In this verse, John the Baptist was preaching in Judea and began baptizing new believers in the river Jordan, saying,
Truly, I give baptism with water to those of you whose hearts are changed; but he who comes after me is greater than I, whose shoes I am not good enough to take up; he will give you baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The baptism of “water, Holy Spirit and fire.” is a fascinating topic. It is represented by and related to Moses’ Tabernacle, the Israelite’s portable holy place of worship where God interacted with them. It is also the proof that God exists, which so many people struggle over.
The Baptism by Water
The first thing that the priests – Aaron and his sons – were to do when entering the Tabernacle was to clean themselves with water from a bronze basin called the “lavar” that God instructed them to make. They were instructed to be completely clean knowing that if they were not, God would kill them. That would certainly make me wash every nook and cranny!
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it… When they approach the altar to minister by presenting a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die (Exodus 30:17-21).
It may be hard for us to understand why God was so harsh about this, but he was trying to send a message to his people then and now how much he hates sin, which is detestable and cannot be in his presence. The outer cleanliness is symbolic of their inner cleanliness; God sees right through all of our sin and searches our hearts for the truth. He doesn’t want us to have any false beliefs that his love for us gets us out of accountability for our sin.
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. Be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
In the process of baptism, dunking a person under water signifies that we understand what Jesus did for us, accept him, and are not ashamed to stand up in front of people to take a stand for him. He asks us not only to take that stand in that moment of the baptism, but for the rest of our lives. The dunking is symbolic of the suffering and death that Jesus received on the cross, was laid down into his grave, and then rose again. We now share in Jesus’ sufferings in our lives for openly and honestly living our truth.
But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1 Peter 1:6, 4:13-14)
The Baptism by Fire
In the Tabernacle, the priests were to enter the Holy Place and keep the fire going in a specially carved golden lampstand that God told them how to make.
Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other… Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning (Exodus 25:31-32, Exodus 27:21).
How this relates to the baptism of fire that John the Baptist was talking about isn’t explicitly clear, however, we can infer what it mostly likely is from context. We know that the symbol of it is the always-lit golden lampstand. God often uses the heating-purification of gold as symbolism for how God “heats up” our lives to bring attention to our impurities and to test our faith. Fire also is foretelling of what lies ahead on judgment day. Both of these concepts can be seen together in these verses:
But who can endure the day of [Jesus’] coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify… and refine them like gold and silver. [God says], “I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Malachi 3:2-5, Zechariah 13:8-9).
We also have a hand in our purification process, because it begins when we choose to obey God in accepting Jesus. We then go through a very real sensation of having our sins burned away. Many people describe it as feeling lighter, without the burden of guilt for everything that they have done in sin. Then over our lifetime God will continue to work in us to purify our hearts and lives so that we can love God, other people, and ourselves in a healthy way.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again (1 Peter 1:22).
Looking closely at how fire is represented on the Day of Judgment, we see that God gives Jesus the authority to judge the world because Jesus “is not seeking his will but God’s will.” It’s important to note here that it is not enough for a person believe there is a God without believing in Jesus, because we are told that Jesus will be the one with authority over who will receive eternal life, not God. In the following verses, I replaced a few mentions of the word “Son” with “Jesus” and “Father” with “God” so that you might read it with more clarity.
[God] has given [Jesus] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son that all may honor [Jesus], just as they honor [God]. For as [God] raises the dead and gives them life, so also [Jesus] gives life to whom he will. Whoever does not honor [Jesus] does not honor [God] who sent him. [Jesus said], “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who have done good [will go] to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. The dead [will be] judged according to what they had done. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life [will be] thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (John 5:19-29, Revelation 20:11-15).
The Baptism by Holy Spirit
Only the high priest, Aaron, could enter the Holy of Holies which was behind a thick curtain where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Enclosed in the Ark were the two stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, a golden jar holding manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded with a live almond branch as proof from God that he was to be the high priest. In the Holy of Holies, Aaron met with God only once a year to ask forgiveness for himself, his family and all of Israel.
Into the [Holy of Holies], only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance (Hebrews 9:7).
When Israel was traveling God showed them the way by appearing in a cloud during the day and fire at night, but they did not see God in all his glory because it would kill them.
By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night (Exodus 13:21).
When the Tabernacle was erected at specific times (remember, it was portable until the Israelites settled in the Promised Land), God would appear in all his glory as this same cloud. Aaron was the only one who was consecrated to be able to approach God’s presence in the Holy of Holies; not even Moses could bear the light. The cloud came down to rest between the golden cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant, which was consecrated with blood. The cover was called the “atonement cover” and the “mercy seat,” and Aaron would give his offerings here and receive God’s word for the Israelites. We are told that the earthly Tabernacle was patterned after the one that is in Heaven, just as the cherubim and mercy seat is patterned after the chariot of God and his cherubim that carry it in heaven (if you want to read more about this, go to Ezekiel 1 and 10).
Place the mercy seat on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. (Exodus 25:21-22).
All of this represented God’s First Covenant with the Israelites, which was with them alone, and God dwelled with his people in the cloud as a visible sign. The blood offerings consecrated their sin temporarily, but had to be repeated regularly. This was to remind the people of their covenant with God, make them think about their sins and what he expects of them to be in that covenant.
The Second Covenant, however, when Jesus died for us was quite different from the First Covenant in that Jesus became the permanent atonement sacrifice. Instead of God needing to appear in a cloud to his people, his Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside of us. The Holy Spirit – now in us – speaks to us about our sins and what God expects from us, and even communicates back to God what we can’t say. This is the “proof” that many people say they want of God in order to believe he is real, however, God doesn’t work that way; we get the proof AFTER we believe by experiencing the Holy Spirit for ourselves.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26).
The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples after he had risen from the dead, met with them for 40 days to prepare them for what they had to do next, and then rose into the clouds to return to heaven. The Holy Spirit gave them ability to speak in other languages, and they were so moved by the Spirit within they began proclaiming God’s wonders to all the people of Jerusalem so that every person could understand what they were saying in their native tongue.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them…. Utterly amazed, [the people gathered there] asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1-4, 7, 12)
The people gathered in Jerusalem had no way of understanding what was happening and some tried to dismiss the disciples as being drunk. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never become able to speak another language when I’ve been drunk! It really was a foolish thing to say. Peter then explained to the people that the Holy Spirit had come upon them as was predicted by the prophet Joel many generations before.
Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh… And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit (Acts 2:14-18, Joel 2:28-29).
Notice that it says that the Holy Spirit will be given to ALL flesh, even to the lowliest of persons. Ask in faith for the Holy Spirit to fill your flesh and it can happen to you too!