Matthew 3:11-12, Fire of Baptism and the Unquenchable Fire

In verses 11 and 12, Matthew uses πὺρ (“fire”) twice in very striking ways. In verse 11 John the Baptist says of himself, “. . . I baptize you with water for repentance,” and in contrast he says of Jesus, “but the one who is coming after me is greater than me . . . who will baptize you in (with/by means of?) the Holy Spirit and fire.”

In the very next verse John continues on about Jesus, saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will purge his threshing floor and will gather together his grain into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up completely in unquenchable fire.”

What is so striking to me in these two verses is the double use of πὺρ. In verse 11, fire is part of the means by which Jesus will baptize (‘υμᾶς βαπτίσει ’εν πνεύμα ‘αγίῳ καὶ πυρί). In verse 12, the chaff is burned in unquenchable fire (τὸ δὲ ’άχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ’ασβέστῳ). The proximity of the two occurrences of πὺρ suggest there is a connection between the fire with which Jesus baptizes and that which burns up the chaff.

Perhaps it is possible that the Holy Spirit and the fire of Jesus’ baptism work in us to burn the chaff, or the unfruitful parts of us, so that he may gather together the good in us as we are transformed into his likeness. Or is this a picture similar to John 15 in which the unfruitful branches are thrown away and burned? I am hesitant to see a direct connection between these passages because their focus seem to be distinct. In John 15, those who remain in Jesus are described as fruitful, and those who do not remain in him are thrown out. Here in Matthew 3, fire is used (along with the Holy Spirit — or is the καὶ epexegetical, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, namely, fire”?) on those who are baptized by Jesus, so I would assume this is not a separation of the faithful and unfaithful.

Maybe this is the work Jesus does in us as we follow him; he does away with the unhealthy parts of us in suffering or in the situations we encounter, and nurtures the parts of us that are healthy and pleasing to him.

Obviously, there are holes I need to fill in. If I had the time (and maybe I’ll just take the time some time soon), it would be interesting to see if there are any notable connections between John the Baptist’s words here and areas of the New Testament that speak of working out our salvation, or growing, or becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus. Oh grad school, maybe you will provide me the time for all of these things!

More to come on Matthew 3.

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3 Comments

Filed under Two Year GNT

3 responses to “Matthew 3:11-12, Fire of Baptism and the Unquenchable Fire

  1. Hmm. Interesting.

    After reading this, I actually am finding myself inclined to wonder whether ‘baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire’ might in fact refer to a separation of the righteous and the wicked. That certainly seems to be the meaning of the next fire image, and considering that Matthew is using JB here to give the reader information about the Jewish nation and their call to repentance, maybe this is supposed to function as a double-edged promise; the Jewish nation needs to be excited for the imminent eschatological outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the faithful remnant, but also fearful for the coming expression of God’s judgment against the unrighteous (perhaps, for Matthew, 70 CE?).

    Thanks for this, Luke. This is so cool that you have a blog!

    • Luke Johnson

      Thanks, John. That is helpful. So a double baptism: the Holy Spirit for the righteous and fire for the unrighteous. I find it a little odd that even the unrighteous are baptized, even if it is by fire. After all, John the Baptist was preaching to people who were repenting of sin. But, in speaking to people who came for repentance, I suppose there are two ways to understand his mention of fire:

      (1) fire of purification; in repentance Jesus refines or purifies (since ‘fire’ in scripture can be used in this manner)
      (2) fire of judgment, and thus, a warning for what will be experienced if these people choose not to repent (which is also concurrent with scripture).

      The fact that Jesus speaks of a winnowing fork in the next verse does lend support to (2). D.A. Carson agrees, stating, “The ‘unquenchable fire’ signifies eschatological judgment (cf. Isa 34.10; 66.24; Jer 7.20), hell (cf. 5.29). ‘Unquenchable fire’ is not just metaphor: fearful reality underlies Messiah’s separation of grain from chaff. The ‘nearness’ of the kingdom therefore calls for repentance (v. 2)” (Carson, D. A., Matthew, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 105).

      Thanks for your comment, John! It’s encouraging to have some input as I’m reading through.

      On a different note, are you in Marty’s Exegesis II class? I think I’m going to audit it.

      • Yes, I will definitely be taking that class; I’m pretty excited for it, too. I feel like I don’t know Luke’s gospel nearly as well as I should, so this should be a pretty cool opportunity to delve into it. And of course it’ll be great to have you with us!

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