By Dale Chamberlain, Crosswalk.com
The phrase “baptism by fire” is often used to describe a difficult transition. It might be used to describe a new soldier enduring boot camp, a person who just got a promotion or who has recently changed professions or organizations, or even a guardian caring for the multiple children of a loved one.
Like many commonly used phrases, we will often use it without realizing where it comes from or what it originally meant. And that’s okay. But what does “baptism of fire” actually mean, and where does that phrase come from? Is it a biblical concept, and if so, what is its significance?
Here’s a closer look at the phrase, what it means, and how it’s come to be used in casual settings.
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Baptism of Fire in the Bible
We don’t really see this phrase “baptism of fire” appear in the New Testament apart from one event in the days leading up to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when John the Baptizer was out baptizing new followers. As he called the people back to faith in God, John spoke about another that would come, whose ministry would be greater than his own.
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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.’ – Luke 3:15-17
A question that often arises from John’s words is whether “fire” and “the Holy Spirit” are describing two different baptisms that Jesus would bring, or if John is simply using two words to describe the same thing. To answer this question, it’s helpful to look at the record of John’s words in the other gospel accounts.
These same words of John are also recorded in Matthew 3:11-12 pretty much verbatim. But in Mark 1:8, John is recorded as saying that the Messiah would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, leaving out a mention of fire. This seems to indicate that John simply used “fire” as a descriptor of the Holy Spirit. Since Mark’s gospel is much shorter, he likely didn’t add the word “fire” to his account to keep the account short while describing the same idea.
So John the Baptizer’s point is that while he’s baptizing the people with water as an outward sign of their repentance and faith in God, Jesus would come with a baptism of the Holy Spirit—meaning that he would literally immerse his followers into the Spirit of God himself.
And once his followers were immersed by the Holy Spirit, this would be the determining factor between eternal salvation or eternal judgment. Holy Spirit baptism is the winnowing fork, separating the wheat and the chaff. So while water baptism is important, baptism of the Holy Spirit is the true marker of saving faith.
But when John the Baptizer said that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit, what did this actually look like?
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What Baptism of the Holy Spirit Means
We get our first glimpse of Holy Spirit baptism on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and all his followers were gathered together.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4
When the Holy Spirit first falls on the disciples, he appears as a tongue of fire that rests on each of them. And in that moment, they are granted power, authority, and special giftings that they use to spread the message of Jesus.
While Pentecost was an extraordinary circumstance, anyone who comes to faith in Jesus is baptized in the Holy Spirit, and they receive spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4). These gifts are meant to be used to serve the mission of Jesus through the Church.
The Holy Spirit is also the one who empowers life transformation. The apostle Paul tells us that if we walk with the Spirit, then we will bear the fruit of the Spirit—namely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
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Is There a 'Second Baptism?'
In more charismatic circles of the Church, certain Christian leaders often speak of a second baptism—which is typically when you receive the spiritual gift of tongues. This second baptism has less to do with your salvation and more with exercising charismatic gifts like tongues, their interpretation, or prophecy.
Considerable debate exists among believers about whether these gifts of the Holy Spirit are still operative in the Church. Cessationists contend that the proper use of these gifts ended with the first generation of the church, led by the apostles. Continuationists, on the other hand, argue that every spiritual gift continues to be operative in the church today. Faithful, Bible-believing followers of Jesus land on either side of this debate.
However, there is little biblical support for the idea that you need to be immersed by the Holy Spirit a second time before you can access all of your gifts. Since you are in Christ from the moment of your salvation, every operative gift is available to you from that moment on.
How The Phrase 'Baptism by Fire' Is Commonly Used
You may be wondering, based on this understanding of the phrase, how “baptism by fire” came to be used to describe a difficult initiation into a new situation, whether it’s basic training for the military or a fast transition into new job responsibilities. Ironically, using the phrase in those instances is actually a misquote of a different biblical idea—trial by fire, which we find in 1 Peter.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 1:6-7
Peter’s point is that the difficult trials and hardships of our lives are like a fire that tests the genuineness of gold and that burns out any impurities in the metal. Though we don’t enjoy the fire, it serves to sharpen our faith and accelerate our maturity. This is likely the idea that’s intended when someone casually uses the phrase “baptism of fire.” It’s just a slight misquote of the original phrase “trial by fire.”
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3 Ways You Can Know You’re in Step with the Holy Spirit
As soon as you put your trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in your life. He is always with you, and his power is always available to you. Here are 3 ways you know you are tapping into the supernatural power that Jesus has given to you through the presence of his Spirit.
1. You are growing in love. One of the key markers of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life is the way that you love others. This is one of the last things that Jesus told his disciples before going to the cross.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:35
The world will know that we follow Jesus not by how we vote or how many Sundays out of the year we attend church. The world will know about Jesus by the way we show his love.
2. You are becoming more like Jesus. Another key aspect of walking in the Spirit is that your life will begin to look more and more like Jesus. You will begin to step away from things like bitterness, jealousy, greed, lust, and anger. You’ll step toward things like love, kindness, generosity, justice, and purity. And that’s because following Jesus revolutionizes everything about your life.
Paul puts it this way:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17
3. You are living with purpose. We all want to live with purpose. In fact, it’s a desire that God has put within you. David puts it this way in one of his psalms:
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. – Psalm 57:2
The thing about walking with the Spirit is that he gives your life so much meaning and purpose. He fulfills his purpose in you. He causes you to become the person you were always meant to be. You fulfill your purpose when you use your unique passions, gifts, and skills to love and serve others in the name of Jesus. And that’s exactly the work that the Holy Spirit will do within you if you walk with him and listen to his voice.
And that’s what it means to be baptized with Holy Spirit fire.
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