The Evangelical Universalist Forum

The Baptism with Spirit and fire


Mat 3:10 “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mat 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Mat 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


I have been discussing this passage with a Greek expert who claims that the baptism of fire spoken of in verse 11 is to be distinguished from the fiery destruction of the dead trees and chaff in verses 10 and 12, respectively. I must note that he does not base his claim on the mistaken notion that there are two different baptisms in view here (baptism with spirit vs. baptism with fire). I am still wiating for him to expound, but here is what he has said thus far:

When I suggested that his reading of the passage is unnatural, he replied:

Any insights from the members here would be greatly appreciated.



I don’t know if this helps at all, but wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Coffee beans also have chaff (outer layer), which is what gets burned off when you roast the beans to make coffee.

I don’t doubt that this speaks of judgment, but the real problem lies, I think, with the view (purpose) of judgment.



Excellent observation, Mel. This would seem to suggest that the wheat and chaff represent the spirit and the flesh (not literal flesh) of a man, respectively, and not saved and unsaved individuals.



Your Greek expert (whose critique here doesn’t actually seemed based on being an expert in Greek per se) would probably reply that the dead trees don’t fit (or anyway don’t seem to fit) that metaphorical application. Nor are the trees being selectively purged by a fairly weak fire that is then snuffed out; but are being cut down and destroyed by the fire.

On the other hand, the wheat-chaff illustration shouldn’t be ignored either. If I’m not mistaken, this is one of the grounds for the Roman Catholic doctrine of a distinction between hell and purgatory: the wheat-and-chaff refers to purgatorial action by God, whereas the destruction of the tree refers to the hopeless condemnation of hell.

There are, however, ways of reading the tree’s fate as illustrating something more extreme than the wheat-and-chaff yet not hopeless for the tree. One (of several) suggestive applications can be found in the juxtaposition of the fate of the tree with the fate of those destroyed in the deluge, as you also typologically connected to here in this thread.

Your respondent’s reply about linear reading being unnatural to the text, however, is only possibly true, not certainly; obviously there are times when even in Hebrew metaphor the metaphor continues on without totally reversing itself back and forth! And GosMark 9:49-50 gives us plenty of reason, exegetically, to expect that the fire in both cases is the same fire with the same purpose and the same end-goal in mind (everyone having salt in themselves and so being at peace with one another), even if the intermediate result is radically different in some ways. (And even if the Baptist himself didn’t quite understand the whole meaning of what he was being inspired to say. There is some narrative evidence, though not conclusively so, later in the Synoptics that even the Baptist had a partially incorrect expectation about what the Messiah was here to do.)




It seems to me that the metaphor of the dead trees burning out has the same meaning as the metaphor of the chaff being burnt up. Is there any reason to suspect otherwise?

I have long believed that the dead trees/chaff symbolize, not wicked persons, but the wickedness in all men. Do you think this is tenable?

As for my friend’s claim that, as you put it, the metaphor reverses itself back and forth, I find it to be quite dubious. What do you think of his Isaiah 53:6-7 example?



Here is the latest exchange between my friend and I. Comments would be appreciated.

This begs the question. It is certainly debatable that Matthew 3:9-12 and Mark 9:48-49 indicate that the fire that purifies is the same fire that destroys wickedness. Actually, the very notion of a refining fire implies that the impurities (wicked things) are destroyed by said fire. But is it not the case that God the consuming/refining fire is an unquenchable fire? Indeed, it would make no sense to speak fo the God of the Bible as a quenchable fire, would it?

But your b indeed has something in common with you a and your a’, namely fire. Another thing to consider is that Luke 3:16-17, as does Matthew 3:11-12, couples the baptism of Spirit and fire with the burning of the chaff with fire unquenchable. How do you explain this?

This is a non-sequitir. Just because John’s baptism of water was not universal does not mean that Christ’s baptism of Spirit is not universal. Luke 3:6 proclaims that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, a proclamation that appears in the context of John’s attestation to the imminent coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God, and the judgment of fire that accompanies the coming.

This is incorrect, as the following parallelism makes clear:
Luke 12:49 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?
Luke 12:50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! *

I think that the descension of the Spirit upon Jesus when He was baptized by John was a sign of Christ’s death and resurrection. Similarly, I think the event described in Acts was also a sign. Indeed, to be baptized in the Spirit is to die to sin and to be raised in the incorruptible life of the Spirit, and this process will not be completed in us until we are transformed “in the twinkling of an eye.”



Of course actual trees if they are cut down will just spring up anew from the base unless you poison the stump with pretty strong chemicals.



As I noted in my original reply, it isn’t that part of the tree is being cleaned away for the sake of the usefulness of the tree (unlike the chaff of the wheat), but rather the whole tree is being cut down and zorched. It’s a contrast identical to that used by Christ during the Final Discourse in GosJohn 15:1-8: the branches remaining in Christ, the Vine, are occasionally cleaned (featuring the same word in Greek from which we derive the term cauterize, to be cleaned as with fire); but the branches starting off in Him which bear no fruit are eventually taken away–cast off to wither, to be gathered and cast into the fire where they are being burned.

This isn’t necessarily hopeless for the dead tree, for reasons I indicated previously. (To which, now that I’ve mentioned John 15:1-8, I can add that St. Paul teaches as clearly as possible in Rom 11 that those branches which are grafted out can be grafted back into the vine again by God.) Moreover, in our modern Western society we are sometimes liable to forget that the whole point to burning trash (at least in pre-industrial societies, though sometimes even for us moderns) is so that the trash will not in fact be wasted but will become useful instead. That burnt tree will become ash which will be used to fertilize and grow a new tree; the new tree will in some ways be a resurrection (even a bodily resurrection) of the old tree–and hopefully more fruitful! Or, the tree may become firewood to warm and bring life to households, to help cook food, etc. (Jeff’s observation is good, too, though I should point out that in the expanded parabolic version of this parable, as told by Jesus, there is a hint that the owner of the fig tree intends for the stump to be rooted out as well. “Why is it even taking up the ground!?”)

There’s a definite matter of degree that has to be acknowledged, I think, in accounting for both types of metaphor. But the baptism of Spirit and of fire can easily apply for the good of the object being so baptized either way. Still, better to be fruitful and occasionally catharized than to be unfruitful and so to be put through rather more of a wringer sooner or later.

(That having been said, I also have to admit that metaphors are analogies with limited application; and any analogy breaks down if pressed too far. The salient question is whether we have good reason to press the analogy in the directions I’ve suggested. And I think we do, both in terms of metaphysical logic and in terms of scriptural witness.)

I think he’s right that the sheep are being used metaphorically in some crucially different ways in both verses: first as an image of us as willful (and frankly kind of stupid) sinners, and then as an image for the humility of the Sinless One patiently submitting to sacrifice for our sakes. On the other hand, neither is there much point using both metaphors so close together unless there was also supposed to be substantial connection between the metaphorized objects; and of course, there are some Christians who would press that connection pretty danged far in various ways. :slight_smile: (Especially considering the subsequent context of Is 53.)




I do wonder if the dead tree might symbolize the old man, for did not Jesus say that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit? Seeing that we all do in fact bear bad fruit, it would seem that the dead tree is a metaphor for the sin nature.




Yes, but the dead-ness of the tree is the metaphor for the sin nature; metaphorically a tree can be either dead or alive. If it’s dead, the tree itself (not merely the deadness of its nature, like chaff separated from wheat) is cut down and thrown in the fire.

The metaphorical application has to be to something more extreme than the metaphor of the chaff and wheat, just as the metaphorical application of the fruitless branch from John 15 is clearly representing something more extreme than the occasional cleaning of the branches remaining on the vine.




Alas, another one of your posts has gone over my head. 'll review them at a later time.