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Context is important when looking at Scripture. Who is speaking? To whom does he speak? What are the circumstances in which he spoke? Accordingly, I suggest we look first at the context of those passages in which John spoke of one coming after him who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire.


There are four passages where John said the one coming would baptize with (or in) the Holy Spirit, one in each of the four gospels.

Mark says that John’s message was two-fold: A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and that one coming after him would baptize in the Holy Spirit, though John himself baptized in water.

Matthew put his statement about the coming one baptizing in a context of rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him, evidently for baptism but without confessing their sins. In refusing to baptize them, he said they should produce fruit in keeping with repentance. He also warned them against trusting in their descent from Abraham. He followed by saying that the coming one was coming in judgment:

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. 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. 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. – Matthew 3:10-12

While some have taken baptism in fire to be another comment about baptism in the Holy Spirit (who came with tongues like fire on Pentecost), Matthew’s context clearly speaks of the fire of judgment.

Luke put his statement about the coming one baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire in a context of denying that he himself was the Messiah. Yes, he said, I am baptizing you with water, but the coming one (the Messiah) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (3:15-16).

John also denied he was the Messiah when the Pharisees asked him. When he denied that, they next asked, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (1:25).

“I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” – John 1:26-27

The next day, John saw Jesus coming. He then said,

“This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known Him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:30-34

All four of the accounts stress that John’s work was to prepare for the one coming after him who was greater than he. He prepared for the Christ by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All four also stress that the Christ, when he came, would baptize in the Holy Spirit. This was qualitatively different to what John was doing. John emphasized in all four accounts that he was merely baptizing in water.

Matthew and Luke also state that the coming Christ would baptize with fire. Both of them spoke of the ax at the root of the trees to cut down all trees that do not bear good fruit to burn them in the fire. Both speak of the Christ having His winnowing fork or threshing fork in His hand to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat would be preserved; the chaff would be burned. In Matthew, John said that to avoid the judgment, his hearers should bring forth fruit showing repentance. In Luke’s report, John got very specific when various ones asked what they should do:

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” – Luke 3:10-14

In short, John was calling people to repentance – and baptizing those who confessed sins and showed willingness to accept a higher moral, ethical standard and way of life. He said this “baptism of repentance” or “repentance-baptism” was for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

John also said that when Messiah came, He would baptize you in the Holy Spirit.

Whom Would Messiah Baptize with the Holy Spirit?

For most of my life, I have heard Christ baptized none except representatives of “all flesh” in the Holy Spirit. The apostles on Pentecost represented the Jews and the house of Cornelius represented the Gentiles. Once these were baptized with the Holy Spirit, no one else was so baptized by Christ.

Is this what the Scripture teaches? What does “all flesh” mean? In Luke 3:4-6, Luke introduced John the Baptist with a prophecy from Isaiah:

A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind [“all flesh” in KJV] will see God’s salvation.Quoted from Isaiah 40:3-5

Does “all flesh” here mean representatives of Jewish and Gentile flesh? Or has the grace of God that brings salvation appeared to all men? (Cf. Titus 2:11.)

To whom was John speaking when he said the Christ would baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire?

In Matthew’s account, John spoke directly to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7-12). Luke’s account makes the statement more general.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-16)

John addressed the people. In fact, Luke says, “John answered them all.” There is no reason to assume that John looked at the future apostles (some of whom were John’s disciples) and said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” but then turned to the Pharisees and Sadducees when he added, “and with fire.” He said this to all of them.

The natural way to understand this is that either all would be baptized with both the Holy Spirit and with fire or that Christ would baptize everyone – some with the Holy Spirit and some with fire. Since we have already seen that John was showing his audience how to escape the fire, the first possibility is not rational. Since he addressed this to them all, it is not rational to believe that only representatives of all flesh were to receive each of these baptisms.

The natural, rational way to understand this saying of John is that they all would receive the Messianic blessing of being baptized with the Holy Spirit or they would receive the Messianic curse of being baptized in the fire of judgment.

The Messiah administers both of these; it is He who gives the blessing of the Holy Spirit and He who administers the curse of judgment.

In the next post of this series, we will continue to look at other texts closely to see if this understanding of John’s message is consistent with all that other passages say on the subject.

NEXT (3): The Great Commission and Pentecost

PREVIOUS (1) Introduction


4 Responses

  1. Jerry—

    I have a question about being filled with the Spirit–it doesn’t directly relate to the Spirit/Fire discussion you are leading right now, but it does pertain.

    My question involves being “filled with the Spirit.” I have lots of thoughts circling my head about this, so I’ll try to put them down in a reasonable way.

    To my understanding, we are filled with the HS at baptism. So that leads me to two thoughts:

    1) I was baptized at 10yrs old, and no noticeable change occurred in my desires. In fact, it has only been recently to where I TRULY feel like the HS guides me in what I do.

    2) I know/have several friends that aren’t baptized (as we are). Yet the seem to be (and claim) to be very Spirit-led in what they are doing. Passionate about serving God and loving their fellow man.

    So this really makes me think. Is it possible that the Spirit begins to come upon us during our faith and repentance stage? If so, this would seem to give credence to the “Word only” position, as someone would be able to have the Spirit working in them as they study the Word.

    Yet the scriptures seem so clear about receiving the Spirit at baptism.

    And then I think about a younger 23 yr old friend of mine I was speaking with this morning–not baptized, yet spends lots of time in study and has a strong, penitent desire to do God’s Will.

    Can you offer any guidance on this?

    Thanks a lot Jerry,

  2. Jerry–

    This is a bit of a continuation of my earlier post.

    One could say, “well, those people feel compelled to seek a relationship with Christ since God’s Laws have been written on our hearts.”

    Those verses (“..written on our hearts”) also cause me to really think. Does this mean:

    1) We have a general nature to know there is something bigger than us, and to look for it or,

    2) We’ve been given the basic natural rules of “love”…we know not to hurt, we desire to procreate, we put children ahead of ourselves, etc. or,

    3) We truly have the desires of God written on our hearts. Meaning, if you tell me someone is hell-bound for playing IM, I can discern that that isn’t a Christ-like attitude to condemn someone that wants to please God. I don’t need to find a proof text. That nature to know what is Christ-like is on my heart.

    These are just a few of the options I can think of. To me, they all make sense. But I imagine #3 would be an issue to many.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Well, I’ve officially dumped two really deep questions on you!! 🙂 Please take your time, and I sincerely look forward to receiving your thoughts.

    • Jon,

      I think it will be best to hold these questions until the current series is complete. This series will actually lead into the answers to your questions, or at least lay a better foundation for them than just to dive in right now.


  3. Awesome Jerry–

    …I figured it might. Looking forward to it.

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