Baptism of Fire

One afternoon while I lived in Florida, a call came in asking about being baptized. Before I could answer the question, the lady claimed that she had already been baptized with the Holy Spirit. She had been filled with so much joy she was praying to the Lord to baptize her next with fire. Like so many, this lady had no idea what she was asking for from the Lord. What is the baptism of fire? Is it different from Holy Spirit Baptism?

The best place to begin our query is in Matthew 3:7-12. The only other place which discusses the Baptism of Fire is in Luke 3.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but 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. 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.”(Matthew 3:7-12).

Holy Spirit Baptism vs. Fire Baptism

There was once a church named Baptism of Fire Church. They maintained that this prophecy of the baptism of fire found its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit. This view can be found again in 293 AD here an early Christian writer wrote, “John said that we must be baptized in the Holy Spirit and in fire. Because he said ‘and fire,’…very crafty men seek a way to thereby corrupt and violate – and even neutralize – the baptism of holiness. They derive and origin of their notion from Simon Magus, practicing it with manifold perversity through various errors…However, those who are not ignorant of the nature of the Holy Spirit, understand that what is said about fire is said about the Spirit Himself. For in the Acts of the Apostles,…they were baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That is, they were baptized with the Spirit…This was similar to the fie that burned in the bush, but did not consume the bush” (Treatise on Re-Baptism about 257AD, 5.676,677).

Today, it is further argued from the context that Holy Spirit and fire baptism are one and the same. E. Ray Clendenen wrote, “The fact that there is only one Greek article governing the two nouns, “spirit” and “fire” indicates that only one baptism is in view and the addition of “and fire” further defines the character of the Messiah’s baptism. Whereas water temporarily cleanses the outside, fire permanently purifies the whole.” (Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 169).

It is said that Acts 2:3 speaks of fire in the form of tongues which rested above the heads of the apostles while they were waiting on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Yet, there is no literal reference to fire in Acts 2:3: “like as of fire.” This means the tongues were only metaphorically fire and not actually or real fire. Hackett explains that “the change from the plural (tongues) to the singular (it sat) supports this conclusion. At first the fire-like appearance was in a single body, and then suddenly parted in this direction and that; so that a portion of it rested on each of those present” (Hackett). ” In the King James Version the phrase “cloven tongues” means tongues “distributing themselves,” or “parting asunder.”

The purpose of this manifestation that appeared unto the apostles was to symbolize the presence of the Spirit making known to them the language each was speaking. They spoke in tongues or languages (Act 2:8,11), they had never learned. It was a fulfillment of prophecy concerning the promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and Joel 2. It was not baptism of fire for they were not overwhelmed with literal fire or even fire in a metaphorical sense.

Today, some claim that Christians are to experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire as a kind of “second Pentecost.” The fire symbolizes the purifying, energizing or enlightening work of the Spirit. This is made manifest in an experience or feeling.
However, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not with fire but being immersed in the Holy Spirit. Fire does not accompany Holy Spirit baptism. If it does, why did fire not appear over the heads of Cornelius and his household when they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10?

Subjects of Fire Baptism Are the Wicked

Within the context of Matthew 3, two groups are addressed. The first group is composed of those genuine disciples who have been baptized by John in verse six. The second group is composed of the Pharisees and Sadducees who have failed to bring forth fruits of repentance (3:7,8). They are fruitless trees to be hewed down and cast into the fire, not the good trees that bore fruit. They were the chaff to be burned with unquenchable fire, not the wheat that is good.

Notice the two illustrations of speaking of judgment by fire have mentioned baptism of fire between them. 1) First, they are unfruitful trees cut down and cast into fire. 2) Jesus is the one who will administer baptism of fire. 3) And finally, the chaff will be burned with fire. Whatever fire means in verses 10 and 12 it should mean the same in verse 11? H. Leo Boles explains it well:

“Is it credible that ‘fire’ should have one meaning in the first and third verses, and an entirely different meaning in the second? We must conclude that ‘fire’ has the same meaning in verses ten, eleven and twelve. With this conclusion, we must believe that two baptisms are mentioned here, that two classes are to receive the baptisms; that one class is to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the other class the baptism of fire. ‘Fire’ as used here cannot be taken as a symbol of the Holy Spirit; this would be a confusion to say Christ would ‘baptize in the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit.’ Where fire is used in a literal sense in the Bible, it invariably sets forth God’s divine judgment upon sin; where it is used in a figurative sense it represents this process by which evil is removed, and destruction. No sound principle of interpretation admits of representing the same truth under a literal and figurative form in the same connection” (H. Leo Boles, “Holy Spirit and Fire,” The Holy Spirit ? His Personality, Nature and Works, pp. 304-305).

The two groups are to receive two different baptisms. The first group are those disciples who are bringing forth fruits of repentance and are baptized by John in water. They are representative of those who are the fruitful trees and the wheat that will be gathered and not burned with fire. It is this group which will be blessed with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The second group are made of the Pharisees and Sadducees who have not been penitent and are not being baptized by John. They are the unfruitful trees and the chaff that will not suffering fire. They will one day experience the baptism of fire. Surely, both groups will not experience both baptisms. And furthermore, this context shows that these are two baptisms not just two aspects of one baptism.

Later the Pharisees were condemned for not being baptized by John. “And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him” (Luke 7:29-30).

The Purpose is Divine Wrath & Judgment

Both in Matthew 3 and Luke 3, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire are mentioned. However, it is interesting to note that any mention of fire is missing in Mark’s account. “And he [John] preached, saying, ‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mark 1:7-8). Neither is “fire” mentioned in account found in the Gospel of John. “And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34).

Why is a mention of “fire” missing? The context of both Mark and John’s account has to do with the disciples hope of receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit baptism. They do not mention judgment upon the impenitent so there is no need to mention baptism of fire. This is also true when Jesus speaks to apostles before his ascension. “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).

When Peter observed the Baptism of the Holy Spirit upon the household of Cornelius, he remembered the Lord’s promise. “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:15-17). The language about baptizing in fire is absent, because the group who are subject to it are absent. No disobedient or impenitent men in the audience meant no mention of judgment or wrath to come upon them in the form of the baptism of fire.

The Element Is Fire

The subjects are the wicked who refuse to obey or repent. The element they are going to be baptized in is fire. God has often used fire as a means to punish the wicked. Nadab and Abihu were overwhelmed and consumed with fire (Lev. 10:1-3). Twice a captain with his fifty soldiers were consumed by fire from heaven when they made demands of God’s prophet Elijah. In the wilderness “when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it, and His anger was aroused. So the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some in the outskirts of the camp” (Num. 11:1). During the rebellion of Korah “a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering incense” (Num. 16:35).

On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit was “poured out”. This is in relation to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, when God comes in judgment and wrath, He pours out fire upon as in the Old Testament passages listed below.

“Therefore wait for Me,” says the Lord, “Until the day I rise up for plunder; My determination is to gather the nations To My assembly of kingdoms, To pour on them My indignation, All My fierce anger; All the earth shall be devoured With the fire of My jealousy (Zephaniah 3:8).

Standing like an enemy, He has bent His bow; With His right hand, like an adversary, He has slain all who were pleasing to His eye; On the tent of the daughter of Zion, He has poured out His fury like fire. (Lamentations 2:4).

The Lord has fulfilled His fury, He has poured out His fierce anger. He kindled a fire in Zion, And it has devoured its foundations. (Lamentations 4:11).

Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, And the rocks are thrown down by Him. (Nahum 1:6).

Therefore I have poured out My indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of My wrath; and I have recompensed their deeds on their own heads,” says the Lord God.(Ezekiel 22:31).

When lexicographers translate the use of fire in the context of Luke 3 and Matthew 3, they connect it with God’s judgment and wrath and not the workings of the Holy Spirit. W. E. Vine noted regarding the “fire” of this passage: “of the fire of Divine judgment upon the rejectors of Christ, Matt. 3:11 (where a distinction is to be made between the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the fire of Divine retribution)” (1991, 308). Arndt and Gingrich speak of the “fire of divine Judgment Mt. 3:11; Lk. 3:16” (1967, 737). J. H. Thayer commented: “to overwhelm with fire (those who do not repent), i.e., to subject them to the terrible penalties of hell”. (Thayer 1958, p. 94).

When Luke speaks of “unquenchable fire” in 3:17, he is not describing the results of being baptized by the Holy Spirit. The phrase is akin to that one found in Mark chapter nine: “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43,44,45,46,48). This phrase is used to is depicting the eternal flames of Hell.

The Administrator of Fire Baptism Is Jesus

John was baptizing with water those who would repent of their sins. He could not bless the obedient with the promises of the Holy Spirit or punish the disobedient with the fires of Hell. This belonged to the one who was to come after him: Jesus. In Matthew 3 there was to come with an axe and cut down the unfruitful trees and cast them into the fire. He was coming with a winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff. The chaff would be cast into the fire. He would bless some of the disciples of John with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit for they were the of the wheat and the fruitful trees. Those who were like unfruitful trees and chaff He alone will judge and immerse them into the fires of Hell. In the parable of the one talent man, it is the master who commanded they “cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). In the parable of the sheep and the goats “He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41,46).

The Time is in the Future

The phrase “baptism by fire” is used by the military to refer to the first time a soldier faces combat. The phrase “baptism of fire” represents the final end of those at war with Christ. They will one day in the future experience the fires of hell. “.. when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).

John saw this great event in his Revelation: “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12-15). These texts are primarily a warning about coming judgment and the need to repent before it’s too late.

Jesus commanded, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16), In about 198 AD Tertullian wrote, “True and stable faith is baptized with water, unto salvation. Pretended and weak faith is baptized with fire, unto judgment” (3.674). How fitting is the analogy of those who are wicked and refuse to be baptized in a lake of water just once, will be baptized in the lake of fire and brimstone forever. Then they will beg like the rich man in torment for even a few drops of water. No one should look forward to or pray for the baptism of fire, instead they need to repent and be baptized to be saved and be faithful till death in order to avoid being immersed in the fires of hell.

– Daniel R. Vess

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