Q321 : Baptism with Fire

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Q321 : Baptism with Fire

Dear brother Tony,

I want to thank you so much for the great job of putting together the commentary on the Book of Revelationa; indeed, is one of the best commentaries out there. I just want to ask if you can expand a little more on the following quote from Revelation 14:18b

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.1

The term “and with fire” is better translated “or with fire.” The immediate context certainly indicates that to be baptized with fire is the result of judgment (notice the reference to purging and burning in the next verse). Other than the visible tongues (billows) of fire which appeared over the disciples’ heads at Pentecost, references to fire burning up unprofitable chaff refer to judgment rather than cleansing. The threshing fan (Mat. 3:12) refers to a wooden shovel used for tossing grain into the wind in order to blow away the lighter chaff, leaving the good grain to settle in a pile. The chaff would then be swept up and burned, the unquenchable fire refers to the eternal punishment of hell or the lake of fire.2

The “or with fire”3 translation is huge, it revolutionizes the way we look at Matthew 3. I looked up some definitions and I have to confess, I don’t find anything close to that. Please understand, I am not questioning you, I just want to know, because I think that is gold, it’s a big nugget, and I want to make sure I understand it correctly.

Thanks again for your dedication and the countless hours you must commit to faithfully studying The scriptures; your insight and solid approach is so Spirit filled and edifying.


1.Mat. 3:11, NKJV
2.Ref-1502, Mat. 3:11
3.Although the phrase, “and fire” is lacking in the majority text (MT) for Matthew 3:11, it is present in the parallel passage at Luke 3:16.


Mat. 3:11Unless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ref-1502Jerry Falwell, Edward D. Hindson, Michael Woodrow Kroll, eds. KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

A321 : by Tony Garland

I don’t think the citation from the KJV Bible Commentary is trying to argue that the Greek word και [kai], translated “and” between “Spirit and fire” should be literally translated as “or” (although this is most certainly how their comment sounds when taken at face value). Instead, they are arguing that there are good reasons for interpret the conjunction “and” as connecting two different baptisms, one which will apply to some individuals, and the other which will apply to other individuals. The simplest way to communicate that in English is by the use of “or.”

Numerous conservative interpreters understand the “and” as denoting two different baptizing actions separated in time and scope—but both initiated by Jesus. In addition to the KJV Bible Commentary above, we find the following supporters of this view:

  • Dwight Pentecost
John gave a second part of the baptizing work of the Messiah when he said, “He will baptize you . . . with fire” (Luke 3:16). Fire was associated with judgment just as the winnowing fork of Matthew 3:12 was a sign of judgment. When Messiah comes to rule, He will remove all that is worthless, useless, and lifeless . . .1

  • MacArthur Study Bible
Three types of baptism are referred to here: 1) with water unto repentance. John’s baptism symbolized cleansing (see note on v. 6); 2) with the Holy Spirit. All believers in Christ are Spirit-baptized (1 Cor. 12:13); and 3) with . . . fire. Because fire is used throughout this context as a means of judgment (vv. 10, 12), this must speak of a baptism of judgment upon the unrepentant.2

  • Ed Glasscock
The “you” of v. 11 references Israel and the prediction that the coming One would baptize the nation either with the Holy Spirit or with fire. . . . Verse 12 warns that the coming One will be harvesting and separating His grain from the dead chaff. The wheat is to be gathered as a treasured product and the chaff burned in unquenchable fire. It seems best to understand the baptism just mentioned as referring to this event. Thus He comes to baptize with two baptisms: one being the immersion of the believer by the Spirit into the redeemed community (1 Cor. 12:13); the other being the immersion of the unbeliever into judgement (Matt. 13:41-42). Compare Matthew 13:24-30 as a parallel.3

  • Nelson Study Bible
It would be the work of the Messiah to accomplish this, to baptize His people in the Spirit. But those who rejected Him the Messiah would baptize with fire, which is probably a figure for God’s judgment (vv. 10, 12). In His first advent, Christ baptized in the Spirit. When He comes again, He will baptize with fire.4

  • J. Vernon McGee
John is saying, “I baptize with water. But He is coming, and when He comes, He will baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire”—that final “and” is already over nineteen hundred years long. You and I are living in the age of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit in this present age. He will baptize with fire when He comes the second time, and fire means judgment.5

  • Philip Schaff
He will either entirely immerse you in the Holy Ghost as penitents, or, if impenitent, He will overwhelm you with the fire of judgment (and at last with hell-fire). This interpretation of the expression “fire” has been propounded by many of the Fathers (some of whom, however, referred it to the fire of purgatory); and among modern expositors, by Kuinoel, Schott, Neander [de Wette, Meyer]. But some commentators—among them Erasmus [Chrys., Calv., Beng., Olshaus., Ebrard, Ewald, Alford, Wordsworth]—apply the expression to the kindling, sanctifying fire of the Holy Ghost. The warning tone of the passage, and the expression unquenchable fire, in ver. 12, are against this interpretation.6

  • John Walvoord
In this third chapter of Matthew, three baptisms are mentioned: (1) that of John the Baptist, a baptism of repentance; (2) a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would be brought and administered by Christ; (3) a baptism with fire. These should not be confused. The baptism of repentance, administered by John, was in preparation for the coming of Christ and was succeeded by the baptisms administered by the apostles. The baptism of the Holy Spirit was not initiated until Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost and symbolized entrance into the body of Christ (1 Co 12:13). The baptism with fire seems related to the second coming of Christ, for only then will the wheat and the tares be separated and the tares, like the chaff mentioned by John the Baptist, burned with fire (cf. Mt 13:30, 38–42, 49–50). All of the baptisms signify initiation into a new situation of separation to God for the righteous or separation unto judgment for the wicked.7

  • Arno Gaebelein
In verses 11 and 12, there is a blending together of the first and second coming of Christ. As a result of the first coming of Christ the baptism with the Holy Spirit took place. The fire baptism refers to judgment. The twelfth verse describes the fire baptism of judgment when the King comes again.8

  • F. W. Grant
John puts alongside of this baptism of the Spirit the baptism of fire; which finds its explanation in what directly follows: "He shall burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." . . . . There would be alternate consequences, according as they repented and received, or else rejected, the coming King: they would either be separated to God by the action of the Spirit of God, or separated to judgment, if they rejected Him.9

Although many interpreters, myself included, understand the “baptism with fire” as a baptism of judgment only upon unbelievers, other interpreters see the fire as denoting the cleansing work of the Spirit also applied to believers. In this view, the baptism with fire has two referents: the purifying work of the Spirit upon believers and a judgmental work upon unbelievers:

  • Michael Vanlanignham, The Moody Study Bible
With the Holy Spirit and fire indicates that everyone will experience both aspects of this baptism, either a baptism in the Spirit that is a “refining fire” (strengthening through trials or growth in sanctification; see Zch 13:9; Rm 8:12–14; 1Pt 1:7) for those who embrace Christ, or for those who do not embrace the Messiah, a “fiery judgment” (Gn 19:24; Ps 21:9; Ezk 22:20; 2Th 1:7–8; Heb 10:27) eternal in duration.10

  • Louis Barbiera, The Bible Knowledge Commentary
The baptism “with fire” referred to the judging and cleansing of those who would enter the kingdom, as prophesied in Malachi 3. This symbolism was carried through by John who spoke of the separation that occurs when a winnowing fork tosses up grain, wheat is then gathered into the barn, and chaff is burned up. John was saying that the Messiah, when He came, would prepare a remnant (wheat) for the kingdom by empowering and cleansing the people. Those who reject Him (chaff) would be judged and cast into eternal unquenchable fire (cf. Mal. 4:1).11

Since there are good interpreters on both sides of the issue, some suggest we just can’t know what John intended:

  • NET Bible
With the Holy Spirit and fire. There are differing interpretations for this phrase regarding the number of baptisms and their nature. (1) Some see one baptism here, and this can be divided further into two options. (a) The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire could refer to the cleansing, purifying work of the Spirit in the individual believer through salvation and sanctification, or (b) it could refer to two different results of Christ’s ministry: Some accept Christ and are baptized with the Holy Spirit, but some reject him and receive judgment. (2) Other interpreters see two baptisms here: The baptism of the Holy Spirit refers to the salvation Jesus brings at his first advent, in which believers receive the Holy Spirit, and the baptism of fire refers to the judgment Jesus will bring upon the world at his second coming. One must take into account both the image of fire and whether individual or corporate baptism is in view. A decision is not easy on either issue. . . . Simply put, there is no consensus view in scholarship at this time on the best interpretation of this passage.12

  • Albert Barns
A part of his hearers he would baptize with the Holy Ghost, but the wicked with fire and vengeance. Fire is a symbol of vengeance. See Isa. 5:24; 61:2; 66:24. If this be the meaning, as seems to be probable, then John says that the ministry of the Messiah would be far more powerful than his was. It would be more searching and trying; and they who were not fitted to abide the test, would be cast into eternal fire. Some have supposed, however, that by fire, here, he intends to denote that his ministry would be refining, powerful, purifying, as fire is sometimes an emblem of purity, Mal. 3:2. It is difficult to ascertain the precise meaning, further than that his ministry would be very trying, purifying, searching. Multitudes would be converted; and those who were not true penitents should not be able to abide the trial, and should be driven away.13

How can we decide?

What are we to make of this? Are we stymied in our attempt to know which meaning is correct? Must we live with the conclusion of the NET Bible, “A decision is not easy on either issue . . . there is no consensus view . . .”?

Although some scholars seem indecisive on this issue, I see this as a clear example where interpreters can overlook the obvious. In this case, the deciding factor is found by applying a basic rule of interpretation (exegesis): how would John’s original audience have understood his words?

This principle has an important corollary: context is king! When interpreting the meaning of a passage, all the sophisticated grammatical analysis, word-studies, and cross-referencing won’t necessarily lead to a more accurate understanding if, in the process, the interpreter fails to give priority to the meaning of the passage in its original setting, taking into account who the listeners are and what information is (and is not) available to them as they listen to what is being said.

The key question is this: how would John’s listeners have understood the meaning of being baptized by fire in the original context? John’s explanation in the following verse explicitly connects fire with judgment. His listeners had no New Testament available, but would have been familiar with the Old Testament background concerning judgment by fire (e.g., Lev. 10:2).14

Nor can we legitimately read the “tongues as of fire” on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) back into the context of Matthew 3. Why? Because the events of Acts are still over 3 years in the future!

We need to carefully consider the principle of progressive revelation. Progressive revelation allows God to supplement and expand upon divinely-given information revealed earlier, but He cannot-—by virtue of His own character-—change or overthrow what He has previously communicated. In particular, God is not free to give information in such a way that it would be misleading or misunderstood in the original context—so long as the recipients dutifully apply the normative rules of language and take into account what God had revealed up to that time.

In the case of Matthew 3, John’s listeners (and indeed John—not to mention the Apostles who will soon follow) have no concept of what Spirit baptism entails. Paul tells us the formation of the body of Christ was an unrevealed mystery up to that time (Eph. 3:3-6; Col. 1:26-27). That part of the revelation is left unexplained—and nothing more is said of it other than inferring it might be related to the gathered wheat. Not so in relation to the baptism with fire: John clearly elaborates on the meaning of fire—connecting it with judgment.

When we consider the original context, it seems clear that John was not in the least vague about the meaning of fire baptism: he associated it with judgment—as his audience would have also clearly understood. We are not free to come along 2,000 years later and read the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) back into this setting in such a way that essentially changes the meaning of John’s words. This is eisegesis—reading Acts 2 into the passage—and interprets the meaning of the passage based on information which the original listeners simply did not have.15 Can we imagine any of John’s listeners concluding anything other than that by fire John was referring to judgment? This is not a case of hardened, blind hearts failing to see what is clearly being communicated. No, what God is clearly communicating through John is that fire baptism refers to judgment.

Another key to understanding the meaning of the passage is found by considering the grammar and audience.

First, the audience: John is speaking to Pharisees and Sadducees. He refers to them as a “brood of vipers!” and asks “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Clearly, the majority of his listeners are unbelievers. Although some will respond to the gospel (e.g., Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea), most—-as recorded in the gospels to follow-—will not. These ones will not be baptized with the Spirit—placed into the body of Christ (1Cor. 12:13). Instead, they will be baptized with the fire of judgment.

Grammatically, we also note that everything John says in the second person (“you”) is in the plural:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you (plural) to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves (plural), ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you (plural) that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you (plural) with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you (plural) with the Holy Spirit and fire.16

John’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is addressed to the group as a whole—not to specific individuals. Are all of his listeners going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire? Clearly not: for then they would all have to become believers. John is speaking to the group at-large, saying that all of you will be baptized, one way or the other: some with the Spirit, some with fire.

There is also the matter of Spirit baptism and its role in the formation of the Church, the body of Christ.

When we survey various passages which discuss Spirit-baptism, we never see it referred to as a “baptism with fire.” When Jesus predicts the events of the Day of Pentecost, He mentioned baptism with the Holy Spirit, but made no mention of fire (Acts 1:5). Peter, recollecting what had taken place on the Day of Pentecost, referred back to the words of Jesus as a Spirit-baptism. Again, no mention of fire baptism. Later, when Paul explains the ministry of the Spirit in joining believers to the body of Christ, he refers to it as Spirit-baptism. No mention is made of fire. Fire is only associated with the concept of baptism in the passage before us (Mat. 3:11) and the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel (Luke 3:16).

So how are we to understand the “tongues as of fire”17 which appear on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3)? Clearly, it would seem that the events of the Day of Pentecost bear some relationship to fire. In this case, I’m fully in agreement with other commentators who state that what took place on the Day of Pentecost was a cleansing, purifying operation by the Spirit.

When we examine the theme of Spirit baptism, the formation of the body of Christ, and the role of the Church functioning as a New Testament temple (Mark 14:58; John 4:21; 1Cor. 3:17; 6:19; 2Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 1Pe. 2:5), we realize that the Day of Pentecost ushered in a new relationship between the Spirit and sinful man. A situation where the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence dwelling within sinful flesh.

This historically new ministry of the Spirit, which began on the Day of Pentecost, was only possible after Jesus had been glorified (Acts 7:39) and had ascended (John 16:7). These prerequisites had to occur in history before the Church, the body of Christ, the New Testament temple, could be permanently indwelt. Note especially how radically different this is from the situation in the Old Testament where God’s dwelling Presence was driven away from the tabernacle or temple due to sin (1S. 4:21; Ps. 78:60; Eze. 8:6; 10:4, 18-19; 11:22-23). This new arrangement, where God’s Presence permanently resides within the sinful flesh of New Testament believers (John 14:17-20; Col. 1:27) is without precedence in the Old Testament. This is the key event of significance associated with the Day of Pentecost: the birthday of the Church.

But this cleansing work, possibly analogous to fire consuming a sacrifice as a sign of God’s acceptance and approval (Lev. 9:24; Jdg. 6:21; 1K. 18:38; 1Chr. 21:26; 2Chr. 7:1), could not have been John’s intended meaning in Matthew 3. There is simply no way his audience would have ever made such a connection. To hold to the idea that this is what John meant is tantamount to saying that God is an ineffective communicator and that His listeners, by inference, shouldn’t really be held accountable for understanding what John was saying.

For additional background on these issues, see my presentation on the Book of Actsa (especially chapters 1 and 2) and answers to questions concerning Spirit baptismb.

May God bless you as you strive to teach His Word accurately and in context!


1.Ref-0202, 91
2.Ref-0089, 1397
3.Ref-1264, 75-76
4.Ref-0107, Mat. 3:11
5.Ref-0465, 20
6.Ref-1304, 72
7.Ref-1268, 32
8.Ref-1500, Mat. 3:11
9.Ref-1501, Mat. 3:11
10.Ref-1411, 1459
11.Ref-0038, Mat. 3:11
12.Ref-0340, Mat. 3:11, emphasis mine
13.Ref-0974, Mat. 3:11, emphasis mine
14.Additional OT passages concerning God as a consuming fire include: Ex. 3:2; 19:18; 24:17; 33:3-5; Lev. 9:24; 10:2; Num. 11:1; 16:35; Deu. 4:24; 5:25; 9:3; Jdg. 6:21; 1K. 18:38; 2K. 1:10; 1Chr. 21:26; 2Chr. 7:1; Ps. 18:8; 21:9; 50:3; 78:63; 97:3; 106:18; Isa. 33:14; Jer. 4:4; 21:12; Eze. 22:31; Lam. 2:3; Amos 5:6; Zep. 1:8
15.If we were to do so, we would join the ranks of many who deny the plain meaning of numerous Old Testament promises to Israel by reading New Testament revelation back into the Old Testament in such a way as to effectively change the meaning of what God said in the original context. This is not a valid interpretive approach and fosters all kinds of confusion.
16.NKJV, Mat. 3:7-11
17.γλῶσσαι ῶσεὶ πυρὸς [glōssai ōsei pyros]


Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).
Ref-0089John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997).
Ref-0107Earl D. Radmacher, ed., The Nelson Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997).
Ref-0202Dwight J. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981).
Ref-0340Biblical Studies Press. (2003; 2003). The NET Bible (Noteless); Bible. English. NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.
Ref-0465McGee, J. V. (1997, c1981). Thru the Bible commentary (electronic ed.). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Ref-0974Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the New Testament (n.p.: Word Search Corporation, 2007).
Ref-1264Ed Glasscock, Matthew: A Gospel Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997). ISBN:1-59752-044-6c.
Ref-1268John Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1974). ISBN:08024-5189-6d.
Ref-1304John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008).
Ref-1411Michael A. Rydelnik, J. Spencer, eds. The Moody Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014).
Ref-1500Arno C. Gaebelein, The Annotated Bible (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1919).
Ref-1501F. W. Grant, F.W. Grant's Bible Notes, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Loizeaux Brothers, 1903).

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