“In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: ‘I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.’ A Christian brother recently identified this ‘fire’ with the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost. Would you comment on this?”
I believe the brother is mistaken in his view. Several things should be noted.
First, it should be understood that Matthew’s record is a very abbreviated account of John’s ongoing ministry. Vast multitudes were pursuing John as he preached in “the wilderness of Judaea” (3:1, 5). The verb “went out” (v. 5) is an imperfect tense form, which suggests a steady stream of auditors.
Additionally, the careful student will recognize that these crowds were of a mixed quality. Some were sincere; they confessed their sins and were immersed by John in the Jordan (v. 6). Others, quite obviously, were caught up in the emotionalism of the occasion. Among these were Sadducees and Pharisees.
John characterized these Jews as “offspring of vipers,” who would be advised to “flee from the wrath that is to come” (v. 7). This possibly has a more immediate reference to the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. the reference to “even now the axe lies at the root of the trees” [v. 10]), but then, more remotely, to the final day of human reckoning (v. 12).
Also, John’s language in verse eleven would be obscure but for hints within the immediate context and additional information elsewhere relative to baptism in the Holy Spirit. His statement is characterized almost certainly by wide-sweeping, generic terminology, which applied to more than one group.
In light of these factors, please consider the following:
The promise, “he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit,” has reference to the apostles. The Savior’s testimony in Acts 1 establishes this: “[F]or John indeed baptized with water; but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (v. 5).
It will hardly be denied that there is a connection between Acts 1:5 and Matthew 3:11. The promise was fulfilled on Pentecost when the apostles received an “overwhelming” (the significance of baptizo) measure of the Spirit’s power (Acts 2:1ff).
But what is the significance of the “fire” in John’s statement? The immediate context would suggest that it is an allusion to the final fate of the wicked. Verse ten says that “every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Then, at the conclusion of verse twelve, Jesus continues: “whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
Why should the “fire” of verse eleven be viewed as something different from that referenced in verses ten and twelve, without some sort of compelling justification?
Of this expression in Matthew 3:11, J. H. Thayer commented: “to overwhelm with fire (those who do not repent), i.e., to subject them to the terrible penalties of hell” (1958, 94). W. E. Vine noted regarding the “fire” of this passage: “of the fire of Divine judgment upon the rejectors of Christ, Matt. 3:11 (where a distinction is to be made between the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the fire of Divine retribution)” (1991, 308). Arndt and Gingrich speak of the “fire of divine Judgment Mt. 3:11; Lk. 3:16” (1967, 737). Finally, as J. W. McGarvey observed, the phrase “baptize you . . . in fire” cannot refer to Pentecost, because there was no “baptism of fire” on that day. Parted “tongues,” which were merely “like as of fire . . . sat upon” each of the apostles. Those brothers were not “overwhelmed with fire” on that occasion (1875, 38).