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Baptism in Fire

“Then went out unto him Jerusalem and all Judaea, and all the regions round about the Jordan; and they were baptized of him in the river Jordon, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees coming to his baptism, he said to them, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. 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 in fire. Whose fan is in his hands, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor: and he will gather the wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:5-12).

Twice in the New Testament specific reference is made to “baptism in fire” — the account here and Luke’s parallel account of the same incident in Luke 3:15-17. This specific mention of “baptism in fire” was given by John the Baptist. Mark gives an abbreviated account of the incident but omits reference to “fire baptism” (Mk. 1:8) and Jesus, after His resurrection and at His ascension back to the Father said to His apostles, “John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be  baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (Acts 1:5). Jesus, in this His last earthly charge to His apostles, promised Holy Spirit baptism but made no reference to “fire baptism” (Acts 1:8). So, the only specific references to “fire baptism” comes from John’s statements recorded by Matthew and Luke.

What, then, is “fire baptism”? Because John mentions “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and “baptism in fire” in the same breath, some see the fulfillment of these words in Acts 2 where the historian records the events of Pentecost where the apostles were gathered in one place, and “suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a rushing wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). We agree that in this instance when the apostles were all filled with the Holy Spirit, the writer was saying they were baptized in the Holy Spirit and, yes, we agree that in this event there were tongues parting asunder, like as of fire which sat upon each of the apostles. We do not agree this was the “baptism in fire” of which John spoke.

No one can understand “fire baptism” who does not examine the account from John’s promise Jesus would baptize both in fire and the Holy Spirit. It was John who first speaks of a “baptism in fire” and other references to it only echoes John’s words in Matthew 3. Remember, it was John ALONE who mentions “baptism in fire.” Therefore, we must examine that text before we fully understand “fire baptism.” In that full account John mentions “fire” three times. 

First, he records that the axe laid at the root of the trees and that every tree that brought not forth good fruit would be cut down and cast into the fire (Mt. 3:12). Then he spoke of Jesus who would use His fan to cleanse His threshing-floor, separating wheat from chaff. The wheat would be saved and the chaff would be burned with “unquenchable fire” (Mt.  3:12). In these two instances “fire” was something very undesirable! His third reference to “fire” is his reference to Jesus who would baptize some with “fire.” Does this third reference to “fire” have the same connotation as “fire” in the other two instances?

To whom was John speaking? The record says that all Judaea and the region around the Jordan had come to his baptism (Mt. 3:6). This included some Pharisees and Sadducees who John called a “generation of vipers” — not a very complimentary term! And it was to these John spoke of both baptism in fire and baptism in the Holy Spirit. There were also others besides these; there were some who would first become John’s disciples and later become Jesus’ apostles. Later Jesus promised the apostles they would “be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence” but He said nothing about baptism in “fire” (Acts 1:5). What would happen to the brood of vipers, the Pharisees and Sadducees? They also would be baptized — but with fire.

When John spoke of baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire, he spoke of two (not one baptism composed of two elements) baptisms, the baptism of the Holy Spirit which came on Pentecost, empowering the apostles to speak the good news about Jesus, and the baptism in fire. This latter baptism has not yet come. It will come at the end of our world when the heavens shall pass away with a great noise and the elements shall melt with fervent heat and the earth shall be burned up (2 Pet. 3:10). At that time Jesus shall gather all the nations before Him and separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and He will judge each one according to their works. The righteous shall go into eternal life. The wicked shall go away into eternal punishment or fire (Mt. 25:41, 46; Rev. 20:14-15). That will be the baptism in fire of which John spoke. Frankly, my friend, that baptism I will try at all costs to avoid. What about you?

Jim McDonald

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