Baptism Of Fire


‘In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ Matthew 3:1-12

Some interpret the baptism of fire as referring to the day of Pentecost. Acts 2:2-3.

Some believe that the baptism with fire refers to the Holy Spirit’s office as the energizer of the believer’s service, and the purifier of evil within. 1 Thessalonians 5:19.

We should understand that Matthew’s record is a very abbreviated account of John’s ongoing ministry. Vast multitudes were pursuing John as he preached in ‘the wilderness of Judaea’ Matthew 3:1 / Matthew 3:5.

Some in the crowd were sincere; they confessed their sins and were immersed by John in the Jordan Matthew 3:6. Others, quite obviously, were caught up in the emotionalism of the occasion. Among these were Sadducees and Pharisees.

John characterised these Jews as ‘offspring of vipers,’ who would be advised to “flee from the wrath that is to come” Matthew 3:7.

This possibly has a more immediate reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, the reference to ‘even now the axe lies at the root of the trees’ Matthew 3:10 but then, more remotely, to the final day of human reckoning, Matthew 3:12.

In light of this, consider the following:

The promise, ‘he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit,’ has reference to the apostles. The Saviour’s testimony in Acts 1 establishes this: ‘For John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence’ Acts 1:5

It will hardly be denied that there is a connection between Acts 1:5 and Matthew 3:11. The promise was fulfilled on Pentecost when the apostles received an ‘overwhelming’ measure of the Spirit’s power. Acts 2:1 ff.

But what is the significance of the ‘fire’ in John’s statement?

The immediate context would suggest that it is an allusion to the final fate of the wicked. Verse ten says that ‘every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.’

Then, at the conclusion of verse twelve, Jesus continues: ‘whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.’

Why should the ‘fire’ of verse eleven be viewed as something different from that referenced in verses ten and twelve, without some sort of compelling justification?