The Two Baptisms Part 1 of 4 Matthew 3:11

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.—Matthew 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.
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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.]

to be continued