What is Baptism of Fire?


A friend asked me to read this article and to let her know if I agreed with it.

It is a fascinating piece that aims to be clear and direct; however, I don’t entirely agree with its conclusions about the baptism of fire. When Jesus baptises with fire, I think there is more than judgment going on, and for Christians, I don’t believe the fire is to be avoided. If we believe Jesus to be utterly loving and good, we shouldn’t fear anything He does.

To explain, I think the fire is more to do with cleansing, purifying and setting apart.  For instance, when Moses sees the burning bush, he takes off his shoes because God tells him it is holy ground. Similarly, the tabernacle is filled with holy fire at night, symbolising God’s presence (Exodus 40:34-38).

My ESV study bible lists some helpful cross-references for the baptism of fire mentioned in Matthew 3:11, which is where the confusion in the article seems to come from.

Isaiah 4:4 says, ‘the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.’ The notes in my bible liken this to a permanent remedy to our sin, which would be welcome for those who are repentant, but not for unbelievers.

Malachi 3:2-3 calls it a ‘refiner’s fire’, which will be severe (i.e. intensely hot) but thorough. As a result, we’ll then be able to approach God, and our offerings will be pleasing to Him. Again, this is good news.

There’s also a cross-reference from Matthew 3:11 to Acts 2:3, so this commentary at least links the coming of the Holy Spirit to the beginning of this cleansing work. In practice, I have certainly felt convicted of sins when filled with God’s spirit, and I’ve heard plenty of stories of people turning away from deeply entrenched sins after they have received the Holy Spirit.

The fire in Matthew 7:19 (that consumes trees that don’t bear good fruit) is linked to the ideas given above because for those who are not rooted in Christ, there will be judgment, and the fire will destroy them. They should fear it.

So, in summary, baptism of fire is Jesus’ cleansing and purifying work in our lives, and though this may not be easy, we should not fear nor avoid it.

My friend asked if the fire represented judgment or if it was the coming of the holy spirit at Pentecost, and my answer is that it’s both and more.

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