The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18)
This is how John the Baptist preached the gospel, or at least how Luke summarized his preaching of the gospel. It is all about the Messiah, the Christ, and there are two main points to his message. First, while John baptized the repentant with water, Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
In Ezekiel, the Lord had promised that he would sprinkle his people with clean water, cleanse them from all their impurities, give them a new heart and put his own Spirit within them (Ezekiel 36:25-27). At Pentecost, the promise of the Father was fulfilled and the Church received this baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon each of them as “tongues of fire.”
This fire of the Spirit burns with the love of God, for the God whom the Scriptures call a “consuming fire” is also the God who is love. His love is a refining fire that burns away the dross so that the gold may shine brightly. In this sense it is a judgment, separating what is good from what is evil. So also, the baptism of divine fire refines us, burning away what is worthless so that the light and life of Christ may shine brightly within.
The second point of John’s message flows from the first: There was to be a winnowing, a judgment that would separate the wheat from the chaff. Messiah would gather the wheat into the barn and the chaff he would burn up. As the Holy Spirit is doing in us, so Christ is also doing in the world. The fire of God’s love through Christ burns away what is evil and worthless so that what is good and fruitful may be safely gathered into his own.
The good news of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus Christ comes to judge the world — with the consuming fire of his love. For as Paul said to the Athenian philosophers, God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed [Christ]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
God’s purpose in Christ is to “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). So shall Christ make all things new, with the fire of the Holy Spirit and the love of God.