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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Holy Spirit and Us

Don Stewart :: Does the Holy Spirit Baptize the Believer with Fire?

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Does the Holy Spirit Baptize the Believer with Fire?

The Holy Spirit and Us – Question 10

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit baptizes people “with fire.” In referring to the coming appearance of Jesus the Messiah, John the Baptist gave the following words.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11 NKJV).

Does this mean the Holy Spirit baptizes the believer with fire for the purpose of purification? Or does it mean He will baptize the unbeliever with the fire of judgment? What exactly is the “baptism with fire?” Who receives it? Is it something good for them or bad?

Option 1: This Promise Refers to Believers

Some see this “baptism of fire” as a promise which refers to believers only. They link it to the baptism with the Holy Spirit which was something which only believers experienced. On the Day of Pentecost, the Bible says that the Holy Spirit baptized the believers with the Holy Spirit as Jesus had promised. A few days before this, Jesus repeated the promise that John the Baptist had earlier made.

John baptized with water, but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5 NLT).

He promised these disciples that the Holy Spirit would baptize them in short period of time.

Several days later Jesus’ promise was fulfilled. We read of what happened in the Book of Acts. It says.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them (Acts 2:1-3 NRSV).

The baptism with the Holy Spirit, along with the accompanying fire, occurred on the Day of Pentecost. Therefore, it is a past historical act.

Were the Tongues of Fire the Fulfillment?

Are the tongues of fire the fulfillment of this prophecy? On the Day of Pentecost the tongues were said to have been “like” fire. There is no reference, however, to the “fire” of the Holy Spirit on this particular day.

Option 2: It Speaks of Judgment on Unbelievers

Another interpretation has this prophecy as referring to unbelievers. It is a reference to judgment for their sin. Indeed, in the Old Testament, fire spoke of purifying the faithful and damnation for the wicked. We read of this in Malachi where it says the following.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness (Malachi 3:2, 3 NRSV).

The fire of judgment will be a work of the Holy Spirit upon those who do not believe. In other words, it is something to be avoided.

Another statement of John the Baptist seems to confirm this. The Bible records John response to a question of his identity.

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 thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. “His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:16, 17 NASB).

Here John speaks of burning the chaff with fire. The fire, in this case, is a reference of judgment on the unbeliever.

The Issue Stated

The issue is this. Does “with fire “furthers describes Holy Spirit baptism, or does it describe a different aspect of baptism altogether?

Option 1: They Refer to the Same Thing

If spirit and fire refer to the same thing, they both may describe judgment or blessing. Many scholars believe that John preached only a message of judgment and both phrases refer to judgment. Therefore the Holy Spirit is understood to be a destroying wind that works together with fire. The wind blows away the chaff.

Others believe that both phrases refer to the blessing experienced by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The fire refers to the tongues of fire that were exhibited.

The problem with this view is that fire in the following verse clearly refers to judgment.

Option 2: There Is a Twofold Baptism

Because of this, many see a twofold baptism–one for the righteous (the Holy Spirit) and the other for the unrighteous (fire). It may be better to see these as one baptism. This baptism is experienced as either a judgment or a blessing. The fire will destroy the wicked but will purify the believer.

In sum, there is baptism of fire of which the Bible speaks of may be a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit in purifying as well as in judging the unbeliever.

Summary – Question 10
Does the Holy Spirit Baptize the Believer with Fire?

John the Baptist, in his prediction of the coming Messiah, said He will “baptize with fire.” There is disagreement as to whether this occurs with believers or unbelievers or perhaps both. Is the baptism of fire something desired or something to be dreaded?

Those who think it occurs with believers see it as referring to a refining process. Indeed, fire is used symbolically in Scripture as that which cleanses us from our sins. Thus, a baptism with fire would be a reference to the believer being cleansed from his or her sins.

On the other hand, there are those who think this prediction has unbelievers in mind. This is supported in the next verse where John uses the analogy of unbelievers being like chaff which will be burned in unquenchable fire. Indeed, Scripture says that unbelievers will eventually spend eternity in a “lake of fire.”

There is the possibility that it may be a reference to both refining and judgment. Fire will be used to purify the believers while it will also be used to punish the unbelievers. Therefore, the baptism of fire may be something which all people experience in one form or another.

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