What did John the Baptist have in mind when he warned the Sadducees and Pharisees about the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; Lk. 3:7)? Is there any scope for thinking that he is talking about more than—that his language exceeds or transcends—the disastrous events of AD 70? This is one of those posts that started out as a comment but got too big for its boots. It develops part of the argument put forward in “Getting saved in the Gospels”.
I think we have to assume that if a Jewish prophet in the first century warns the leaders of Israel about the wrath to come, tells them that trees which do not bear good fruit will be cut down, and uses the language of threshing, chaff, winnowing and fire, he is speaking, as the prophets did, about God’s judgment on Jerusalem.
I don’t think there’s any question that John the Baptist had in mind the coming destruction of Jerusalem or something very much like it.
I don’t think he had in mind anything other than the punishment, refining, and reformation of Israel associated with the end of the age of second temple Judaism, climaxing in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
John gets his imagery from the prophets, and the prophets use it to speak about God’s judgment of his people in the form of invasion, destruction, and exile:
At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.” (Jer. 4:11–12)
I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert. (Jer. 13:24)
I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land; I have bereaved them; I have destroyed my people; they did not turn from their ways. (Jer. 15:7)
Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window. (Hos 13:3)
Judgment against Israel’s enemies, including Babylon, could be announced in similar terms—it is the language of the historical judgment of God against a people, nation or city:
O my threshed and winnowed one, what I have heard from the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, I announce to you. (Is. 21:10)
Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. (Is. 41:15–16)
Thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon, against the inhabitants of Leb-kamai, and I will send to Babylon winnowers, and they shall winnow her, and they shall empty her land, when they come against her from every side on the day of trouble. (Jer. 51:1–2)
References to fire in relation to judgment against Jerusalem are too numerous to list, but this verse should be noted as the source of John’s “unquenchable fire” imagery:
And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Is. 66:24)
In Mark 9:43-49 Jesus links together Gehenna as a symbol for the destruction of Jerusalem, the image of “unquenchable fire” from Isaiah’s description of the corpses strewn on the ground outside Jerusalem, the bodies of those Jews who rebelled against YHWH, and the obscure idea that “everyone will be salted with fire”. The phrase “Gehenna of fire” presumably is a simple conflation of the two images (Matt. 5:22; 18:9).
Nothing is in view here other than the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome and the punishment of the generation of Jews which would again “rebel” against YHWH.
Malachi associates the coming of the messenger who will prepare the way for YHWH to come with a refining fire to judge the priesthood:
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Mal 3:1–2)
Malachi goes on to say that a day is coming, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1). John must have been remembering this text—whether the historical John or the “literary” John—and we must assume that he was likewise speaking about an impending judgment/refining/reformation of Israel. The prophet Elijah (ie. John) will come to restore Israel. If he fails, God will “come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6).
The reference to the Spirit may well be part of the judgment message rather than an allusion to Pentecost.
- Note, in the first, place that John’s words are not addressed to Israel generally but specifically to the Sadducees and Pharisees. They are words of rebuke and condemnation, not of hope. Mark does not have the explicit confrontation or the sayings about judgment.
- Grammatically, I think, there is one baptism—not a baptism with the Holy Spirit for those who repent and a baptism with fire for the wicked.
- Isaiah connects washing, fire and the Spirit of God in speaking about judgment on unrighteous Jerusalem: “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” (Is. 4:4).
- 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).
So the overall thought, I suggest, is very simple. Many Jews were on a broad road leading to destruction; they would be destroyed in the fire of God’s wrath. A few would find the narrow road leading to the life of the age to come; they are the wheat gathered into the barn, the “lost” reconciled to Abraham, the poor in spirit who will gain the kingdom of God, the fish kept by the angels, etc.
Nothing in the passage points beyond this historical context. The prophetic imagery is focused sharply and consistently on the foreseen catastrophe of the war against Rome. To claim otherwise is theologically motivated wishful thinking.