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Baptism with the Holy Ghost and Fire: A Necessary Distinction (Matthew 3, Luke 3, Acts 11)

One of the most misunderstood issues regarding the continuation of tongues in our day is found in the Gospels. Recorded for us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the phrase, “baptism with the Holy Ghost and fire,” is often thought to refer to the Christ’s eventual work in a single event, namely the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and his continuing work as practiced in modern Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. In order to unravel this issue, however, let’s begin with the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance,” said John, “but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”

While often used synonymously, Matthew’s references to both the “Holy Ghost” and “Fire” are not references to one ministry but two. In fact, a closer look at the context will help us distinguish between them. Note first that in Matthew’s record, John the Baptist spoke to two different audiences. He spoke to the common Jew as well as the elite religious leaders of his day and it was to these same leaders that spoke of judgement. It is there that he calls them “vipers” and then warns them that while the Lamb of God will eventually baptize believers with the Holy Spirit, he will also baptize the unrepentant with “fire.” Fire, in this context then, is a reference to judgment and is not associated with Spirit baptism as Charismatics often assert. Notably, then, this important distinction is not arbitrary, but rather, emerges from the immediate context. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Saducees come to his baptism,” notes Matthew,

He said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you (the repentant) with the Holy Ghost, and (the unrepentant) with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:8-12).

Note the judgmental language. John called both the Pharisees and Sadducees a “generation of vipers,” denounced their unrepentance, and then warned them of coming judgment. As the “axe is laid unto the root” of fruitless trees and then cast into the fire, he told them, so would they be in their unrepentant state. This, then, explains the baptism of “fire” to which John referred. He had contrasted the two eventual ministries of Jesus as both the giver of life to those who believe and the judgement of fire to those who do not.

Luke concurs. “John answered,” says the text,

Saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: 17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable (Luke 3:16-17).

In unison with Matthew’s report, Luke tells us that the Messiah’s eventual two-fold ministry of salvation and judgement means that Jesus will both save and judge. He (Christ) will baptize some with the Holy Ghost (salvation) and others with fire (judgement). And again, the language of judgment in the text affirms this view.

Further, after his resurrection and just prior to his ascension, Jesus convened with his disciples with specific instructions to not depart from Jerusalem until the “promise of the Father” which they heard of him be fulfilled. “For John truly baptized with water,” said Jesus, “but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:4-5). Here, of course, Jesus drew a direct link to John’s prediction about his role in sending the Spirit, but in doing so he significantly omitted any reference to baptism with fire.

Finally, Peter highlights this same promise of Christ in Acts 11:16, and also omits the baptism of “fire.” “Then remembered I the word of the Lord,” said Peter to the Jerusalem believers, “how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.” Peter referred to the same event that both John the Baptist and Christ did. Standing before the circumcised Jewish believers who reprimanded him for “eating with” the “uncircumcised,” Peter recounts the experience of Cornelius and then links it to both the words of Jesus and their own experience. The baptism of the Holy Ghost, then, refers to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers beginning at Pentecost as predicted by John the Baptist, promised by Christ, performed by our Lord, and then referred to by Peter. It signified the birth of the Church and the Spirit’s unique indwelling of every believer since.

In conclusion, the Baptism “with the Holy Ghost” and baptism with “fire” are not references to the same event as many times supposed. They are, rather, two separate works of Christ referring to the salvation of some and then the eventual judgment of others. This distinction fits perfectly with what Jesus said in John 5:22. For the Father judgeth no man,” said Christ, “but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” As such, any reference to the two works as synonymous is simply misguided.


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