A few months ago, I made an observation about baptism in the Gospels and in Acts in a post called “Baptism in the Gospels and Acts“. I noticed then that the following phrase (or one similar to it) attributed to John the Baptist appears in all four Gospels and in Acts:
I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:26-33; Acts 1:5)
In three of the occurrences of this phrase (Mark 1:8; John 1:26-33; Acts 1:5), John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In the other two occurrences (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16), John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Since the phrase (in either the longer or shorter forms) appears in all of the Gospels and Acts (notice that Luke uses both the longer and shorter forms), the phrase would seem to be fairly pervasive (common?) among Christians during the time that these books were written.
As we are studying through the Gospel of Matthew, I will be teaching Matthew chapter 3 in a few weeks. Matthew chapter 3 includes the statement in question:
But when he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for 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 with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:7-12 ESV)
The question that I am considering is this: What is the significance of the phrase “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”? It seems to be a very significant phrase since it is included in all of the Gospels and in Acts. It also seems that it could be shortened to “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” for some situations. What are those situations?
After John mentions baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire in Matthew 3:11, he immediately says that Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff, with the wheat being brought into the barn and the chaff being burned in unquenchable fire. This seems to connect back to “baptism with fire”. Thus, the “baptism with fire” is associated with eternal judgment.
Associating “baptism with fire” with eternal judgment fits well with this context. John is speaking directly to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who do not demonstrate a lifestyle of repentance according to John. He has already asked them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Thus, the context lends itself to a discussion of eternal judgment.
But, what about “baptism with the Holy Spirit”? Apparently, “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is associated with the gathering of the wheat into the barn, in contrast to the burning of the chaff in unquenchable fire. Thus, in this context, “baptism with the Holy Spirit” also indicates an eternal state – this time, though, the baptism indicates eternal salvation. From the previous context, it seems that those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit are the ones who repent and whose lives demonstrate the fruit (result) of that repentance.
As I’ve mentioned before, the phrase “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (and with fire)” appears in the other Gospels and Acts. Does the phrase have the same eschatological reference in those passages?
First, the context in Luke is very similar to the context in Matthew. Luke also mentions both “with the Holy Spirit” and “with fire”. Similarly, Luke also mentions the separating of the wheat and the chaff, and the burning of the chaff in unquenchable fire. So, it seems that Luke’s use of the phrase is very similar to Matthew’s use.
However, in Mark, John, and Acts, the shorter phrase “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” is not associated with eschatological judgment. Instead, in Mark and John the phrase is associated with the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus when he is baptized by John the Baptist. Similarly, in Acts, Luke associates the shorter phrase with the “promise of the Father” which is later revealed to be the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thus, in all three of these instances, the shorter phrase is associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit – which, at least in these instances, happens within current time, not simply eschatologically. Certainly, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit has an eschatological significance, but within these passages, the focus is on the coming of the Holy Spirit within time that is contemporary to the events in the stories.
As I see it, there are at least two possible ways of understanding this phrase: 1) The phrase is used with two different references with two distinct meanings. 2) The phrase is used with the same references with a meaning focused by the context.
I prefer the second option. Thus the phrase “baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire” refers to both temporal and eschatological events. “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” refers to both the current indwelling of the Holy Spirit and also ultimate, eternal salvation. Similarly, “baptism with fire” refers to both the current, temporal judgment of God and also ultimate, eternal judgment.