BAPTISM OF FIRE The phrase, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire,” occurs twice in the New Testament (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). To be baptized with fire is certainly not to be taken literally (as some in the history of the church have taken it).
Fire is one of the physical manifestations of God's presence. This is illustrated several times in the Bible: the making of the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17), the appearance in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), God leading the Israelites by a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:24; Numbers 9:15-16; Numbers 14:14; etc.), His appearance on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:11-36; Deuteronomy 5:4-26; etc.), and others (1 Kings 18:24,1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1,2 Chronicles 7:3).
Fire was used symbolically in Israel's worship to represent God's constant presence with Israel (Leviticus 6:12-13). God's presence as fire represented both judgment and purification (the words purify and purge come from the Greek word for fire). To be in God's presence is to be in the presence of absolute holiness where no sin or unrighteousness can stand. To be in the presence of God is to have the overwhelming sense of one's uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean (see Isaiah 6:1-6). God is able to judge and destroy the sin and purify the repentant sinner.
The Holy Spirit is the gift Jesus gave His disciples (John 20:22) and is the presence of God at work in the life of the believer and in the world. Because the Holy Spirit is God's presence in the life of the believer and in the world, the believer and “the world” are made aware of sin and God's judgment on sin and of the necessity of being righteous in God's presence (John 16:8). The presence of God's Spirit brings the overwhelming sense of one's uncleanness and the overwhelming desire to be clean.
The statement “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire,” means that Jesus had and has the ability to immerse (baptize) people in the presence of God so that they are aware of their sin and the need they have to be cleansed of that sin. To be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire is to be convicted concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit has a wider application than this; but when the Holy Spirit is coupled with fire (as in the phrase in Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16), the particular aspect of the Holy Spirit's work as described here is in view. See Baptism of the Holy Spirit; Holy Spirit for a more complete view of the work of the Holy Spirit.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.