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Bangor Theological Seminary

Baptism by Water, the Holy Spirit and Fire

An Exegesis of Luke 3:15-17

Biblical Narrative


Ann Johnston


Michael Shook

Southwest Harbor, Maine

12 April 2003

Luke 3:15-17 1

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


Luke-Acts, as laid out by the Greek historian author, offers a three part scheme: “the

law and the prophets,” Jesus, and the Church. John the Baptist provides a transition

between the first two parts. While Luke shows parallels between John and Jesus in the

first chapter – announcing John’s (1:5-25) and then Jesus’ (1:26-35) birth, the meeting of

their mothers (1:36-45) followed by Mary praising God for Jesus (1:46-56) and Zechariah

praising God for John (1:57-80) 2 – he emphasizes that John is subordinate to Jesus: while

Jesus is Messiah and Son of God (1:32-35), John is only a prophet (1:76). Luke’s account

of John’s preaching is likewise divided into three sections: warning of the approaching

judgement (3:7-9), a call for ethical reform (3:10-14) and a prophecy of the Messiah to

come (3:15-17) 3 .

In Palestine in the years before and after Jesus’ ministry, there was a small but

powerful ruling class, consisting of both Roman authorities and the Jewish royal court

and priesthood. The vast majority of the population was the peasantry, both villagers

and rural agricultural workers. There was much discontent within the peasantry in the

face of Roman rule and exploitation by the Jewish aristocracy. This discontent took

various forms: urban demonstrations and riots and peasant uprisings and social

banditry 4 . These forms of response to political and economic domination are common

in many cultures and time periods. Distinct forms of peasant response in Palestine in

this time period were messianic movements and prophetic movements. Both of these

forms of response were informed by the peasants’ understanding of their shared history

and traditions resulting in a shared memory of communal liberations led by Moses and

David. In the Roman era both prophetic movements and messianic movements were


formed around individuals rising out of the peasantry. In messianic movement this

individual was seen as a liberating king, and messianic movements were in fact popular

uprisings. The messianic uprisings were not long lived: those of Simon bar Giora and

bar Kochba lasted a few years. The messianic uprising of Judas son of Hezekiah lasted

only a few weeks 5 .

Although the prophetic movements were often perceived as threatening by the

established authorities, they were not uprisings. There were two kinds of prophetic

movements differentiated by the characteristics of the prophet: action prophets and

oracular prophets. Action prophets were cast in the mold of Elijah and Elisha. Oracular

prophet tended to have smaller followings and were more similar to the likes of Isaiah

and Jeremiah. They undertook to interpret the significance of their own social and

political situation in the context of the larger culture 6 .

John the Baptist was one such oracular prophet. Luke 3:15-17 tells of a searching,

seeking community, outside of the mainstream Roman, Hellenistic and Jewish culture,

and the prophecy of John, a leader in that community. His prophesy of one who is

coming, and the change in baptism from water to the Holy Spirit represents a kairos

moment for the community, a time of change filled with possibility.

There is evidence that “disciples of John” continued to exist after his death as well as

during his life time 7 . Luke’s use of 15-17 amplifies the idea that there may still be some

that continue to see John as the Messiah even in Luke’s time a generation or two after

the Baptist’s death, and that John’s testimony must be used to counter those claims.

Luke 3:16-17 parallels Matthew 3:11-12, but Matthew does not have the questioning


crowd of Luke 3:15. In Matthew 3:15 John baptizes Jesus, which would be corroborating

evidence for those who believed that John rather than Jesus was the Messiah. In Luke,

Jesus is baptized after Herod put John in prison, thus removing this piece of evidence

for John’s superiority. Luke’s text makes clear his position and the position of his

community on Jesus’ superiority.

The yearning of John’s community was not isolated. Many in the Graeco-Roman

world found the established state religions wanting. This was a time of flowering for

various mystery religions that shared many characteristics with John’s community.

Whereas the tribal religions which predate the mystery religions typically encompassed

the whole tribe, the mystery religions differentiate themselves from the establishment

state religions in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic and Roman worlds. In tribal

communities, membership was a matter of birth. 8 In the Hebrew community it was

symbolized by the circumcision rite. In the cosmopolitan world of John’s time,

membership in a mystery religion was often a matter of choice for an adult, rejecting the

establishment religion and embracing the tenants of the mystery religion. This personal

transformation was typically endorsed and celebrated with an initiation rite. One can

see John’s baptism as such an initiation rite.

Several scholars have noted similarities between John’s community and specific

other communities and traditions in the region and have speculated on possible

connections between the them. These speculations are based in part on similarities in

the initiation ceremonies. In these comparisons we begin to look at the possible


meaning to John and to Luke of the transition from a initiation-baptism by water and an

initiation-baptism by the Holy Spirit-wind and fire which will replace the water rite.

Leslie William Barnard notes the difference between John’s baptism in the moving

river current with still waters of the Jewish tebilah immersion ceremony. He looks to the

fiery river of the Pahlavi Bundahesh, an Iranian eschatological text. In this text the river is

of molten metal and all people must pass through it. This is a judgement trial and in it

Barnard sees a connection to John’s water baptism, which Barnard sees as a parallel to

the judgement that John preaches 9 .

Thomas Francis Glasson looks to similarities between John’s water baptism and the

Orphic mystery tradition’s initiation ceremony. This is facilitated by noting that some

authorities consider the ‘Holy’ in ‘Holy Spirit’ (3:16) to be a Christian addition. Thus

edited, pneuma can be translated as ‘wind’ rather than ‘Spirit.’ He notes several

similarities between the Orphic tradition and the Essene community with which the

Baptist is frequently associated. Both are vegetarian and both live in community. The

Pharisee historian Josephus claims that the Essenes looked upon the body as a prison

and this was also true in the Orphic tradition. Finally, Glasson notes that the

winnowing fan (fork in the NRSV) is a common symbol in the Orphic tradition 10 . All

this fits nicely into the image of John’s community as a mystery cult arising in

opposition to the rising Hellenisitc and Roman influence in the surrounding world, but

in the end Glasson believes that it is more likely that John’s practice originates in Old

Testament tradition (Isaiah 41:16; 4:4b and Malachi 3:2) rather than in the Orphic

mysteries 11 .


James D. G. Dunn looks not to traditions predating and contemporary to John to

understand the spirit and fire baptism, but to early church theologians – Chrysostom

and Origen, whose interpretations he rejects - and to contemporary theologians 12 . His

goal is to understand whether the spirit-and-fire baptism is a baptism of grace or a

baptism of judgement. To this end he notes considerable differences between the four

Gospel accounts. Luke and Matthew are similar with the Baptist prophesizing that the

one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16; Matthew 3:11).

In Mark (1:8) the prophesy is for baptism only with the Holy Spirit – no fire. Likewise in

John (1:33). With this breakdown Dunn confidently assigns the Holy Spirit and fire

baptism to the Q source, as does Ernest Best 13 . The question is, what was original, and

what was added later to bring John’s practice and preaching in line with early Christian

interpretation. Dunn looks favorably on Ernest Best’s proposition that pneuma should be

translated as ‘wind’ rather than ‘Spirit’, and thus he sees a judgmental ‘wind and fire’

baptism. Dunn then looks to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the increased understanding of

the Qumran community that they provide. In the Qumran community the Spirit

“appears as a cleansing, purifying power (I QS iii 7-9; iv 20 f.; I QH xvi 12).” 14 Dunn

ultimately proposes “that it was John the Baptist who finally linked the eschatological

outpouring of the Spirit to the Messiah and who first spoke of the Messiah’s bestowal of

the Holy Spirit under the powerful figure, drawn from the rite which was his own

hallmark, of a baptism in Sprit-and-fire.” 15

In spite of John’s prophesy of a Spirit and fire baptism by the one who comes after,

Jesus does not perform any baptismal rite as part of his ministry, although his disciples


do perform baptisms (John 4:2). The early church continues to follows John’s water rite

to initiate new converts. Early church baptism was “into the name of the Lord Jesus.” 16

Paul says that those baptized into Christ share in his death and resurrection (Romans

6:3-4). Disagreements over infant or adult baptism became important during the

Reformation 17 . And while there has never been a “wind and fire” baptismal rite in the

church, “baptism-by-fire” is a common part of every day language, and thus finds its

way into contemporary preaching.


1 Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless noted otherwise.

2 Paul W. Hollenbach, “John the Baptist,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

3 Michael E. Lawrence, ed. The New Interpreter’s Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995),


4 Richard A. Horsley, “Popular Messianic Movements around the Time of Jesus,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984), 494.

5 Ibid., 495

6 Richard A. Horsley, . “’Like One of the Prophets of Old’: Two Types of Popular Prophets at the Time of Jesus,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985), 453.

7 Lars Hartman, “Baptism,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

8 Reinhold Merkelbach, “Mystery Religions,” in The New Encyclopædia Britannica, (1993).

9 Leslie William Barnard, “Matt. 3:11, Luke 3:16,” Journal of Theological Studies 8 (1957),


10 Thomas Francis Glasson, “Water, Wind and Fire (Luke III. 16) and Orphic Initiation,” New Testament Studies 3 (1956), 70.

11 Ibid., 71.

12 James D. G. Dunn, “Spirit-and-fire Baptism,” Novum Testamentum 14 (1972), 81.

13 Ernest Best, “Spirit-baptism,” Novum Testamentum 4 (1960), 236.

14 Dunn, 87.

15 Ibid., 92. 16 Hartman, Ibid, 586. 17 ”Baptism,” in The New Encyclopædia Britannica, (1993).