John the Baptist came preaching repentance and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea, and he was sent as a herald to announce the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-12). He announced “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” (Matthew 3:11).
After Jesus had risen from the dead, He instructed His apostles to “…wait for the Promise of the Father which you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5). This promise was first fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the baptism of the Spirit joins every believer to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But what about the baptism with fire?
Some interpret the baptism of fire as referring to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent from heaven. “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:2-3). It is important to note that these were tongues as of fire, not literal fire.
Some believe that the baptism with fire refers to the Holy Spirit’s office as the energizer of the believer’s service, and the purifier of evil within, because of the exhortation “Do not quench the Spirit” found in 1 Thessalonians 5:19. The command to the believer is to not put out the Spirit’s fire by suppressing His ministry.
A third and more likely interpretation is that the baptism of fire refers to judgment. In all four Gospel passages mentioned above, Mark and John speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but only Matthew and Luke mention the baptism with fire. The immediate context of Matthew and Luke is judgment (Matthew 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-17). The context of Mark and John is not (Mark 1:1-8; John 1:29-34). We know that the Lord Jesus is coming in flaming fire to judge those who do not know God (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; John 5:21 23; Revelation 20:10-15), but praise be to God that He will save all that will come and put their trust in Him (John 3:16)!