Baptized with the Holy Spirit & Fire: This Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Means

There’s a somewhat peculiar passage in the early chapters of both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. There we read about being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. This will be an act of the Messiah, Jesus, 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 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 this statement in the gospels 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.

As always, context is key.

This was a statement that judgment was 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 that 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 this news (in Acts).

I am aware this doesn’t preach as nicely or perhaps as powerfully as many Pentecostal and charismatic 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 impending judgment cycle that was set in place through the arrival of God’s Messiah. A reckoning would come upon the unfaithful.

Let’s continue to dig into the nitty-gritty of the Scripture, foregoing an effort to mold it as if it were primarily written within our modern context. Let’s look to understand it within the earthy, Jewish setting from which it came.


3 thoughts on “Baptized with the Holy Spirit & Fire: This Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Means

  1. Pingback: Baptized With The Holy Spirit & Fire: This Doesn’t Mean What We Think It Means | A disciple's study

  2. Amen Scott! Yes – totally agree. There are many places in the gospels where Jesus talks about the judgement coming upon “this generation” – in “a day of the LORD” – like previous days of the LORD in OT times, where in those days, there was a breaking in of judgement upon the nations, (the stars falling from the heavens and the coming of the LORD in clouds of judgement, etc) – manifesting in social and political and spiritual upheaval; but this time breaking in on the unfaithful Jews, upon whom the wrath of God that had been stored up over many generations was finally was finally to be poured out (Mat 23) -.cul of Jesus’ day, culminating in the Jewish war, destruction of the temple, the inauguration of the Kingdom, the diaspora of the Jews, the coming of The Spirit (i.e the blessing of Abraham to the nations – Gal 3:14), the changing of the law and the new priesthood, the in-gathering of the gentile branches into the Jewish root, and the end of the old covenant age, and the beginning of the last days. I would also understand Jesus parables – e.g. of the fig tree, the dragnet, the tenants and the vineyard among others, and the first part of Mat 24 as fully endorsing your understanding.

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