Among people who profess to be Bible believers, there are not a few who claim that God still performs miracles through some people in our time and age.
They may be from diverse movements and denominations but one important point they seem to all agree on is that no one can perform miracles without being first “baptised with the Holy Spirit”.
Many miracle-today advocates believe John was prophesying in Matthew 3:10-12 and Luke 3:16 of the “cloven tongues like as of fire” in Acts 2:3. Of course, they also claim the promise to be for every believer today.
Is that understanding right? Let us look at what John actually said.
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 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: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mat 3:10-12).”
“And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire…John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable (Luke 3:9, 16, 17).”
In the context of Matthew 3:5 onwards, we can plainly see that John was addressing an audience made up of those who came to be baptised by him and many of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
We see in this audience two very different groups of people. Luke draws the distinction:
“And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him (Luke 7:29-30).”
In Matthew’s account, John made this remarkable statement, “therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” before he went on to say “he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
In Luke’s account, he recorded John saying, “but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable” after he proclaimed that the coming Christ “shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
When we consider the contexts of Matthew 3 and Luke 3, we can infer that among all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan who came to be baptized of John in Jordan, confessing their sins (cf. Mat 3:5-6) were those who would later become apostles of Christ.
We know at least Andrew, the brother of Simon, was a disciple of John (cf. John 1:35-40). These would later be baptised with the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 1:2-5, 8; 2:1-4).
But of those who rejected the counsel of God against themselves, these are the “tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” and “the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.” These are those who would be baptised with fire.
Of the 83 instances the word “fire” was used in the New Testament, an overwhelming number has to do with judgments, destruction, punishments and hell. There is no reason to assume that “he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” is synonymous with the “cloven tongues like as of fire” in Acts 2:3.
From a careful study of the above scripture references we can also see that the promise of being baptised by the Holy Spirit applied only to the apostles and not to every believer even today, as so claimed by some.
John’s prophecy covers two different ‘treatments’ for two different classes of people. ‘With the Holy Ghost and with fire’ is not one thing but two. Those who rejected the counsel of God were promised God’s wrath—fire—and among the audience were those who would later be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
When readers mistakenly lump the two together, it is easy to fall into the error of assuming what the Bible does not say. Let us be “rightly handling the word of truth” and be the approved unto God (cf. 1Ti 2:15).