What is the meaning of the phrase Baptism by Fire?
The phrase “Baptism by Fire” has many different meanings ranging from 1) someone’s learning how to do something “the hard way,” to 2) someone’s being filled with the Holy Spirit, and to 3) the Mormon viewpoint that it refers to someone’s receiving the Holy Spirit.
As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (NASB) Matthew 3:11
John answered and said to them all, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”(NASB) Luke 3:16
In the first passage we are told that Jesus Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The second passage is almost identical to the first one. In fact, the two phrases are the same. Both passages tell us that there is a baptism by the “Holy Spirit” and then leave the impression that there is a baptism with fire. But Acts 2:3-4 reveals that fire can be associated with the baptism by the Holy Spirit.
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (NASB) Acts 2:3-4
After Jesus returned to heaven, the disciples waited in Jerusalem for the arrival of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised on numerous occasions. He reminded them once more just before He left that the Holy Spirit would come (Acts 1:4-8). When the Holy Spirit did arrive, Acts 2:3-4 reveals that the Holy Spirit appeared as tongues or flicks of fire. They were not literally baptized with fire or scorched by literal flames.
Was this normal for every Christian in the early church? The Bible never mentions the phenomena of fire later. Dr. H. A. Ironsides states,
What looked like fire, however, was not fire; it was the visible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The book of Revelation also uses fire symbolically of the Holy Spirit as shown in Rev. 4:5.
Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God . . . (NASB) Rev. 4:5
For a full discussion of the expression “seven Spirits of God” visit “What are the seven churches in Asia and seven spirits in Rev. 1:4?”
The idea of a “baptism by fire” is not a New Testament concept. But the concept of a baptism that includes both the Holy Spirit and fire is biblical. It would appear from the absence of any other “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” after Pentecost that this baptism was unique and only occurred during the time of the early church.
1. H. A. Ironside. Acts. An Ironside Expository Commentary. Kregel. 2007. p. 25.
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The Spirit's Ministry - Tongues and Prophecy