Q: What Does it Mean that Jesus Will “Baptize with Fire” in Matthew 3:11?

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says that he will baptize with the water but that Jesus will come and baptize with fire. What does he mean when he says Jesus will “baptize with fire”?

This baptism with fire is mentioned only in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16. In both instances it is immediately surrounded by these statements from John the Baptist, here taken from Matthew 3:7-12:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the 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.

These verses give the phrase “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” its context. It helps us understand what John is saying. It would seem he is making a comparison between those who turn to God and those who don’t. The baptism comment would then follow this same contrast.

The first group is those who produce good fruit, who will be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and who will be gathered into the barn (a vivid illustration of being with God forever). The second group is those who don’t produce good fruit, who will be baptized with fire, and who will be burned up with unquenchable fire (a vivid illustration of being separated from God forever).

So it would seem to me the best explanation is that “baptism by fire” is a term of judgment on those who haven’t turned to Jesus in faith for forgiveness. They don’t have lives that have been transformed by His grace and so don’t produce fruit. Have you trusted in Jesus Messiah? Is there fruit in your life as evidence?

Fire almost always is used to describe God’s judgment. See 2 Peter 3:7-13 for another instance of fire meaning judgment. See also 1 Peter 1:6-7 and 1 Cor. 3:12-15 for examples of fire being used as a term to talk about God’s purifying of a Christian’s life. This is also a possibility of what John is talking about, but I think the first explanation I gave you fits the context better.

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