Matthew 3:11, NRSV, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
It's fun to find the opposites of things, some are obvious, far and near which we all learned from Grover on Sesame Street. Friends and enemies, of course we could claim the middle ground is the confusing “frenemy”. Some are more difficult, what is the opposite of fluff? What's the opposite of cantaloupes?
A pair of dynamic of opposites is presented here in Matthew 3, water and fire. Water cools, quenches, floods, engulfs, sustains and nourishes. Fire burns, consumes, destroys, refines, and eliminates all the impurities for the purity that is inside to show through.
John is presented as the water, Jesus as the fire. This is an interesting comparison, John is baptizing with water but he says that one is coming that will baptize with fire. But if you look through the gospels you will see that Jesus never baptized….so what is the meaning here?
I suppose it depends on what we mean by baptism doesn't it? Some people will say baptism comes from the Greek meaning “to immerse”. Others will say it means to “pour over” and others will show support for both. I will be honest here, if Greek scholars are still in debate over this, and they know Greek, I doubt I will settle it since I don't know it at all.
I think we can say this though, baptism seems to be an important event. John is particular about who he baptizes, even turning people away, see vs. 7-8 of this chapter. Jesus is baptized and it is a watershed moment, when he begins His public ministry and He doesn't have just anyone perform it, he has John do the honors. Jesus commands believers to baptize as one of the ongoing rites of the church.
If John is water we can compare him to water in this way, water is perishable, it dries up, you can have a flood but it will dissipate at some point. The flood waters that come, have a source and when that source dies down, the waters begin to slowly subside, they do not build in intensity. Once the source is cut off, you have no more raging storm to battle just the aftermath.
If Jesus is fire then you have a very different comparison. Fire burns until it runs out of oxygen or fuel to burn. Fire jumps and spreads and grows bigger, even if you dig trenches and wet the fuel, fire is utterly destructive, destroying everything in it's path. There is no clean up after a fire, there is only destruction and building something new.
But what does come after fire is new growth. The fire puts nutrients into the soil which allow for the first buds of new trees, plants and flowers to slowly make their way though. Out of the destruction, out of the utter death of everything, comes new life.
That's where the Holy Spirit comes in and that's why Jesus is bringing Him because there is no growth without the Holy Spirit, there is no awakening the soil, there is no speaking to the dead, “grow, live, breathe!” without the breath of God.
And just like man was first made out of dirt, we are made out of ashes and breathed into by God...that, my friends, is why Jesus is fire.