The Holy Spirit and Fire
Matthew 3:1-12 (ESV) In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
As noted yesterday, we confess in the Athanasian Creed that on Judgment Day, “those who have done evil” (unbelievers) will depart “into eternal fire.” When John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize y’all “with the Holy Spirit and fire” and gather “His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire,” this is looking forward to the same Last Day spoken of in the Creed. The Holy Spirit will be poured out on believers for resurrection; fire will be poured out on unbelievers for damnation.
Jesus elsewhere mentions “eternal fire” and “unquenchable fire” in the context of the Last Day. In Matthew 25:41, Jesus says that He will announce to unbelievers, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
When Jesus uses hyperbolic language to emphasize how intensely we must fight against faith-destroying sin, He says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:43–48).
That last phrase quoted by Jesus is Isaiah 66:24, the last verse of Isaiah’s prophecy: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Well, that’s a cheery scene! The image here is one of military rebellion, slaughter, and the rotting and burning of bodies on the battlefield. Lord, have mercy!
As we look at the world around us in 2020, some might describe the present chaos, violence, and disease as a sort-of “hell on earth.” In fact, Satan is trying to use these bitter experiences to drive us to despair and distract us from preparing for the Final Judgement. We must not let him win on either count!
No matter how bad things get in this broken and sinful world, Christians never have cause for despair, and we are patiently waiting for the Lord Jesus to return and make everything right: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:18-25).
We have the “firstfruits of the Spirit” through our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. Elsewhere, Paul says that when we came to faith in Christ, we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). But as John the Baptist prophesied, Jesus will finally and fully pour out the Holy Spirit on believers on the Last Day, and then the Holy Spirit “will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true” (Small Catechism). Then “the Lord and Giver of life” (Nicene Creed) will bring to fulfillment our ultimate hope.
Prayer (LSB 755:2):
In the midst of death’s dark vale
Pow’rs of hell o’ertake us.
Who will help when they assail,
Who secure will make us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only!
Thy heart is moved with tenderness,
Pities us in our distress.
Holy and righteous God!
Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all-merciful Savior!
Eternal Lord God!
Save us from the terror
Of the fiery pit of hell.
Have mercy, O Lord! Amen.