“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.” – Mt. 3:11

John’s statement here is the object of some debate. Was John saying that Jesus was bringing one Baptism or two Baptism: Holy Spirit characterized by “fire” or Holy Spirit Baptism and Fire Baptism? Jacob W. Kapp, in his ISBE article, chooses the first, saying they are one and the same Baptism:

This expression is used in Matthew 3:11. The copulative kai requires that the baptism “in the Holy Ghost and in fire,” should be regarded as one and the same thing. It does violence to the construction, therefore, to make this statement refer to the fire Of judgment. The difficulty has always been in associating fire with the person of the Holy Ghost. But in the connection of fire with the work or influence of the Holy Ghost the difficulty disappears. The thought of John is that the Saviour would give them the Divine Sanctifier as purifying water to wash away their sins and as a refining fire to consume their dross; to kindle in their hearts the holy flame of Divine love and zeal; to illuminate their souls with heavenly wisdom. The statement, therefore, in this verse indicates the manner in which Christ will admit them to discipleship and prepare them for His service.1

There are a number of objections I wish to offer to Kapp’s conclusion.

First, the copulative “kai”, meaning “and”, does not necessarily make Holy Spirit and Fire Baptisms the same. What it does make necessary is that Jesus bring both things connected to Baptism. An example where two things of like kind are connected by the copulative “kai” (and) is Matthew 3:4. In this passage “locusts and wild honey” are not the same food but are two types of food though they are joined by the copulative “kai”. Because two foods, or two baptisms, are mentioned together does not make them one and the same. The “copulative” or connecting “and”, only indicates that Jesus is bringing both Holy Spirit and Fire Baptism. And there is reason to believe that they are two separate Baptisms. Kapp’s conclusion is less about what must syntactically be true, and more about his preferred interpretation.

Secondly, to understand John’s statement to refer to two Baptisms does not do “violence” to the text. In fact, it is Kapp’s interpretation that seems to ignore the context. If Kapp was correct and only one Baptism was in question, characterized by Holy Spirit and Fire, the context would demand that a fiery Holy Spirit Baptism be related only to the fiery judgment of hell. In the previous verse 10, John said, “every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is the fire of judgment. And verse 12, the following verse, says that Jesus is going to gather the wheat into His barn but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. Now that does not sound like Holy Spirit Baptism which we see promised to the Apostles in the Gospel of John and that we see poured out on Pentecost (Acts 2). Instead, John is warning of the fiery judgment of hell. So “fire” in verse 11, sandwiched between the two judgment passages of verses 10 and 12 is more likely to be referring to the same judgment of fire. Kapp ignores this evidence so that if anyone does “violence” to the text, it is he. Perhaps it is his prejudice that causes him to deny the evidence of context.

And thirdly, Holy Spirit Baptism IS without a doubt altogether different from the fire Baptism of Matthew 3:11. There is evidence from Jesus’ words that John really did mean that two Baptisms were at issue. In Acts 1:5 and Acts 11:16, where Jesus and Peter refer back to John’s words, Holy Spirit Baptism is spoken of with no mention of fire. Here are those passages:

“for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” and “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

In both instances, when Jesus and Peter mention John’s words of Matthew 3:11, appropriately, “fire” is not mentioned since we have already learned that that pertained to the judgment of fire. These passages in Acts only say that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The tongues of fire which rested upon the Apostles in Acts 2 does not make the fiery judgment that is described in Luke 3 by John the Baptist. Because the Holy Spirit Baptism was visibly identified in Acts 2 with “tongues of fire” does not make it the same Baptism of “fire” which John warned of in Matthew 3:10,11,12.

What do we conclude? John’s statement in Matthew 3:11 is not speaking of one Baptism, but two Baptisms. If John’s statement referred to one Baptism, based on the context the Holy Spirit Baptism would be the Baptism of fire at the last judgment. Of course that is not the case. Holy Spirit Baptism is clearly seen in Acts. John therefore was saying that Jesus would Baptize with the Holy Spirit and He would Baptize with fire. Holy Spirit Baptism was related to ushering in and spreading of Christ’s Kingdom. And the Baptism of fire is the judgment of hell. No right-minded person would desire fire Baptism.

1. “Baptism of Fire”. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Accessed from: http://www.studylight.org/enc/isb/view.cgi?number=T1151

Categories: Fire, Holy Spirit, Judgment, Mt. 3:11

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