In Matthew 3:11 three baptisms are mentioned. Should a person seek to go through all three baptisms? What exactly does the baptism with fire mean?
John the Baptist told a large crowd that had gathered where he was baptizing, “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.”
“He who is coming after me” was referring to Jesus Christ. So John was saying that he was baptizing with water and Jesus would (in the future) baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The word baptize comes from a Greek word that means “to immerse.” John was immersing people in the water of the Jordan River. For further information about baptism, see our article on “What Do the Symbols of Baptism Mean?”
Baptism with the Holy Spirit
After His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared for 40 days to many of His disciples. It was during one of these appearances that He said those disciples would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Act 1:5).
When these disciples received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), it was the fulfillment of what both John the Baptist and Jesus had said would happen—the baptism with the Holy Spirit. (Read more about what the Holy Spirit does in the lives of converted Christians in the article “How Do You Know You Have the Holy Spirit?”)
However, some people believe that on the Day of Pentecost, the baptism with fire also took place. This is based on a misunderstanding of Acts 2:3: “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.” But notice that these were tongues as of fire, not literal fire. Also, the Bible doesn’t describe fire appearing on Christians baptized after this.
The baptism with the Holy Spirit is not the same as the baptism with fire. As we will see, John made it clear there were three distinct baptisms—with water, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Baptism with fire
It’s important to notice the context of Matthew 3. Large crowds came to witness John as he baptized. Some were baptized; others were not. Those that John refused to baptize included some of the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom Jesus often labeled as hypocrites. In this context John called them a “brood of vipers” (verse 7).
In verses 10-12, John warned the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees of their fate if they refused to repent. John stated in verse 10 that those who didn’t bear good spiritual fruit would be thrown in the fire—not a good result!
The context shows that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a good result, but the baptism with fire is a punishment.After saying that Jesus Christ would baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” in verse 11, John used an agricultural analogy in verse 12. Jesus will not only “gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” This means that after His second coming, Christ will take repentant converts into His Kingdom but will consume the unrepentant people with fire, called in Revelation 19:20 “the lake of fire.”
So the context shows that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a good result, but the baptism with fire is a punishment.
Punishment by fire
The apostle Peter was inspired to write about the future time of punishment in 2 Peter 3:10-12. This passage describes a fire that will engulf the whole earth with fervent heat that will burn up the face of the earth and everything on it. However, verse 13 says that after this consuming fire new heavens and a new earth will emerge. This verse gives us understanding that this fire will not be the end of everything.
This same event is referred to in Revelation 21:8, where we learn that people who persist in sinning and who are unrepentant will be destroyed in “the lake which burns with fire.”
This point was also prophesied by Malachi, hundreds of years before John wrote the book of Revelation. “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up” (Malachi 4:1).
The baptism with fire will be the destruction of the incorrigible sinners. Some of these people are described in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-27. (For more about this, see our article “Unpardonable Sin: What Is It?”)
God also destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone for their sins. The difference is that the people who perished in Sodom and Gomorrah will be resurrected in the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-13; see also Matthew 11:23-24). On the other hand, the Bible shows that those who are destroyed in the lake of fire will be destroyed forever.
In fact, Jesus is the One who will authorize the destruction of the incorrigibly wicked in the lake of fire. This point is illustrated in Matthew 13:40-42 in the parable of the tares. The sinners will be immersed or engulfed in the lake of fire. This is the baptism with fire, and this is the baptism none of us want to go through!
For more information, read “What Is the Punishment of the Wicked?”