By Hoyt Houchen
Question: In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist prophesied the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. What is- meant by `fire”? Please explain.
Reply: John the Baptist told his hearers in Matthew 3:11, “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Some have supposed that John predicted one baptism comprised of two elements – Holy Spirit and fire. But the context is clear that “fire” is penal. Verses ten, eleven and twelve are tied together. They are predicting punishment. The background for these verses is seen in verse 8, where John was warning the Pharisees and Sadducees. He commanded them, “Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance . . . .” Being descendants of Abraham was not enough (v.9). They were to obey the Lord’s message that was being preached by John. If they disobeyed, punishment was the inevitable result, as is pointed out in the verses that follow (10, 11 and 12). The baptism of the Holy Spirit would afford blessings, but the “fire” indicated punishment. We conclude, therefore, that John mentions two baptisms – the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire.
We notice also that in John’s prophecy (Matt. 3:11), he did not say that everyone would be baptized (with) in the Holy Spirit. Jesus later promised the apostles that they would be baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8). This promise was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke with tongues (Acts 2:1-4).
To show further that there are two baptisms in our text, those who argue for one baptism with the two elements say that the “fire” was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost as well as the Holy Spirit. They are obviously wrong because the “tongues parting asunder” were like as of fire. The tongues were not fire but “like as of fire” (Acts 2:3).
Still others argue that there is only one baptism in John’s announcement (Matt. 3:11) because he mentions only one baptism. This, too, is an assumption. We must remember that John was addressing a mixed multitude. All present would receive both baptisms, Holy Spirit and fire. It is interesting to note that the promise of “fire” is omitted in Mark’s account (Mk. 1:8), and Jesus later promised the baptism of the Holy Spirit to the apostles (Acts 1:5) but did not mention “fire.” So, the meaning is clear. Some of John’s hearers would be baptized with fire. Verse eleven is a continuation of what is said in verse ten concerning fire, “. . . whose fan is in his hand, and will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
There is but one baptism by which we are saved, and that is water baptism in the name of Christ for the remission of sins (Eph. 4:5; 1 Pet. 3:21; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:4; etc.). The Bible speaks also of the baptism of suffering (Matt. 20:22). Children of God who suffer for Christ are baptized with it (see 1 Pet. 4:12-16). And, the Bible speaks of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11; Acts 1:5; etc.). It was miraculous; it did not save anyone; it was a promise limited to a few and it has already been fulfilled. The Bible speaks of John’s baptism (Matt. 3:11; Acts 19:3,4), a baptism of preparation which ceased when the baptism commanded by Christ and the apostles became operative. The baptism of fire refers to the fire of eternity. It is the fire of everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Rev. 20:10, 15; etc.). It is this baptism that we want to avoid. To do so, we must obey the gospel and live, work and worship as God directs us through His word.
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 9, p. 262
May 5, 1983