The Holy Spirit 2: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire

Read time: 4 minutes

Why might we be interested in what the New Testament has to say about the Holy Spirit? Probably because we want to know how the church is supposed to function, or how to correct some charismatic excess or other, or how to prove to the cessationists that they have got it wrong. Given those sorts of concerns, the likelihood is that we will start with Paul, and we will be looking for generally applicable, universally correct, ecclesiologically standardized teaching about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, come rain or shine, come hell or high water, year in year out, until the second coming. In other words, the sort of stuff you would expect to find in a systematic theology.

But in the New Testament the “Holy Spirit” is as much bound up with an eschatological narrative as anything else, and we will misunderstand what is being said if we do not take this dynamic into account from the outset. So my aim in working through the major passages dealing with the Holy Spirit is to bring into sharp focus the eschatological context. In the case of the statement by John the Baptist that the Christ will baptize Israel “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, there is actually rather more to say about the eschatological context than about the Holy Spirit:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Lk. 3:16-17; cf. Matt. 3:11-12)

The account in Matthew and Luke (Mark omits both the reference to “fire” and the subsequent verse about judgment) is clearly controlled by Malachi 3-4. The significance of this passage for understanding John’s role was indicated earlier in the angel’s words to Zechariah that John would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk. 1:17). This is a quotation from Malachi 4:6.

John is the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord to come to his temple in order to judge and purify a corrupt priesthood (Mal. 3:1-4). The day of judgment that is coming on Israel will be a day of fire; it will burn like an oven, and “all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”. It will set them ablaze, leaving them “neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1).

So when he tells the Jews that the coming Christ will baptize them with “fire”, he means that he will bring a day of judgment upon them that will destroy the arrogant and evildoers—they will be like chaff that will be burnt with “unquenchable fire”. There is no reason to generalize or spiritualize John’s words: he has in mind exactly the same sort of national disaster that Malachi predicted, as YHWH’s response to the same wretched condition of his people.

So the baptism of Israel with “fire” is fairly clear, but how are we to understand the baptism of Israel “with the Holy Spirit”? Grammatically, there would appear to be one baptism which is a matter of the Spirit and fire (en pneumati hagiōi kai puri), in which case we might conclude that the Spirit here is understood as a force for judgment, as perhaps in Isaiah 4:4:

…when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

Wind or breath is frequently a means of refining or judging the people in the Old Testament (cf. Is. 11:4; 29:6; 30:28; 57:13; Ezek. 13:13).

The traumatic event of the coming reign of God, therefore, will entail both the destruction of the wicked and the refining of the penitent. Although we might prefer to find in this verse a more positive reference to the outpouring of the Spirit as part of the renewal of the people following judgment (cf. Is. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:25-27; 39:29), this emphasis on a coming judgment that has differing consequences for the righteous and the unrighteous may fit the context better.

In any case, we cannot, merely for our own convenience, remove the statement from the eschatological context indicated by the allusions to Malachi 3-4.

Stephen | Sun, 02/19/2012 - 18:28 | Permalink
What would you say the current church is to do with this?


I plan to get to that question as I work through the rest of the New Testament. But to begin with, I suggest that the church at least needs to learn to tell the story as it was, without always attempting to assimilate it to its own modern perspective.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 02/21/2012 - 07:41 | Permalink

Andrew - If Luke 3:16-17 and Matthew 3:11-12 are “clearly controlled by Malachi 3-4”, then I doubt that their predictions are limited to or exhausted by the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Even allowing for prophetic rhetoric, there is a great deal in Malachi 3-4 that does not fit comfortably with an AD 70 fulfilment alone.  Malachi also suggests a restoration of land (3:11, 4:6), and temple (3:4) with a restoration (conditional) of tithes and offerings (3:10). Likewise when did the turning of the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers take place before AD 70, and what exactly does this mean? I think we have to ask whether Malachi 3-4 can quite so simply be connected with that one historical event alone, and especially with a literal fulfilment in past history of all of its apparently historical details.

So too with Malachi 3-4 in the Matthew and Luke accounts of Jesus baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire. What kind of baptism was implied and when did this event take place? From Pentecost onwards the Spirit is described as a “gift” poured out from the ascended, exalted Jesus (Acts 2:33), and not on one occasion only but throughout Acts, as the “gift” of righteousness and life (Acts 2:38 cp. Romans 5:17) to all who believe in him. As the phenomenon has continued in one form or another, and is foundational evidence of the new covenant then and now, it is eccentric to limit its significance exclusively to a warning of  historical judgement in AD 70.  

I think it makes better sense to see the ‘Spirit and fire” baptism of Matthew and Luke in a wider context, which includes all the double-edged consequences of the Spirit’s baptism and activity, leading to final judgement. There is a baptism by the Spirit as inauguration of the new covenant (which would bring Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s new covenant prophecy into view, with the Spirit references especially in the latter). “Fire” would include purging as well as judgement, and would certainly include  empowering for proclamation, as in the fire of Acts 2:3-4, leading  without a break to Acts 2:5-14, Peter’s speech, Acts 2:14-36, and the response of the crowd, Acts 2:37-42.

At the same time, Matthew and Luke make it clear that the other side of this Spirit activity was a separation of the wheat from the chaff, the former to be collected into the barn, the latter to be burned with “unquenchable fire” (not, apparently, a one-off annihiliation in AD 70 or later). So there were two sides to the Spirit’s activity, and we can see this in the reactions and responses for and against Jesus’s earthly ministry as a precursor to what happened when the Spirit was given in Acts 2 and subsequently. This gift of the Spirit and its immediate consequences provide a lens not simply as forewarning of AD 70, but for all the Spirit’s activity up to and including a “day of the Lord”  yet to come.

For these reasons, although I think it is right to include AD 70 as one particular consequence of Matthew and Luke’s  predicted Spirit baptism, it clearly hugely truncates their significance to leave it there.  Matthew 3:11-12 and Luke 3:16-17 had a major fulfilment in Acts 2, which is where the debate about the significance of  the Spirit and fire baptism moves next. Acts 2 and its consequences in Acts and beyond bring the final limitation of the significance of these passages to AD 70 strongly into question.

Apologies if this is too long to read.


@peter wilkinson:

Peter, we have had this debate umpteen times, and I don’t quite understand why you insist on going over it all again every time I post something.

We disagree about how Old Testament prophecy is used in the New Testament. I don’t think it matters that not every detail of Malachi 3-4 can be made to fit an AD 70 scenario. The point is that the passage has reference entirely to an impending judgment against Israel and the temple; the allusions invoke a narrative of judgment on Israel; they do not invoke at any point a narrative of judgment on humanity as a whole, and I think we should respect that. There is absolutely no reason to read a “final judgment” into the text.

In that regard, “unquenchable fire” is an allusion to Isaiah 66:24, where it is symbolic of the decisiveness of God’s judgment on rebellious Israel. It fits the argument about a coming decisive judgment on Jerusalem perfectly.

We consistently disagree about the practice of reading meaning from other parts of the New Testament (or from later theological tradition) into the text under consideration. I think that that is a disgraceful practice. If we let the baptism by Spirit and fire passages interpret themselves, according to the frame of reference that is indicated in the texts, then it seems to me that judgment on Israel is firmly in the foreground, and no appeal to what Paul will later write in Romans makes any difference to that—unless, of course, we suppose that Matthew and Luke are recording not what they think John the Baptist said but what they think he would have said if he had read Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Otherwise, as I said, grammatically one baptism is in view, and “fire” is too closely connected to the judgment verse that follows for us to dissociate this “baptism” from the theme of judgment on Jerusalem. Remember, too, that Jesus interpreted his coming death both as receiving the cup of divine judgment on Israel and as a baptism (Mk. 10:38-39). And we have this very pertinent statement in Luke 12:49-50, which also has reference to the coming judgment on Israel:

I came to cast fire on the [land], and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on [the land]? No, I tell you, but rather division.

We disagree, finally, about the meaning of Pentecost. I would argue, in fact, that rather than read these passages in the light of Pentecost, we should read the Pentecost story in the light of this thought of a “baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire”. Pentecost, as we shall see—please wait till we get to it—is not about covenant renewal; it is about the coming judgment on Jerusalem.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew – I don’t think we have ever discussed Malachi 3-4 before. I always find your posts highly interesting, and the fact that I dispute them does not mean that I have negative intentions. Website discussions are a cyber-game in part; you post your ideas; I dispute them – it’s iron sharpening iron, though the benefit is far more to me than you. I don’t think you can dismiss what I say quite as easily as you do, though.

If Malachi 3-4 is entirely about an impending judgement against Israel and the temple, and a narrative thereof, why is it that so many of the details do not fit the narrative to which you say the gospel writers were alluding? Were they just picking and choosing? Actually, I think you are doing that; they were being far more allusive. Jesus’s actions were eschatological, not in a sense of a 1st century story about Israel, but in the broader sense of bringing forward into his own time events which spoke of the end of time and final judgement. This was true of his introduction of the new creation through his resurrection, and the impartation of new creation realities to his followers who believed in him. The new creation speaks of a state of affairs to come at the end of time.  Some of the realities of that state of affairs were (and continue to be) experienced by followers of Jesus, when they received the Spirit (the Spirit poured out, the gift of the Spirit, being baptised by the Spirit). All you are doing is selectively limiting that Spirit baptism, which occurred at Pentecost and on subsequent Spirit receptions throughout Acts, to one aspect only of Malachi 3-4 which you pick up in the Matthew and Luke passages.

When you look carefully at the Matthew and Luke passages, you can see allusions to the Spirit which are more pertinent, such as “fire” in Luke 3:16-17, which is associated with the Spirit in its first reference (the Spirit being consistently linked with the favour of the new covenant in the OT and NT) and judgement in its second reference. “Fire” is picked up in Acts 2:3 and following, which I would have thought, as an extension of Luke’s gospel, is even more a neighbour of Luke 3:16 than Malachi 3-4. All of this I have spelled out as succinctly but carefully as I can in my comment, which you think does not merit any consideration. I have also very carefully pointed out a double-edged effect of the Spirit’s activity, so clearly presented in Luke 3:16-17, which is associated with the activity of Jesus himself, as the winnower. The wheat was preserved in the barn, the chaff discarded. Likewise, the Spirit continues the work of Jesus, in the rest of Acts, and to this very day. I’m sorry you can’t (won’t?) see the argument.

Isaiah 66, from which Luke3:17 may draw its imagery, is not simply a narrative about Israel in the sense that you want it to be; it is about the ingathering of the Gentiles. In view of the way in which the gentiles were ingathered in Acts, we have to balance how the narrative actually worked out with the scenario as  Isaiah saw it. Unlike the conclusion to your third paragraph, it can be said that the narrative here fits the worldwide consequences of Jesus’s actions (and intentions) perfectly. In the call between the two interpretations, the advantage of the viewpoint I hold to is that it is entirely credible; the problem with yours is that it is almost entirely incredible, when applied to events as they unfolded (and continue to unfold) in history.  When we face that choice in trying to apply interpretation to history, it’s best to look at whether a credible interpretation of the texts is better than an incredible one, however closely argued the incredible position may be. In any case, I have never disputed that impending judgement on Israel needs to be taken into account in the passages under consideration; I’m simply saying that this does not exhaust their significance – for the exegetical and historical reasons I have described.

There is nothing disgraceful in illustrating that the NT as a whole speaks with a surprisingly unified voice. The “gift” of the Spirit described in Acts 2 chimes with “gift” as descriptive language in Paul; reinforced by its attachment to the word “life”, which is regularly used of the Spirit. You have simply decided that the context of Matthew and Luke will be limited to – well, whatever you want it to be limited to. I’m simply arguing that there is a broader scriptural context. Nothing disgraceful in that.

Mark 10:38 suggests cup and baptism as a cup and baptism of judgement and suffering; and that is promised also to the disciples in 10:39 – so it cannot entirely be the unique suffering of judgement which Jesus was about to undergo, which he and no one else could experience (and why do you suppose that was?). However, even here there is a double-edged quality to the words; the cup is also the cup of the blood of the covenant in Mark 14:24, which Jesus and all the disciples drank together. Here, the cup speaks of forgiveness of sins, which in its broader sense means the conferring of the new covenant, which Jesus was about to share with his disciples. Not a cup of judgement to those who drank it, but a cup of grace and forgiveness. The simple, unqualified baptism of the Holy Spirit which John foretells in Mark 1:11 is far more likely to describe the eschatological favour implied in that event than judgement, but as I’ve argued, there is a double-edged significance to the Spirit’s activity and Spirit baptism, which other passages describe.

This double-edged Spirit activity can be seen in the next passage you quote – Luke 12:49-50. The fire Jesus came to cast on the land is not simply the fire of judgement, as we can see from the granting of the Spirit in Acts. The baptism he was to be baptised with was a baptism of suffering; but the division he promised on the land is entirely of a piece with the role and activity of the Spirit, bringing cleansing, power and passion to those who believed, and judgement on those who did not believe. (Passionate powerful resistance in many cases).

I’ll anticipate you over the meaning of Pentecost – you’ve advanced your interpretation before. There is, in my view, both judgement and salvation in the description from Joel which Peter employs. This is a continuation of the argument that can be seen at each significant point of the Spirit’s activity. However, you are (probably) about to selectively disregard the significance of the Spirit as evidence of the favour of the new covenant by taking Pentecost exclusively as a prophetic sign of impending disaster. Surprise me, by saying you won’t!

@peter wilkinson:

I am another newcomer to your blog but have been reading your back posts and looking forward to future posts and discussions.  It is so valuable to challenge our assumptions and see what happens to our understanding when we do.

I want to comment here however because while i think your reading has brought back an emphasis on eschatological judgment in interpreting these two passages that has been oft overlooked, I would not go so far as you have to say that “there is no need to generalize or spiritualize” John the Baptist’s words.  The need arises when we get to Acts 1:5-8 and the Luke-Acts author reports Jesus’ words as paralleling John’s initial words in Luke 3:16. The disciples at this point express very clear Israel-centered eschatological expectations that are perfectly reasonable in light of the related OT passages you have pointed out. Jesus indicates that their understanding is incomplete and will remain so, and in his reply states that they will be his witnesses in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. That, along with Simon Peter’s recapitulation in Acts 11:15-17 after the happenings at Cornelius’ house, constitutes generalization in my book. 

I hope I haven’t missed some post in which you have said you are only dealing with tiny chunks of the text at a time in true “explication de texte” style. I think it’s entirely fair to exclude the Pauline writings at this point, but excluding Acts would be a weakness when addressing a Lukan passage in my opinion.