First, let's go to the scene of the crime. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, preaching that Messiah is about to appear. And now he knows who it is. According to the other John (the apostle), John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared:
"Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, 'After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me. I did not know Him; but that He should be revealed to Israel, therefore I came baptizing with water... I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:29-34).The last part of this testimony is also quoted by the other three evangelists. For example, Mark quotes John as saying:
"There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:7-8)."Matthew and Luke, however, include a provocative detail that Mark and John passed over--the word "fire." The first evangelist places these words in the heart of a dramatic sermon rebuking officials of the temple and synagogue who came to John's baptism:
"Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 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 3:7-12).Luke includes some of the same speech, but depicts it as part of an answer John gave to some who thought he was the Messiah:
"I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. 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 the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16-17).This is a sketchy illustration of one of the problems that supposedly bedevil interpretation of the Bible, especially of the New Testament: the "Synoptic Problem." Basically the "problem" boils down to two questions: (1) Why does the New Testament include four separate accounts of the same history of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection? (In a narrower sense, this question really only applies to the three "Synoptic" Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Their accounts, although far from identical, appear very similar when placed alongside the maverick account of John.) And then the obvious second question is: (2) Why aren't they exactly the same?
My aim, in this edition of my off-and-on "Hermeneutics Thread," isn't to settle the Synoptic Problem once and for all. I believe these questions are worth discussing at greater length than I have time to give them today. However, they can also be answered very briefly and simply, as a stopgap, so we can move on to the main event.
The short answer to Question #1 is that, according to Old Testament law: "By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established" (Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). This principle must certainly apply to a claim as cosmically significant as that made by John the Baptist in the passages quoted above. To the degree that John himself is regarded as a true prophet of Israel, his testimony about Jesus being the Promised One of Old Testament prophecy must shake the convictions of every godfearing soul who hears it--provided that it is supported by multiple, corroborating witnesses. Did John the Baptist really say this? That is what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John affirm; and not just sufficiently (the requisite two or three witnesses), but abundantly! Four witnesses testified to all that Jesus did and suffered for mankind; and these authors were themselves backed up by other eyewitnesses named in their accounts, at least while those individuals were available to be questioned!
So the reason for the multiple witnesses, from that point of view, is pretty clear. They complement each other. They corroborate each other. And sometimes--well, I won't quite say they correct each other. Rather, they correct misunderstandings that we, in our weakness, could conceive by isolating any one voice from the chorus of evangelists. I'm not in favor of harmonizing the gospels into a homogeneous, best-of-the-best account. I think each one presents a fascinating point of view that should be preserved and cherished, but that also needs to be interpreted in light of all the others. Each gospel account is coherent and useful by itself, but we must also remember that the Holy Ghost is His own best interpreter, that for every dark word in His Book there is another that sheds light on it.
So, in a sense, we have already answered Question #2 under the "Synoptic Problem": If this is God's Word, and if God does not lie or err, how can these four accounts be so different? Shouldn't they rather be identical in every detail? Well, they wouldn't be four accounts then, would they? To be sure, the Holy Ghost breathed the Scriptures, and moved the pens of its writers, but not like a mechanical facsimile machine. We owe the unity of Scripture to the fact that the Holy Ghost authored every word of it; and again, God does not lie. But within that unity, there is a diversity of human authors through whom He operated. We should therefore read the complementary accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with implicit trust in Jesus' promise that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). We need to take it on faith that, while the four evangelists may differ in their selection and ordering of material, and even in their precise wording of direct quotes -- which, in those days, were more on the order of paraphrases anyway -- nevertheless, they do not contradict each other. And therefore we can and must rely on each of them, without preference, to help us interpret the others.
So, if a verse in Mark throws you for a loop, interpret it alongside its parallel verse in Matthew or Luke. Or, if John (most likely via a given interpreter) seems to be laying a trail leading straight off the reservation, take counsel from the Synoptics. Separated from the others, you may find one of the evangelists to be an obscure mystical guru pointing you towards dubious paths of enlightement. Taken together, you will find they are more like a quartet of wise tribal elders who know how, with one word quietly spoken, to keep any village idiot under control. And they bear witness to Christ with a harmonious diversity more beautiful and fascinating than virtually any other set of comparable writings -- if, indeed, any are comparable.
Case in point: The Concordia Commentary series. This is a superbly designed set of book-by-book Bible commentaries, currently being produced by the Concordia Publishing House. Their contents strike an intriguing balance between scholarly exegetical work and theological analysis that a reasonably bright layman could follow. And yet, within this one externally homogeneous commentary, authored by confessional Lutheran scholars who (one would presume) walk together in the same Spirit, there is nothing like the beautiful harmony one sees between the Gospels.
For example, take the parallel passages from Matthew and Luke quoted above. In his commentary on Luke (vol. 1, p. 154f.), Arthur Just has this to say about the portion of Luke 3:16 that I set in bold type:
One of the more challenging statements John makes is that Jesus is the “more powerful” one who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16). That raises this question: When does Jesus baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? “Baptism,” “Spirit,” and “fire”—two of these three elements are found together at Jesus’ baptism, in 12:49-50, and at Pentecost. At the baptism of Jesus, he is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In 12:49-50, Jesus speaks of fire to be kindled, alluding to the wrath that must consume the world and that will be absorbed by him in his “baptism” with the “fire” of wrath on the cross. Finally, on the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes and tongues of fire rest on the apostles.Now, I've never counted myself among the number of Art Just's disciples, though I was in the section on Luke that he taught at Concordia Theological Seminary at the time his CPH commentary was first printed. I will be the first to admit that he often speaks in terms dyed with an excess of purple, and with a serendipitous excitement above and beyond the merits of his ideas. Nevertheless, I am quite convinced by his interpretation of "spirit and fire." It doesn't take a shyster to sell the idea that the baptism of "Spirit and fire" John speaks of is a reference to Christian Baptism. The only surprises are how well Just sells it and the powerful christological argument he brings to bear on it.
Thus by Pentecost, Jesus has been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. He has undergone this baptism as the substitute for all. After Pentecost, Christian Baptism is based on Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion. The post-Pentecost baptizing by Jesus’ apostles incorporates people into Christ, his death and life. In this, Christ may be said to be the Baptizer. Those baptized into Christ are baptized with the Spirit and fire with which he was baptized. John’s baptism cleanses with water, but Jesus’ baptism cleanses with the Holy Spirit and fire, alluding to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (the Holy Spirit) and his “baptism” on the cross, where God’s fiery wrath is laid upon him (12:49-50). Jesus’ own baptism and atoning death make possible the baptism in the Spirit and tongues of fire at Pentecost. Jesus is the more powerful one, and his baptism in Spirit and fire initiates the people into God’s end-time kingdom....
Out of curiosity, however, I also consulted the Concordia Commentary on Matthew, written rather more recently by St. Louis's own Prof. Jeffrey Gibbs. Here is his take on the portion of Matthew 3:11 likewise highlighted above (vol. 1, pp. 172f.):
The terms “baptize” and “Holy Spirit” make us think of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism that Christ instituted soon after his resurrection (28:19-20). The context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and John’s words about what Jesus will do look to the Lord’s activity on the Last Day. The promise “He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers directly to the final salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when he returns in glory. Now, to be sure, there is an unbreakable relationship between Christian Baptism, which bestows the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit upon the baptized person now during this present age, and the full baptism that Jesus will administer on the Last Day . . . But here we should not confuse those two baptisms, and John is not referring directly in 3:11 to Christian Baptism. John is looking to the End.Shocked? I was, when I first read this passage. A glance at the context shows that Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 are parallel verses. From the standpoint of John the Baptist, they are essentially the same statement. And yet, according to Gibbs and Just, authors writing from the same confessional tradition and within the same series of high-gloss commentaries, they mean entirely different things. Gibbs does not just veer off at an angle from Just's line of argument; he contradicts it head-on. It's not at all about Christian Baptism! It's not even about the pouring out of the Spirit in the wind and fire of Pentecost! In Gibbs's view it's all about, and only about, the "final salvation and judgment...that Christ will administer on the last day."
I think I understand the reasoning on which Gibbs based his eschatological understanding of John's words. But I am simply not convinced by it. Nowhere else in Scripture do we find such a use of the word "baptism" in the sense of an end-times act of divine judgment, punishment, or destruction. And although John the Baptist speaks of "fire" in the next verse (both in Matthew and in Luke) in a judgment-related sense, both grammar and rhetoric exclude this sense of wrath and doom from the word "fire" in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16. Lutheran theology, formed by the full testimony of Scripture, does not speak of "two baptisms," or of a second and "final baptism." Confessional Lutheran theology, in particular, does not shy away from rectilinear interpretations of prophecy (such as one that would finger the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension as the key fulfillment of John's prophecy). Confessional Lutheran theology does not customarily shy away from clear and obvious references to the sacraments instituted by Christ (such as, in this case, Baptism). And Confessional Lutheran theology does not shy away from Christological interpretations (such as Just's analysis of how Jesus' personal baptism by Spirit and fire is the basis for both Pentecost and Christian Baptism).
Don't just take my word for it. Take Martin Luther's. I think we can trust him to represent the hermeneutical approach of confessional Lutherans. If not him, then whom? Writing on John 1:32-34 in the American Edition of his works (vol. 22, pp. 179f.), Luther opines:
Christ, of course, accepts John’s Baptism of water, but He adds the fire. That is, He imparts the Holy Spirit, who kindles His virtues in us. And thus our Baptism in Christ, in which He gives us remission of sin, baptizing us with the Holy Spirit and with forgiveness, remains and continues to be effective.... For our Baptism is not, as John’s was, one that points to Him who is to bring forgiveness of sin; but our Baptism is Christ’s Baptism, which has already brought forgiveness. Christ wants to say: "I baptize and call you to repentance. But at the same time I confer on you the spiritual fire, that is, the Holy Spirit, so that you live under the forgiveness of sin, repenting daily and purging and cleansing the evil flesh, which strives against the Spirit."Again, Luther writes on Psalm 68:2 (vol. 13, pp. 3f.):
Here we find two beautiful similes. Smoke is dissipated by the wind, wax is melted by fire. This is an allusion to the Holy Spirit, who is a fire and a wind (Luke 3:16, 17). For “spirit” means a wind with which God fans and converts us into spiritual beings. This wind and this fire came from heaven to earth after Christ’s resurrection and now converts the world through the Gospel...Luther apparently treats "Spirit and fire" as a hendiadys, not two different things but one thing designated by two names: or rather, one Person. And, says Luther, that Person comes to us now, in this life, through Baptism and the Gospel, with a fullness that was withheld until after Jesus' ascension into heaven--though, to be sure, the preaching and baptism of John were also of the Spirit's doing. Which author in the Concordia Commentary series, Just or Gibbs, more closely reflects Luther's approach to this Word?
E. W. T. H. Hengstenberg also, in his commentary on John (vol. 1, p. 86ff.), seems to agree that when John speaks of Jesus' Baptism with the Spirit (fire or no), he is talking about something that happens in our time, in the "messianic age" between the first and second coming of Christ. Hengstenberg draws a syllogism from John 1:33...
The Spirit coming down and resting on Christ, is the source from which He baptizes with the Holy Ghost.... The expression, baptize with the Holy Ghost...has its foundation in the passages of the Old Testament which speak of the pouring out of the Spirit in the times of the Messiah: Joel 2:8, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh.” Isaiah 44:3. He who pours out, is in these passages God; and, in fact, the baptism with the Holy Ghost is far above the sphere of man—being a Divine prerogative: nowhere in Holy Scripture is there such a declaration with regard to a man. The Berleb. Bibel remarks, with perfect correctness, “He baptizes in the Holy Ghost—therefore must the Holy Ghost proceed from Him also, and He must be the Son of God.”R. C. H. Lenski, who single-handedly wrote a massive commentary on the entire New Testament, showed both an economy of effort and a wise policy of agreeing with himself from one volume to the next. In this instance, at least, his comments on Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 are almost word-for-word identical. Lenski points out that the distinction between John's baptism with water unto repentance and Jesus' baptism with the Spirit and fire is "before the actually completed work of redemption the limited preparatory work of the Spirit" vs. "after that the superabounding fullness of the Spirit." He goes on to cite Jesus' own interpretation of John's comment, as noted in Acts 1:5, 8--"John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence... Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you." In other words, Jesus Himself processes John the Baptist's prophecy as a direct prediction of the first Christian Pentecost! Lenski continues:
Also Peter reports how the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the Gentiles with him "as on us at the beginning," i. e., Pentecost. He adds: "Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water, but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost," Acts 11:16. The miraculous outpouring of the Holy Ghost at the time of Pentecost is the supreme work and thus the final great mark of the Messiah...Here Lenski goes on to quote several Christian hymns in which "fire" is used in the sense of the cleansing, purifying action of the Holy Spirit. And while their evidence (including a verse by Luther) is probative, what really seals the deal is Lenski's close study of the original Greek grammar and his bravura demonstration of "letting Scripture interpret Scripture."
Judgment is never conceived as a baptism with fire or with another element; baptism and baptizing always imply cleansing and not destruction. [Lenski discusses the view] that "fire" is always a symbol of judgment and destruction. But see the refiner's fire in Mal. 3:2, 3, fire as an image of purification in Zech. 13:9; Isa. 6:6, 7; 1 Pet. 1:7, and the "spirit of burning" taking away filth in Isa. 4:4. Pentecost, the fulfillment of John's prophecy, has the two combined in the clearest manner: the Spirit and cloven tongues of fire as the visible manifestation of the Spirit. Thus the church, too, has never had the least trouble with this fire. She sings:...
I should think the editors and publishers of the Concordia Commentary series ought to feel a little embarrassment (or maybe not a little) about the "Synoptic Problem" between their own commentaries on Luke and Matthew. Their gifted and highly qualified authors do not bear witness to the unity of their source material nearly as well as the four evangelists do. At least one of them has an axe to grind and he trails chips and shavings all over the text. At least one of them puts an impression of the verse's surrounding context ahead of its clear, grammatical meaning (though Lenski gives cogent reasons to choose otherwise). Well might one lament with St. Paul, "For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8). But one might also, perhaps, take solace in the fact that, by their discordant interpretations, Doctors Just and Gibbs provide an ironic example of how exceedingly, divinely harmonious is the fourfold testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.