What Is the Meaning of the “Baptism in Fire” in Matthew 3:11?

What Is the Meaning of the “Baptism in Fire” in Matthew 3:11?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, January 11, 2010 at 3:37pm

QUERY: You have discussed both baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit, but what is the “baptism in fire” mentioned in Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16?

ANSWER: In both of these texts John the Baptist says that when the Messiah comes “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The main issue is whether the fire baptism is the same as or separate and distinct from the Spirit baptism. Will Jesus give just one baptism, “in Spirit and fire”? Or will he give two baptisms, baptizing some in Spirit and others in fire?

Many say the latter. They see John as implying that his audience was divided into two groups: those who would accept the Messiah and be saved, and those who would reject him and be lost. The Messiah will immerse those who accept him in the Holy Spirit, and he will immerse those who reject him in fire, i.e., in the fiery judgment of hell. The main evidence for this view is the immediately-following reference to the process of separating the wheat from the chaff, after which “He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17; see Matt. 3:10, 12). I personally held to this view until I wrote my book on the Holy Spirit, “Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit” (College Press, 2007). [The contents of this note are based on pp. 303-305 of this book.]

Others say that the baptism “in the Holy Spirit and fire” is just one baptism. They see Christ’s baptism “in the Holy Spirit and fire” as a single saving event. Alfred Plummer, in his ICC commentary on Luke, states his preferred view: “More probably the [fire] refers to the illuminating, kindling, and purifying power of the grace given by the Messiah’s baptism. . . . The purifying of the believer rather than the punishment of the unbeliever seems to be intended” (p. 95). I came to accept this view during the course of writing the book mentioned above.

That the Messianic baptism in fire is the same as the Messianic baptism in the Holy Spirit makes sense only if one accepts the idea that all those saved in the New Covenant era (since Pentecost) receive the baptism in the Spirit, which is indeed the view that I strongly defend. Thus John the Baptist is saying that the coming Messiah will baptize all who become Christians BOTH with the Holy Spirit AND with fire. These are in reality not two different things; the latter is simply an aspect of the former.

The strongest argument for this view is the grammatical construction of the phrase “in the Holy Spirit and fire.” Here there is only one preposition (Greek, “en”; English, “in”) governing the two objects, “thus most naturally indicating one baptism composed of two elements” (Larry Chouinard, College Press NIV commentary on Matthew, p. 71). The rule of Greek grammar that applies here is that if one preposition has two objects, the objects are either the same or very closely related. If anyone thinks that such a grammatical “rule” may not be absolute and binding, he should remember that John 3:5 has the exact same construction, i.e., “unless one is born of [“ek”] water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” Many use the single-preposition rule in John 3:5 to show that we cannot separate being born of the Spirit from being born of water (i.e., baptism). If we appeal to the rule in John 3:5, consistency requires us to apply it the same way in Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16.

If indeed the one baptism applied by the Messiah is a “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire,” then it is clear that the “fire” is the fire of purification and purging from sin, which is part of the very essence of the Spirit’s saving work of regeneration and continuing sanctification. Fire is not always a symbol of judgment and wrath. Malachi 3:2-3 says, “For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness.” In Zech. 13:9 God says, “I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested.” (See also Isa. 4:4; 6:6-7; 1 Peter 1:7.) We can also remember the purifying fire that will cleanse the universe of everything sinful and thus “regenerate and renew” it in the end times (2 Peter 3:7-13; see Matt. 19:28). In like manner, when the Holy Spirit regenerates the sinner, the “baptism in fire” purifies the soul by putting to death the old man of sin (Rom. 6:1-6) and making way for new life in the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit then continues to purify us by empowering us to put to death the sinful deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).

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