But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto 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 fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:7, 10 – 12
“Flame On.” is the signature cry of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch from the Fantastic Four. Today’s sermon is instead about Johnny the Baptist, a character whose message of repentance often alludes to fire.
The Fiery Character of God
In the Bible, God’s appearance is heavily associated with fire. In the Old Testament, God appears as a smoking oven and burning torch to Abraham (Genesis 15:17), a burning bush to Moses (Exodus 3:2), and He descended upon Mount Sinai in fire and smoke (Exodus 19:18). Even in the New Testament, God is referenced as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, alluding to Deuteronomy 4:24). What does this association tell us about God’s character?
Just like the ball of fire called the sun from which all life’s energy comes from, all of spiritual life depends on God. Just like fire, God lights up and overcomes the darkness. He protects us and brings us warmth. God is beyond our grasp and He cannot be contained, our burning passion for Him cannot be contained (Jeremiah 20:9).
However, today’s theme focuses specifically on fire as a symbol of rage and wrath, and how fire is used to purify, yet it can also destroy. In the same way, God purifies the righteous and destroys the wicked, and both these truths must be held in tension.
There Is A Wrath To Come To Be Fled From (Matthew 3:7)
There will be a day when God’s fiery wrath (Psalm 21:9, Ezekiel 21:31, Revelation 6:15-17) will be poured out. This is a major theme throughout the Bible as part of God’s nature and character. Thankfully, God is slow to anger, but when the wrath of the Lamb is poured out, no one will be able to stand (Malachi 3:2). To the Jews, the coming of the Messiah is salvation to them, but bad news to those who have been oppressing them. The disasters we see today are merely the signs of the times, a wake up call before God’s wrath is truly poured out.
Fruitless Trees Shall Be Cut Down And Thrown Into Fire (Matthew 3:10)
In this verse, John addresses the hypocritical religious leaders of the day, who were presumptuous about their status as God’s covenant people. They had taken this position given by grace for granted, not living lives that exemplified God’s kingdom even as they preached it. John warns them that if they do not bear fruit worthy of repentance, they shall be thrown in the fire. Jesus later parallels this image when he speaks to His disciples in John 15:5-6. If we do not bear fruit, get ready for the fire.
John’s Baptism Purifies, But Jesus’ Baptism Refines (Matthew 3:11)
John’s baptism is more than just a ceremonial washing but meant to symbolise a true cleansing of the heart. However, when John compares his baptism with Jesus’ baptism, he is proclaiming that his baptism by water only foreshadows the power of Christ. Only the true baptism from Jesus “with the Holy Spirit and fire” can effect repentance and the removal of sin, and bring the washing of regeneration and renewing (Titus 3:5). After washing us, the Holy Spirit continues to refine us with His fire so that we can bring our offerings of righteousness to Him (Malachi 3:3).
Jesus Will Gather The Wheat and Burn Up The Chaff (Matthew 3:12)
At the right time, there will be a time of separation where Jesus will clean out the threshing floor. The wheat will be gathered into the barn, and the chaff will be gathered to be thrown into the unquenchable fire, which is Hell. The word translated as hellfire, ‘gehenna’, represents a place of destruction, fire and smoke, a place so terrible that it is better to lose a limb than be cast in there forever. “Hell is real, and forever is a long time.” In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:40) as well as the parable of the dragnet (Matthew 13:49-50), He highlights that the separation will only take place at the end of times. The separation is between the fruitful and unfruitful, those who bear good fruit and those who bear bad fruit. This tells us that we still have time to repent before the day of separation, and these are the kingdom implications for believers.
We Have Been Saved From God’s Wrath
We believe that we are saved from God’s wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who has taken upon the sins of the world, that God’s wrath is poured out upon Him so that we may be justified. Therefore, we are called to “not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober… For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:6,9).
Paul is telling us to be watchful and mindful of how we are living. He speaks of salvation as an ongoing process, of how we should live under this promise of salvation. If Christ were to return today, are we ready to stand before Him? If we hold on to an escapist mentality thinking that salvation is all about escaping the tribulation at the end times, we will not be prepared.
We Want To Bear Good Fruit
We should not be saying one thing but living another in hypocrisy. We must guard against presumption, praying that we have good seed and good soil so that we may have good fruit. We need to know what seed is being sown in our heart, and whether our heart is in the right condition to allow it to take root and grow. We want our works to be fruitful works, that will stand against the test of fire (1 Corinthians 3:13).
It is not about Activity, it is about Assignment. Therefore, let us go back to the Lord and check to see that we are Aligned and Assigned, otherwise we end up doing things on our own accord and not on our Master’s bidding.
We Are Being Refined By Fire
“who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:14)
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8)
These two verses illustrate the beautiful tension about our purification – our walk with the Lord requires the work of both Him and us. God is faithful to do His part, but will we do ours? Today’s popular theology is that Jesus has done everything and we no need to do anything, but what Jesus does is to give us a head start to know that we can come to him when we try and fail, but we still have to do our part.
Jesus allows us to go through trials and sufferings in our lives in order to burn off the chaff and dross, to be refined for the Lord (1 Peter 1:6 – 7). We are to take heed the warning to the church of Laodicea, that we are refined not through religiosity but in Jesus.
We Want To Be Found To Be Wheat
“Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19)
There will be false teachers who also claim Jesus’ name, but Jesus knows the wheat from the chaff and He will recognise which are His – those who live holy. We need to do a self-evaluation to come clean before the Lord, committing not to sin willfully, for “if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment” (Hebrews 10:26 – 27) Let us hold on to this warning, knowing that the Lord will judge His people. Because we have been saved by His grace, God calls us to walk worthy, live worthy and show ourselves worthy, proclaiming the privilege we have through our lives. Let us be found as wheat and not chaff.
Unlike Johnny Storm, we cannot turn on or off the fire. When the fire of God comes, it will either purify us, or destroy us. When we shout ‘Flame On.’, it is a cry to God that we desire the refinement that He desires of us, declaring that we believe God will enable us to walk through the fire. Do we desire to be refined as pure gold, that in the midst of our suffering and trials, we count it all joy, knowing that we have this hope of refinement as our faith is tested?