What Does ‘Baptism by Fire’ Mean?

The phrase “baptism by fire” refers to an intense experience that causes one to feel intensely involved, either positively or negatively. The phrase comes from the Christian world, where it signifies being tested by God with a trial. For Christians, baptism by fire has a spiritual significance and alludes to Jesus Christ’s temptation in the desert while preparing for his ministry after being baptized.

The phrase baptism by fire has two meanings. The original meaning is a particular form of baptism that John the Baptist told the multitudes Jesus would deliver unto them. The second meaning of the phrase is the experience a soldier endures when they first enter combat.

Elsewhere in Christianity, “baptism by fire” can have other meanings as well. In Roman Catholicism, it refers to the Holy Ghost; in Orthodox churches, it means receiving Communion; and in Anglican churches, it means confession and penance before receiving Communion again. Baptism by fire also appears in Judaism, where it means judgment in the afterlife. In Islam, it refers to purification by fire of the sins.

In ancient times, “baptism by fire” was used to refer to torture or punishment that included burning one’s flesh with a hot iron. That meaning is still found in modern languages such as Spanish (bautismo de Fuego) and Italian (battesimo del fuoco). The phrase also appears in literature and popular culture. For example, Braveheart (1995) uses it when referring to combat, while Dante Alighieri uses it when describing his journey through Hell in The Divine Comedy.

What does baptism by fire mean in the Bible?

Baptism by fire is a phrase that we see throughout the Bible. We know this because there are several verses where it says, “then he was baptized with fire and (verb).” But what does it mean? Throughout history, there have been several different interpretations of the phrase, and some believe it to be referencing Hell or purgatory. However, others disagree with these ideas due to how baptism is mentioned.

Biblically speaking, baptism by fire represents being baptized by an immaterial substance rather than an actual liquid or force. This has often been interpreted as being baptized with God’s love or God’s grace. For example, take Matthew 3:11-12, which states, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Several other verses might be referring to baptism by fire. For example, Acts 1:5 says, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” This verse implies that there might be another step beyond water baptism, which is being baptized by either an immaterial substance or by something else.

Perhaps the most well-known use of the phrase is found in Luke 12:49-50, which says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until it is completed.”

This verse implies that the “baptism” that Jesus referred to was something else rather than water. This may mean that even though much of history has interpreted this as being baptized by an immaterial substance, other interpretations are still possible.

Perhaps the most popular interpretation today is that baptism by fire represents being baptized by persecution or conflict. For example, take Mark 10:35-40, which states,  

“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us we ask.’         

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked.    

They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’    

‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’    

‘We can,’ they answered.”

In this verse, we see that James and John were asking to share in Jesus’s suffering, which seems like a reference to persecution or conflict instead of water baptism. While this interpretation is popular, it isn’t very widespread compared to other interpretations such as purgatory. However, it has been mentioned throughout history, so there is a possibility that it is true.

Why is it called the baptism of fire?

When asked why he baptizes in water, John tells us that Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Luke 3:16 says, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.”

The reason for this name comes from how it ties into those being baptized and those doing the baptizing. Water baptism represents cleansing from sin, just as the Fire Baptism does, as seen in Acts 2:3 when “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.”

John 3:31-36 is a good example of a baptism with fire where Jesus uses water as a symbol for Baptism by Fire.

What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire?

Jesus makes it clear that he will baptize us “in” or “with” Holy Spirit, not “by” Holy Spirit. There are two kinds of baptism involved in this event: Holy Spirit baptism and water/fire baptism. In Acts 1, after they received power from on high, they baptized others in water as well as having been baptized by the Holy Spirit himself.

“When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 8:14-16 (NIV)

How do you use baptism by fire?

In this context, water is used as a symbolic cleansing of sin referred to often in scripture. However, this is only the first step of being baptized by fire. To be baptized by fire, a person must accept Jesus as their Savior and understand what it means to be saved from eternal hellfire. His Holy Spirit must completely consume those baptized in water to be reborn into Christ. This is represented by tongues of fire on the head, as seen with many throughout scripture (Acts 2:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13).

“…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are those who are whom God has He has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” John 4:23-24 (NIV)

Conclusion

To be baptized by the fire with Holy Spirit, a person must have been baptized in water and understand the cleansing of sin that it represents. Then they must accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, be born again into Christ through baptism with Holy Spirit. This is represented by tongues of fire on the head, signifying a total transformation from worldly ways to God’s ways.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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