by Al Maxey

Issue #652 ------- March 20, 2015
Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice. From what I've tasted
of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Baptized with Spirit and Fire
Pondering John's Puzzling Pronouncement

"Now, in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matt. 3:1). There were many of those who came to hear this man preach who began to wonder if he was the long awaited Messiah. "In response to this speculation, John points to a significant distinction between him and the Messiah, namely, that the Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire" [Dr. Gary T. Cage, The Holy Spirit: A Sourcebook with Commentary, p. 373-374]. The reference by John to the fact that the Messiah would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire" is found in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 (Mark 1:8 also refers to this statement by John the Baptist, but the reference to "fire" is left out). It is somewhat of an understatement by Dr. Albert Barnes when he declared, "This expression has been variously understood" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. The fact is, biblical scholars have debated this statement (at times rather heatedly) about Jesus baptizing "with the Holy Spirit and fire" for many centuries, and there are a host of theories as to what this means. Some of these theories are rather outlandish in nature and thus easily dismissed, but several have merit, thus making it difficult to know precisely what John the Baptist had in mind.

The many different translations and versions of the Bible have not helped the reader, but have actually added to the confusion, for some read that the coming Messiah would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire," while others read that the Messiah would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." By including the second "with" it is felt by some scholars that this signifies two separate baptisms by Christ, whereas the removal of the second "with" indicates to others that the two baptisms are intimately connected (and perhaps even the same baptism, with two unique aspects of that baptism by the Lord being emphasized). And then, of course, this debate is furthered by the fact that Mark, in his gospel record, leaves out the phrase "with fire" altogether. It should be noted that in the Matthew and Luke texts, the second "with" (which appears before "fire") is not present in the original Greek text; it has been added to the text by some translators. This appears to be an important distinction, for it indicates "the one preposition governs both 'Holy Spirit' and 'fire,' which normally suggests a unified concept" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 105]. That the fire mentioned in this passage is intimately connected with the Holy Spirit in some way was the view of a number of Early Church Fathers, such as John Chrysostom (c. 349-407 A.D.) who believed Jesus would perform a "Spirit-fire baptism." The experience of the upper room disciples on the day of Pentecost validates this view, according to those who favor it (Acts 2:1-3 -- they were filled with the Spirit, while "tongues of fire" rested upon each one). Jesus Himself indicates this event would be a "baptism with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5), which He Himself would pour out upon them. Some see the "fire," therefore, as being a reference to the "tongues of fire" that rested upon those baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Other scholars, as well as some Early Church Fathers, feel the passage has reference to two separate baptisms performed by Christ: (1) the baptism with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and then (2) a much later baptism with fire, referring to the second coming of the Lord in judgment against those who rejected His grace and mercy. Thus, this fire would be a fire of judgment; it would be punitive in nature: the fire that would destroy the wicked. Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) favored this interpretation. Those who adopt this view correctly point out the immediate context: in the very next verse (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17) John discusses chaff being burned up with "unquenchable fire," and in the verses immediately prior to our passage in question, John speaks of worthless trees being cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt. 3:10; Luke 3:9). If "fire" speaks of judgment against the wicked in the verses prior to and following our passage, they reason, then does it not follow that the "fire" in Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16 would refer to the same? Further lending support to this interpretation is the fact that in the Mark 1:8 passage the word "fire" is not included in the text, AND in the immediate context of that verse there is NO mention either of burning up chaff or worthless trees. This also suggests (based on what isn't said in the Mark context) that the "fire" may well be connected with judgment of the wicked (after all, since Mark does not discuss judgment of the wicked in that passage, there was no need for him to mention the "fire," as Matthew and Luke had done).

Fire is certainly a well-known metaphor in Scripture for judgment against the wicked. We can't help but think of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), and how their destruction by fire prefigures "the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7; cf. 2 Peter 3:7) on that last day when the Lord returns to claim His bride and to destroy the unrighteous. Throughout the Old Testament writings, fire is used as a symbol of the burning wrath of God against those who oppose Him. Just "as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames," so God will consume those who have "spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 5:24). "Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty" (Malachi 4:1). That day may certainly be accurately characterized as an immersion with fire, and the immediate contexts of the gospel records of Matthew and Luke certainly indicate that such an interpretation is consistent with Scripture. But, was it this fiery final judgment of the Lord against the wicked that John the Baptist had in mind when he made that statement about the Messiah ("He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire")? Again, there is significant debate among scholars over this. Some say yes; some say no.

There are a few scholars who believe the phrase "Holy Spirit" more accurately speaks of a sacred "wind." Thus, judgment would be meted out via "wind and fire" from above. After all, the Greek word "pnuema," which is translated "spirit" in this statement, also can be translated "wind" or "breath." In The Expositor's Greek Testament we read that the "Messiah will baptize with wind and fire, sweeping away and consuming the impenitent, leaving behind only the righteous" [vol. 1, p. 84]. They quote Isaiah 40:6 to help support this view: "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them." This would suggest a punitive judgment against them, one brought about by this "divine, fiery wind of judgment." In figurative language similar to that of Matthew and Luke, Isaiah says, "you will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff. You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away" (Isaiah 41:15-16). Thus, the idea of letting the WIND separate the chaff from the grain, with the FIRE consuming the chaff, is a familiar figure (and is consistent with the immediate context of both Matthew and Luke). "The 'pneuma hagios' is a stormy wind of judgment; holy because it sweeps away all that is light and worthless. The fire then destroys what the wind leaves. ... The function is judicial. John refers to the Holy Wind and Fire of Judgment" [ibid]. "Surprisingly, many commentators have taken John's statement to refer to a divine fiery wind of judgment, with no reference to the Holy Spirit" [Dr. Gary T. Cage, The Holy Spirit: A Sourcebook with Commentary, p. 375]. Again, such a view may be biblically correct (i.e., not in opposition to how these terms are used elsewhere in Scripture), BUT is this the view John the Baptist had in mind when he made that statement?

The other major interpretation is that the Holy Spirit is definitely in view, and Jesus will administer this baptism with the Holy Spirit NOT for the purpose of punishing, but for the purpose of purifying (a refiner's fire). The major roadblock for this view, of course, is the immediate context of John's statement, where both before and after this statement he is speaking quite clearly of judgment against those who are outside of a saving relationship with the Lord. Just as the Scriptures speak of fire as a figure of judgment of the wicked, so also do they speak of fire as a figure of purification. Consider this prophecy: "'In the whole land,' declares the Lord, 'two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold" (Zechariah 13:8-9). Those whom God calls, and to whom He imparts His Spirit, will be refined and purified as though immersed (baptized) with fire. The apostle Peter talks of our faith being "refined by fire" (1 Peter 1:7), which is "the sanctifying work of the Spirit" (vs. 2). "John's water baptism relates to repentance, but the One whose way he is preparing will administer a Spirit-fire baptism that will purify and refine. In a time when many Jews felt the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn till the Messianic Age, this announcement could only have been greeted with excited anticipation" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 105].

There are some scholars who believe John may be speaking of Spirit-filled believers having to undergo the fiery trials and tribulations that will come their way as a result of their faith. Thus, Jesus pours out His Spirit upon/within us, and then we, as His disciples, will have our "baptism of fire" (suffering for His name and cause). There have been some down through history who have linked this statement by John the Baptist with Paul's words in 1 Cor. 3:13-15 and have "formed the famous and lucrative doctrine of Purgatory. ... Thus have those called Doctors of the Church trifled" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 54]. John Wesley (1703-1791) understood this statement by John the Baptist to mean that Jesus "shall fill you with the Holy Ghost, inflaming your hearts with that fire of love, which many waters cannot quench" [Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Yes, there are any number of theories and interpretations regarding the fact that the Lord will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire." However, the two most popular views are: the fire punishes the lost, or the fire purifies the saved. A third credible view is that John may have had both in view to some extent.

If I had to choose only one interpretation, I would most likely choose the view that the fire is punitive in nature, and I lean toward that view because of the use of the word "fire" in the immediate context of the verses both before and after its use in our passage under consideration, where that context is one of judgment against the unrighteous. However, because of the lack of the second "with" in the phrase, there does seem to be some indication that we are not looking at two separate truths. Perhaps the best way to approach this passage is to suggest John the Baptist may have had aspects of both views in mind. Dr. Paul Kretzmann concurs: "A twofold effect of Christ's work is here predicted" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 15]. "It has been questioned whether 'fire' here refers to the purification of the godly who truly accept the baptism of the Spirit, or to the destruction of the wicked. ... The divine presence will in fact be twofold in its working: it burns away sin out of the godly, and it consumes the ungodly if they cleave to their sin" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, p. 73]. "This twofold use of fire for refinement and consuming judgment (as seen in Malachi 3-4) suggests that John the Baptist also could have had both aspects in mind" [Dr. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 38]. For the children of God, who are filled with the Spirit, it will be a refining/purifying fire; for the wicked, however, who have shunned His Spirit and remain in their sins, it will be a consuming fire. At this point in my study of the matter, this seems to me to be the most logical exegesis of this pronouncement by John the Baptist.

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Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in Illinois:

Al, I was just sitting here thinking about all that I have learned in the past several years, and I wanted to write just to tell you how much I love and respect you for all you do for the Lord. Many have broken free from the chains of legalism (as have I), and we are all grateful to you for this! I really didn't start truly studying God's Word with an open mind until I was blessed to become an elder in 2004. The first 56 years of my life were "rote and repetition," and my faith was based upon what someone else had instilled in me. Then I determined that I cannot entrust my soul to any other person: it is far too precious for that. I just wanted to say I love you, brother ... and Thank You!!!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I just finished reading your new book "From Ruin To Resurrection." This is one of the best books I have ever read! I don't see how anyone could ever read this book and continue to believe in the traditional view of hell. Thank You, Bro. Maxey!

From a New Reader in California:

Please add me to your mailing list for Reflections. I grew up in the Church of Christ with a father who was a minister for this group. I now serve as an elder for a local Independent Christian Church. May God continue to bless your life, your studies of His Word, and your ability to document them so clearly and logically.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I haven't written to you in a while, but I wanted to express my thanks again for your Reflections articles. If not for them, I never would have found out about Dr. Leroy Garrett. He's quite an intellect, and evidently quite a writer. I have been reading a lot of his articles, as well as yours. I found one today that explains quite well the mentality of making "the collection" an act of worship. He describes very well, according to Scripture, what it is and isn't. You have probably read his thoughts on this already, but I'll provide the link anyway (Click Here).

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Your latest article "Mission or Model?" (Reflections #651) was excellent! It is utterly foolish for someone to pin their legalistic doctrines on precise readings of uncertain textual variants. Certainly our God is sufficiently powerful and resourceful to have included doctrinal "proof texts" within the Scriptures had that been His intention. Instead, He inspired His apostle Paul to write Galatians 5:1. We have been set free from the legalistic approach of the Pharisees, and are left free to depend on the unfathomable grace of our Creator, Lord, and Savior. Praise be to God! And may God bless you and enrich your service in His Kingdom.

From a Missionary to Tanzania, Africa:

What a great article ("Mission or Model?")! At 73 years of age, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that something is wrong, and your article strikes at the very heart of the problem! But, sadly, I must add that few will heed the message you presented. There are five Churches of Christ just in our home area in the States that have closed their doors, and at least three more are no more than four years away from doing the same. Interestingly, no one seems to be asking the question: Why?! Of course, this applies to many other denominational groups as well. Part of the problem, as you well know, started way back in Constantine's time, and I really do believe that. I have adopted a new name for Christendom in America: Capitalistic, Civil, Secular Religion. In other words: The Worldly Church. The solution is simple when applied. The action required is difficult, however. Walk, talk, think and do just like Jesus. Now, that's a tough one! Thanks again for your Reflections article.

From a Reader in Alabama:

"Mission or Model?" is a beautiful piece, my brother! Thank you for writing it. It thrills my soul.

From a New Reader in Washington:

Bro. Maxey, I recently received a copy of one of your Reflections from the preacher of the Church of Christ in --------, California. I found that this article I received ("Mission or Model?") hit the head of the nail right on regarding some very serious issues in today's church. If possible, would you mind adding my name to your Reflections publication mailing list? Thank you, and may God's grace and peace be with you.

From a Reader in Nova Scotia, Canada:

My beloved brother, "Mission or Model?" is one of the shortest and yet most pointed articles you have ever done! It most assuredly came directly from your heart, and I have felt the same way for years. When I was preaching for one of the most conservative congregations of the Churches of Christ in Ontario, 90% of their budget was to cover the cost of building maintenance and staff. There was little left for missions or evangelism. Even as a young man, I could not see how this could possibly be right. Al, you have produced one of the purest articles you have ever done, and it touches a spot in my heart. Yes, any excuse of disciples during the week to speak of Christ to others is "churching." Hide ourselves under a church roof? NO, NO! My, my, how I love you and your mission! We are brothers for all eternity!!

From a Reader in Texas:

When we stopped being the church on the "wrong side of the tracks" is when our mission changed. We went from circuit preachers to "those with degrees only need to apply" preachers. Elders have become CEOs instead of servants. Church members and elders talk the talk (sometimes), but don't walk the walk. We stopped growing and started swelling. I like what you say, Al, but you "water it down" too much to suit me. The Churches of Christ today are like those denounced in Scripture with "itching ears" who seek preachers after their own traditions. Sadly, the mainline church member probably never reads your material, and honestly I don't think they could handle it if they did! I am now 82, and I feel betrayed by the "church." Oh well, God is still in control and the blood of Jesus still covers my sin. So, Come Lord Jesus!! Preach the Word, brother!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, thank you again for another wonderful article ("Mission or Model?")! If it weren't for my belief that the church is not a building, but a people, I would quit and stay home rather than sit every Lord's day and listen to a "preacher" twist Scripture to try and prove baptism is what saves us and that there is some "pattern" that I can't find, but which we must all follow perfectly. The fellowship, singing, and partaking of the Communion are the only saving graces of this congregation. Most here are completely tradition bound, and are not in the least interested in learning Truth!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, "Mission or Model?" was such a great article! It defines our mission well. May God continue to heap His blessings upon you and your ministry.

From a Reader in Georgia:

In your article "Mission or Model?" you wrote, "Our goal has shifted from bringing people to the Lord so they may learn to look like Him, to bringing people to our buildings so that they may look like us!" WOW!! That's it in a nutshell. I hope this article touches a nerve in the people of God.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Al, you are so right on so often! God bless you and your ministry.

From a Reader in Texas:

Another great article ("Mission or Model?"). Rick Atchley often reminds us here that "mission trumps tradition." Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

From an Author/Publisher in Nevada:

Al, your comments to the last letter in the previous Readers' Reflections section (in response to the reader from Georgia) was so well worded, tightly worded, that it is essentially unanswerable by your critics! Let us ever focus on the finished work of Jesus in His life and sacrifice. You left out nothing, while being so succinct. Excellent. As for your response to the first letter in that same issue of Reflections regarding the four cups of wine at the Passover meal, you have it exactly right. I'm really sorry you won't be at The Tulsa Workshop this year. I will miss you!!

From a Reader in Australia:

It's a while since I contacted you, but it's not because you are out of my thoughts or prayers. You, Shelly, as well as all of your family (especially your grandson Jacob) remain in my prayers daily. I continue to value your Reflections, and I continue to pass on the link to your web site regularly as your writings have so much meaty material (in fact, it is impossible to fully digest your studies in just a week). I was sad when I read recently that you would not be at The Tulsa Workshop this year, as I know how much time and effort you put into the preparation and presentation of your talks. I look back on our times together in Tulsa with great joy, as you and Shelly were a great blessing to me! May you and your family receive a great blessing today.

From a Reader in California:

I just had an epiphany after reading your response to the reader in Georgia in the Readers' Reflections section of your last issue of Reflections. I was raised in the mainline Church of Christ, and we were always taught that Acts 2:38 says that we are baptized FOR the forgiveness of sins. In other words, forgiveness of sins was something that we "lucky folks" received because we were humble enough and righteous enough to go and get baptized. It was almost like a business transaction we entered into with God because we had screwed up in the past. After reading your response to this reader from Georgia, and then rereading Acts 2, I saw that Peter's statement in Acts 2:38 was in response to a question asked by the audience on the day of Pentecost. Their question was asked in response to Peter's statement that Jesus was made both Lord and Messiah. That Peter would be referring to repentance and baptism as a response to Jesus' already accomplished work of salvation would make much more sense than it referring to some sort of business transaction in which we are required to engage in order to prevent eternal damnation. As Paul points out, it is simply our holy imitation of and participation in Christ's death, burial and resurrection. This also puts 1 Peter 3:21 in a whole new light. Thank you for helping me to see repentance and baptism in a more holy light.

From an Elder in Oklahoma:

I have a request, if you are not too busy. I respect your thinking and would appreciate your help. I would like to add some kind of "statement of beliefs" to our church web site. I really like the Vision & Beliefs statement from Oak Hills, however their Baptism a Demonstration of Devotion statement is much longer than I have in mind. I would like a short paragraph similar in length to the other paragraphs in their belief statement. Do you have anything like that available? I continue to love and appreciate you and your Reflections. God bless you with physical, mental, and spiritual strength.

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