In verses 11 and 12, Matthew uses πὺρ (“fire”) twice in very striking ways. In verse 11 John the Baptist says of himself, “. . . I baptize you with water for repentance,” and in contrast he says of Jesus, “but the one who is coming after me is greater than me . . . who will baptize you in (with/by means of?) the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In the very next verse John continues on about Jesus, saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will purge his threshing floor and will gather together his grain into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up completely in unquenchable fire.”
What is so striking to me in these two verses is the double use of πὺρ. In verse 11, fire is part of the means by which Jesus will baptize (‘υμᾶς βαπτίσει ’εν πνεύμα ‘αγίῳ καὶ πυρί). In verse 12, the chaff is burned in unquenchable fire (τὸ δὲ ’άχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ’ασβέστῳ). The proximity of the two occurrences of πὺρ suggest there is a connection between the fire with which Jesus baptizes and that which burns up the chaff.
Perhaps it is possible that the Holy Spirit and the fire of Jesus’ baptism work in us to burn the chaff, or the unfruitful parts of us, so that he may gather together the good in us as we are transformed into his likeness. Or is this a picture similar to John 15 in which the unfruitful branches are thrown away and burned? I am hesitant to see a direct connection between these passages because their focus seem to be distinct. In John 15, those who remain in Jesus are described as fruitful, and those who do not remain in him are thrown out. Here in Matthew 3, fire is used (along with the Holy Spirit — or is the καὶ epexegetical, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, namely, fire”?) on those who are baptized by Jesus, so I would assume this is not a separation of the faithful and unfaithful.
Maybe this is the work Jesus does in us as we follow him; he does away with the unhealthy parts of us in suffering or in the situations we encounter, and nurtures the parts of us that are healthy and pleasing to him.
Obviously, there are holes I need to fill in. If I had the time (and maybe I’ll just take the time some time soon), it would be interesting to see if there are any notable connections between John the Baptist’s words here and areas of the New Testament that speak of working out our salvation, or growing, or becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus. Oh grad school, maybe you will provide me the time for all of these things!
More to come on Matthew 3.