“I am not even worthy to untie the strap of his sandals!” That John would compare himself to Jesus in this way is very important in showing the humble and obedient heart of John, who was God’s loyal servant. John’s comparison occurs in all four Gospels (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16, and John 1:27). Matthew is slightly different but the heart is the same.
“holy spirit or with fire.” In this context, “holy spirit or with fire” is a better way to translate the text than “holy spirit and fire,” because, as we will see, in this context the “fire” is the fire of God’s judgment.
There has been a long debate among theologians about what the “fire” in the phrase “holy spirit and fire” refers to. Some say it refers to God’s judgment. Those theologians point out that each person will either be saved and be baptized in holy spirit or they will remain unsaved and be “baptized” in fire—thrown into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:12-15). Other theologians assert that the “fire” refers to the fire of God’s presence and spiritual cleansing. Those theologians say that in the same way that Peter speaks of the “fiery ordeal” (or “trial by fire”) that believers go through (1 Pet. 4:12), so it is that every believer goes through a fire of spiritual cleansing as they mature in the Lord.
In Scripture, “fire” can refer to something good or to something bad; either the presence and acceptance of God, or the judgment of God. For example, in Exodus 3:2, when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, the fire represented the presence of God, and we find that meaning throughout the Bible (cp. Gen 15:17; Exod. 13:21; 19:18; 1 Kings 18:38; 1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7:1; Acts 2:3). But we also see fire being used as the fire of God’s judgment throughout the Bible (Gen. 19:24; Exod. 9:23; Lev. 10:2; Num. 11:1; 16:35; 2 Kings 1:14; Rev. 11:5; 20:9, 14). The point is that when we see fire in Scripture, we have to learn from the context whether it represents the presence and acceptance of God or the judgment of God.
In the context of what John the Baptist was saying, the “fire” that the Messiah will baptize some people with is the fire of judgment. To understand what John the Baptist said, we need to examine all three of the Gospel records in which John says the Messiah will baptize in holy spirit (Matt. 3:1-12; Mark 1:4-8; Luke 3:2-18).
Matthew records that John the Baptist was speaking to a group of Sadducees and Pharisees, and they almost always opposed God and Jesus. John knew that at least a large part of their group was unsaved and headed for destruction in the Lake of Fire, so he spoke very directly and sternly to them to warn them of their fate. In Matthew 3:7, he called them “offspring of vipers,” and asked them, “who warned you to flee from the wrath that is about to come?” John was directly warning those religious leaders about the wrath that would come upon them on the Day of Judgment. He instructed them to produce fruit—godly actions—to demonstrate repentance (Matt. 3:8).
John also warned those Sadducees and Pharisees not to think of themselves as saved just because their ancestor was Abraham; which may seem strange to us today but was a common belief among the Jews (Matt. 3:9). Like many people in their culture, they may have thought that they did not need to repent since they were Jews and were elected by God to be in the covenant. However, John addressed that point and said that they should not remain stubborn and unrepentant, thinking that simply because they are children of Abraham that God will accept them. So the “take-home message” of Matthew 3:7-9 from John to the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they were the offspring of vipers and needed to repent.
John intensified his message to the Pharisees and Sadducees in the next three verses, Matthew 3:10-12. In all three of those verses John spoke about fire, and the content of the verses shows that the “fire” is the fire of Judgment, which for those Jews would be the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:12-15). In Matthew 3:10, John made a statement that might be unclear to us, but was crystal clear to the religious leaders standing in front of him. He said, “Indeed, the axe is already laid down at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not bring forth good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” In the biblical culture, a “tree” was often used to represent people, especially leaders. By the figure of speech hypocatastasis, John called the religious leaders “trees,” and said if they did not bring forth good fruit they would be burned! It is not likely that the religious leaders misunderstood what John was saying.
The Old Testament has many references in which people are called trees or compared to trees or plants (cp. Ps. 37:35; 52:8; 92:12; Song 7:8; Isa. 56:3; Jer. 11:19; Ezek. 17:5, 24; 20:47; 31:3, 9). A very well-known example is in Daniel 4:7-22 where Nebuchadnezzar is represented as a huge tree that provides shelter and shade for birds and animals, but then is cut down. Also, Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, told a story about how the trees wanted to set a king over themselves and asked the olive tree and fig tree to reign over them (Judg. 9:7-13). Jesus referred to people as plants when he said, “Every plant my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13).
Matthew 3:11 continues John’s warning to the stubborn religious leaders. He told them that he baptized with water and thus gave people a chance to repent, but the one coming after him—the Messiah—would baptize with either holy spirit or fire. Although in most English translations John the Baptist is recorded as saying that the coming Messiah would baptize “you” (the Sadducees and Pharisees) with “holy spirit and fire,” that does not make sense in this context. The Messiah was not going to baptize those unsaved “offspring of vipers” with holy spirit. The word “and” in the phrase, “holy spirit and fire,” is the Greek word kai, and it can be quite flexible in its usage. It usually means “and,” but in different contexts, it can mean “and yet,” “but,” “neither,” “and then,” “then,” “and so,” “so,” “indeed,” “nevertheless,” “also,” “likewise,” and it can also, in some circumstances mean “or.”
Examples of kai meaning “or” in the Bible include: “whether short or long” (Acts 26:29 ESV); “a woman who is no longer married or has never been married” (1 Cor. 7:34 NLT); “two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1 ESV); “no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Gal. 3:28 HCSB); and “the mark on their foreheads or their hands” (Rev. 20:4 ESV). We should also remember that John the Baptist would have almost certainly been speaking Hebrew or Aramaic to the religious leaders, and in both those languages the word for “and,” “but,” and “or” can be the same word, with the meaning coming from the context. Thus, what the Greek records as a kai, usually “and,” could have been more clearly an “or” when spoken by John the Baptist.
It is possible, but does not make as clear a translation in English, that because the “you” in the phrase “baptize you with holy spirit and fire” is plural, that it could refer to the whole group, not an individual (although it is common for a group of individuals to be addressed in the plural). In that case, the meaning would be that the Messiah would baptize the group with holy spirit and fire, with some of them getting the holy spirit and some getting the fire. But given that the kai can be “or,” and wanting the English translation to communicate the truth of the situation as clearly as possible, the translation, “holy spirit or fire” is to be preferred because, in the end, each individual in the group will either be baptized in holy spirit or fire.
As we study the context of “baptize you with the holy spirit or fire” we see that John is pointing out to the religious leaders the two possible ends of their behavior: they would either be saved and get to enter the Kingdom and be baptized with holy spirit, “or” they would remain unsaved, and on Judgment Day they would be cast into the flames of Gehenna and be “baptized in fire,” and be burned up.
In Matthew 3:12, John continued his warning to the Sadducees and Pharisees that they were in danger of dying in the Lake of Fire. He portrayed the Messiah as a farmer landowner who had just harvested his crop of grain. He stands with his winnowing fork is in his hand, ready to sift all the grain (people) into two basic categories: wheat (saved) and chaff (unsaved). The wheat will be cared for (gathered into the barn), while the chaff will be burned up.
So Matthew 3:10 and 3:12 are very similar. Fruitful trees and good grain are valued and cared for, while fruitless trees and chaff are burned up. Thus Matthew 3:10-12 are three back-to-back illustrations of the two possible ends for the religious leaders (indeed, for all people): get saved, which will result in entering the Kingdom and being baptized with holy spirit, or remain unsaved and be destroyed in the fire.
The Gospel of Luke is like Matthew in that it records John saying that the Messiah will baptize in holy spirit or fire. Luke adds some information that is not in Matthew or Mark and also omits some of the information given in those other Gospels. By comparing Luke with Matthew, we can tell that Luke includes the Sadducees and Pharisees in the crowd John the Baptist was speaking to. For example, like Matthew, Luke 3:7 records John saying, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Luke also records John warning the people not to think they will be saved because they have Abraham as their ancestor (Luke 3:8). However, Luke also specifically mentions tax collectors and soldiers, and both groups were notorious sinners. So it is appropriate for Luke, like Matthew, to speak specifically about the fire of judgment.
In Luke, John the Baptist gives the same three examples of God’s fire of judgment that the Gospel of Matthew records: fruitless trees being cut down and burned (Luke 3:9); the Messiah baptizing with holy spirit or with fire (Luke 3:16); and the “wheat” (righteous people) being gathered into barns while the “chaff” (unrighteous people) is burned (Luke 3:9).
The third Gospel we need to study, the Gospel of Mark, is conspicuously different from Matthew and Luke because in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist never says the Messiah will baptize in “holy spirit or fire.” Mark only records John saying that the Messiah will baptize in holy spirit; he omits the part about fire. In Mark, John the Baptist says, “I baptized you in water, but he [the Messiah] will baptize you in holy spirit.” In fact, the Gospel of Mark omits all three verses that mention fire. It never records John speaking about the fruitless trees being burned in the fire, the chaff being burned in the fire, or the Messiah baptizing in fire.
Why would Mark leave out the three verses about fire and only record John saying the Messiah would baptize in holy spirit? While Matthew focused on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the Gospel of Luke focused on sinners such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, and soldiers, the Gospel of Mark has a different focus; it focuses on the humble and righteous people in the crowd—those people who come out to John, confess their sins, and get baptized. In Mark there are no Pharisees or Sadducees mentioned—the “offspring of vipers” are absent. Thus, in contrast to Matthew and Luke, which focus on the God rejecters and people known for their sinful behavior, Mark focuses on the people who are genuinely repentant, and therefore righteous in the sight of God. In Mark, John the Baptist speaks to those people about the Messiah and says to them, “he will baptize you in holy spirit.” Mark does not record John saying the Messiah would baptize people in fire because the kind of people Mark is focusing on will not burn in the Lake of Fire, they are righteous in the sight of God.
That Mark does not say that the Messiah will baptize people “with holy spirit and with fire” is very solid evidence that the fire in the phrase “holy spirit and fire” is the fire of God’s judgment and not the fire of spiritual cleansing. If the Messiah’s baptism with fire refers to the fire of spiritual cleansing, then it ought to be in Mark as well as in Matthew and Luke because everyone needs spiritual cleansing, the best of us and the worst of us. The repentant people in Mark would need it as much as the religious leaders in Matthew. The best explanation for the Messiah’s baptism in fire to be omitted from Mark is that it is the fire of judgment. That being the case, the best way to translate what John said in Matthew and Luke is that the Messiah would baptize “with holy spirit or fire.”
Another valuable point to keep in mind before we conclude this study is that the word “baptism” can refer to having something unpleasant happen. In the New Testament, “baptism” was used of what people experienced, i.e., what they were “immersed in.” For example, speaking of his own death, in Mark 10:38, Jesus said to James and John, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” The “baptism” that Jesus referred to was his suffering and death. Similarly, when John the Baptist mentioned the Messiah baptizing people in fire, it could easily refer to the baptism of their death in the Lake of Fire.
In conclusion, let us realize that the words of John the Baptist are absolutely true. John did come and offer repentance to anyone who wanted it. And Jesus will baptize everyone in either holy spirit or fire. Repentance and salvation are still available today because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus Christ paid for everyone to be saved, so salvation is a free gift from God to mankind—all a person has to do is take it. If you want to be saved, simply do what Romans 10:9 says: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” For those who are saved, Jesus baptizes with holy spirit. Those people who refuse salvation will be baptized in the Lake of Fire until they are consumed. But there is no need for that. Life is precious and everyone can have everlasting life in paradise through Christ instead of extinction in the flames. If you have not already gotten saved, reach out and take it—you will be glad you did.
[For more on annihilation in the Lake of Fire, see Appendix 5, “Annihilation in the Lake of Fire. For more on the figure of speech hypocatastasis, see commentary on Revelation 20:2. For more information on the uses of “holy spirit”, see Appendix 6: “Usages of ‘Spirit.’”]