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In Luke 3, some are wondering if John the Baptist could be the Christ. He denies this claim like so:

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. (NIV)

What does John mean by "baptize you with [...] fire"?

I had three ideas:

1) It refers to the tongues of fire in Acts 2:3 If it's a reference to the tongues of fire, it seems to make the idea redundant to a baptism by the Holy Spirit.

2) It refers to trials. But and I couldn't find any references elsewhere to baptism by fire that would perhaps suggest the suffering motif.

3) It refers to a separate "baptism" for those who are judged. This is evidenced by the contrast set in the next verse of the wheat and chaff. Yet, I don't see language anywhere else of unbelievers being baptized.

I'm not ruling out any of these ideas per se, but they are not yet compelling to me. Any thoughts?

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Would redundancy surprise you? It's pretty typical in Biblical texts to double up an idea for rhetorical impact and/or ease of transmission in an oral culture. –  Peter Taylor Jun 16 '12 at 20:15
    
@PeterTaylor No, not necessarily. But the combination being in Matthew 3:11 as well pushes me away from a connection to Acts. –  Soldarnal Jun 16 '12 at 21:14
    
Zak 13:9, Isaiah 48:10, Psalms 17:3, Psalms 26:2, 66:10, 105:19, Dan 12:10 –  Eli Rosencruft Jun 17 '12 at 11:29
    
@Eli Rosencruft: For handy reference on one page. So you see the fire as a testing fire? –  Jon Ericson Mar 19 '13 at 17:25

5 Answers 5

Context is king and the context suggests judgement:

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”—Luke 3:15-17 (ESV)

It seems likely that John had this section of Malachi in mind:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 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 sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.—Malachi 3:1-4 (ESV)

The Synoptics all use Malachi 3:1 in reference to John. So it seems likely that John was thinking of Malachi imagery in order to prophesy about Jesus. In place of a goldsmith or a launderer, John substitutes a threshing process. But the principle is the same: useless impurities are removed leaving the useful and pure.

By the same token, baptism for John was primarily a tool of purification. The connection between the Spirit of God may have been derived from Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and *a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.—Ezekiel 36:25-27 (ESV)


Now I think Luke was pleased to connect John's words at the beginning of Jesus' ministry with the events on Pentecost at the beginning of the church's ministry. Besides being a fulfillment of John's prophesy, it also fulfilled the Old Testament prophesy. However, the coming of the Holy Spirit was as much about adding something new as it was of removing the old. Peter does not, therefore, quote John or the passages above, but Joel who highlights the pouring out of the Spirit on all types of people. In this way, the judgement is averted not by following a ritual, but by the grace of God.

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Notice the context of this phrase in Matthew 3:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for 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 now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with 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 with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.—3:7-12 (KJV)

To be baptized with fire is to be cast into hell. John has already made the comment of the axe being laid to the root. Those that do not bring forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. And then he speaks of the chaff will be burned with fire unquenchable.

Romans 6:22 speaks of becoming servants to God and having fruits unto holiness. The fruits one bears shows the true intent of the heart. It's not that one goes about doing good in order to get saved, but one does good because they are saved. The good one does do is the life of the Holy Spirit flowing through the believer.

An apple tree produces apples because it is an apple tree, not so it can be called an apple tree. You could hang apples on a pine tree and call it an apple tree, but it's still a pine tree. I'm afraid to say we have far to many pine trees hanging fruit on their branches and thinking that will do. In the end their fruit will find them out.

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Does it make sense for people baptized with the Holy Ghost to also be sent to hell? It's not clear that the verse indicates each person gets the Holy Ghost or fire. I'm reminded of Mark 9:49 "Everyone will be salted with fire." –  Luke Breuer Dec 18 '13 at 17:40
    
@LukeBreuer I think Dell is saying there are two separate baptisms spoken of concerning two different sets of people. 1--the baptism of the Holy Ghost upon the tree that brings forth fruit (the wheat that will be gathered into the barn). 2--the baptism of fire upon the tree that does not bear fruit(the chaff that will be burned with unquenchable fire). –  Sarah Dec 19 '13 at 13:56
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@Sarah, I'm just not sure the 'and' can be translated as 'or'. Recall that Christians are told, multiple times, that they will be tested by fire. 1 Cor 3:10-15 talks about this, where bad work is burned up by fire. Now, that may not be applicable; comparing the word choices of Paul and Matthew may be iffy. –  Luke Breuer Dec 19 '13 at 17:56
    
@LukeBreuer I see. Is possible that the "you" is directed to the collective group, and He was going to do both things concerning the group, to both empower them and purge them? In such a case individual members of the group might experience one or the other, yet both would be true concerning the group, in which case, the "and" would still indicate these two vastly different actions. –  Sarah Dec 19 '13 at 18:14
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@Sarah, NET Bible says the 'you' is plural, so that is possible. The notes at that link indicate that people have interpreted this passage both ways. –  Luke Breuer Dec 19 '13 at 21:42

Short Answer: Jesus was going to baptize people with the Holy Spirit. This cleansing, purifying, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in a person's life is referred to in a number of ways throughout Scripture, including baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Long Answer

What Jesus came to do: Jesus' mission was to go to the cross, die, rise from the dead, and return to the Father. Jesus refers to this as His "baptism".

Why He did it: Before Christ came, all of humanity was spiritually dead. Christ came so that we could have life. It is the Spirit who gives life, but the Spirit could not come until Christ's work was complete. The purpose of Christ's mission was to enable the Spirit to enter into people's lives and then to "baptize" them into Christ, by the Spirit.

How we come to be "in Christ": Christ's followers are also called to be baptized -- that is, to go to the cross, die, rise from the dead, and return to the Father. (Note: This has both a spiritual sense for us today, and an ultimate sense at the end of the age.) All of this together can be referred to as "spiritual regeneration."

The language of regeneration: Spiritual regeneration is referred to throughout Scripture using a variety of terms, including death, crucifixion, circumcision, baptism, cleansing, purification, new birth, new creation, and new life. Why so much imagery? The whole point of Scripture is to describe spiritual realities, but human language is built on references -- mostly natural references. Since we are so natural-minded, and most of our words refer to natural things, it is necessary to use natural imagery to describe spiritual things.

Baptism: "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" refers to the spiritual regeneration that takes place when you are reconciled to God in Christ, by the Spirit. (This happened first at Pentecost.) Baptism is a really good picture for spiritual regeneration because it covers the "burial" of the old self, the cleansing that takes place by the Spirit, and being "raised up" all new and clean and fresh.

Fire: It is true that fire is sometimes used to signify judgment for the wicked, but it is also used throughout Scripture to signify purification. The term pairs up quite well with the term "baptism" because both are often used to signify purification and removal of uncleanness.

Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire: There is one baptism, and there is only one baptism being described in this verse. "Holy Spirit" and "fire" are not presented as separate ideas in the Greek; they are presented as complimentary terms. It is pretty common in Scripture to find places where two terms are used together to paint a single image. (For example, Jesus refers to being born again as being born of water and Spirit [or wind], where water was a common symbol for the Spirit throughout Scripture.)

Responses

Trials? Fire is an appropriate image to use when describing the trials of life, since those who are in Christ are purified through trials. The verse in question is referring to baptism, though, so if we were going to make a connection to trials it would have to be an extension of the baptism in the Spirit and its connotations in the Christian life. In other words, this may be a valid implication of the interpretation, but I think it is an insufficient interpretation.

Judgment? Fire is an appropriate image to use when describing judgment, since fire burns up chaff, etc. But again, the verse in question is referring to baptism, and baptism signifies not only "death", but also cleansing, and new life. I suppose someone could try to argue that mankind on the whole will be "baptized" and the unclean will be removed (i.e. judged), thereby purifying mankind for relationship with God corporately. However, then suddenly the target audience of Luke 3:16 gets a bit confusing... is He also telling mankind they will be baptized with the Spirit? Also, this interpretation misses the presentation in the Greek of two complimentary terms.

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In tractate Sanhedrin, folio 39a, it is asked, במאי טביל, that is, "With what does He immerse1? One responds, "With water," citing Isa. 40:12. Yet another states, בנורא טביל, that is, "He immerses with fire," citing Isa. 66:15 in which it is written,

"Behold, YHVH comes with fire..."

Thus, the idea that baptism with fire is a reference to judgment rather than a blissful spiritual event has a basis in contemporary Jewish literature of that era.


Footnote:

1 God; also, "immerse" is synonymous with "baptize."

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The burnt offering, as a shadow of Christ's total devotion even unto death, makes the fire the essence of his tribulation. Christ's tribulation was not heaped upon him by mankind, but by God himself. The Holy Spirit, is Holy. When Christ bore the sins of mankind, even being made to be sin for us, how else should the Holy Spirit respond? Mankind nor the devil had any right nor ability to put him in tribulation. God himself was being satisfied for the sins of man.

So the fire represents the Holy Spirit, but it is not redundant. The Holy Spirit in heaven gives life, and the Holy Spirit on earth (fire) refines us. Jesus went through tribulation to learn obedience:

Heb 5:8 Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;

Tribulation is the other half of baptism into life:

Joh 16:33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

Jesus said that in the midst of the fire, he would be with us:

Da 3:25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

Someone might object that Nebuchadnezzar caused the tribulation, but even Satan needed permission to torment Job.

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+1 - there is a lot I like about your connection with the burnt offering, and your words around it. I also tend to think within the same theme, the Spirit baptized us into Christ, but when Jesus ascended into heaven as Lod, He baptized believers with the Spirit, which is this baptism. The fire I take to be the same as your meaning. It is similar to circumcision because it cuts away the nature of flesh. –  Mike Jun 17 '12 at 2:51

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