Brandon wants to know, “What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire?”
John baptized in water but he tells his audience that the Messiah will baptize with Spirit and fire (Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3, John 1). What does this mean? Answering this question involves digging into quite a few passages of Scripture so I encourage you to have a open Bible before you and take your time in working your way through this post. I’ll do my best to break my answer down into bite-sized portions.
1. I would suggest that John is speaking of two different “baptisms.” Baptism with the Spirit is a blessing that is promised to people who are seeking God (see Mark 1:5-8; Acts 1:1-5), while we hear about being baptized with fire in contexts where there are impenitent people in danger of God’s judgment(Matthew 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-18).
2. Both of these phrases are figurative rather than literal. When baptism is used in the scripture without any qualifier (such as “Spirit” or “fire”), it refers to immersing someone in water (see John 3:22-26, especially v. 23). It follows then that other “baptisms” aren’t to be understood in a literal sense. We’re not to try to imagine someone being dipped in the Spirit or in fire. They’re figurative phrases that picture some truth for us, as when Jesus speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life He is telling us that He is our sustenance—not that He is baked dough!
3. Both of these phrases have a strong Jewish context to them. With the notable exception of Acts 11:15ff, this phrase is always used in addressing a Jewish audience. John’s ministry was to the Jews (Luke 1:16-17). Jesus was sent to bring salvation to His people, the nation of Israel (Matthew 1:21; John 1:11; Matthew 15:24). Of course, from there it would go to the entire world, but nonetheless it was the Jews who were to receive it first (Romans 1:16-17 and the book of Acts).
4. It’s my understanding that being baptized with the Spirit simply refers to receiving the Spirit.
Acts 1:4-5 – “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 2:33 – “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”
Acts 2:38-39 – Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
From Acts 1, it seems clear that “the gift My Father promised” is for them to be baptized with the Spirit (i.e., receive the Spirit). In 2:33, Peter says that the ascended Christ has received and sent the Spirit (as He promised in John 16:7ff and other places). In 2:38-39, Peter tells his audience that this promise is for all who turn to the Lord—even those who are far off (the Gentiles—Ephesians 2:11-13).
Being baptized with the Spirit refers to receiving the Spirit. The apostles received the Spirit directly and everyone else receives it upon being baptized—the Jews first and later the Gentiles. Note the similar language Paul employs when speaking of Christians receiving the Spirit in Galatians 3:14 and Ephesians 1:13-14.
5. “Baptized with fire” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Since it’s obvious from the context in which it occurs that this phrase has something to do with judgment, the real question becomes which judgment? Does it refer to the final judgment (Hebrews 9:27), or to a historical judgment like Sodom and Gomorrah?
Malachi 4:4 tells us that “Elijah” (whom we know to be John the Baptist), would come “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Does it sound to you like there is over 2,000 years between John’s ministry and the judgment that follows? Now take at look at verse 5 and note that the judgment is conditional upon their response to John’s message.
When we hear John tell his Pharisees and Sadducees that “the ax is already at the root of the trees,” (Matthew 3:10), two things should be clear: despite the response of many to John, others (especially the leadership element – 3:7, 21:23-32; Luke 7:29-30), have rejected his message and because of that judgment will come upon them. It makes sense to me that we should look for this judgment to come to the same generation the baptism with the Spirit (initially) came to.
And this is exactly how the judgment at Jerusalem in AD 70 is presented—it is the result of the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Read the scathing indictment Jesus makes of the religious leaders of Israel in Matthew 23. His concluding words in that chapter are:
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
What follows in Matthew 24 is a full blown discussion of the destruction that it to come upon Jerusalem because of their refusal to follow Christ. Mark (13) and Luke (21), contain similar accounts. For all of these reasons it makes sense to me to understand this as the baptism with fire of which John spoke.