The Meaning of the Baptism of Fire and the Holy Spirit
Matt. 3:1-12, Mk 1:3-8, Luke 3:2-17
I was at a meeting of ministers from various denominations for a period of fellowship and discussion. We were told by the facilitator that we would be discussing Matthew the third chapter, verses one through twelve. When I read the text I thought to myself that this was going to be an interesting and lively discussion since the text introduces the idea of the baptism of fire and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, when the time came to discuss it, I was surprised to see how the text was allegorized and the historical meaning of the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit were totally ignored. The following is the written explanation of the text that I had prepared for the meeting to read aloud:
We first run into the expressions of baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit in the Gospels in the preaching of John the Baptist. “John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). His message promised two things: 1. To those who accepted His message and repented, He promised the remission of sin and the gift of the Spirit. 2. To those who refused, he promised the wrath of God (baptism of fire). It is obvious from the context that a mixed multitude of people, good and evil, came out to hear John’s preaching. The scribes and the Pharisees He called “vipers” and it is that group He promised would be immersed in God’s judgment (baptized with fire), a judgment He said had already begun. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” He surely did not promise this group that the Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. He said to them, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath” (Matt3:7)?
He clearly states that the Messiah would completely separate the wheat and chaff in the nation of Israel. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). This promise and prophecy are reinstated and elongated in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 23 and 24. The prophecy is fulfilled in the destruction of the Temple and the nation in A.D. 70 by the Romans. In this destruction of the Jewish state, the promise and prophecy of both John and Jesus were fulfilled in that generation in the very people they were spoken to (Matt. 24:34). The evil in the nation would be destroyed with the baptism of fire and the good would be blessed with and by the Spirit of God, i.e., the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which happened to the church (the new temple of God) in Acts chapter two on the day of Pentecost.
To those who repented, John promised that they would receive the remission of sins and would be immersed in the Holy Spirit. It is interesting and important to note that both promises, the baptism of fire and Spirit, were made to groups and not individuals. Therefore, we should view both baptisms as corporate and not individual. Those Jews who rejected the Messiah will be immersed in judgment. Those who believed in the Messiah would be immersed in the Spirit and its goodness. “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (1:17).
In Acts chapter two, we see the Spirit being poured out on the new creation, and the new creation was immersed and filled with the Spirit of God. All those who enter into the new creation, therefore, of necessity, are immersed in the Spirit that fills the body of Christ. When you are put into a vessel that is filled with something, you are immersed in the thing that fills the vessel. When you are put into Christ, you of necessity are immersed in Christ and His Spirit and share in the experience of the Spirit-baptized Body of Christ. Water baptism symbolizes faith and that one has been immersed into Christ and His Spirit-filled (controlled) body (Rom. 6:1-3, Gal. 3:26-27).
In addition, we see John’s words fulfilled in Acts chapter 2 when Peter tells people “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” (Acts 2:38). Here Peter promises the same thing as John; all those who will put their trust in the Messiah and identify with Him in baptism will receive the remission of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Much of the confusion about the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire comes as a result of three errors: (1) Taking the expression literally instead of metaphorically. (2) Trying to read these baptisms as personal individual experiences instead of as historical events. (3) Reading them as something that happens to individuals instead of a corporate group.
Both the baptism of fire and baptism of the Holy Spirit should be taken metaphorically and not literally (see Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, by Bullinger). If you take the metaphors of the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit literally, you can end up with what some call a liquid theology, that is, picturing in your mind that the Holy Spirit is a liquid that fills people or that people are immersed in. Both expressions, being filled with the Spirit and being baptized by the Spirit, are terms used symbolically to denote the amount of influence and control that the Spirit has on a person or the new creation. They should not be taken literally. In the book of Ephesians, verse 5:17, the apostle Paul contrasts being drunk on wine which he says leads to mockery with being filled with the Spirit (controlled by the Spirit), which leads to praising God. The context makes it obvious that Paul uses this contrast to demonstrate the controlling influence of wine with the controlling influence of the Spirit. Of course, all this is denied by Gnostic Christians who want some kind of religious experience to separate them and elevate them above other Christians.
When John predicted that those in his audience would experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, he was speaking of two events that would take place in the future. First was the baptism of fire which took place when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Romans in A.D. 70. The second was the pouring out and baptism of the Spirit on the new creation on the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. John was not speaking of some personal religious experience but rather historical events, which both took place in the first century.
In Acts chapter two, we see the fulfillment of the promise made to apostles that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and receive power. The first thing to note is that this baptism of the Spirit is not the receiving of the indwelling Spirit. The apostles had already received the Spirit before the Lord had ascended to the Father (John 20:21). What we see in Acts two is the pouring out of the Spirit and filling up of the new creation, i.e., the body of Christ with the Spirit. All of this imagery is done to show the contrast of the new creation and old creation. In the old creation, only a few were controlled (filled with the Spirit) by the Spirit; however, in the new creation, the Spirit would be poured out on everyone who had faith in Christ. In the old creation, only a few individuals had the indwelling Spirit. In contrast, in the new, all members of the Israel of God (body of Christ) have the indwelling. You could say that the old creation was sprinkled with the Spirit, and the new is immersed (baptized) in the Spirit. One was touched by the Spirit, while the other is seized by the Spirit.
Some may have questions about the relationship of the tongues of fire that appeared above the apostles on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter two and the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4).
Did the light that appeared above the apostles, which seemed to be like tongues of fire have anything to do with the “baptism of fire” that John spoke of? The answer is an emphatic no. There is no evidence in the text that would indicate that the writer of the book of Acts saw this relating in any fashion to what John called the baptism of fire. Neither the writer nor the context gives us any hint as to the meaning of the rushing wind or the tongues of fire. The most that could be said about this phenomenon is that a similar thing happened in the Old Testament whenever God inaugurated and sanctified a new temple. Of course, the apostles and the body of Christ (Church) represented the new temple of God’s Spirit, and I believe it would be safe to say that the wind and fire here represented the presence of God in the new creation (Body of Christ). However, there seems to be no connection here with the baptism of fire spoken about by John.
In view of the above, we can then understand Paul’s words in Eph 4:5 where he says there is only one baptism. The reason is self-evident for there is only one literal baptism and that is water baptism that puts one into the spirit immersed body of Christ. The other baptisms, one of fire and one of Spirit were metaphors that pointed to historical happenings that had already been or were about to taken place. Note Acts 2:1-16 where the apostle Peter says that what was happening in Acts two was the fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prediction of the pouring out of God’s spirit (Joel 2:28-32). For the lord it is a pouring out of the spirit for those receiving it, it is a baptism of the spirit. It is always corporate and never individual.
I hope this has helped your understanding of fire and Spirit baptism. If you have questions, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Fire is used metaphorically as a judgment of the wicked nations. (Gen. 19:24, Josh. 8:8-19, Ps. 11:5-6, Ps. 50:3-6, Jer. 37:8-10)
 Here baptism is used metaphorically to denote the degree and intensity of the work of the Spirit in the new creation in contrast to its limited influence in the old creation.
 In Acts 2 the baptism of the spirit is viewed from the viewpoint of Christ as the one pouring out the Spirit. The same phenomenon is viewed as a filling or immersion by those receiving it. The Body of Christ is anointed and baptized with the Spirit by Christ. In this, Christ shared His anointing with His body. He brings His entire body under the same anointing that He received from the Father. This anointing is the anointing of Christ and includes His Body which makes it corporate, and not individual as it was in the old creation. All believers share in this anointing for they are all in Christ.