In Luke 3:16-17, John the Baptist says:
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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 granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
What did he mean?
There are four key elements that need to be explained and understood:
- Baptism with water
- Baptism with the Holy Spirit
- Baptism with fire
In the New Testament, baptism was practiced by John the Baptist and Jesus’ disciples, and commanded by Jesus himself (see Matthew 28:16-20) as a permanent ritual, or sacrament, that would introduce people into the Christian church. Those who are baptized are considered Christians, whether baptized as infants or as adults.
Baptism itself is a ritual of cleansing. As originally practiced, it involved being fully immersed in flowing water such as the Jordan River.
In non-religious terms, baptism is a bath. The purpose of a bath physically is to clean the body of dirt and impurities.
Spiritually, therefore, baptism represents the cleansing of a person from evil, falsity, and sin. This is the first step in the process of being born again, or spiritual rebirth.
That is why baptism is presented in the New Testament as “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:38, 13:24, 19:4). Baptism is not about mere physical cleansing; it is a ritual symbolic of the spiritual cleansing of repentance from our sins, and thereby accepting God’s forgiveness, entering into the Christian religion, and being born again as a new creation in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
In Christianity, baptism takes the place of all the Old Testament rituals of washing and purification.
Luke 3:16 and Matthew 3:11 speak of three forms of baptism:
- with water
- with the Holy Spirit
- with fire
Since baptism in general represents a cleansing of Christian believers from evil, falsity, and sin, each of these forms of baptism represent a cleansing at a different level of a Christian’s life.
Baptism with water
In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist says:
I baptize you with water for repentance.
In the Bible, water is often used as a symbol of truth. For example, Deuteronomy 32:2 reads:
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.
Baptism with water, then, represents allowing our lives to be cleansed by the truth of Jesus’ teaching.
But more specifically, the baptism of water performed by John the Baptist was a baptism of repentance from evil, falsity, and sin in a person’s outward behavior.
When the people being baptized by John asked him what they must do, he told them that they must stop acting wrongly, and start acting rightly:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:10-14)
In fact, John’s imprisonment and later execution by Herod was a result of his rebuking Herod for his behavior:
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. (Luke 3:19-20)
The first baptism, then, baptism by water, represents the cleansing of our outward actions, and our speech, from evil, falsity, and sin.
The first step in Christian life and rebirth is to stop speaking falsehoods and lies, and stop doing things that are evil and sinful. This is the “baptism of water for repentance” practiced by John the Baptist and by the disciples of Jesus.
But there are two further, and deeper, forms of baptism. John the Baptist said that Jesus Christ (the “one more powerful than I” who “is coming”) “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Baptism with the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit, like water, refers to truth. But it is truth of a deeper kind. It is not outward truth, but “the spirit of truth”:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13, and see also John 14:16-17, 15:26)
Baptism with the Holy Spirit, then, is the next step beyond the cleansing of our outward life through repenting from sin and instead speaking and acting with kindness and truth. Baptism with the Holy Spirit is the cleansing of our inward self, and specifically of our thoughts and beliefs.
The truth that does this is not the outward truth of right behavior represented by the baptism of water performed by John the Baptist, but the deeper spiritual and divine truth that cleanses our mind and spirit from falsity and error.
When we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit into all the truth. We allow the Holy Spirit to re-form our thinking, our faith, our beliefs. The result of baptism with the Holy Spirit is that our mind is enlightened, and we walk in the light of God’s spiritual truth.
Baptism with fire
The third and final form of baptism mentioned in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16 is baptism with fire.
Since ancient times, in all cultures, fire with its warmth has been seen as a symbol of love. In the ancient love poem called “The Song of Solomon,” 8:6, we read:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
And when Solomon dedicated the first temple, and the people saw fire from the Lord descending over it, they instinctively recognized that it represented the Lord’s love for them:
When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 7:3, italics added)
When Jesus Christ baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, it is a baptism with spiritual and divine truth.
When Jesus Christ baptizes us with fire, it is a baptism with spiritual and divine love.
Having had our outward behavior cleansed with the baptism of water, and our mind cleansed with the spirit of truth, the third baptism is to have our heart cleansed with the baptism of the fire of God’s love.
We humans are a mixture of good and evil loves and motives. Some of the things we want are good. We may enjoy doing a kind deed for a fellow human being in need. But some of the things we want are bad. We may enjoy cussing out someone who has crossed us.
Perhaps through the power of Christ working in our lives we have been able to reform our behavior so that we no longer cuss people out, lie, steal, and so on. Perhaps we even know in our mind that these things are wrong, and we therefore discipline ourselves not to act on them even when we desperately want to.
In the final baptism, the baptism with fire, Jesus Christ cleanses our hearts, meaning our loves, desires, and motives, so that we no longer even want those evil things. We no longer have those evil and selfish impulses. Or if we ever do, instead of feeling the old pleasure at the thought of slugging someone who’s insulted us, we find the very thought of doing such a thing intensely distressing and unpleasant.
Baptism with fire is the cleansing of our loves, desires, and motives from all evil, selfish, and greedy impulses, and from the pleasure we used to get from nursing and indulging in those evil desires.
The intense process of purification by fire
This does not happen easily.
It is no accident that “trial by fire” is a process of intense heat, the burning off of chaff, and the purging of dross from metal ores in the process of refining them with intense heat:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:17)
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Malachi 3:1-3)
This cleansing of the heart in the fire of divine love does not happen without the burning off of all our selfish and greedy thoughts and desires in the heated crucible of hard life experience.
As those selfish and greedy thoughts of ours force their way out into harsh words and wrong actions, the impure parts of ourselves are incinerated by “burning coals being heaped upon us” (see Proverbs 25:21-22; Romans 12:19-21), meaning the knowledge and awareness of our own selfishness and greed, and the painful experience of the terribly destructive words and actions that they lead us to say and do.
As we experience these things, the evil desires of our hearts are purged from us, until we no longer have any desire to say and do those evil and destructive things, and take no pleasure in them whatever, but find them horrifying and disgusting.
This is the “baptism with fire” with which Jesus will baptize us if we follow him to the end, fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
As we go through this full process of being born again by being baptized with water, the Holy Spirit, and fire, Jesus Christ cleanses our actions, our thoughts, and our desires. In other words, he cleanses us completely, from head to toe and from the outside in.
This process continues throughout our lifetime here on earth. And since even “the heavens are not clean in God’s sight” (Job 15:15), we continue to be purified and perfected in heaven to all eternity.
- Baptism with water is the cleansing of our outward speech and behavior from evil actions and lies.
- Baptism with the Holy Spirit is the cleansing of our mind and spirit from falsity and error.
- Baptism with fire is the cleansing of our heart from evil impulses and desires, and from the pleasure we used to derive from them.
(Note: This post is an edited version of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading:
Hi Lee, thank you, this is really clear. So baptism is a life long process not at all just the ceremony. What is the difference between baptism and the word used in Swedenborg’s works a lot; ” regeneration” or is it the same? And also, why do we baptise babies? Ta, Bronwyn
Yes, the ceremony of baptism is symbolic of a lifelong process of spiritual baptism.
“Regeneration” is just a Latinized form of “born again” as used by Jesus in the Bible (see John 3:1-8). So it’s not the same thing as baptism. However, baptism is closely related to being born again, or regenerated, because the spiritual cleansing represented by baptism is an integral part of the process of being born again. Baptism is also widely seen as a ritual of spiritual rebirth.
Baptizing babies vs. adults has been somewhat controversial among various sects of Christians. Some practice infant baptism, others do not. From Swedenborg’s perspective, when infants are baptized, it represents a commitment by their parents to raise them as Christians and teach them right from wrong both in word and by example. When adults are baptized it is a commitment by the baptized people themselves to become, and live as, Christians, engaging in self-examination and repentance from sins, and living by the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Thanks Lee, I’ll be giving this to my daughter to read too as it is very clearly put.
Peace Minister Lee Woofenden and Wife, I am led to your writings in clarification of water and fire and Holy Spirit Baptism research. The Holy Spirit flows through your writing voice which is assuring and anointing. Some would receive this information as a religious encyclopedia others like myself and even me by myself receive this news as the Good news of JESUS Christ. I say that HE has allowed me entrance into a new knowledge, now knowing now sharing to the mutual edification of Christians. Thank you, Sincerely John G. Dewberry – Let Peace Be a Blessing
Thank you for stopping by, and for your gracious words.
May the Lord God Jesus Christ richly bless you, your work, and your loved ones.
the cleansing fire..
any thoughts on a relationship to THE LAKE OF FIRE
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and query.
Everything in the Bible can have either a positive or a negative meaning. The negative meaning is the opposite of the positive meaning.
As explained in the above article, fire, in a good sense, means love—especially love for God and for our fellow human beings. Fire in a negative sense means loving only ourselves and our own power, wealth, and pleasure. This involves hating everyone who doesn’t bow down to us and serve us and make us rich and give us pleasure. This kind of love is the exact opposite of the positive kind of love, which is loving God and the neighbor—which does include ourselves, but not an exclusive love of ourselves.
The reason hell is pictured in the Bible as a lake of fire is not that hell is literally people roasting in flames, but that in hell everyone loves only themselves, and hates everyone else—especially if they don’t bow down to them and serve them. This is the hellish fire of hatred, anger, and jealousy against everyone who doesn’t agree with us and serve our needs.
all who do good in accordance with the truth of their religion will be accepted by Jesus into heaven (since God is goodness itself), and doing good joins one with God. (Swedenborgianism on Wiki)…..this is curious since the word of God says “There is none that does good….no not one”….this appears to be one of many “works for salvation” schemes that are present in the world. I cannot accept any method of salvation other than Jesus sacrifice for me …It was enough to satisfy God the Creators requirement for all payment of sin…mine included. From what I can gather Mr Swedenborg was deceived as are many who try to use good works as a means of entry into the Kingdom of Christ
Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. However:
Where does the Bible say that “Jesus’ sacrifice was good enough to satisfy God the Creator’s requirement for all payment of sin?” I don’t see that anywhere in the Bible. I don’t see anything that says that God required a payment for sin, nor do I see anything in the Bible that says that Jesus paid the penalty or price for sin. If this were true, then Jesus would be saving us, not from the power of the Devil as the Bible teaches, but from God. And that is blasphemy.
Jesus did not come to save us from the penalty of sin or to pay the price of sin. He came to save us from our sins. That is what the Bible teaches (Matthew 1:21).
I am sorry to say that you have been taught many things that simply aren’t in the Bible. In fact, the things you have been taught about salvation were not part of Christian belief until Protestant leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin invented them nearly 1,500 years after the last books of the Bible were written. The Bible mentions faith alone once and only once, and in that one passage faith alone is specifically rejected:
This is why Martin Luther tried to remove the book of James, along with three other books of the New Testament, from the Bible. He thought that if the Bible disagreed with his newly invented doctrine of justification by faith alone, then the Bible must be changed, not his doctrine. And Protestants have been following Luther’s doctrine instead of the Bible ever since.
Paul never said that we are saved by faith alone, without good works. In fact, he said that people who do good will be saved, while those who do evil will be damned (Romans 2:5–11). And Jesus certainly never said we are saved by faith alone, without doing good works, nor did any of his other apostles.
This idea of salvation by faith alone was invented by Martin Luther. It is not in the Bible. For more on this, please see:
Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
About “There is none that does good, not one” (Psalm 53, and quoted in Romans 3:9-12), it doesn’t say no one can do good. It says no one is doing good; that all are under the power of sin. That is precisely why Jesus came: to save us from our sins, so that we can do good—not from our own power, but from his power, when he has cleansed us from sin:
The Bible never says that we are incapable of doing good. Only that in fact we don’t do good, which is why we need a Savior, who is Jesus Christ. From his power, we can do good. Without his power, nothing we do is good, because it is selfish and worldly in its goals.
The entire New Testament is about repenting from our sins and becoming righteous people (“holy ones,” or “saints”) through the power of Jesus Christ working in us. That is why Jesus tells us that those who do good deeds for their fellow human beings will go to eternal life, while those who do not will go to eternal punishment. You can read it for yourself in Matthew 25:31–46.
Those “Christian teachers” who are telling you that the Bible says we do not have to do good works in order to be saved are contradicting Paul, James, John, Peter, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself, as well as the entire teaching of both the New Testament and the Old Testament.
Wow, thanks so much Lee for this teaching. I’m blessed. Be blessed also. Again, many thanks.
Thanks, and Godspeed on your spiritual journey!