“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Matthew 3:11
Fire is used to describe some integral elements of Christianity in the Bible: Baptism, God, communion, sacrifice, tribulation, and much more. Fire brings out powerful imagery: it’s hot, consuming, and quite dangerous. But is it just that? A metaphor? Or is it much more real? Why does God use fire so much? Why is God fire? Why should we care about what fire represents?
The Series of Fire
This is the beginning of a series of posts about three of the most important uses of fire in the Bible: Baptism, Communion, and the image of God & Man. This post will cover baptism, and we’ll continue on with the rest later.
Why does this topic matter?
I have but one compelling reason for why the meaning of fire in the Bible matters:
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. – Deuteronomy 4:24
And this is why you should care:
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:28-29
This verse in Hebrews quotes Deuteronomy, and gives us a reason as to why it’s important to care about God as fire. Let us be thankful, and worship God in reverence and awe, because he is fire. If we want to continue our growing relationship with God, and learn more about him, fire opens the door to new understanding about his nature. The use of fire to describe baptism is our first topic, and explains God’s behavior towards his followers, and how we can affirm our salvation.
Baptism with Fire
To begin, I’d like to reiterate the starting verse from this post, and beyond:
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12
Many commentators believe baptism by fire refers to the Pentecost, or the final judgement of God, or the energy of the spirit of ministry. But I’m going to go through scripture that will show otherwise.
I’ve written about baptism in the past, especially from the perspective of the Old Testament. You can read that post here. But here we’re covering what the fire is that is mentioned in Matthew. What does it mean to be baptized with fire? From my Old Testament post, we’re given a glimpse of what baptism looks like from an invisible, spiritual sense, given Elijah’s sacrifice being consumed by fire from God, among other examples. But this only helps us see what’s happening, it only helps us symbolize baptism even more. What’s really happening when we’re baptized with fire?
Clearing the Threshing Floor
In Matthew, we see that God will clear his threshing floor, and separate the wheat from the chaff in unquenchable fire. Where else do we see this activity from God? Where else does God take the worthless parts and separate them from the good?
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.
Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. – Malachi 3:2-4
If you’re understanding where this is going, here’s another example that doesn’t use fire, but gardening:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” – John 15:1-2
Pruning and cutting off are great examples of the refiner’s fire from a different perspective. Does that mean that the refiner’s fire is baptism by fire? How could that be possible? Isn’t baptism a one-time thing? A refining fire takes time, right?
Man’s Fleeting Attempt vs. God’s Eternal Solution
Sacrifice in the Old Testament needed to be done many times. It never worked permanently. It never lasted long enough. As with man’s attempt to cover sin with the blood of animals, man’s attempt at baptism with water has the same affect: it doesn’t last for eternity, and lacks the power of God’s fire. Baptism with water is a symbolic, one-time event that doesn’t take very long to accomplish. John the Baptist acknowledged that who he was, and therefore the baptisms with water he facilitated, would never compare to God’s baptism:
“But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” – Matthew 3:11
Not even worthy to carry the sandals of Jesus. Imagine the overwhelming power of God’s baptism of fire compared to the symbolic water we use. Water is a fleeting, temporary symbol that gives us a chance to outwardly declare our relationship with God. But baptism with fire happens over the course of our relationship with God, and is a personal sign of our salvation. We cannot fake baptism by fire. There is no substitute.
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 1:6-7
Baptism by fire is proof of our faith when we persevere. Being put in the refiner’s fire means that God has chosen you, and he wants to change your life. Just as Jesus’ sacrifice had eternal ramifications, so persevering through baptism with fire ensures a lifelong relationship with God, whereby the outcome is a wholly transformed life.
“Rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” – Romans 5:3-5
Does this mean that once you suffer through a trial, or succeed in the midst of persecution, God is done putting you through the refiner’s fire? Does this mean that your baptism by fire is finished?
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12
While our lives are transformed in Christ, that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly perfect people. Today salvation can come to you, but the lifelong relationship you have with God will always continue to grow, and you must always work out your salvation. Even Paul acknowledged that he still had a long ways to go!
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. – Philippians 3:12
The trials we experience are continued signs of our salvation when we persevere through them. Even Jesus experienced trials in his life! This is something that is completely necessary:
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” – James 1:2-4,12
Wrapping It Up
So what are the succinct characteristics of baptism by fire? How can we really nail down a definition of what it truly means?
Baptism by Fire is:
- Something we cannot do with water (Matthew 3:11)
- Proof of our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7)
- God’s refining fire (Malachi 3:2)
- A lifelong journey to transform us (Philippians 3:12)
- The most powerful way to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12)
If you are being baptized by fire, the sinful parts of your life will be burned away, and righteousness will take over. It won’t be easy, but it has the reward of securely knowing that you are saved, and have been baptized, not by John, but by someone who is worthy: God himself.
The key is that baptism by fire is not something you can do. In fact, no human will ever be capable of doing this. Only God can choose you, and only God can baptize you with fire. Only God can initiate the tests of your faith, and give you hope in your perseverance. Only God can prove your salvation. Only God can transform your life through the refiner’s fire. If you still believe that baptism with water is enough, if you still believe that baptism with water can save you, imagine the water poured out on Elijah’s sacrifice:
He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.” – 1 Kings 18:33
The water certainly had its symbolic place in the sacrifice. But how much power does it have over our salvation? Let’s continue:
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench. – 1 Kings 18:34-35
Even man’s sacrifices couldn’t cover our sins eternally. Do you think water has the power to transform our lives?
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. – 1 Kings 18:38
The water is nothing compared to God’s fire. Baptism by fire is the Holy Spirit enveloping you, changing you, and saving you throughout your entire life and relationship with God. Now, don’t discount the water completely. Baptism with water is a good outward symbol we can use to declare that we are followers of Christ, but baptism with fire is the truth and reality of our lifelong, maturing salvation. God’s fire will consume the water, as it did with Elijah’s sacrifice.
In the next post in this series, we’ll be covering communion, a deeper look into the nature of God’s fire, and why God is both divine and dangerous.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:16-17