Every religion has an initiation ceremony for new believers and only after undergoing that, one is considered a real follower to worship the god of that religion and become a member of that community. John the Baptist baptized innumerable people with repentance and immersion in the water as two aspects of that ceremony. However, he also informed all about the need for baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire later by the Messiah. With his words three categories of baptism were revealed and necessary for every believer.
Need of water and fire for initiation into the faith – At the time of creation the earth was covered with water and then light was revealed at God’s Word and waters were separated from the earth to start life (Genesis 1:1-3). There were the four essential elements to create and sustain life, earth and water and light and air. The identity of this light that appeared at God’s word, is provided by the LORD God; that, The LORD, the LORD of hosts will kindle a burning like the burning of a fire under His glory, ‘so the Light of Israel will be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame; it will burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day’ (Isaiah 10:16-17). The light and fire within that was necessary to end chaos and bring order on the earth to create and sustain life.
After the light and within the light itself was the fire. Prophet Isaiah saw the glory of God in the House of God and one of the seraphim touched his mouth with a burning coal from the altar to cleanse him of all inequity to get him ready for his mission (Isaiah 6:1-7). The Light of Israel is Yahweh God Himself, the Son of God, who appears to destroy the hurdles to their spiritual growth. This same glory is revealed at creation for without that no life can begin or exist. Every created thing emerges from water (fish etc) or earth (plants, animals and other living beings) and is sustained by the source. Man was formed from the dust of the ground, using both earth and water to bind the earth particles and give shape and God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ or air. The Hebrew word ‘neshamah’ means ‘breath, spirit’ and is derived from ‘nasham’ meaning fire. Breath of God is referred to as fire (Isaiah 30:33) and the element of air has fire with it in man’s breath also. In creation earth and air are basic elements and fire and water are the creating elements.
What is different in both fire and water? They are both opposite to each other in their characteristics. Fire is always rising into the air, upward with a permanent dance like motion and is never content in its space. It is always trying to break the bounds of a vessel and escape to higher places. Water is the opposite of it and flows downward and can be contained in any one space without turbulence. Fire breaks the composition of matter right to its core while water connects and binds the ingredients together. In spiritual terms fire depicts heavenly striving, passion and restlessness while water represents calmness, fulfillment and satiation, integrating into one composite unit. Fire tends to break out and water embraces reality and makes peace by settling down.
In human life where the correct balance of the two is not there, life becomes unproductive and unsettled. Only fire causes tension, dissatisfaction and misery all around while only water brings laziness, immobility and narrowed perspectives. New birth through faith in Lord Jesus is about developing the ability to operate at both levels. We are to be ambitious to serve our higher calling as children of God to work for His kingdom by upward aspirations. But we are to also have an attitude of gratitude for all that we have in both spiritual and material realm while seeking more to bind others together into salvation in Lord Jesus.
John the Baptist informed all who came to him about there being a difference in baptism by water given by him and the one by the Spirit and fire later (Matthew 3:11). The last two verses of the Old Testament clarified about the ministry of John the Baptist who operated in the ‘spirit of Elijah’ to ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:5-6). Since this was binding various groups of people into one, his God-defined role was to ‘prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40:3). This was about preparing the people’s hearts for the coming Messiah and water was used for baptism to bind the group together.
In like manner, at baptism we are joined together as one with other believers as one, as Lord Jesus prayed for believers unity (John 17:21). On the same day after resurrection and after ascending to His and our Father in heaven, Lord Jesus came to the disciples and assigned them their ministry, saying, ‘As the Father has sent Me, I also send you’ and He then ‘breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:19-22). With this the disciples received the new birth and the anointing of the ‘Spirit of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and revelation’. However they were commanded to stay ‘in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). The assurance of freedom by knowing the truth is given to all believers who follow the Word of God ( John 8:31-32). The Breath of New Life freed them from their ignorance but the power was received only on the Day of Pentecost. The water of baptism bound them as a group but the air brought them life of freedom in the Lord.
Difference between breathing on the disciples and water baptism – Just before prophet Elijah was to be taken up by chariots of fire, in response to his question, Elisha, his chosen successor, sought ‘double portion’ of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9). The disciples wanted to know their reward for having left all to follow Lord Jesus and were assured of ‘a hundredfold return and eternal life’ (Matthew 19:27-29). Lord Jesus has also blessed His followers with the ability, in Him, to do all that He did and even greater works than that (John 14:12). However, just before Lord Jesus’ arrest and crucifiction, the devil exerted his right on Apostle Peter and other disciples before God to ‘sift them as wheat (Luke 22:31-32). Lord Jesus prayed for them ‘that your faith should not fail’. The duration of this trial of theirs was not mentioned.
Also the fear of the Jewish leaders was heavy on the disciples mind and they were in hiding while the Day of Pentecost was yet fifty days away. This first anointing of the disciples by the Lord was to give them new life in Him through the passing of His glory given earlier (John 17:22). Secondly, the Spirit anointing was about ‘love and self control’, the two elements of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:7). They were filled with the two important elements to help them stay strong in faith, in prayer and meditation of the Scriptures. On the day of Pentecost they were filled with power also which was reflected in their changed attitude also. The Day of Pentecost has three important elements; first, the sound from heaven of a rushing mighty wind and this sound filled the room and was heard all over Jerusalem (Acts 2:2-3). The Son of God suffered for all of humanity and new life in Him is available to all who seek and not any specific group only. Second, there were divided tongues as of fire and fire has been associated with God’s presence and to fill them with their upward call. Thirdly, the fire is ever arching upwards and the Holy Spirit gives a believer ‘wisdom and understanding of the Word of God’ and then through daily sanctification also causes purification from sin, much like a fire purifies and removes dross from metals. They were to reach out to others with the message of salvation through the power of the tongue.
When Moses was provided the details of the Tabernacle by the LORD, the command was ‘The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar, it shall never go out’ (Leviticus 6:13). When the offering was properly arranged on the altar, ‘there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat’ (Leviticus 9:24). Fire represents God’s love and passion and a human element was to be added to keep it going. This and on the Day of Pentecost God commanded that the fire must not go out and we cannot add to this fire anything of our own but be led. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two sons, tried to add their own fire and perished (Leviticus 10:1-2).
God’s love is to be shared by us with others and the tongues of fire that descended on the disciples fulfilled this by connecting them to the heavenly realm. They were to confess this Gospel to others and this they did by speaking in different languages of those present there.
The Holy Spirit is the eternal fire that connects the human spirit to satisfy his hunger to reach out to the Creator. This fire is lit in every believer on submitting to the Sovereign control of the Lord and this is available on the day of water baptism. But though the fire is lit, the individual’s effort nurtures the fire into a blaze or neglects the same. Apostle Paul confirms the fact for each believer that his/her ‘body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). The fire of God has descended in each one of us and we have to keep it going through daily praise and worship, feeding it with the Word of God’. Another aspect of this is by sharing, the more we share what we receive from God, the more it grows. The disciples, immediately after getting filled with the Holy Spirit, started speaking the message and Apostle Peter, who had denied the Lord, boldly preached the message and three thousand people submitted to the faith (Acts 2:40-42).
The LORD God appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet to His people from before his birth but the deliberate neglect of the Word he preached to the people finally turned to ‘derision daily; everyone mocks me’ (Jeremiah 19:7-9). Then the prophet decided, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name. But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not’. God desires a believer to be on fire for Him and the worst act is to either suppress the fire or try and lead others with no fire within. The breathing of the Lord on the disciples was to encourage and strengthen them but the real fire was lit on the Day of Pentecost only.
John the Baptist preached about Lord Jesus, ‘His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (Matthew 3:12). Till the second coming of the Lord Jesus, this work is done by the Holy Spirit in every believer. He purified and the effect was seen on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1 -2 & 20). Saul, the Pharisee traveled with letters from the High Priest to bring the bound to Jerusalem. But when the purifying fire and glory of the Lord descended on him and changed him, the same man ‘immediately preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God’.
Some people consider this fire to be related to the never quenching fire of hell. The Greek word “baptizo’ means ‘dip, submerge, but specifically of ceremonial dipping’. On the other hand one is not dipped but put into hell fire permanently and there is no ceremony for that nor is there any coming out of that. Also on the Day of Pentecost the ‘splitting tongues, as of fire’ descended or sat upon each one present. Finally, this was a blessing of fulfilling the promise of the Lord about the disciples getting filled with power from above, from where first the sound of the rushing wind and then the fiery tongues came.
Sign of a believer’s anointing with the Holy Spirit – In the Pentecostal churches one is considered to be filled with the Holy Spirit only if one speaks in tongues, as happened on the day of Pentecost. Apostle Paul, the greatest messenger of God, declared, ‘I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all’ (1 Corinthians 14:18). When on the road to Damascus, he had his meeting with Lord Jesus, the glory of the Risen Lord blinded him (Acts 9:17-20). Ananias a believer of the same place was sent by the Lord to minister to him and ‘laying his hands on him (Saul) he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once and he arose and was baptized’. Immediately he started preaching the Good News of the Gospel of Christ and there is no mention of his speaking in tongues then.
The same Apostle wrote after about twenty years of his ministry about the Holy Spirit being given to believers for ‘profit of all’ (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). And while listing out the gifts of the Spirit he clarifies that ‘the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills’. While teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, Lord Jesus told the parable of the talents distributed by a man travelling to a far country to his servants to do business in his absence (Matthew 25:14-15). The distribution was ‘to each according to his own ability’. In like manner our LORD God distributes the gifts of His Spirit to the disciples as per their commissioned role and responsibility in His kingdom work. Apostle Paul then urges all believers, ‘Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts’ for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of ‘power, of love and of self control’ (1 Corinthians 14:1).
On His final journey to Jerusalem, Lord Jesus traveled through Samaria but the people of a village ‘did not receive Him’ (Luke 9:51-56). Apostles James and John, both brothers then sought the Lord’s permission to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Lord Jesus then clarified that the character of the Spirit in them is not to destroy but save lives. Anything or any perceived gift of the Holy Spirit that divides people cannot be from God but is of the devil, whose aim is to destroy and kill. The breath of the Lord gives new life, that is empowered, refined and guided by the fire of the Spirit to give Words to speak for a testimony of His kingdom. This is the full baptism of the Holy Spirit in a believer.
This should not cause tension but result in celebration of the chance to reflect as in a mirror Divine image. One must rejoice at the yearning within the heart and make peace with the inner restlessness of the soul to reach higher and higher in closer relationship to God the Father and God the Son through the Holy Spirit. This we do by being in oneness with them.
Baptism is the process of sealing our relationship with God and the more we spend time with Him, the stronger the bond becomes. We are assured of our place in the heavenly family and also it confirms our commitment towards the Kingdom of God. Through this ceremony we surrender our own self to be daily transformed into the image and likeness of the Son of God. It also gives us the right to ask and God to answer our prayers and the commitment is from both parties to this covenantal relationship.