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 fire. (Matthew 3:11)

While most people rightly understand the baptism of the Spirit as a reference to regeneration, there is no shortage of interpretations of what the “fire” refers to.

Some understand this as referring to two separate Spirit baptisms for believers: the baptism of the Spirit is for salvation (regeneration), while the baptism with fire is an empowerment for ministry. Others agree that “fire” refers to anointing and empowerment, but only see one baptism in view. When we receive the Spirit, we experience both salvation and ministry empowerment simultaneously. An appeal is often made to Acts 2:1-4, where fire appeared over the disciples when they were filled with the Spirit.

Others interpret the fire to refer to purification. On this view, the Spirit not only saves us, but purifies us of sin as well. This could be understood in terms of forgiveness of sins at conversion, or the sanctifying work of the Spirit that begins at conversion. Some would argue that these two works of the Spirit are separated in time. All believers are baptized with the Spirit at faith, but the baptism of fire comes later, resulting in one’s “entire sanctification,” after which they will no longer sin.

All of these interpretations (and more) miss the mark. The context of Matthew 3:11 makes it quite clear that the fire refers to judgment.

Not only is fire regularly associated with judgment in the New Testament (Mt 5:22; 7:19; 13:40; 18:8-9; 25:41; Mk 9:43,48; Lk 3:9; 9:54; 12:49; 17:29; Jn 15:6; Acts 2:19; 2 Thes 1:8; Heb 10:27; 2 Pet 3:7,12; Jud 7,23; Rev 8:7; 8:8; 9:18; 11:5; 13:13; 14:10; 16:8; 17:16; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-10,14-15; 21:8), but this understanding of fire fits hand-in-glove with the context of Matthew 3:11. Both the preceding and proceeding context speak of fire and associate it with judgment of the unrepentant.

In Matthew 3:10, John said that “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” (Mt 3:10). In other words, those who would not repent would be destroyed by a judgment of fire. As a general rule, when a word is clearly defined by an author, and he uses the same word again within the same context, we presume that he has the same meaning in mind in both instances. It would stand to reason, then, that if the “fire” of verse 10 refers to judgment, so does the “fire” of verse 11.

If that were not enough, immediately after speaking of the baptism of fire, John went on to say “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” (Mt 3:12). Verse 12 elaborates on and explains verse 11. John has two groups of people in mind: those who respond to Jesus in repentance, and those who do not. Those who respond in repentance will be gathered into the barn (saved), while those who do not repent will be burned (damned). Burned with what? Fire. In context, then, the baptism with “the Holy Spirit and fire” John spoke of was a single baptism with a double effect. Those who believe and repent would be baptized with the Spirit, whereas those who do not believe and do not repent will be baptized with fiery judgment by the God who is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). Both are called a baptism.

This may sound weird to us because we associate baptism with something good. However, “baptism” is also associated with negative things, such as death. In Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50, Jesus spoke of His death as a baptism. So whether the baptism is good or bad depends on the context. In the context of Matthew 3, the baptism is both good and bad. It’s good for the repentant, but bad for the unrepentant. The repentant will be given the Holy Spirit while the unrepentant will be judged.

Keep it in context….