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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. Jun 16, 2012 at 20:15
  • 1
    @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, 2012 at 21:14
  • Zak 13:9, Isaiah 48:10, Psalms 17:3, Psalms 26:2, 66:10, 105:19, Dan 12:10 Jun 17, 2012 at 11:29
  • @Eli Rosencruft: For handy reference on one page. So you see the fire as a testing fire? Mar 19, 2013 at 17:25

8 Answers 8

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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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  • I don't see an answer here, at the beginning it looks like you the with the contextual meaning, but at the end you connect it with fulfilling prophecies Nov 2, 2019 at 7:19
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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." Dec 18, 2013 at 17:40
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    @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).
    – user2027
    Dec 19, 2013 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. Dec 19, 2013 at 17:56
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    @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.
    – user2027
    Dec 19, 2013 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. Dec 19, 2013 at 21:42
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+50

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."

2

One must first decide if John speaks of baptism with...or baptism in...:

“I baptize you with[a] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11 NIV)
a. Matthew 3:11 Or in
b. Matthew 3:11 Or in

ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί

As the NIV translation notes indicate, ἐν may mean "in" which is most likely the meaning in how Matthew used the word earlier:

Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matthew 3:6)
καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν

It's possible Matthew meant people were baptized "with" the Jordan; more likely the meaning is they were baptized "in" the Jordan. Then John baptized, or immersed, in water for repentance and the one coming after will baptize, or immerse, in the Holy Spirit and fire.

Responding to Jesus will result either in the Spirit without limit or judgement:

31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. 34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. (John 5)

The Spirit given without limit will immerse the believer.

At the end, everything will be immersed in fire:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their 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 person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
(1 Corinthians 3)

By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:7)

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  • I see the edit. Very nice. :)
    – Rajesh
    Jan 4 at 7:14
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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, 2012 at 2:51
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What is the baptism of fire?

  1. 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.

Baptism with fire

When many Pharisees and Sadducees approached John, he called them "offspring of vipers", but He that will come after me will baptize with holy spirit and fire.--Mt 3:7,11

Matthew 3:7,11 NASB

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You [b]offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 11 “As for me, I baptize you [a]with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you [b]with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The baptism with fire is not the same as baptism with holy spirit, it refers to a separate "baptism", this is so because John told his listeners that there was going to be a division "the gathering of the wheat into the barn" after which the chaff will be burned up with inextinguishable fire. --Mt 3:10,12.

Matthew 3:10,12 NASB

10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire.12 His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Jesus foretold the destruction of the wicked.

On the day of "his presence" or " end of the age", Jesus foretold that he will select the righteous from the wicked, then he will throw the wicked into the symbolic furnace of fire. (MT13:49-50 , Luke 17:29-30, )

Matthew 13:49-50 NASB

49 So it will be at the [a]end of the age: the angels will come forth and remove the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Luke 17:29-30 NASB

29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.

Compare other verses in which the fire is used to mete out punishment.

2 Thessalonians 1:8 NET

8 With flaming fire he will mete out[a] punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

2 Peter 3:7,10 NET

7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes,[a] the heavens will disappear[b] with a horrific noise,[c] and the celestial bodies[d] will melt away[e] in a blaze,[f] and the earth and every deed done on it[g] will be laid bare.[h]

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  • As pointed out elsewhere, it doesn’t make any sense to be baptised with fire and holy spirit. The fire is more about refining for purification...
    – steveowen
    Apr 17, 2021 at 22:10
  • user 48152: Correctly noted ,. Some make comments on the events of the holy spirit on Pentecost but on that occasion, the Apostles were not baptized (fully immersed in fire), then only flames appeared on their heads. Tks Apr 18, 2021 at 6:51
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Many people "over-think" the metaphor of "baptism by the Holy Spirit" It is simpler than most suggest.

The precious gift of the Spirit is called various things in the New Testament such as:

  • Sealing at the time of conversion or “when you believed”, Eph 1:13, 4:30, Acts 2:38.
  • Being baptized (immersed) in the Spirit. The rite of Baptism was the symbol of such a Spirit baptism at conversion, Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5, 2:38, 8:12-16, 10:47, 48, 11:16, 19:4, 5.
  • The gift and reception of the Holy Spirit is also symbolized by fire. Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16, Acts 2:3, 4, 7:30, Rom 12:11, 1 Thess 5:19, Rev 4:5, 7, 8:5, 14:10, 18, 15:2, 19:20, 20:9, 10, etc. See also Judges 15:14.
  • The Holy Spirit is likened to wind or breath. John 3:8, 20:22, Acts 2:3.
  • The Holy Spirit is sometimes represented by the metaphor of oil, Luke 4:18, Acts 10:38, 2 Cor 1:21, 22, 1 John 2:20.
  • The Holy Spirit and His influence on the life and lives of people around the Christian is likened to a river of water flowing out of the person, John 7:38, 39 (and 4:14).
  • The Holy Spirit is effectively called “the keys of the kingdom” in Matt 16:18 and a closely related passage in Luke 11:52 (keys of knowledge). It is only by the Holy Spirit that we can understand the Bible and the character of Jesus. See below.
  • The Holy Spirit is called ἄλλον Παράκλητον, that is “another comforter” (or advocate or helper), John 14:16, 26, 15:26, 16:7 (compare 1 John 2:1). Note that Jesus uses the adjective ἄλλος (allos) meaning another one similar to Jesus; as distinct from ἕτερος (heteros) meaning another of a different kind. Thus, the Holy Spirit is called a “comforter” and was to be a divine being like Jesus (1 John 2:1).

Baptism by Holy Spirit and fire

The baptism of the Holy Spirit simply means to be immersed in the Holy Spirit and to participate with Him in His work in our lives - see appendix below. Part of this work is to purify us. Note the interesting connection between John the Baptist's work and the prophet of fire, Elijah:

Luke 1:14-17 - He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He shall never take wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Many of the sons of Israel he will turn back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

We are told several times in the NT that John the Baptist was the promised second Elijah, Matt 11:11-14, 17:11-13, Mark 9:12, 13, etc. Elijah, the "prophet of fire" (1 Kings 18:24, 38, 2 Kings 1:9-14), also represented the reforming work of the Holy Spirit (see appendix below) as made explicit in Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16 and repeated (in a different form) in Acts 1:8.

Fire represented the purifying work of the Holy Spirit either in the present life (for those who cooperate) or of final judgement, 1 Peter 1:7, Mal 3:2, Mark 9:49, Num 31:23, Zech 13:9, Rev 3:18, etc.

There is another allusion to this in Isa 48:10 about the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives:

Isa 48:10 - See, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.

APPENDIX - Work of the Holy Spirit

Jesus bequeathed the Gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22, Acts 1:8, 2:1-4) to His church for several reasons:

  1. To produce the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22 & 23, see especially v24-26) and so to sanctify (make distinct from the world) the church members.
  2. The above changed life is to be a distinguishing sign or seal of God’s ownership of our lives and a guarantee of better things to come (Eph 1:13, 4:30).
  3. To provide specific guidance for the church (John 16:7-12, 14:17, 15:26 – see also Ecclesiology, namely
  • Convict of sin
  • Instruct in Righteous (= right doing)
  • Convict of judgement to come
  1. To build up the church with spiritual (supernatural) gifts and abilities, 1 Cor 12:7, 14:12, and to influence/teach others John 7:37-39. See Rom 12:6-8, 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30, Eph 4:11, 1 Peter 4:10, 11, 1 Tim 4:14, Ex 35:30-33, etc.
  2. To strengthen the members in their daily walk to live the Christian ideals, Eph 3:16, 17, Heb 2:4, and maintain unity in the Christian community (Eph 4:3-6). The Christian must be born of the Spirit (John 3:5) by receiving the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38) and walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:25, John 6:63, Phil 3:3, John 4:24). In fact the whole life of Christian is to put aside the “psychical” mind and live by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14, 1 Cor 15:44-46, Gal 5:17, Jude 19, John 6:63, 1 Peter 3:18). In short, the Holy Spirit is the only way we can know God, 1 Cor 2:10, 11, 14, John 16:13.
  3. To teach the church more of the character and work of Jesus and thus, imitate Jesus, John 7:38, 39, 15:26, 16:12-15, Rom 8:4, 11, Eph 3:17, 18, 4:3-6, 1 Thess 1:6, 4:8, 1 Cor 2:14.
  4. The Holy Spirit inspired the prophets to write Scripture, and explains such spiritual truths to us. John 14:16, 17, 15:26, 1 Cor 2:6-16, Eph 1:17-19, 2 Peter 1:21, 2 Tim 3:15, 16, 1 Thess 1:5, Heb 9:8, 1 Peter 1:12, Ps 119:18.

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