This past Sunday I was out of town, officiating the wedding of some friends in Minnesota. It was my first time in Minnesota, and it was really nice! I can see the appeal of the lakes.
So this past Sunday I was out of town, but the week before that I preached a message titled “Baptism by Fire” in which I taught about the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the church in fulfillment of the promises of not only Jesus, but also of God from even the Old Testament. I made reference to the words of John the Baptist, who said that he baptized with water unto repentance, but that one (Jesus) was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and I talked about how the fulfillment of that is found in Pentecost, when the believers were baptized with the Holy Spirit, and as a sign of them each individually receiving this baptism, tongues of fire rested on each of their heads.
Afterwards, someone asked me a great question: Whether the baptism with fire that John the Baptist was talking about was a description of the baptism with the Holy Spirit (like I had taught), or if John was speaking of the fire of judgment – because in the very next verse, John the Baptist says: “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 3:12)
Here was my response:
I am familiar with that interpretation you mention, and I think it’s entirely possible given the context of what John was talking about — which is promise of the Messiah and a warning of judgement. In this interpretation, the assumption is that Jesus is saying: he will baptize some people with the Holy Spirit and other people he will baptize with fire — i.e. the same fire of judgment that he refers to in the following verse (vs 12).
Is that what John meant by those words? I agree with you (and many Bible interpreters) that it is quite possible that this is what he meant.
The other main interpretation about this, is that the “fire” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and the purpose of the tongues of fire on Pentecost was that they were a sign that these words of John were now being fulfilled. This is the line of thinking that I took in my sermon. Here’s more on that from the Holman Bible Dictionary:
Fire is one of the physical manifestations of God’s presence. This is illustrated several times in the Bible: the making of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17 ), the appearance in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), God leading the Israelites by a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:24; Numbers 9:15-16; Numbers 14:14; etc.), His appearance on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:11-36; Deuteronomy 5:4-26; etc.), and others (1Kings 18:24,1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2Chronicles 7:1,2 Chronicles 7:3 ).
Fire was used symbolically in Israel’s worship to represent God’s constant presence with Israel (Leviticus 6:12-13 ). God’s presence as fire represented both judgment and purification (the words purify and purge come from the Greek word for fire). To be in God’s presence is to be in the presence of absolute holiness where no sin or unrighteousness can stand. To be in the presence of God is to have the overwhelming sense of one’s uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean (see Isaiah 6:1-6 ). God is able to judge and destroy the sin and purify the repentant sinner.
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit has a wider application than this; but when the Holy Spirit is coupled with fire, the particular aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work as described here is in view.
One thing I would add to this excerpt is that fire is a cleansing agent, and one of the roles of the Holy Spirit as he indwells us is sanctification, e.g. Rom 8:13.