Matthew 3:7-12. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees! Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to take off His sandals. He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn. But the chaff He will burn up with fire that never goes out” (HCSB).
It is often suggested that the baptism of the Holy Spirit took place on the apostles only. However, it is important to notice the audience of John’s words. First, we need to consider that there were not yet any apostles for John to be speaking to or about. Second, carefully look at the audience. In Matthew 3:5 we read that the people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all of the vicinity of the Jordan were coming to John. John is speaking to the Jewish people who are flocking to him. Further, in verse 7, we see that John begins this teaching when he sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming among the people. John is speaking to the whole nation of Israel. The nation was going to experience a baptism of the Holy Spirit and a baptism of fire.
Baptism of Fire
How did the Jews who heard John’s words understand the baptism of fire? Was the baptism of fire a good thing or a bad thing? Let us look to the scriptures first:
Isaiah 66:15-16. “For behold, the LORD will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the LORD will be many.”
Ezekiel 22:20-22. “As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the LORD; I have poured out my wrath upon you.”
It is shocking to see scholars argue the baptism of fire was a good thing. I read one scholar describe it as a picture of God’s grace. But the prophetic scriptures always speak of fire as being bad. Even being refined by fire, while ultimately having a good outcome, describes a painful process in the meantime (see James 1 and his description of trials).
Even the Qumran community of the first century understood fire as the wrath of God. In interpreting Psalm 2, the Qumran community declared, “The meaning is that the nations shall set themselves and conspire vainly against the chosen of Israel in the Last Days. That will be the time of persecution that is to come upon the House of Judah, to the end of sealing up the wicked in consuming fire and destroying all the children of Belial. Then shall be left behind a remnant of chosen ones, the predestined. They shall perform the whole of the Law, as God commanded through Moses. This is the time of which it is written in the book of Daniel the prophet, “The wicked will act ever more wickedly and shall not understand. But the righteous will be purified, cleansed and refined” (Daniel 12:10). So, the people who know God shall be steadfast” (4Q174f1, 2i:19-3ii4).
Notice that the baptism of fire is a description of judgment and the wrath of God. John the Baptist is telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that they are the ones who are going to receive God’s judgment of fire. Notice Matthew 3:10, “Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (HCSB). Also notice Matthew 3:12 which continues the picture of wrath and judgment. “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (ESV). We cannot argue that the baptism of fire is speaking about the tongues of fire that appeared upon the apostles’ heads. John is speaking to the Jewish leaders and telling them that they will experience the baptism of fire because they have not repented. The ax was laid at the tree, Israel, and the tree would be chopped with the coming of the Messiah. The wrath of God was coming in judgment against Israel.
In the next post we will examine the meaning of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that John preaches to Israel.