In Matthew 3:11 John makes a statement that is very interesting and often misunderstood. On that occasion John states, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” Many have taken this particular statement as a verification that all Christians are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, but is that the emphasis of John? Consider some clues that will help shed light on John’s intentions with this statement.
To whom is John speaking? One of the first things that must always be considered in interpreting a statement of Scripture is discovering to whom it was said. In this instance, Matthew records that John is speaking with the Pharisees and Sadducees (Vs. 7). They have come out to where he is baptizing, but not with pure hearts of repentance. Instead, they have come out because that is where everyone else is going (Vs. 5-6). They are not before John seeking to do what is right, they simply want to see what all the fuss is about.
What is the overall message? John delivers a harsh, biting rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He begins by calling them a “generation of vipers” (Vs. 7), moves to speaking of “the axe” being laid to the “root of the trees” (Vs. 10), and concludes with the fact that Christ will “purge his floor” and “burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Vs. 12). These are not complimentary and positive outlooks on these two groups or what will happen to them in the future. Why, then, do we have in the midst of this scathing rebuke a statement that would seem to be something positive and purposefully empowering? Understanding the recipients and message of John leaves us with the feeling something doesn’t quite fit.
The meaning of “baptize.” The word is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo and it means “to immerse, to submerge, to plunge” but it also has another, more figurative, meaning “to overwhelm.” The meaning of the word carries with it the understanding of being thoroughly surrounded. When dealing with baptism of water it means a complete submersion under water. When dealing with other uses it can mean to be overwhelmed by something. Jesus will use it in such a sense in Matthew 20:22 speaking concerning the “baptism” with which he would be baptized. He is not speaking of a baptism with water, but the overwhelming nature of the death he would endure.
The use of the word “with.” John says that the Pharisees and Sadducees would be baptized “with” the Holy Spirit AND fire. The word that is translated “with” is the Greek word en and can be used to denote location or instrumentation. In this case, the emphasis is upon the instrument used to cover or overwhelm them. There will be two instruments, the Holy Spirit and fire. The fire is almost universally understood to be the fire of final judgment as verse 12 indicates. However, verse 11 is connecting the overwhelming immersion with the Spirit and the fire. Is it possible that this “baptism” with the Holy Spirit is not a positive one? Let us put all of the evidence together and see if we can come to a conclusion.
John is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees; two groups that, as a whole, did not follow Christ nor were obedient to the will of God under the covenant of Christ. It is unreasonable to then extrapolate that John is proclaiming that a bunch of unbelievers were going to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit as the apostles did in Acts 2. If that were what he was proclaiming, it did not come to pass and John was speaking as a false prophet.
However, in the midst of the fiery rebuke by the forerunner of Christ, he says that though they are not penitent men come to receive the baptism of water unto repentance, they will be baptized (immersed, overwhelmed) with something. They are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Not the apostolic form of immersion, but rather the complete overwhelming of every facet of their lives and doctrines by the proclamations and evidences that the Spirit will bring, showing their views as false and against God. From the time of Jesus’ ministry through the time of the apostles, the Pharisees and Sadducees were constantly bombarded by the evidences of Christ and the Spirit that they are on the wrong side of the argument; yet they steadfastly refused to change position. They were baptized (overwhelmed) to the point of drowning in the evidences of the Spirit, but to no avail on their lives. Therefore, they were also going to be subsequently baptized with the fires of eternal, unquenchable destruction.
John’s statement is not an affirmation of Holy Spirit baptism on all Christians. Instead, it is a scathing rebuke and prophecy of the doom of the Pharisees and Sadducees because of their unwillingness to repent and be obedient to God. This should shed a great deal of light on John’s message, his courage, and his position as the forerunner of Christ and a prophet of God.