Sermon preached on Luke 3:15-22 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 07/25/2021 in Novato, CA.
Today we have part two about the ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus Christ. Here we see John’s humble service to fulfill his God-given role and ministry. But it is a ministry, like our passage for today, that ultimately gives the focus and spotlight to the Son of God and Messiah in whom God the Father is well pleased. As we study this passage for today, we’ll see how John’s good news about the coming Jesus is still good news for us today.
Let us begin by looking at verses 15-16. There we find a comparison between how John’s baptizes and how Jesus would baptize. This comparison of baptisms is in the context of a question found in verse 15. There, we see that the people had begun to wonder if John was the long-awaited Messiah. John’s ministry had attracted a lot of attention in Israel. Even the non-Christian Jewish historian Josephus describes the popularity and great influence of John in his book the Antiquities of the Jews. Even long after John’s death, we find in the book of Acts there were some people who yet considered themselves his disciples (c.f. Acts 19). So then, we are not surprised to see here that some were hoping that John might be the Christ. It is a wonderful thing, in general, to see in verse 15 that the people were in eager expectation for the coming Messiah. And it is thus understandable that they might have thought someone like John, who lived such a notable life in the wilderness as a prophet and who spoke with such authority and who instituted such a new thing as a baptism even for Jews, that he might be the Christ.
But, John was adamant that he was not the Christ, verse 16. In no uncertain terms, he unequivocally denied that he was the coming Messiah. Notice how he humbles himself in comparison to the Messiah. In verse 16, he explains that he is so inferior to the Messiah that he is not even worthy to untie the strap of his sandal. Realize, that such would have been a servant’s job for an important person, and one of the lowliest servant’s job — this is not an armor-bearer or cup-bearer position, for example. But John says he’s not even worthy enough to be such a lowest of personal servants for the Messiah. Running with that analogy, you can imagine that a prestigious and powerful king doesn’t have just anyone be his servants. He has the best of the best as his servants. John’s saying that compared to the glory and honor of the coming Messiah, he in comparison isn’t worthy to serve such a king even in such lowliest of a position. That’s biblical humility in light of the great glory and worthiness of the Christ.
John further makes his point then by comparing his baptism versus the kind of baptism Jesus would bring. In verse 16, John says he baptizes with water. He compares that with how the Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Ultimately, John’s comparison brings out the external component of his baptism and its function as a sign, whereas he brings out the substantive component of how Jesus baptizes. Let me explain what I just said. Think of John’s baptism. He uses water. What is water effective for when used to baptize? Well, the only thing it intrinsically does is wash dirt off a body. But of course, we know that is not why John the Baptist baptized people. He didn’t baptize with water for the remission of dirt. No, he baptized people for the remission of sins. But ultimately, this baptism with water was as an expression of their repentance and seeking God to forgive them of their sins. It expressed their plea to God for mercy in an expression of turning from sin. But you see, John could pour or sprinkle the water upon them. He could even proclaim the gospel promises of God to them. But John couldn’t actually forgive them their sins. Nor could John himself actually wash the sin away from their hearts. John could not remove the uncleanness from their souls that had turned them away from God in the first place and what necessitated their repentance and seeking to turn themselves back to God. Let me clarify something. Could God use John’s preaching and baptism as a means of grace to bring about an inward cleansing, in anticipation of Christ to come? Yes, by all means. Could God use what John signifies outwardly with the water to bring an inward change in people’s hearts. Absolutely. But should God have so worked in people through John’s ministry, that only proves John’s point. That’s in the power of God, not in the power of John. John himself only baptizes with the physical substance of water. He can’t himself wash their souls.
In comparison, John says the Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit. If water touches the body, we recognize right away that that Holy Spirit touches the soul. Doesn’t that tell you something right there of the divinity of Jesus? Jesus the Christ pours out the Holy Spirit upon his people. It is the Spirit that provides the real washing of a man; the washing of their hearts. In Christ, we have the guilt of our sin washed away – that happens in our justification. But in Christ, by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we also are having the corruption of sin being washed away – that is what he is doing in our sanctification and ultimately our glorification.
But we should note that John says that Jesus also will baptize with fire. That is interesting because that is obviously more of the nature of water than the Holy Spirit. Fire is something of the physical realm, not the spiritual. But both water and fire can be used in a purification sense in Scripture. Yet, we can think of in comparison the more powerful purifying power of fire over water, and surely that is the comparison we should make. We should also observe that there is a way that Jesus will use fire along these lines both in a positive way for his people and as a form of judgment for the wicked. When Acts at Pentecost records the historical fulfillment of Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the Christians, we remember that tongues of fire accompanied the baptism of the Holy Spirit as visible phenomenon. That surely represented the purifying work of the Spirit on the believer’s hearts. But today’s passage also speaks about Jesus using fire to burn up the wicked as chaff, and it is unquenchable fire, a fire of judgment upon sinners. Surely the purifying idea of fire is still there, but in an enduring sense of judgment upon such sinners.
So then, in our first point, we’ve observed how much greater Christ Jesus is over John, especially in comparing their different baptisms they give. At the end of that point, I touched on where I want us to turn to next. In verse 17, John gives us an analogy of the winnowing fork to describe Jesus’ work. Verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The winnowing fork described here is basically an ancient pitch fork of sorts. It could be fork-like, or even shovel or fan-like in construction, but the way it was used is with wheat that had been threshed already to separate the wheat from the chaff. You basically using the winnowing fork to scoop up the wheat and the chaff and toss it into the air a little. The wind should help blow away the chaff from the wheat. As the wheat and chaff get separated like this, you then could collect and bring the wheat into your barn.
The wheat in this analogy is obviously the good stuff. It’s what the farmer has been working so hard to end up with. But this final step is so important for the farmer to enjoy the wheat. He has to do this final separating at the end, so he ends up with just the good wheat. John the Baptist is saying that this is what Jesus will do. He will do the separating at the end. At the harvest at the end of the age, he will bring everyone before him and separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. We who are God’s elect, saved by grace, will be brought home with Jesus into the glory of his kingdom of the age to come. John is announcing that Jesus is coming imminently and that his work will be to gather a saved and blessed people unto himself.
But then you have the chaff in the winnowing fork analogy. The chaff is the outer husk that you don’t eat. It’s not what the farmer is looking to harvest. It is just a byproduct of the wheat. It is just trash, frankly. And so, after the tossing with the winnowing fork, whatever chaff is laying around afterwards needs to be disposed of. So you sweep it up, and John then imagines it being disposed of through being put into the fire. Yet, here is where his analogy changes from the norm. Normally you put the chaff into the fire and the chaff burns up. In fact, chaff burns up really quickly, normally – “poof” in the flames and it is consumed. But not in John’s analogy. In John’s analogy, Jesus will take the chaff and burn it with a fire that is unquenchable. This is a feature we see in the Bible sometimes when they are talking figuratively and suddenly drop out of the metaphor to speak more specifically about the reality that they were describing figuratively. In other words, John has to switch partially out of the metaphor because this is where the metaphor breaks down. Because the Bible teaches that the hell of God’s final judgment on the wicked will be an everlasting place of torment and anguish. So then, the Bible will use earthly imagery describe the horrors of hell, and will heighten the imagery to attempt to convey by analogy how bad hell will be. Thus the Scripture says hell will be the place where the fire is not quenched, even though normally fire eventually dies out when there is nothing left to consume. Likewise, Scripture says hell will be the place where the worm does not die, describing a maggot that normally eats up decaying matter until there is nothing left to eat. The fire and worm imagery works well but is heightened to say that their destructive, tormenting, effects will never end upon the person who finds themself under the eternal wrath of God in hell.
So then, John’s analogy here explains the two-fold work of Jesus. On the one hand, he is there is to harvest and save a people unto himself. On the other hand, he will bring a terrifying judgment upon the wicked. This restates what we said last time – that the coming day of the Lord is a day of judgment for many and a day of salvation for some.
But in this passage, we find an important biblical clarification about the coming of Jesus. If we just took John’s preaching in simplistic terms, we might expect that when Jesus imminently did come, something we see even in this passage at Jesus’ baptism, that he would immediately bring about this separation between the wheat and the chaff. We might have expected from John’s preaching that the first coming of Christ would mean complete victory and vindication for God’s people and complete and final judgment on the wicked. Yet, clearly that isn’t what happened, and we see that even right here in our passage. I am referring to the example of Herod in verse 19. This Herod Antipas was the Roman governor in that area and he was a sinner. He committed adultery and incest to steal his brother’s wife from him. And he did many other sins. These were things that John rebuked Herod for doing. John preached his message of repentance in light of the coming of Christ to Herod as well. Herod rejected John’s call to repent. Herod ultimately put John in prison. One might then expect that when Jesus then showed up that he would see to Herod’s immediate destruction and John’s immediate freedom from prison. But that did not happen. It even left John himself puzzled somewhat as we will see in Luke 7. But with the help of more revelation and the Holy Spirit, we’ve come to realize that John’s prophecy about Jesus finds an initial fulfillment at Jesus’ first coming. It will find a consummate fulfillment in his second coming. Right now, Jesus is at work gathering wheat into his barn by calling sinners into repentance and to become disciples in his church. At the same time, his gospel brings condemnation to all the chaff of unbelievers who reject that call. But when he finally returns, he will bring the full harvest of believers to glory and then finally cast all the unbelievers into the eternal lake of fire where the fire will never be quenched.
Let us now turn in our third point and observe what we have here about the baptism of Jesus. In verse 21, after a fruitful ministry of John the Baptist’s preaching and baptizing of so many, Jesus comes to have John baptize him. This is an amazing thing. In terms of Jesus himself, he didn’t need the washing that John’s water baptism represented. Jesus was without any spot or stain of sin. He was completely righteous. As John rightly knew, he needed Jesus to baptize him, not the other way around. But in fulfilling all righteousness, Jesus identified with the sinful stained humans that he came to save. By being baptized with John’s water baptism, a baptism of repentance, he identifies with us elect sinners, doing what each of us should have done if we were then and there. Jesus would live in complete active obedience to do all that God’s sinful people should have done. And Jesus would in complete passive obedience bear the suffering and misery that all God’s sinful people deserved because of their own sin. Jesus, in a very formal way, begins that redemption ministry right there that day. His taking on a baptism that he didn’t need for himself is him declaring before the Father and many witnesses that he was committing himself to the ministry of the vicarious atonement, to be the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. And notice that it says Jesus was praying here too. This was a deeply religious moment for Jesus to formally take on this mission and he is bathing such an act in prayer, as we will see him doing repeatedly through his ministry.
And look at the wonderful triune response of God. While the eternal Son of God in the flesh commits himself to his redemptive mission to redeem the elect, both God the Father and God the Spirit respond. God the Holy Spirit descends upon him. Here, now Jesus, the God-man, is baptized by the Holy Spirit. The very thing he would do for his redeemed people according to John, he first experiences himself. Of course, he did not need himself to have the purifying baptism of fire, so instead the Holy Spirit baptizes him in a bodily form like a dove. I should clarify that while we see Jesus baptized by the Holy Spirit here, it is not that the Spirit hadn’t already been at work in Jesus’ life. We have already seen that, even from his virgin conception in the womb of his mother Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed here and she was with child. But here, in special gifting and equipping, the Holy Spirit is filling Jesus and anointing him as the Lord’s anointed one for his mission of redemption.
Likewise, we see God the Father speak from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” We could imagine several aspects of these words. They commend Jesus in his taking on of this mediatorial and redemptive work as he submits himself to John’s baptism. This would encourage and affirm Jesus in his work that lay before us. These words also commend Jesus to the human witnesses there as the beginning testimony of who Jesus is. There are now already eyewitnesses that can begin to testify to Jesus as the Messiah. And these words also acknowledge Jesus’ sonship. Likely they especially have in mind that Jesus, in touching his divinity, was the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, from all eternity. Such is fitting in how we see all three persons of the Trinity involved here. And as a side note, this scene shows us that heresy known as modalism such as held by Oneness Pentecostalists and others, is wrong. That heresy says there is just one God who assumes different roles, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But frankly, that would mean that God is here talking to himself. Rather, what we see here is a beautiful picture of the Trinity, three persons, even though there is only one God, such that all three persons seen here are the same in substance, equal in power and glory. But I digress.
In this third point in our sermon today, I’d like to observe how super glorious and honorable and wonderful this whole scene of Jesus’ baptism is. Then I’d like to point out that it happened under the ministry of John the Baptist. You know, the humble John who is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ shoe, and that’s true. Yet, God has him baptize his beloved Son Jesus and set the context for God the Holy Spirit to descend upon Jesus. Unworthy John is called to such a worthy service. Take an application from there. We are unworthy servants of Jesus who are called to such a worthy service of proclaiming Christ and the gospel to the world.
In conclusion, I would point out that John’s words in verse 18 are described as good news. But we noted that his good news was good news for the “wheat”; but it was bad news if you are the “chaff”. I ask you then, has today’s message been for you good news or bad news? Are you one eagerly receiving this word and eagerly expecting and waiting for Christ to return to finish what he has begun? If you hear these words of Scripture, and in response repent of your sin and put your faith and hope in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, then this is indeed good news for you. For we who hope in Christ have had his Holy Spirit poured out upon us which is even now refining us like fire and preparing us for glory.
And it is that Holy Spirit that has been poured out upon us that equips us to be about the mission that God has in store for us right now. Right now, we are being used by Christ to bring the gospel to the nations in gathering up his wheat into the barn. We are indeed unworthy of this task. But he gives us the Holy Spirit and he gives us his grace. We are unworthy servants called to this worthiest of service. By the power of the Holy Spirit that he gives us, let us in faith look to labor for Christ in his Great Commission, now, and until the end of the age. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.