Question: What did John the Baptist mean when he said of Jesus: “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost [Spirit], and with fire” (Matthew 3: 11).
Answer: To understand John’s words let us bear in mind that he was addressing mixed classes of the Jews. People came out to him from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, including Pharisees and Sadducees (verses 5, 7). John came as the introducer of Jesus and the Gospel, and looking forward, he prophetically foretold the results: “Now also the axe [of Divine judgment] is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit [the fruitage of righteousness] is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (verse 10).
Then he spoke the words of our text. Some of his hearers included in the “you” would receive Jesus, and these (Israelites indeed) would be baptized with the holy spirit (at Pentecost), but others whom he was then addressing would not receive Jesus; hence when their house (nominal Fleshly Israel) would be left desolate (Matthew 23: 37-39), they would be baptized with fire – the judgments which came upon them as a people after their rejection of Jesus – not literal fire – but the fire of God’s wrath, the fire of trouble that culminated in the destruction of the Jewish nation in 69-73 A.D.
That the above is the correct understanding is proven further by verse 12, which is a repetition of the same thoughts in different words: “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor [this shows the main work of Jesus during His 3 years’ ministry; as a winnower He separated the wheat of the Jewish people from the chaff], and gather his wheat [the true Israelites indeed] into the garner [the Christian Church]; but he will burn up the chaff [the rest of the nation, the refuse] with unquenchable fire [sure destruction – the great fire of religious and political contention which destroyed the Jewish nation].” Thus John told his mixed audience that, whereas he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize them with the holy spirit and with fire. Some received the one and others the other kind of baptism.
It is a serious mistake for any of God’s people to pray for a baptism of fire, for such are actually, though unwittingly, praying for a curse instead of a blessing. It is to their advantage if God does not answer such a petition.