There’s a somewhat peculiar passage in the early chapters of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels. It speaks of being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. We read that this is an act that the Messiah, Jesus, will do, over and above John’s baptism in water.
Here are the words in Luke’s account:
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (3:15-18)
It sounds a powerful act. And, of course, it is. But what is this really referring to?
Coming from a charismatic background myself, I know this has been a very important passage in building a theology of the baptism of the Spirit. But I no longer believe it refers to a baptism in the Spirit in the way many of my charismatic and Pentecostal brothers and sisters see it.
If you read the larger context carefully, when John the Baptizer tells us that Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” it is not a statement about a fiery passion for God and the work of the Spirit. Rather, it’s a statement of judgment.
Read the following verse, vs17: His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Context is very key.
This was a statement that judgment is coming upon the wicked, unfaithful generation of Jesus’ day. Interesting as well is that the “you” in this passage is plural (most times in the Bible the word “you” is plural, not singular). So it doesn’t refer to an individual Spirit-and-fire baptism here, but a plural-people scenario. The statement of being baptized with the set apart (“holy”) spirit of God and the fire of God was a notice that judgment was coming upon this unfaithful generation.
And that’s what needed to happen. Judgment needed to come in order to make things right. Judge the unfaithful people (plural) and the faithful (people) would be left to continue in building the new world God was building. Hence, why in vs18 we read that John could continue with exhorting the people and proclaiming the good news.
For the first century Jew, the good news arrival of the kingdom of God included that the evil, oppressive wickedness that had hounded God’s people for centuries would now be dealt with in and through God’s Messiah. Jesus would proclaim such news; his disciples would proclaim such (in Acts).
I am aware this doesn’t preach as nicely or perhaps as powerfully as other ideas about the passage. And let me be clear that I am no fire and brimstone preacher. But if we deal with the text as is, in context, it is not a statement about receiving the Spirit (for all believers) or a fiery empowering of the Spirit (for those who receive the baptism of the Spirit). At its core, the passage deals with the pending judgment cycle that was set in place through the arrival of God’s Messiah.
Let’s continue to dig into the nitty-gritty of the Scripture, forgoing an effort to mold it primarily as written in our modern context. Let’s look to understand it within the earthy, Jewish setting from which it came.