The Two Baptisms Part 3 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

The baptism of fire searches and cleanses as water cannot do. There are some deeply established uncleannesses for which the action of water is not sufficiently stringent. In many cases of contagious disease, if we are to rid ourselves of every vestige of corruption, there are many things which must be burnt. The germs of the contagion cannot be washed away. They must be consumed away. Water would be altogether insufficient. We need fire. Fire is our most effective purifying minister, a powerful and relentless enemy of disease.

There can be no doubt that it was mainly this thought that was before the Baptist's mind when he spoke the words with which we are dealing. The symbol of his own work was water, and there is a great deal, in the way of cleansing, that water can do. It can remove the worst of the defilement to be seen anywhere, and make unsightly things fairly pleasing to look at. As he preached and pleaded with men his words had a certain, even striking, effect; the reformation that set in for the time being changed the face of society. But there are stains which no water can erase, inward impurities which it cannot reach. These must be burned out if they are to disappear. And this Jesus effects through His gift of the Holy Ghost. He breathes flame through men's hearts, and makes them pure.

In 1665 London was in the grip of that terrible Plague, the horrors of which may still be felt through the pages of Defoe. The disease germs were hiding and breeding and multiplying everywhere. Every corner became a nest of contagion. Nothing could be found to displace it. In the following year the Great Fire broke out, and the plague-smitten city was possessed by the spirit of burning. London was literally baptized with fire, which sought out the most secret haunts of the contagion, and in the fiery baptism the evil genius of corruption gave place to the sweet and friendly genius of health. Fire accomplished quite easily what water would never have attained. And so in a comparison of fire and water as cleansing and redeeming agencies, common experience tells us that fire is the keener, the more searching, the more powerful, the more intense.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism, 209.]

To me it seemed that God's most vehement utterances had been in flames of fire. The most tremendous lesson He ever gave to New York was in the conflagration of 1835; to Chicago in the conflagration of 1871; to Boston in the conflagration of 1872; to my own congregation in the fiery downfall of the Tabernacle at Brooklyn. Some saw in the flames that roared through its organ pipes a requiem, nothing but unmitigated disaster, while others of us heard the voice of God, as from heaven, sounding through the crackling thunder of that awful day, saying, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire”!2 [Note: The Autobiography of Dr. Talmage, 231.]

1. The fire has a refining power on true character. Partly by the fiery trials of human life, partly by the test of sore temptation, partly by the fire of disappointment, partly by the shattering of vain ideals and the scattering of earthly hopes, partly by all that sobers and deepens us, by the fire of bodily pain, by the fire of mental anguish, by every action of the Eternal Spirit of the living God, instructing, guiding, warning, rebuking, judging, haunting, condemning, up to the sorrows of death and beyond it; by all these each soul is tried in the baptism by fire whereby the good is refined and the evil destroyed.
The great glory of the gospel is to cleanse men's hearts by raising their temperature, making them pure because they are made warm; and that separates them from their evils. It is slow work to take mallet and chisel and try to chip off the rust, speck by speck, from a row of railings, or to punch the specks of iron ore out of the ironstone. Pitch the whole thing into the furnace, and the work will be done. So the true way for a man to be purged of his weaknesses, his meannesses, his passions, his lusts, his sins, is to submit himself to the cleansing fire of that Divine Spirit.

Did you ever see a blast-furnace? How long would it take a man, think you, with hammer and chisel, or by chemical means, to get the bits of ore out from the stony matrix? But fling them into the great cylinder, and pile the fire and let the strong draught roar through the burning mass, and by evening you can run off a glowing stream of pure and fluid metal, from which all the dross and rubbish is parted, which has been charmed out of all its sullen hardness, and will take the shape of any mould into which you like to run it. The fire has conquered, has melted, has purified. So with us. Love “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost given unto us,” love that answers to Christ's, love that is fixed upon Him who is pure and separate from sinners, will purify us and sever us from our sins. Nothing else will. All other cleansing is superficial, like the water of John's baptism.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
Beautiful colours, rich gold-work, exquisite designs, and artistic skill may be seen on the unfinished porcelain vase, but a careless touch may spoil them, there is a needs-be that the vase should be placed in the fire, that the artist's skill may be burnt in, and then the colours become permanent. The Holy Spirit is the Artist and the Fire. He alone can produce the beautiful colours of a holy life and make the character impervious to the attacks of evil. He alone can make us resolve with Jonathan Edwards, who wrote in his diary these words: “If I believed that it were permitted to one man—and only one—in this generation to lead a life of complete consecration to God, I would live in every respect as though I believed myself to be that one.”1 [Note: F. E. Marsh, Emblems of the Holy Spirit, 122.]
2. The fire will destroy everything that is not sterling metal. This is the alternative before every human being—either to be purified by the baptism of fire, or else to meet that central Holiness as a flame of judgment. Of course it must be so. For the holiness of God cannot change its character. It is man's heart that must be changed. To the obedient it is a savour of life unto life, to the evil a savour of death unto death; to the one remedial, to the other retributive. The Spirit of God must sanctify, or else it must destroy.

The gold is gold, and cannot be anything worse if it would. The chaff is worthless by nature, not by fault. The fire must of necessity purify the one and burn the other. Neither gold nor stubble can change. But that which is tested by the fire of the Divine Holiness is the will and the character of moral and responsible beings. Man can become pure as the gold or worthless as the stubble. From the same material issues the sinner and the saint. It must depend upon the soul itself whether the Divine Holiness shall be to it the fire which purifies or the fire which destroys. God cannot deny Himself, or be anything else than moral Perfection, or He would no longer be God. It is the creature that must change. The human will must change. The human will must so submit itself to the action of the grace of God that the evil shall be burnt out and the good refined. Our destiny is in our hands. The love and mercy which created us has no pleasure in our ruin. And if any soul hereafter meet that holiness of God in the form of unquenchable fire, it will be because that soul has refused to meet Him as the power which cleanses.

The same pillar of fire which gladdened the ranks of Israel as they camped by the Red Sea shone baleful and terrible to the Egyptian hosts. The same Ark of the Covenant whose presence blessed the house of Obed-edom, and hallowed Zion, and saved Jerusalem, smote the Philistines, and struck down their bestial gods. Christ and His gospel even here hurt the men whom they do not save.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

to be continued