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Theology > Jesus > Baptism and Temptations > Spirit and Fire Baptism  


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 (Matt. 3:11; also Lu. 3:17).

All four Gospels have this statement with Mark (1:8) and John (1:33) omitting the words “and fire.” There are two questions related to the statement: first, does the statement speak of one concept or two concepts, that is, does Holy Spirit and fire speak of the same thing or does the terminology convey two different thoughts; and second, what is the meaning of the statement?

Both baptisms, whether identical or different, are used to describe the work of Christ; He is the One doing this or these things. He is the One who will baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Both concepts are used in connection with the word “baptize,” meaning that the individual who is baptized with the Spirit and/or with fire will be immersed in the same. The experience will be comprehensive; baptism speaks of an inclusive event. Consider the possibilities:

Reference to Grace and Judgment

If the reference is to two concepts, then the first speaks of grace (Holy Spirit) and the second indicates judgment (fire).

In grace it is the work of the Spirit that applies salvation to the sinner, enabling him to believe and embrace Christ. Grace enables the person to submit to Christ, with the mind and the will surrendering to Him. The Spirit completely envelopes the individual just as the Spirit hovered over the chaos of creation on the first day with the intent of bringing order and life. So it is with the sinner, who is baptized with the Spirit who brings a new creation to pass in the life.

A common description of God’s judgment is fire; to experience His judgment is to be baptized with fire. To the Thessalonians Paul says that the Lord and His mighty angels will come from heaven “in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God” (II Thess. 2:8), informing them that the punishment of the last day is associated with fire, as it is throughout the Scriptures.

If it is assumed that these concepts are two different events, then it is proper to think in terms of grace and judgment; therefore, the first is current (salvation of the believer) and the second is future (judgment of the unbeliever). All of the human race will experience the baptism brought by the Messiah, either salvation or damnation.

Reference to Pentecost

It is possible to view the two concepts in terms of a single event. The “and” ties the two concepts together, thus, the reference is to one and only one event.

The copulative kai requires that the baptism “in the Holy Ghost and in fire,” should be regarded as one and the same thing (ISBE).

Spirit and fire are two aspects of the same thing; an additional reason for this conclusion is that two of the Gospels, Mark and John, omit the words, “and fire.” The omission indicates that the intended reference can be understood with either one or both of the words.

If the reference is to one idea, then together the concepts probably speak of Pentecost, for at Pentecost both the Spirit and fire are prominent: “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:3-4; see: Joel 2:28-30; I Cor. 12:13).

Jesus Himself confirms the application of the reference to Pentecost:

And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, which, He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5).

The appearance of the Holy Spirit forms part of the Old Testament promise: Isa. 32:15; 44:3-5; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; Joel 2:28-32.

Reference to Pentecost and Judgment

A few interpreters consider the reference to be to two events, and they combine aspects of both of the above options. Thus, they understand the Spirit to refer to Pentecost and fire to refer to judgment.

The baptism with the Spirit is initiated by the work of Christ on earth and His ascent to heaven, coupled with His promise to send the Spirit (Jo. 14:16-18; 15:26; 16:7-14). Of the Spirit Jesus says that “He dwells with you and will be in you” (Jo. 14:17).

Following the statement of being baptized with fire John predicts of Christ: “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” (Matt. 3:12; see: Isa. 1:31; 66:24; Jer. 7:20)—obviously, a reference to judgment. “Winnowing” is used of judgment and the separation of the saved (“wheat”) from the lost (“chaff”), those who repent and those who do not; for the chaff there is “unquenchable fire” (see: Matt. 25:4; Heb. 12:28-29; Rev. 20:10, 15).

Reference to the Believer

A final option is to unite the concepts and apply both uniquely to the experience of the believer; again the “and” ties the ideas together, thus, the reference is to a single entity. And the unity of the expression is applied to the process of Christ’s work in the life of the one who follows Him.

To interpret the reference in terms of the believer is to understand the statement of John as indicating what Jesus would be doing for the Church and for the believer, in a collective sense and in an individual sense. Understood this way the baptism was not a single occurrence but it was to characterize the people of Christ in an ongoing sense.

The reference actually speaks of the believer’s identification with Christ. Commenting on Matt. 3:11 Jacob Kapp writes: “The statement, therefore, in this verse indicates the manner in which Christ will admit them to discipleship and prepare them for His service” (ISBE). Thus, the event is not a once for all occurrence but is the process of sanctification involving both the Spirit and cleansing. “For everyone will be seasoned with fire” (Mk. 9:49; see: Jo. 7:37-39; 20:22; Acts 1:5; 2:2-4; 10:44; 11:16-17).

CONCLUSION – the options are:

one, a reference to Grace (Spirit) and the future judgment (fire);

two,  a reference to Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit and the appearance of fire;

three, a reference to Pentecost (Spirit) and the future judgment (fire);

four, a reference to Christ’s ongoing work in the life of the believer (Spirit and fire).

Or is the statement multiple in meaning, referring to more than one of the above, or can it be applied to all of the above?

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