The Christian world today is in confusion when it comes to baptism.
Some churches baptize by sprinkling or pouring water. (Sadly, they don’t know the biblical way of baptizing a person.) Still others don’t know the real meaning of the “baptism by fire.” They say they want to be baptized with fire.
Do they really know what they are asking for? Should you and I desire to be literally baptized by fire?
Let us take a deeper look at what “baptism by fire” means straight from the Bible. This is an important topic that needs our attention. Failure to understand this subject has led many Christians into seeking such a baptism without actually knowing what it really means.
A Misunderstanding of The “Baptism by Fire”
First, let us examine the verse that clearly talks about the baptism by fire. The verse is found in Matthew 3:11. John the Baptist spoke to a large crowd near a river where he was baptizing. He said:
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.
The “He” here refers to Jesus Christ. Actually, this is a metaphorical statement by John because Christ Himself did not baptize anyone during His earthly ministry, but His disciples did (John 4:2). Since it was Christ Who gave the authority to baptize, let us understand what these statements properly meant. John said, Christ will baptize them with the “Holy Spirit and fire.”
Should You Desire The “Baptism by Fire”?
Let us address the commonly mistaken belief that the baptism by fire should be desired because of that unusual event during the Day of Pentecost mentioned in Acts 2:3 where we read:
Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
Readers of this verse thought that the people who gathered on that Day of Pentecost received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire at the same time, fulfilling what John the Baptist supposedly implied. Another erroneous dimension in this misunderstanding which some Christians seek as a manifestation of that baptism by fire is the ability to “speak in tongues.”
Sadly, these are all assumptions or interpretations not supported by Scripture.
There’s a big difference between tongues “as of fire” and literal fire.
The Holy Spirit was simply likened to fire, but not a literal consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) burning over the heads of the believers. Moreover, we don’t see any evidence that all other Christians before and after the Acts 2:3 event (when they were baptized) had fire momentarily appearing over their heads. Luke, the writer of Acts, was merely describing — to the best of his ability — how the Holy Spirit looked like to the first believers then.
Since the Holy Spirit has never been given to humans in that manner before, God planned to add credibility to the Spirit’s invisible existence by accompanying it with certain convincing physical signs.
Two Distinct Elements, One True Type of Baptism
After Christ’s death and resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and said:
For John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now… But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…
Notice that Christ did not mention any baptism by fire to His disciples at this point, but ONLY the two elements of being baptized in water and of the Holy Spirit. This promise of Christ to His disciples was fulfilled on Pentecost.
From then on, God’s true servants always practiced these two elements of baptism. When Philip went to preach in Samaria, he not only baptized the believers in water, but waited for the apostles Peter and John who came from Jerusalem to lay hands on those baptized so they will receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12; 14-17).
On another occasion, the apostle Paul came upon believers in Ephesus, who upon inquiry said they were only baptized with water. Whereupon Paul laid his hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-6).
The baptism with the Holy Spirit is different from the “baptism by fire.”
The Crowd That Gathered Around John
So, what is the baptism by fire? The key here is to understand whom John was talking to. It is crucial that we determine the people who were included in the crowd or audience of John.
Take note that John was preaching by the Jordan River:
Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan [river], confessing their sins.
Evidently, some were baptized. Others were not. Not all who gathered around John believed in what he was saying. Not all wanted righteousness.
Some were there out of curiosity, others out of hypocrisy, and still a third group were there to find fault as secret agents of the religious establishment then.
If you will read the very next verses, among the crowd that gathered were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. John called them “Brood of vipers.” They were the people who refused to change their beliefs (and ways of living) and “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8).
Here’s the interesting part. What will happen to those people who refused to repent and follow God? John said:
…Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the FIRE.
~Matthew 3:10 [latter part of the verse]
From these verses, we can conclude that the true, repentant believers will be baptized with [receive] the Holy Spirit, while the unbelieving and the unrepentant will be “baptized with fire.”
So, What Is the “Baptism by Fire” in This Case?
The plain and direct answer is this: The “baptism by fire” is punishment by fire. Let us see more pieces of evidence from the Scriptures to understand this truth.
After saying that Christ “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” John said:
His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with UNQUENCHABLE FIRE.
Let us examine a similar passage. In the parable of the wheat and tares, Jesus said:
Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
From these verses, the tares or chaff are burned. What or who do the tares represent? They represent the “SONS OF THE WICKED ONE. The enemy who sowed them is the devil…” (Matthew 13:38-39).
And what will happen to these tares or the wicked people? They will be “gathered and BURNED IN THE FIRE… at the end of this age” (Matthew 13:40). Christ also added that “all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness” will be cast “into the furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:41-42).
The Scriptures clearly say that the “baptism by fire” is a type of punishment for the wicked which will occur at the end times.
Does the Old Testament Discuss Baptism by Fire?
Aside from these New Testament verses, other passages in the Old Testament support this explanation:
Because you have all become dross, therefore behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. As men gather silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin into the midst of a furnace, to BLOW FIRE ON IT, to melt it; so I will gather you in My ANGER and in My FURY, and I will leave you there and melt you. Yes, I will gather you and blow on you with the FIRE of My wrath, and you shall be melted in its midst. As silver is melted in the midst of a furnace, so shall you be melted in its midst; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have poured out My FURY on you.
The people who will suffer the baptism by fire are the rebellious, stiff-necked, hard-hearted people who are incorrigibly wicked. They are so stubborn that God has no other choice but to obliterate them with fire:
Therefore they shall be like… CHAFF blown off from a threshing floor and like smoke from a chimney.
Notice the similarity in language that Hosea used with that of Christ. John also described Christ as holding a winnowing fan and “will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor” (Matthew 3:12).
Finally, let us understand where the “unquenchable fire” mentioned in Matthew 3:12 was originally quoted from:
And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, AND THEIR FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
The Prophet Malachi added:
“For behold, the day is coming, BURNING LIKE OVEN, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall BURN them up,” says the Lord of hosts, “that will leave them neither root nor branch…”
A Metaphorical Meaning Of “Baptism by Fire”
Since “baptism” denotes immersion [into something], the statement of John saying, Christ will baptize [them] with the “Holy Spirit and fire” could also refer to the many fiery trials that a true believer in Christ (after being baptized in water and imbued with the Holy Spirit), will surely be totally involved with or immersed into.
Starting in the first century, many Christian believers were actually and literally burned with fire as one method of persecution for their strong beliefs. For those who escape the actual physical burning, the Christian life is predicted to be full of difficult trials and sufferings. Here are some verses stating this fact:
…that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ…
~1 Peter 1:7
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you…
~1 Peter 4:12
…but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.
…strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
~2 Timothy 3:12
With these explanations and verses cited, we can now come to a clear and plain conclusion. John the Baptist (speaking on behalf of Christ), stated that the righteous will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The apostles Peter and Paul, with Jude stated that our Christian calling will be with fiery trials. Also and definitely, the incorrigible and unrepentant sinners will be baptized with fire — burned up in the “lake of fire” — as punishment for all their wrongdoings.
Therefore, the “baptism by fire” can be both for purification of the saints, and also for the destruction of the incorrigibly wicked ones. May ours be for eternal reward, and not as eternal punishment.