Matthew 3:7-12: Baptism

Read: Matthew 3:7-12

John’s words are harsh. He calls those that are coming out to be baptized a “brood of vipers”, which in that time and place was not something nice to say. “Vipers” in the ancient near east were associated with wicked men. Jesus uses the word to describe the Pharisees and Sadducees on 3 occasion (Matthew 3:7, Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33). It was a serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden too (Genesis 3:1-15). Being called a viper was to associated a person as cunning and subtle with ulterior motives – they saw baptism as yet more religion. Those coming to be baptized by John were “fleeing wrath” which implies that they knew judgment was coming and were looking for a means to effectively purify themselves. The thinking was that the more piety one had, the less likely judgment was to fall in them. Likewise, those coming to be baptized were clinging to their heritage as well, thinking that because they were from the line of Abraham made them special and that they wouldn’t face judgment.

The people were right to recognize that there was impending judgment, but they were approaching it the wrong way, wanting to address sin with religion and traditions without changing their hearts and actions. John on the other hand saw through both of these. He was calling people to repent (that is, change one’s heart and mind about sin) and bear fruit in accordance with repentance. He agrees with the people that judgment is coming when he says the ax is near the root of the tree and every good tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and burned: There would be a “baptism” of the Holy Spirit while others would receive a baptism of fire.

John actually speaks of 3 baptisms in the text and there is a fourth in the Bible, namely Christian baptism.

  • Baptism of repentance – also known as John’s baptism, was a water baptism was performed by John, and is distinct from Christian baptism. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul makes this distinction where he rebaptizes 12 men in the name of Jesus, which would be Christian Baptism, on which they receive baptism of the Holy Spirit. Christians don’t receive this baptism anymore, but it pointed to Jesus.
  • Baptism of the Holy Spirit – This baptism is not a physically manifested baptism, rather it is one that comes when one believes in Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes to live in the life of a believer. This baptism is mentioned a number of times in the book of Acts: Acts 1:5 referring to Pentecost in Acts 2:16-21, Acts 2:38 in response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Acts 11:16-17 where Peter calls it a “gift”, and lastly in Acts 19:1-7 with Paul.
  • Baptism by fire – this baptism refers to an impending judgment that would come to those who did not repent and turn to Jesus. John the Baptist explains in verse 12 that Jesus is coming with a winnowing fork that would separate the wheat from the chaff – the wheat would be stored while the chaff was burned. This is an allusion to the Lake of Fire Revelation 19:20 and Revelation 20:10-15 as a place of judgment for the devil and those who’s name are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
  • Christian Baptism – this is the water baptism that believers receive upon professing Jesus as Lord. Paul in Romans 6:1-12 explains that this baptism is symbolic of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Christians in a manner of speaking “die” to sin and are raised to walk as in the “newness of life” that comes from God. Ultimately, those that do believe will have eternal life made possible by Christ’s triumph over death.

Water baptism is a simple and beautiful picture that symbolizes so many things: cleansing, burial, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. While baptism is a beautiful picture and it is indeed a command of the Lord, it in and of itself doesn’t save anyone, rather salvation comes by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Baptism is an act of obedience that shows publicly and outwardly that of an inward change that comes from salvation. Likewise, it also shows publicly that one is identifying with Christ, which is also another reason folks would get baptized. Whether a new Christian is seeking baptism or one has already received it, it is good to be mindful of one’s motives and use the symbol to reflect on the spiritual reality of all that baptism symbolizes in one’s life.

Lord, baptism shows I have been saved by grace! Let my baptism testify to this!