Bible Questions?

What does ‘baptism of fire’ mean (Matthew 3:11)?

Matthew 3:11 “I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

There can be some confusion when we talk about being baptised with the Holy Spirit and fire. Most understand the meaning of being baptised in water and being baptised with the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the baptism of fire, there seems to be some confusion and misinterpretation.

To rightly understand this passage, let us look at what the Bible teaches us about the baptism of fire. Without doing so, we may be seeking something without knowing what it means.

 Firstly, understand the immediate context of the baptism of fire.

To understand the immediate context of the passage in Matthew 3:11, we must read the preceding scriptures to understand the immediate context. Matthew 3:7-12 says “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

From these verses, we see that John the Baptist is speaking to unrepentant sinners. Matthew 13:8 says “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” John then goes on to say that he baptised with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after Him (that is Jesus); will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. There are the two separate baptisms mentioned – the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the baptism of fire.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit. These are the fruits that come with repentance. Galatians 5:22-26 says “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”

The baptism of fire, on the other hand, is for those who are not in step with the Spirit. Those who do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This baptism of fire is clearly articulated right after Matthew 3:11. Verse 12 says “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

You see, the wheat are those who bear fruit in keeping with repentance, whereas the chaff is those who do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The chaff will burn with unquenchable fire, the fire of judgment. This baptism of fire is the immersing of oneself in the lake of fire at the time of judgment. This will be the everlasting punishments as mentioned in Matthew 25:46 saying “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

Secondly, what about Acts 2, tongues as of fire?

Some, when they think of the baptism of fire, they think of the event in Acts 2. Acts 2:1-4 says “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

Many interpret this passage as the baptism of fire because Acts 2:3 says “And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.” Notice here that it does not say “fire”; instead, it says “tongues as of fire appeared”. Too often, people jump to the conclusion that this is the baptism of fire. Let us look at the surrounding passages that clearly describe this event as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and not of fire.

Acts 1:4-5 says “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Notice in this passage, Jesus says, that John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Notice, the baptism of fire is not mentioned in this scripture at all. It is absent. Again, when Peter speaks in Acts 11:15-17 saying “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

Notice again, any mention of baptism with fire is absent. This is because when John spoke in Matthew 11:3, he was talking about the coming judgment for those who do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is seen in those bearing fruit in keeping with repentance as a result, whereas the baptism of fire is reserved for those not bearing fruit keeping with repentance.

Thirdly, purification of believers.

The first interpretation of this passage was that of judgment and fiery destruction. But another interpretation can be associated with the Holy Spirit who will purify our soul, through the process of sanctification to remove all corruption for those who submit to Jesus Christ.

Isaiah 1:25-26 says “I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”

This work of purification begins in a believers life when they receive the gift of salvation. God might allow us to face trials and adversities, and the Holy Spirit will work through that for our souls to be purified and to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:3-5 says “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

In conclusion, I pray that you can now rightly interpret this passage in Matthews 3:11 and that you understand the difference between the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire. Please take some time to examine your life and see whether you are bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.

God bless.

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