for them to like him with his scathing rebuke in the next few verses. Even if some were genuinely curious, John’s words wouldn’t exactly endear them to him either. What is John’s problem with the religious professionals of the day:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 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.

The coming wrath? I think John might be mixing up Jesus’ comings. The next to the last verse of the Old Testament describes the “great and dreadful” day of the Lord to some, and in addition to the people seeing John as an Elijah figure, or Elijah himself, John probably did too. This prophet’s message before that day will be one of judgment. We know John, and every other one of Jesus’ followers we’re not expecting the Messiah who actually came, Jesus of Nazareth. Remember what John says from Herod’s prison:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” The Messiah was supposed to be a conquering king who would bring judgment and wrath. They couldn’t conceive of a Messiah (think Isaiah 52 and 53 and the suffering servant) who himself would endure judgment and wrath for them! That was to be what this coming was about, a la Jesus name, The Lord Saves.

One of the problems the Jewish religious professional had in John’s eyes, and for Jesus as well, is that they thought just because they were descendants of Abraham, they were in. The kingdom of heaven which John declares is coming will not be equated with physical Israel. Something very different is happening, and it has to do with the human heart and repentance. As we saw in the last post, repentance doesn’t usher in the kingdom, but is a reflection of it having come. In other words, obedience to the law will no longer be the way God’s people try to justify themselves to their God because that, as we know, is impossible.

Then John tells us that this kingdom of heaven to come will be ushered in by someone greater than himself, much greater. And whereas John baptizes with water, this one to come:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Most agree that the baptism of the Holy Spirit started at Pentecost, and is what all Christians experience at their new birth. Since I believe in infant baptism, I don’t necessarily believe there has to be a conversion experience when this happens. But the when and how are not important compared to every believer in Jesus Christ being baptized in the Holy Spirit, washed cleaned of their sin, and whose heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh.

This idea of being baptized by the Holy Spirit has been so filled with the baggage of Pentecostalism that it’s hard to see it apart from some kind emotional experience. It’s as if the Holy Spirit were an impersonal force that gets our hormones raging when he comes into our physical bodies. The real Holy Spirit baptism, by contrast, is the third person of the Trinity applying the work of Christ into our being so that we are no long enemies of the holy and living God! Way, way better than any temporary emotional experience. Remember, to the Jew at this time Baptism was a ritual cleansing so the person could participate in the religious life of the community, which was the whole of the sacrificial system to be a people holy and set apart to Yahweh, Israel’s God. Emotion was besides the point. This Holy Spirit baptism Jesus will initiate (“he will baptize you”) is a new relationship with the Father that his life and death will make possible. Jesus says as much in John 16:7:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.

As for the baptism by fire, what’s likely in John’s mind is the fire of judgment. That will be for the second coming of Jesus, not this one.