The kingdom at hand: who comes

john-the-baptist11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.While vv. 8–10 may be understood at least in part as continuing the address to the Pharisees and Sadducees, now John’s address is specifically to those whom he is actually baptizing.

The superiority of the “stronger one” is explained in terms of two baptisms. John’s water-baptism is a preliminary ritual with a view to repentance, clearing the way for the real thing, the “stronger one’s” baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. Water is an outward sign, but the work of the Holy Spirit will be inward. Since fire occurs in both v. 10 and v. 12 (and probably also by implication in v. 7 in the imagery of the snakes escaping the fire) as a metaphor for God’s judgment, it should probably be taken in the same sense here. The coming of the Holy Spirit will burn away what is bad and so purify the repentant people of God. (France, 113)

“Baptize in the Holy Spirit” is a phrase used in the NT almost exclusively in the context of this contrast between John’s water-baptism and the salvation Jesus brings (cf. Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16). Thus the contrast between water and the Holy Spirit here is not between two stages in Christian initiation, but between John’s baptism and that of Jesus. Christian baptism did of course adopt John’s use of the outward symbol of water, but the use of the outward sign in no way detracts from the true spiritual significance of baptism into the Christian community; it symbolizes (as for John it pointed forward to) that same pouring out of the Holy Spirit which is the essence of the Messiah’s saving ministry. (France, 114)

12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  After the snakes escaping the fire (v. 7), the tree cut down and burned (v. 10), and “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11), John now adds another metaphor for judgment (also involving fire), that of the threshing-floor. The threshed grain is thrown up into the air with a winnowing-fork so that the wind can blow away the chaff while the heavier grain falls back onto the threshing-floor. Only when all the chaff has been separated from the grain is the latter collected and stored away for use, while the chaff is burned.

The metaphor is a familiar one (Isa 41:15–16; Pss 1:4; 35:5 etc.; cf. the burned stubble in Mal. 3:19) and needs no explanation. It will in part be picked up in Jesus’ parable of the weeds in 13:30, 40–4. But two of the words used point beyond the pictorial scene to the reality it signifies. The verb translated “clear” is more literally “completely clean” or “purify;” in the agricultural imagery it perhaps indicates the threshing-floor left bare when all the chaff has been separated off and the grain stored,but metaphorically the verb points to the purpose of God’s judgment, the complete removal of all evil leaving a purified people.

With the mention of a fire “that cannot be put out” we have moved beyond the agricultural scene, where the fire must die when all the chaff has been burned, to take up an aspect of God’s judgment which will be repeated in 18:8 and 25:41, 46, the “eternal fire/punishment” which awaits the wicked. The strong emphasis on judgment should not cause us to forget the positive aspect of John’s message, that while the chaff will be burned up, there will also be “grain,” a continuing purified “remnant” of the true people of God It is the drawing together of that true nucleus of Israel which is the ultimate aim of the ministry of John, as it will be of that of Jesus. The judgment is only a means to that end. (France 115-6)


Matthew 3:11 for repentance: Where Matthew had avoided using the word “repentance” in 3:2, here he takes up the word as a necessary action prior to the coming events/end. coming after me does not refer to one coming ‘later’ (opisō, ‘behind’, is not used of time elsewhere in the New Testament), but is a regular description of a follower or disciple. (Opisō is so used, e.g. in 4:19; 10:38; 16:24; Luke 21:8; John 12:19) Jesus first appeared as a follower of John when he came to his baptism. to carry his sandals: A Rabbi’s disciple was expected to act virtually as his master’s slave, but to remove his shoes was too low a task even for a disciple (Ketuboth 96a).  baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: the water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. In contrast to John’s baptism with water, Jesus is said to baptize with the holy Spirit and with fire. From the point of view of the early Christian community, the Spirit and fire must have been understood in the light of the fire symbolism of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4); but as part of John’s preaching, the Spirit and fire should be related to their purifying and refining characteristics (Ezekiel 36:25–27; Malachi 3:2–3).

Matthew 3:12 winnowing fan… threshing floor…gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn: The discrimination between the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up. The scene echoes OT passages such as Ps 1:4; Prov 20:26; Isa 41:14–16; Jer 15:7; 51:33; Dan 2:35; Hos 6:11; 13:3; Joel 3:13; and Mic 4:12–13.


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp.154-61
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 94-98
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 50-61
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 866-67
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at



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