A question was raised in a forum I participate in asking what is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that is referred to in Matthew 3:11:

I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire

There was a number of suggestions made such as:

  • It means fire through faith
  • It is a purging
  • It relates to being made bold or zealous

All fair suggestions, but it spurred me on to performing some study on the passage. It seems that ‘fire’ within the context of this chapter refers to an action that takes place when a person is baptised in the Holy Spirit.

Why do I say this? Well, if we look at the exegetical information, we can see that ‘Fire’, πῦρ, which is transliterated into pyr, is a singular noun which is a prepositional object (relates to the main meaning of a sentence rather than being the main object). So ‘fire’ is not necessarily the direct object of the verse, but something that is related, or links, with the main subject. In this case, the suggested sense of the meaning of fire indicates a ‘process’, therefore, we can see that when a person is baptised in the Holy Spirit, the fire is a process of something that happens at the same time.

So what is the process? Well, this is where we look to scripture itself to interpret the meaning. Now ‘fire’ appears over 2500 times in scripture, so we cannot rely on the definition of the word alone, we need to look at the surrounding context to see how fire relates. Fire is used in scripture to indicate a number of things including:

Protection:   Zech. 2:5
God:  Deut. 4:24
Servant: Heb. 1:7
Gods word: Jer. 23:29
To purify: 1 Cor. 3:13-15
Indicates Gods presence: Exod. 3:2)
Judgement: 2 Pet. 3:7

Keeping the above in mind, if we look back to the chapter, we can see that John is talking about repentance and judgement, he is telling the Pharisees and Sadducees who a arrived to be baptised that they had better be genuine in repentance otherwise they will fall under Gods wrath (every tree that does not bear fruit will be cast into the fire), he then goes on to tell them that he baptises in water, but when Jesus comes, He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. I would suggest that the appropriate interpretation of fire here relates to the two things John was talking about, repentance and judgement, if repentance is genuine, the fire will purify, but if it isn’t, then the fire will destroy, just as is said in 2 Peter 3:7.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were well known to be a law unto themselves and to proclaim themselves holy, and for them to go to John for baptism? Well, John could not really turn to them and tell them they are fake since he could not judge their hearts, instead, look at what he said “you brood of vipers, who told  you to escape from the wrath to come!” Matt 3:7, John baptising them in water would not reveal their hearts, but the Holy Spirt and fire would. When a true believer repents and receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the fire will purify, but if a person has not genuinely repented, the fire will destroy. Now, I do not mean that the Holy Spirit will fall upon a non believer, he won’t, only a believer who has truly repented will receive the Holy Spirit, but the fire John was talking about to the Pharisees and Sadducees  was more of a warning “you’re not going to be able to hide your heart from God, because the fire that comes from Him will either purify you or destroy you on the day of judgement”. He basically told them in laymans terms, just because you say your father is Abraham, you are deceiving yourselves if you think that will wash on the day of judgement. No, unless your repentance is genuine and you bare good fruit, the fire of God will destroy you on the day that you face Him.