ESSAY
Water, Spirit, Fire, 2
POSTED
August 30, 2016

In the introduction we saw that Matthew and Luke are the only gospels which include “fire” in John the Baptist’s narrative. If Matthew and Luke are the priestly and prophetic gospels, the inclusion of fire is of great importance. Priests are servants of the altar, working with fire every day. They were to keep the fire burning day in and day out (Leviticus 6:9, 12-13). Their primary duty was sacrificial worship, which included placing offerings into the fire (Leviticus 1:7-9). This fire may have also been used to put men to death (Leviticus 20:14, 21:9). ((God does not look favorably upon rival fire (Exodus 35:3; Leviticus 10:1).))

Prophets, too, are associated with fire. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel employ the use of fire more times than any other book of the Bible. ((35, 38, and 35 times respectively.)) Elijah is perhaps our greatest prophetic example, considering he and John the Baptist are closely associated in the gospels. ((Luke, the eagle-prophet gospel, calls John a man with the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Both are identified by a garment of hair and a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8; Matthew 3:4). They are both tasked with turning the people back to God. It was speculated that John was Elijah returned to earth (John 1:21). ))Elijah calls fire down from heaven, once upon the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:24-40) and again upon the captains of Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:9-18). Now John prophesies a similar judgment (Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17). John functions as a new Elijah, warning unfaithful Israel of impending doom. Elijah called upon YHWH to bring fire down from heaven; John calls upon YHWH incarnate to do the same. ((This is one of many allusions in the New Testament to Jesus being YHWH.))

Fire is not always a picture of judgment, however. Fire is often a source of blessing and the presence of God himself. He appears to Moses at the burning bush and leads Israel by fire at night (Exodus 3:2; 13:21). He descends upon Mount Sinai “in fire” (Exodus 19:18; 24:17). The fire of the altar, mentioned above, was lit by God to show his glory and acceptance of worship (Leviticus 9:23-24; 2 Chronicles 7:1).

Even the burning of the sacrificial animal is a picture of transformation into God’s presence, not judgment. The slaying of the animal is the judgment (Leviticus 17:11), the burning is an ascension into YHWH’s glory cloud above the tabernacle (Numbers 9:15-16). The animal is turned to smoke, rising to God as a “sweet aroma” (Leviticus 1:4, 9). Elijah’s fire scenes mentioned above are judgments on the wicked. Yet in his final scene, fire is Elijah’s portal to heaven (2 Kings 2:8-18).

In the New Testament, the Greek pur [fire, flames] is used 74 times. At least five verses are references to God (Acts 7:30; Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 1:14; 2:18; 4:5). Another five depict fire for the purpose of salting/seasoning (Mark 9:49), testing (1 Corinthians 3:13; 1 Peter 1:7), saving (1 Corinthians 3:15), and refining (Revelation 3:18). The “tongues of fire” at Pentecost did not consume the disciples, but empowered them (Acts 2:3-4). Also consider the references to God as “light” (John 1:4-5, 7-9; 8:12; 1 John 1:5; James 1:17). To the original audience, speaking of God in this way would have been a reference to fire as it was the primary source of light in the ancient world.

Clearly, fire is an important symbol in Scripture. We see that it can be a blessing or a judgment; it can even be God himself. How does this relate to John the Baptist’s use of “Spirit and fire” together? When John says, “He will baptize you with Spirit and fire,” does the conjunction kai [and] indicate two separate baptisms? Can we interpret John as meaning, “He will baptize you with Spirit and also baptize you with fire?” Or, are Spirit and fire two aspects of a single baptism? Perhaps “fire” is simply a descriptor of the Spirit? ((We do see similar language elsewhere. In Ephesians 4:6, Paul speaks of the “one God and Father of all.” The conjunction does not join two subjects but two descriptors for one subject. We know that is Paul speaking of the singular Father in this instance because he has already mentioned the Spirit and the Son in vv. 4-5.)) We should also ask how the three mentions of “fire” relate to each other. Are they all the same fire, or different in nature?

There are a variety of ways of understanding John’s language. He begins with a warning of fire judgment, then a prophecy of Spirit and fire baptism, and concludes with a warning of fire judgment:

A. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10; cf. Luke 3:9).

B. He who is coming after me. . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11; cf. Luke 3:16).

A’. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12; cf. Luke 3:17).

“Spirit and fire” is at the center of John’s speech, while the fire judgments mirror each other. We may conclude that John’s fire judgments speak of the same event. In context, John is speaking to the fruitless Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7). The language he uses of bad trees being thrown into the fire is repeated later by Jesus (Matthew 7:19; John 15:6), and Jesus specifically connects hell to the unquenchable fire: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell…where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).

The baptism of fire is less discernible. Is fire baptism placed in contrast to fire judgment – as a fire of blessing – or does it too speak of fire judgment? Let us consider that the baptism of fire is identical to fire judgment. In this view, Matthew 3:12 elaborates upon the fire baptism mentioned in v. 11. John is therefore speaking of two baptisms, one of Spirit (for the righteous) and one of fire (for the wicked).

In the immediate context, this seems very plausible. Fire is not present at Jesus’ Spirit baptism, after all (vv. 16-17). Neither do the apostles reference fire when speaking of Spirit baptism, though they do when speaking of judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8; 2 Peter 3:7). Acts 2:3 is difficult for this interpretation, however. There we have the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised his disciples (1:8). At Pentecost the Spirit and fire are made manifest together: “Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4).

In this miraculous display, fire comes down from heaven upon the heads of the disciples as they are filled with the Holy Spirit. The disciples receive both Spirit and fire in a single event. This leads us to believe that John’s use of “Spirit and fire” speaks of one baptism, not two. This fire is therefore a fire of blessing; it stands in contrast to fire judgment. John’s warning of fire judgment is for the wicked, while the singular baptism of Spirit and fire awaits the righteous. This would settle the matter, except that a close inspection of Acts 2 reveals that Spirit and fire baptism was both a blessing and judgment simultaneously.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire are accompanied by the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. The Greek for “tongue” is glossalalia, which means “language.” Acts 2:4 literally says, “They began to speak with other languages.” We know these are earthly languages from vv. 7-11. Foreign languages or “tongues” have their own motif in the Bible and their primary purpose is for judgment. The first instance is the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). The people want to make a great name for themselves, so God scatters them by dividing their languages.

Israel would face similar punishment throughout its history:

YHWH will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand (Deuteronomy 28:49).

Behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar, O house of Israel, declares YHWH. It is an enduring nation; it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say (Jeremiah 5:15).

By people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue YHWH will speak to this people (Isaiah 28:11).

When God starts speaking through foreign tongues, it is a sign of judgment against his people. The phenomenon of Acts 2, then, is primarily a judgment against unfaithful Israel. Here we have God speaking in Jerusalem through foreign tongues, not Hebrew. Pentecost is like a new Babel. God makes communication difficult again; the Jews are denied understanding. In judgment, they will need the word of God translated for them (i.e. the New Testament will be written in Greek). Speaking in tongues represented the complete repudiation of the Jewish, old covenant system. In another way, Pentecost was a reversal of Babel. At Babel, tongues are used to divide and scatter. At Pentecost, tongues are used to unite people through the gospel proclamation. Three thousand people “from every nation under heaven” were joined to the church that day (2:41).

The singular baptism in Spirit and fire was simultaneously a blessing to the faithful and a judgment to the wicked. The visible manifestation of fire also functions in this way. Fire falls upon the disciples in the same way that fire fell upon the sacrifices of the tabernacle and temple (Leviticus 9:23-24; 2 Chronicles 7:1). God sent fire down upon the sacrifices to show his acceptance of worship. Now God shows his acceptance of the Christians, validating them as a new temple of living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). This was a sign of judgment to the unbelieving Jews, but a sign of great blessing to believers (especially the Gentiles). The old covenant is on its way out, the new covenant is in.

What does all of this mean? It means that we don’t have to limit ourselves to dichotomies when trying to determine how John’s three-fold repetitions of fire relate together – whether one is for blessing or if all are for judgment – or whether “Spirit and fire” denotes one baptism or two. Like so many other questions from the Bible, the answer is often “both/and” not “either/or.” Pentecost shows us that fire is the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Because he is infinite, his work has infinite meaning and purpose. ((See Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology (Grand Rapids: Academie-Zondervan, 1987).)) His presence is an objective reality that all people relate to. You can relate to him rightly or wrongly, but relate you must.

Pentecost was the initial fulfillment of John’s prophecy, but its effect culminated in the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. The temple’s demise sealed Israel’s fate and vindicated Jesus as a true prophet (Matthew 24:2, 34). The fire that defeats the wicked simultaneously exalts the righteous. The Holy Spirit is an agent of blessing and of judgment. He will destroy you or empower you.

Adam McIntosh is a deacon and pastoral assistant at Cornerstone Reformed Church, Carbondale, Illinois.

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