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§ 39. John’s Explanation of his Relation to the Messiah. The Baptism by Water and by Fire.

CAREFULLY, however, as John avoided exciting false expectations, they could hardly fail to arise at a period so full of foreboding and hope for the coming of Messiah, after time enough had elapsed for him to make a powerful impression upon the public mind as a preacher of repentance and proclaimer of a better future.9494   Paul’s words (Acts, xiii., 25) lead us to infer that this took place first towards the end of John’s career. Many of those whom his preaching had so deeply moved became uneasy to ascertain his true relation to the Messiah; and as his language on the subject was always concise, and rather suggestive than explanatory, they were inclined to think that his real character was only kept in the back ground for the time, and would afterward be gradually unfolded. But when the Baptist saw that men mused in their hearts whether he were the Christ or no,9595   Luke, iii., 15. he resolved to define his relation to the Messiah explicitly and unmistakeably. His mission, he told them, was to baptize by water, as a symbol of the preparatory repentance which had to open the way for that renewal and purification of the nation by Divine power which was to be expected in the Messiah; the lofty one that was to follow, raised so far above himself, that he should be dignified by performing for him the most menial services. He it was that should baptize them with the Holy Ghost and with fire; that is to say, that as his (John’s) followers were entirely immersed in the water, so the Messiah would immerse the souls of believers in the Holy Ghost, imparted by himself; so that it should thoroughly penetrate their being, and form within them a new principle of life. And this Spirit-baptism was to be accompanied by a baptism of fire.9696   Some think the “fire” is used as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as it is employed in other places in Scripture to denote Divine influences. In this view of the passage, as the baptism by water symbolizes preparatory repentance, so that by fire symbolizes the transfiguring and purifying power of the Holy Spirit. Our own opinion is, however, that as judgment by fire is spoken of but a few verses after (Luke, iii., 17), it must be taken in the same sense here; and the baptism by fire referred to the sifting process immediately mentioned. Thus the fire is the symbol of the power which consumes every thing impure, in the same sense in which God is said to be “a consuming fire.” Those who refused 54to be penetrated by the Spirit of the Divine life should be destroyed by the fire of the Divine judgments. The “sifting” by fire ever goes along with the advance of the Spirit, and consumes all who will not appropriate the latter. So John represents the Messiah as appearing with his “fan” in his hands, to purify the “threshing-floor” of his kingdom, to gather the worthy into the glorified congregation of God, and to cast out the unworthy and deliver them over to the Divine judgments.

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