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Question:

"What is the "baptism of fire"?"

Answer:

The "baptism of fire" is only mentioned in two places in the Bible:
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Matthew 3:11)

"John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."" (Luke 3:16)
John the Baptist said that Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and there are several interpretations of what this might mean:

  1. Some people believe that Christians will automatically be "baptized with fire" at the same time that they are baptized with the Holy Spirit (such as the "tongues of fire" that came onto the disciples at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4). In other words, being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire is essentially one act (one baptism).
  2. Another interpretation is that Christians need to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit after salvation, but we also need to receive a separate "baptism of fire" which will "set us on fire" for the Lord (or for evangelism, etc.). In other words, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are two separate baptisms for Christians. A similar view says that Christians will be refined by "fire," which would also mean that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are two separate baptisms for Christians.
  3. A third interpretation is that Christians will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, but non-Christians will be "baptized with fire" (i.e. the "lake of fire" in Revelation 20:15). In other words, Christians will never receive the "baptism of fire."
Let's look at view #1 first. Notice that when the disciples received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost it was accompanied by "tongues of fire":
"On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."" (Acts 1:4-5)

"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." (Acts 2:1-4)
One problem with view #1 is that the "tongues of fire" at Pentecost are never referred to as "the baptism of fire." In addition, there is never any mention of fire when other people received the baptism of the Holy Spirit:
"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers [Jews] who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ." (Acts 10:44-48)

"As I [Peter] began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" (Acts 11:15-17)

"But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. ... When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:12-17)

"While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They answered, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." So Paul asked, "Then what baptism did you receive?" "John's baptism," they replied. Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus." On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied." (Acts 19:1-6)

"Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized" (Acts 9:17-18)
The New Testament describes the "tongues of fire" at Pentecost, but this is never referred to as the "baptism of fire." Further, in all of the other descriptions of people receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, there is never any mention of a "baptism of fire" happening at the same time. Therefore, we have no Scriptural support for the idea that people are always baptized with fire when they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. In addition, we can't point to any Scripture passages which show that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are meant to be interpreted as a single baptism.


Now let's look at view #2. Perhaps John the Baptist meant that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire are two separate and distinct baptisms for Christians. If that's the case, then it is strange that there is no record in the entire New Testament of anyone receiving both of these baptisms. The New Testament describes Christians receiving water baptism and the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but it never describes any Christians receiving a separate "baptism of fire."

Some people might point out that our faith will be refined by fire, and that our earthly works will be tested in the fire:
"In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire --may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:6-7)

"If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
While it's true that these passages describe certain kinds of "fire," notice that the above situations are never referred to as "baptisms of fire." Therefore, we can't dogmatically claim that these situations are, or are not, the "baptism of fire." If we say that the above passages are describing the "baptism of fire" then we're simply making an assumption without any Scriptural support.


The third view of the "baptism of fire" is that it refers to sinners being cast into the "lake of fire" on Judgment Day:
"If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:15)
The "lake of fire" is never referred to as the "baptism of fire" in the New Testament, but it turns out that there is Scriptural evidence which supports the idea that the "baptism of fire" refers to the fire of judgment. To see why, let's look at the context in which John the Baptist mentioned the "baptism of fire":
Matthew 3:4: "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."
Matthew 3:5: "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan."
Matthew 3:6: "Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River."
Matthew 3:7: "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?"
Matthew 3:8: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance."
Matthew 3:9: "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."
Matthew 3:10: "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."
Matthew 3:11: ""I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
Matthew 3:12: "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.""
Notice what this passage says in the context of the "baptism of fire." First we see one group of people who confessed their sins, and then we see another group of people whom John referred to as a "brood of vipers," so in John's audience there were two kinds of people (righteous people and unrighteous people). With that in mind, consider the parallelism in this passage. Notice that we see righteous people and then unrighteous people (verses 6-10), followed by descriptions of a baptism for righteous people and a baptism for unrighteous people (according to view #3) (verse 11), followed by the separation of righteous people and unrighteous people (verse 12), all in the same context. Based on this consistent parallelism between righteous people and unrighteous people, the most likely meaning of "baptism of fire" is that it refers to the fire of judgment for unrighteous people.

Now let's look at the word "fire" in the above passage. John specifically pointed out that every "tree" which does not produce "fruit in keeping with repentance" will be thrown into the fire. So here we have the fire of judgment (verse 10) followed by the "baptism of fire" (verse 11) followed by the unquenchable fire of judgment (verse 12), all in the same context. Again, this parallelism argues in favor of the "baptism of fire" being the fire of judgment. Since the word "fire" is used in the sense of judgment in verses 10 and 12, the most reasonable meaning of "fire" in verse 11 is for judgment as well. It would be unreasonable to suggest that the second occurrence of the word "fire" has a different meaning than the first and third occurrences without any clear explanation from John. In fact, in verse 12 John gave us an explanation of the word "fire," and he specifically said that it is the fire of judgment.

Some people argue that if the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a blessing, and the baptism of fire is a curse, then it is strange that John the Baptist changed course in the middle of his sentence when he said, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." However, the parallelism concerning righteous people and unrighteous people, plus the parallelism concerning the fire of judgment, demonstrates that John was not suddenly changing course in the middle of his sentence. Rather, he was simply being consistent in his use of these parallels. What would be strange is if John used the word "fire" in the sense of a curse in verse 10, and then he changed course and used the same word "fire" in the sense of a blessing in verse 11, and then he changed course again and used the same word "fire" in the sense of a curse in verse 12. This would not make sense. Therefore, if we interpret the baptism of fire as being a blessing then we are creating an inconsistency in John's use of the word "fire." This type of inconsistency in our interpretation of Scripture tends to happen when we are trying to force certain passages to fit our own preconceived ideas.

Now let's look at the "baptism of fire" in context again:
"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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 3:11-12)
We can see that John the Baptist was very careful to give us the exact meaning of the "fire" that he was referring to. In this context, fire is a reference to the judgment of sinners. In fact, John used the symbolism of sinners being burned up like "chaff" (such as straw or husks of grain), and notice that this very same symbolism is used in the Old Testament, as in these examples:
"Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames, so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 5:22-24)

""Now will I arise," says the LORD. "Now will I be exalted; now will I be lifted up. You conceive chaff, you give birth to straw; your breath is a fire that consumes you. The peoples will be burned as if to lime; like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze." You who are far away, hear what I have done; you who are near, acknowledge my power! The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?"" (Isaiah 33:10-14)
Again, John the Baptist used the word "fire" in reference to the judgment of sinners, and this view of the "baptism of fire" is supported by various Bible scholars:
"[John's] baptism is water baptism, but the Coming One "will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire." "Life in the coming age is in the sphere of the Spirit. Spirit and fire are coupled with one preposition as a double baptism" (McNeile). Broadus takes "fire" in the sense of separation like the use of the fan." (Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament Offsite Link, emphasis added)

"And with fire. The term fire is used in verse 10, and there means a destroying agency; it is used again in verse 12 in the same sense; it is used in verse 11, also, the intervening verse, and must be used in exactly the same sense as in the other two verses. It cannot mean a curse in verses 10 and 12, and a blessing in verse 11, without a word of explanation. It is strange, therefore, that all commentators should not agree that the baptism of fire is a baptism of trial and suffering. There were two classes before John. Some would repent and be baptized finally in the Holy Spirit; there were others who would remain impenitent, and be baptized in the awful trials that would come upon Israel. The next verse explains this. John says in it that there is the wheat and the chaff; one shall be gathered into the garner and the other burned." (People's New Testament Offsite Link, emphasis added)

"With fire - This expression has been variously understood. Some have supposed that John refers to the afflictions and persecutions with which men would be tried under the Gospel; others, that the word "fire" means judgment or wrath. According to this latter interpretation, the meaning is that he would baptize a portion of mankind - those who were willing to be his followers - with the Holy Spirit, but the rest of mankind - the wicked - with fire; that is, with judgment and wrath. Fire is a symbol of vengeance. See Isa_5:24; Isa_61:2; Isa_66:24. If this is the meaning, as seems to be probable, then John says that the ministry of the Messiah would be far more powerful than his was. It would be more searching and testing; and they who were not suited to abide the test would be cast into eternal fire." (Barnes, from http://www.e-sword.net/commentaries.html Offsite Link, Matthew 3:11, emphasis added)

"he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire; referring, either to the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, to be bestowed on the disciples on the day of Pentecost, of which the cloven tongues, like as of fire, which appeared unto them, and sat upon them, were the symbols; which was an instance of the great power and grace of Christ, and of his exaltation at the Father's right hand. Or rather, this phrase is expressive of the awful judgments which should be inflicted by him on the Jewish nation; when he by his Spirit should "reprove" them for the sin of rejecting him; and when he should appear as a "refiner's fire", and as "fuller's soap"; when "the day of the Lord" should "burn as an oven"; when he should "purge the blood of Jerusalem", his own blood, and the blood of the Apostles and Prophets shed in it, "from the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning"; the same with "the Holy Ghost and fire" here, or the fire of the Holy Ghost, or the holy Spirit of fire; and is the same with "the wrath to come", and with what is threatened in the context: the unfruitful trees shall be cut down, and cast into the fire", and the "chaff" shall be burnt with unquenchable fire". And as this sense best agrees with the context, it may the rather be thought to be genuine; since John is speaking not to the disciples of Christ, who were not yet called, and who only on the day of Pentecost were baptized with the Holy Ghost and fire, in the other sense of this phrase; but to the people of the Jews, some of whom had been baptized by him; and others were asking him questions, others gazing upon him, and wondering what manner of person he was; and multitudes of them continued obdurate and impenitent under his ministry, whom he threatens severely in the context. Add to all this, that the phrase of dipping or baptizing in fire seems to be used in this sense by the Jewish writers. In the Talmud (k) one puts the question, In what does he (God,) dip? You will say in water, as it is written, "who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?" Another replies, בנורא טביל, "he dips in fire"; as it is written, "for behold the Lord will come with fire". What is the meaning of טבילותא בנורא, "baptism in fire?" He answers, according to the mind of Rabbah, the root of "dipping in the fire", is what is written; "all that abideth not the fire, ye shall make go" through the water. Dipping in the fire of the law, is a phrase used by the Jews (l). The phrases of "dipping, and washing in fire", are also used by Greek (m) authors." (Gill's Exposition of the Bible, from http://www.e-sword.net/commentaries.html Offsite Link, Matthew 3:11)

"The baptism "with fire" referred to the judging and cleansing of those who would enter the kingdom, as prophesied in Malachi 3. This symbolism was carried through by John who spoke of the separation that occurs when a winnowing fork tosses up grain, wheat is then gathered into the barn, and chaff is burned up. John was saying that the Messiah, when He came, would prepare a remnant (wheat) for the kingdom by empowering and cleansing the people. Those who reject Him (chaff) would be judged and cast into eternal unquenchable fire (cf. Mal. 4:1)." (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Walvoord and Zuck, Dallas Theological Seminary, p.25)

What it boils down to is that the Scriptural evidence points to the fire of judgment as the most likely meaning of the "baptism of fire." However, we can't really be dogmatic about this because there just isn't that much information about it.


Conclusion

None of the three main views of the "baptism of fire" has overwhelming Scriptural support, but in my opinion the third view has the most evidence to back it up.

Occasionally I receive emails from people who say that they have had experiences of the Holy Spirit in which it felt like a "fire" had come upon them, or that they were "set on fire for the Lord" after having a special experience of the Holy Spirit, and they interpret this as being the "baptism of fire." I have had similar experiences myself, and they are awesome. But are these things really the baptism of fire? Since the Bible doesn't give us much evidence, we can't be dogmatic in saying that those experiences are, or are not, the baptism of fire. Consider that there is no description anywhere in the New Testament of people receiving "the baptism of fire," so we can't compare our special experiences of the Holy Spirit with any hard evidence in Scripture concerning such a baptism. We should be careful about allowing our doctrines to be dictated by our experiences, and if we say that what we were "feeling" was "the baptism of fire" then we would be making an assumption without any Scriptural support, and we would be using a label which "sounds" Biblical but which might not be accurate. Personally, I would want to be cautious about grabbing a label from Scripture and then applying that label to an experience when the Bible never applies that label to anyone's experiences in the New Testament. I would want to have stronger Scriptural support before teaching that a "special experience of the Holy Spirit" is actually the baptism of fire.

Again, the evidence that I see in Scripture points to the fire of judgment as the most likely meaning of the "baptism of fire."


I hope this has been helpful, and may the Lord abundantly bless you as you study His Word!
 
 
 
  Modification History  
 
 

  • 08/21/2003 - Modified the explanation of view #3 and added some quotes from Bible commentaries.
  • 07/18/2003 - Added a comment in the Conclusion section concerning the idea that the baptism of fire refers to a special experience of the Holy Spirit.
  • 09/24/2001 - Modified some of the wording.