What did John the Baptist mean by the phrase, "baptism with fire," as mentioned in Matthew 3:11?


Notice what exactly John said in Matthew 3:11: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

As a part of his ministry, John was baptizing “with water unto repentance” (verse 11). He required that we must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (verse 8). In comparison, Christ would be coming to also baptize, not just unto repentance, but also, with the Holy Spirit and with fire!

We, of course, are all very familiar with the first part of that statement John had made, in reference to the baptism Christ would bring. One receives the Holy Spirit after repentance, the belief in Christ’s sacrifice, and being baptized with water. In the process of baptism, prior to being submerged under water, one pronounces his or her repentance of past sins, and one’s belief in Christ’s sacrifice and one’s acceptance of Christ as his or her personal Savior. Following the actual submersion under water and being brought out of that grave of water, which event pictures the washing away of all our past sins, the ministers of God lay hands upon the person being baptized and he or she receives God’s Holy Spirit.

But what was John saying when he stated that Christ would also be baptizing with fire?

The fire John was speaking of is perhaps noted in verse 12 of Matthew, chapter 3, when John speaks of an “unquenchable fire.” With this fire, John says that Christ will “burn up the chaff.” What is this “unquenchable fire” and is it something to be desired?

Malachi 4:1-3 also describes this fire and its result. Malachi speaks of this event in verse 1: ‘For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an 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.'” In verse 3, Malachi continues to quote the Lord, where He is quoted as saying “‘You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet On the day that I do this…'” Christ is speaking of the same event in Revelation 20:14-15, which describes the second death of all who do not enter the Kingdom of God!

There is, however, a second possibility which John might have intended, when speaking of the “baptism with fire.”

Some ministers in the Church have referred to this Scripture from time to time in describing the TRIALS true Christians suffer through, during this lifetime, as they seek to live according to the Way to which they have been called.

Christ makes an interesting statement in Mark 9:49. In the previous verses of this chapter Christ was speaking of how one must live to be able to enter the Kingdom of God, rather than suffering the pain of hell fire, ”(verse 48)… ‘where… the fire is not quenched.’ (verse 49) ‘For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.'”

The fire Christ speaks of in this verse is the fire of all the trials one goes through as he or she continually seeks to live God’s Way of life. Of course, our lives are to become living sacrifices in this Way of our calling. If one does not eventually become seasoned with God’s Way of life, he or she will be seasoned with the fire of Gehenna.

Salt, of course, has a preserving quality about it. We are to develop this preserving quality within our lives, whereby we will be an influence for peace and for good while living in this world.

Paul says to the Church in Romans 12:1-2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living SACRIFICE, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

Christ Himself had to go through serious “fiery” trials — including His suffering and death on the cross. Christ said that He came to bring fire or division on the earth (Luke 12:49, 51-53). He continued that He Himself had to be baptized with a baptism, and that He was distressed until it was accomplished (compare Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38). He referred to His fiery trial as a “baptism,” which His disciples had to also experience (Mark 10: 39).

Some outside the Church claim that the “baptism with fire” must accompany the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit is not given, unless supernatural events accompany the baptism. They refer, as proof, to the events described in Acts 2, when “divided tongues, as of fire, sat upon” the disciples (verse 3). However, Acts 2 describes a very unique circumstance, which was never repeated in the recorded history of the Church (with the possible, but not very likely exception of the baptism of Cornelius and other Gentiles, as recorded in Acts 10; compare Acts 11:15). NONE of the other recorded baptisms with the Holy Spirit were accompanied by supernatural flames of fire being placed on the disciples’ heads. John the Baptist was certainly NOT talking about these unique events, as described in Acts 2 (and possibly in Acts 10), when speaking of the “baptism with fire.”

In conclusion, the baptism with fire, mentioned by John, might very well refer to the second and final death in Gehenna fire. It might also include fiery trials which we must go through in this life, to AVOID that second and final death.

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