Why might we be interested in what the New Testament has to say about the Holy Spirit? Probably because we want to know how the church is supposed to function, or how to correct some charismatic excess or other, or how to prove to the cessationists that they have got it wrong. Given those sorts of concerns, the likelihood is that we will start with Paul, and we will be looking for generally applicable, universally correct, ecclesiologically standardized teaching about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, come rain or shine, come hell or high water, year in year out, until the second coming. In other words, the sort of stuff you would expect to find in a systematic theology.
But in the New Testament the “Holy Spirit” is as much bound up with an eschatological narrative as anything else, and we will misunderstand what is being said if we do not take this dynamic into account from the outset. So my aim in working through the major passages dealing with the Holy Spirit is to bring into sharp focus the eschatological context. In the case of the statement by John the Baptist that the Christ will baptize Israel “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, there is actually rather more to say about the eschatological context than about the Holy Spirit:
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Lk. 3:16-17; cf. Matt. 3:11-12)
The account in Matthew and Luke (Mark omits both the reference to “fire” and the subsequent verse about judgment) is clearly controlled by Malachi 3-4. The significance of this passage for understanding John’s role was indicated earlier in the angel’s words to Zechariah that John would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1:17). This is a quotation from Malachi 4:6.
John is the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord to come to his temple in order to judge and purify a corrupt priesthood (Mal. 3:1-4). The day of judgment that is coming on Israel will be a day of fire; it will burn like an oven, and “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”. It will set them ablaze, leaving them “neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1).
So when he tells the Jews that the coming Christ will baptize them with “fire”, he means that he will bring a day of judgment upon them that will destroy the arrogant and evildoers—they will be like chaff that will be burnt with “unquenchable fire”. There is no reason to generalize or spiritualize John’s words: he has in mind exactly the same sort of national disaster that Malachi predicted, as YHWH’s response to the same wretched condition of his people.
So the baptism of Israel with “fire” is fairly clear, but how are we to understand the baptism of Israel “with the Holy Spirit”? Grammatically, there would appear to be one baptism which is a matter of the Spirit and fire (en pneumati hagiōi kai puri), in which case we might conclude that the Spirit here is understood as a force for judgment, as perhaps in Isaiah 4:4:
…when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Wind or breath is frequently a means of refining or judging the people in the Old Testament (cf. Is. 11:4; 29:6; 30:28; 57:13; Ezek. 13:13).
The traumatic event of the coming reign of God, therefore, will entail both the destruction of the wicked and the refining of the penitent. Although we might prefer to find in this verse a more positive reference to the outpouring of the Spirit as part of the renewal of the people following judgment (cf. Is. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:25-27; 39:29), this emphasis on a coming judgment that has differing consequences for the righteous and the unrighteous may fit the context better.
In any case, we cannot, merely for our own convenience, remove the statement from the eschatological context indicated by the allusions to Malachi 3-4.