Matthew 3:7-12

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance,

and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.

10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The Pharisees and Sadducces were coming to where John was baptizing (v. 7). These religious leaders in their self-righteousness considered themselves acceptable to God. They denied having sin that needed to be confessed or unrighteousness that needed to be forgiven. By virtue of their physical birth, they saw themselves as Abraham’s children, as acceptable to God, and as already members of His kingdom. — Pentecost, page 88

The Pharisees and the Sadducees … came out to John. The Pharisees (the name means a Separatist) were the strictly religious, orthodox-ritualistic class. They were well versed in the traditions of the elders, and occupied themselves with creating new commandments and strange interpretations of the law. They are the fathers of the talmudical Jews of the present day and typical of ritualistic Christendom, having the form of godliness and not the power. The Sadducees were the rationalist, the unbelieving class. They were much given to reform. Their offspring today are the reformed Jews, who reject the greater part of the Word of God, and in Christendom they are remarkably reproduced in the unevangelical “Isms,” though they call themselves “Christian,” who reject portions of the Word, who do not believe in the inspiration of the Bible. 

“Offspring of vipers!” thus the Holy Spirit declared through the forerunner their true character. What a strong and cutting word it is, which applies not alone to the Pharisees and Sadducees, but to all ritualistic-religiousness and unbelieving criticism. They are the offspring not of God but of vipers. But still they were the proud boasters of being the seed of Abraham and as such entitled to the promised blessing. They believed that they were to be saved from the wrath of God connected with the establishment of the kingdom, and the wrath would fall entirely upon the Gentile nations. — Gaebelein, pages 68-69

We see a note of urgency in John’s message, for when he called for repentance, he told them that judgment was at hand. 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” (v.10). This was in keeping with the Old Testament revelation that the Messiah would come as a Judge and remove the sinful from His kingdom. David in Psalm 24:3 asks rhetorically, “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place?” David meant, Who will be accepted in the Messiah’s kingdom when He comes? The answer is then given: “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false” (v.4). Ezekiel 20:34-38 describes this judgment in detail. — Pentecost, page 89.

Let us understand in the first place that the words spoken (v.11) refer to the first and second coming of our Lord. Let this be clearly fixed in our minds, and all will be plain. The promise connected with the first coming is, He shall baptize you with the Holy spirit. The second coming of the Lord will bring the baptism with fire, as it is seen at once in the words which follow, which speak clearly of judgment and fire unquenchable. It may appear strange at the first glance that John says in one breath: “He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” — that the Holy Spirit should refer to His first coming and the fire to His second appearing, but let us take into consideration that John still belongs to the Old Testament, and he expresses himself in a way as many of the prophets did, who frequently spoke in one clause of the Lord’s first and second coming. However, the fifth verse in the first chapter of Acts puts into our hands the key. The Lord said then to His disciples, “John, indeed, baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence.” That our Lord speaks of what John said in our passage here is evident, yet he does not mention baptism with fire. If He had added, and with fire, it would clearly prove that the baptism connected with His first coming is a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. But He leaves out the fire because it stands in connection with His second coming. Thus it is seen in the entire prophetic Word, which speaks of the day of wrath and vengeance as being a day of burning and fire. — Gaebelein, pages 70-71

fan (v.12) — a shovel used to toss grain in the wind, which would blow away the chaff

Israel in the course of her history had had peculiar identifying signs previously. Circumcision was the external sign that one was rightly related to Abraham and to his covenant. Sabbath observance was the sign that one was rightly related to Moses and his law. Now the sign that one was rightly related to John and his message was submission to the external rite of water baptism. All these external signs were given to the nation Israel.

When Messiah comes, He will have a new sign by which to identify God’s people. It had been promised in Joel 2:28 and Ezekiel 36:25-27 that God would give His Holy Spirit as a gift to all those in Messiah’s kingdom. John promised that when Messiah came, He would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16). The One who would give the Spirit as an identifying sign of relationship would be the true Messiah — not the one who gave the external preparatory sign. Messiah’s baptism would not be external but internal. Whereas any external sign could be duplicated by men, the work which Messiah would do in giving the Holy Spirit to believers could not be duplicated by men. Such a baptism would identify the true Messiah and also be a true identification of those who belong to Him.

John gave a second part of the baptizing work of the Messiah when he said, “He will baptize you … with fire” (Luke 3:16). Fire was associated with judgment just as the winnowing fork of Matthew 3:12 was a sign of judgment. When Messiah comes to rule, He will remove all that is worthless, useless, and lifeless; He will accept into His kingdom only what has life — the life which men have received from Him. — Pentecost, page 91.

I have only to add that it is evident that John’s message and baptism were only for Israel and have no direct reference to the Body of Christ. The entire age of grace is taking place between the two baptisms mentioned in verse 11 — That of the Jews with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in preparation for the kingdom (which was rejected) and that baptism of fire which will occur when the Lord returns in judgment after the Body of Christ has been taken up to heaven with the Lord.

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