The risen Lord, addressing his disciples in Acts 1:5, points them back to the work of John the Baptist, recorded in Luke 3:15–18. John speaks of an ax biting into an unfruitful tree until it topples. It ends up on the burn pile. But John and Jesus both have in mind, not only the baptism in the fire of judgment, but also the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Repent, because Christ baptizes with fire! Jesus is the One heralded by John. Listen to the herald. God’s word comes into a sin-cursed world. The historical setting of verses 1 and 2 show how the subject of Luke’s study fits into the contemporary historical scene. Luke uses historical markers. Tiberius rules the empire. Herod’s kingdom has been divided among petty rulers, and two men share the office of High Priest. The historical setting is also a commentary on the times. Sin has had its effect on the world. John prepares for Christ’s coming. The focus is on John–but as a herald, a fore-runner. His importance points to Christ’s greater glory. The desert location recalls the Exodus. The Lord is again bringing salvation to his people, and they travel into the wilderness to experience it. The Word of God came to John. He prophesied about the coming Messiah, his cousin Jesus, but that Jesus is far greater than John. “[T]he greater the significance attached to John’s mission, the greater the glory of the One whom he was sent to herald. And Luke… is occupied here with his task of publishing the gospel of Jesus Christ which came to public expression in history with John’s witness to, and baptism of, Jesus.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Luke to Christ, p. 61)
Judgment is coming. Christ is coming to baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Spirit. “So, then, as John surveys the impending activity of Jesus as a whole, the element that he sees to be central and distinguishing is baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. The goal of Jesus’ ministry in its entirety is put under the denominator of his baptizing activity.” “[I]n Luke 3:16, the Holy Spirit refers primarily to the positive outcome, and fire primarily to the negative outcome of the judgment in view.” Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time:An Introduction to the Theology of Acts and Paul, pages 98, 108) The coming of the Christ is the culmination of the messianic longing of God’s people. However, he will come as a judge, with his winnowing fork in his hand. He is the ax-wielder. He baptizes with the fire of judgment. The crowds, and even John (see Luke 7:18ff.) may have expected the Messiah to bring immediate judgment. But Luke, writing from a post-death and resurrection perspective, recognizes that it is the Messiah’s identity with his people, his willingness to subject himself to enduring their punishment and to doing his Father’s will, that will enable him to bear the judgment of fire himself—and allow his baptism to be that of the Holy Spirit and purifying fire. The tongues of flame in Acts 2 are blessing, rather than a consuming fire. Judgment is still coming, but the good news is that the Messiah has come. So, repent! Outward ceremonies, without a change of heart and life, are useless. Notice the strong language John uses towards those who were superstitiously seeking his baptism, Luke 3:7–9. Repentance is the way to prepare for Christ’s coming. John, when asked, gives concrete, practical changes that need to take place in the lives of his hearers. He is not (nor should you be) satisfied with a general, amorphous repentance. As you examine yourself in preparing to come to Lord’s Table, repent. The daily Christian life, like your initial encounter with the Savior, involves repentance and faith. Be as specific with yourself as John was with the crowds in the Judean desert. The call to repentance can be costly. It was for John.
Believe the good news of the promised Holy Spirit. The good news is one whose coming John announced. John proclaimed the coming of one far greater than he, one who is the Lord himself. Repentance is imperative, precisely because of the majesty and holiness of the coming one. “[W]hy all that intervenes between John’s prophecy in Luke 3 and its fulfillment in Acts 2? The answer… may be given in one word:the gospel—the good news about Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Messiah, whose life of obedience culminated in dying on the cross for the sins of his people followed by his resurrection. Because of the intervening gospel reality. The fulfillment of John’s prophecy on Pentecost becomes the event of great blessing that it is for the church.” Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time:An Introduction to the Theology of Acts and Paul, page 115) Believe the good news! Turn in faith to Jesus Christ. John’s message summoning to repentance and faith anticipated the preaching of Jesus during his earthly ministry. And the message continues in the Book of Acts (though looking at the work of the Messiah as complete) and on to today.
You have been baptized by the Holy Spirit — live that way! Rejoice that Jesus Christ did baptize with the Holy Spirit. John describes Christ’s work in terms of baptism. John’s baptism is with water. Christ’s is with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In a real sense, it is Jesus, rather than John, whom we ought to recognize as “the baptizer”! Judgment is delayed to give time to repent. The risen, ascended Christ pours out a baptism on his church, a baptism with the Holy Spirit. Repent and believe. Live under the influence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church, once his earthly work is done. The Spirit works in your heart, producing faith. The Spirit, as he unites you to your risen Lord, enables you to walk in obedience to the Word. He enables you to live the repentant life that the Baptist summoned you to.
By God’s grace you are not unfruitful trees. You are those who have heard the call to repentance, and who have turned from your own works to trust the Savior God has provided. As you come to trust the one whom John announced, you have seen God’s salvation. And you, as part of the church of Jesus Christ, have experienced the blessing of the baptism with the Spirit.