Baptize You with the Holy Spirit and with Fire 

Consider Luke 3:16.

“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the throng of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

There are some in Christian circles who look at this text, and conclude that there are two baptisms that Christians will receive, Baptism of the Holy Spirit and Baptism of Fire (some would even count three with the inclusion of water baptism).  Most of these people associate the two with Salvation (Baptism of the Holy Spirit) and then with the receiving of Spiritual Gifts (Baptism by Fire) usually manifesting in the gift of Speaking in Tongues.

Now I do not wish to get into the Tongues debate in this particular topic.  That is a discussion for/from a different text on a different day.  Rather, I wish to point to the context of what John the Baptist is saying, and argue for a different interpretation of Baptism by Fire.

We see in the larger context, that John the Baptist is not speaking just to those with Faith, coming in repentance, but also to the unbelievers and those who reject his teachings (and eventually reject the coming Messiah).  Begin by looking back to John 3:7ff.  John is talking to the crowds surrounding him.  He is challenging them.  Specifically, as we see in vs 8, he is challenging the idea that lineage to Abraham was of great importance in the concept of repentance and salvation.  This was largely a target to the religious authorities of the day, to men like Saul/Paul (see what he says about himself in Phillipians 3:2-6).

In making this confrontation, John urges those listening to consider their actions, to consider their “fruit”.  And in vs 9, he states “Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  This gets to the root of the context, and the true meaning of “baptism of fire”.  This “baptism” has nothing to do with Spiritual gifts.  There is nothing in the context of John’s words here that indicate that in anyway.  This has everything to do with a fire of holiness and judgment. 

The Greek word used here is πῦρ.  There seems to be three uses of πῦρ in the New Testament Greek.  To refer to an actual fire, to refer to a figuretive fire (this is the rarest use), and to refer to fire of heavenly origin.  In the context of the what John the Baptist is speaking, it is safe to conclude that the third use of πῦρ is what is done here.  It is used in this way nearly 50 times.  And as far as I can tell, in every case it is refering either to the fire of God’s glory (ie think burning bush, Stephen’s mention of this in Acts 7:30), or the fire of punishment/purification.  In the context of Luke 3:16, we see John is talking quite clearly about a fire of punishment.  The trees that are not bearing good fruit are going to be burnt away in the fire.

To help us fully understand this concept and what John is getting at, it is appropriate to also consider 1st Peter 1:6-7.

“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ…”[1]

Consider the similarities in what John and Peter are saying.  Both are indicating that people will be tested, to prove if their faith is valid.  The garbage, the rift raft, the “bad” fruit will be burnt away, and only the “good” fruit will remain.  Now also consider what James says about faith and works.  True faith will show good works.  This takes us back to John’s confrontation of those who hold their lineage in Abraham as being something.  John is confronting them saying to the effect, “If you truly are repentant of your sins, don’t rely on any connection to Abraham, but prove your repentance by doing good works, by producing good fruit.  Because you will go through the fire, and what ever is bad will be destroyed.”

So then when John says in Luke 3:16 that Jesus will bring about “baptism of the Holy spirit and fire.” This then is talking about the fires of punishment/purification.  This is something that everyone will go through.  That which is good and holy will be purified and made perfect, that which is not will be destroyed. 

It seems then that as Christians we need to be mindful of our actions.  Simply relying on being “baptized” as a child/young adult (or baby for my paedobaptist friends/family), is not enough.  That is exactly what the Pharisees and others were doing in their reliance on the lineage of Abraham.  Indeed consider what Jesus says in Matthew 7:22, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

Is this arguing for a works based salvation?  Good heavens no!  We are saved by faith!  However, saying magic words does not make that faith.  There is such a thing as “false” faith, just like the Pharisees had.  What separates good faith from bad?  The fruit that each produces.  Those who have a true faith, somehow will produce good fruit, they would do good works.  Now fruit takes its shape in many different forms (did you know both almonds and olives are both “fruit”), and some trees produce a lot of fruit, and some produce a little.  But good fruit is good fruit, and bad fruit is bad fruit.  John (and Peter, James, Paul, Jesus, ect) are warning us that we will all be going through the fire.  The question is what will come out the other end?

[1] The BDAG has the 1 Peter 1:7 use of πῦρ under the use of “literal” fire, however it also states that this is “metaphorical” and in context seems to point back to the idea of a fire of purification/punishment.

[2] I encourage you to look at the context around this verse.  Jesus says nearly identical things to what John had said regarding “bad trees/fruit” and being thrown into the fire.