"He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire."— Matt. iii. 11.
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 high degree. To him to efface himself and be lost in the light of Christ was no trial, but 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 symbolises the incompleteness of his work in the words preceding my text, by reference to his baptism. He baptised with water that cleansed the outside, but did not go deeper. It was cold, negative. It brought no new impulses; and he recognised 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 plunge into a holy fire, which would cleanse in another fashion than water could do. So my text goes very deep into the heart of Christ's work, and may well occupy our thoughts on Whitsunday, when so many Churches are commemorating the great event which began to fulfil John's prophecy.
I. Let me ask you to look, then, at this fiery Spirit.
Now, you will observe, I daresay, the singular solemnity of the triple refrain at the close of three contiguous verses, each of which ends with "fire." But there are fires and fires. The rotten tree "is cast into the fire," the empty chaff "is burned with unquenchable fire." But there is another kind of fire, into which it is not destruction but blessedness for a man to be flung. "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." That is promise, not threatening; and the two fires are set in contrast. Strange that superficial readers should so often have omitted to notice the significance of this threefold repetition of the one word.
Now, I suppose that no one who looks at the passage carefully can doubt that the fire in my text is the symbol of the Divine Spirit. I would point to another instance of precisely the same collocation, in reference to the same subject, of the reality and the figure which expresses it, in our Lord's words, about being born of water and of the Spirit. Just as there the water is the symbol of the cleansing influences of the Spirit and has no reference whatsoever to the water of baptism, so here the fire is a symbol, in another form, of the same cleansing and hallowing operation.
I need not remind you that this metaphor is one of frequent occurrence ; in the Old Testament occasionally, and in the New Testament habitually. I need only recall to you our Lord's own words, so full of yearning, longing, and conscious hindrances: "I am come to send fire upon the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled ;" and I need only remind you, in passing, of the fiery tongues that sat upon the heads of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.
So, then, if we take this symbol as expressive of the operations of that Divine Spirit which Christ brings, it may suggest to us some thoughts as to what He does for human nature, and what He is willing to do for us all. Let me just try to work out very briefly the force of this symbolical representation.
That fire gives life. That seems a paradox, but put your hands or your lips on the cheek of the beloved corpse, and you know the shock of icy coldness. Put them on the living flesh that holds the spirit that you love, and you know the electric glow of warmth. Heat is life ; death is cold. And so, not only in the word "spirit," whether you take it as meaning breath or as meaning an immaterial personality, there is conveyed the promise of life, but in the symbol of " fire " it is no less conveyed. For though there is a fire that destroys, there is a warmth that vivifies.
1, for my part, believe that modern Evangelicalism has, to a large extent, failed in "prophesying according to the proportion of faith," and that it has fixed its gaze far too exclusively on forgiveness and acceptance, and tbe escape from the penal consequences of sin, as being the gifts of Christ to the world, and as making up the notion of Christ's salvation, and has not sufficiently given weight and proportionate prominence to the thought that these gifts—the barring out of penalty, forgiveness, and acceptance with God ; the transference into the condition of friends and children from that of enemies and aliens—are but the preliminaries to the true, central, deepest gift which Christ has to bestow, according to His own great words, " I am come that they might have life." It is the gift of life which the wholesome mysticism of Christianity insists upon as the highest that He can give. Do not go away with the notion that it is a metaphor, or a piece of rhetorical embellishment of some simple fact. The very centre of Christ's work for man is that He breathes into the dead spirit, dead because it lives in self, the germ of a new nature, and imparts a spiritual life, without which we are dead while we live. That life is given us by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which "makes us free from the law of sin and death."
Have you been quickened by that indwelling Spirit? Is the life that you now live in the flesh not your life, but the life of Christ that lives in you ?" He shall baptize with the . . . fire" that gives life.
Again, this fire kindles emotion. We all know the common use of that metaphor in language. We speak about ardent desires, warm feelings, fervid emotions, burning love, and the like. The great gift which Christ brings to men is in one aspect the heightening and hallowing of the emotions. Ancient moralists did not know what to do with them. They tried to suppress them, and looked upon all the play of feeling as being disturbing to the loftier reason and will. Jesus Christ puts holy fire into the emotions, and heightens and sanctifies them, and makes love, which the world regards as a weakness, and often handles so as to make it a sin, the basis of all goodness, and the productive soil in which everything that is of good report will grow.
The fire kindles men's love. Think what a strange, new thing, when Christ came into the world, it was for men to love God. Judaism had very partially grasped that idea. The selectest of the psalmists had had glimpses of it, but for the nation at large there was no emotion in their religion, no warmth of feeling in their prayers, no love to God in their hearts. Christ came, and everything became different; and men poured out the treasures of their hearts like water at His feet, and felt that He, and He only, was the adequate object of all their emotions, and that all were glorified and ennobled when they were fixed on Him.
Religion is worth nothing unless it is warm. There is nothing more irrational than that people should; as a great many of us do, believe in a way the truths of Christianity, and feel next door to nothing about them. Its truths are so solemn, so certain, so tremendous, that not to be stirred to the very depths of our being by them, and yet to believe them, or say we do, is sheer insanity. Some of you will remember that in the original preface to the " Christian Year," a book about which I would speak with all admiration, the writer commits himself to the statement that " next to a sound creed there is nothing of so much importance as a sober standard of feeling in matters of practical religion." Well, I do not think so. It seems to me that "a sober standard of feeling" is only a fine name for what Jesus Christ designated as "neither cold nor hot," and that, instead of sober feeling, what we want is the burning enthusiasm, of which one sees so little in Christians round about one and feels so little in one's own heart.
Oh, brethren, not to be all aflame is madness, if we believe our own creed. Isaiah says, in one of his gigantic metaphors, " The Lord's fire is in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem." Does that apply to most of our Churches, Nonconformist or Episcopalian? A fire and a furnace—does that describe this church? An ice-house would be a better illustration of the facts, in a great many cases. "He shall baptize you with . . . fire"; and if it does anything it will kindle emotion.
Again, that fire cleanses by kindling. John's waterbaptism washed the outside. There is a better way of making things clean than that. Fire purifies, either by melting down the obstinate ore and bringing the scum up to the top, from whence it may be skimmed, leaving the residue clear, or it cleanses by dissipating the cause of the foulness, and, as it passes off, the stain melts from the surface of the disfigured clay. 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—which, being translated, is—the true Way for a man to be purged of his weaknesses, his
meannesses, his passions, his lusts, sins, is to submit himself to the cleansing fire of that Divine Spirit.
II. And now let me say a word about the baptism with the fiery Spirit.
Now, you all know that I am a Baptist; and you also all know that I do not obtrude my views upon that subject, as an ordinary thing, upon my congregation. And so you will not suppose me to be trying to bring anything in by a side wind, or to be seeking for proselytes, if I, purely as a Biblical critic, make a plain observation. The American Revisers who worked along with our Revision Committee, made a suggestion, which you will find printed at the end of the Revised New Testaments, to the effect that in all cases after the word "baptism" or " baptised," the "with " of the text, and the "in" of the margin, should change places. Our more conservative Revision Committee did not see their way to that, but they preserved the recommendation. And there can be no question—I speak now, not from my own denominational standpoint, but as voicing the opinion of the majority of students—there can be no question that here the literal rendering is the accurate rendering, and that fire is not the instrument with which, but the element in which, the person is baptised. Neither can there be any question that the primitive form of baptism is part of the significance of the symbol here—viz., a total immersion in the element.
Now, that being so, let me just suggest, for your time will not allow of my doing more, how, from this symbol, there comes a very solemn and impressive thought and appeal to all professing Christian people. John's prophecy, which was God's promise, is that a man shall be plunged into, immersed over head and ears in, this fiery Spirit. What can that mean less than a complete influence exercised over all a man's faculties, desires, and capabilities? What can it mean less than a complete bestowment of that sanctifying Spirit?
The same completeness is suggested by other sayings of Scripture upon the same subject; when we read, for instance, of Christ's promise to the Apostles that before long they should be "clothed with power from on high," as if with a vesture enveloping the whole body; or, as when we read about being "filled with the Spirit," as a vessel charged to the brim with some precious wine. If that is God's ideal, if that is God's desire, if that complete subjection to, and reception of, the Divine influences is possible through Jesus Christ, what shall we say of the fragmentary, the partial, the broken operations of that hallowing Spirit upon the best and highest of us? There are but points in a row, with long gaps between, when there ought to be one straight line, without variation and without interruption. Dear friends, let us try ourselves by that image of a complete immersion in the fire of the Spirit, and ask ourselves why is it that, with such a possibility, the reality of my life is as earth-bound as it is.
III. Lastly , we have here the Administrator of the baptism with the Spirit of fire.
"He shall baptize you." I need not, I suppose, remind you of how, in many places, our Lord claimed that same power. You remember .the passage that I have already quoted: "I am come to fling fire upon the earth," and the more gracious aspect of the same promise given to the sorrowing company in the upper chamber: "I will send Him unto yon." I need not remind you of what a tremendous claim that is to be made by a man sitting among men, nor what it involves about Him that made it. Nor is there time, here and now, to enter upon the deep thoughts that are suggested, by this glimpse into the administration of the revelation, in regard to the relations of the Divine nature within itself. The revelation in the life and death of Jesus Christ had to be completed, before the fulness of the operations of the cleansing Spirit could be realised. He had been brooding over the earth from the beginning, and, in lands far away from revelation, had been touching men's hearts and consciences. But until the Son of man was glorified, that Spirit in its perfection could not be given. It is no mere arbitrary limitation, but one inherent in the nature of the gift and in the nature of man, that it can only be bestowed upon those that have received Christ by faith.
So we come back to the old central truth, that Christ, the Administrator of the baptism with the fiery Spirit, must be clung to by simple faith, ere we can pass into the blessed possession of the highest gift from Him. Trust Him, and He bestows His Spirit upon us ; refrain from trusting Him, and we never possess it.
I cannot close without just recurring, in one word, to that solemn refrain to which 1 have already referred, as occurring in these adjacent verses. It comes like the triple tolling of some great bell: "Fire! fire! fire!" One kind of fire is for the barren tree and the empty chaff, another kind of fire is for the man that believes in Christ. Yes; the choice is before each of us—to be plunged into the fire which cleanses and quickens, or to be cast into the fire that destroys. Like the three Jews in Babylon, we may walk in that fiery furnace and be glad to feel the flames curling round our limbs and consuming our bonds. You have to make your choice of which of these fires you will have experience.