John the Baptist told his disciples, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
Many have speculated over the years that the baptism by fire is in reference to the afflictions Christians experience as a result of them remaining faithful to God in a faithless, dark world. There is good reason for this.
The first episode relates to James and John asking Christ to be seated at His left and right. The episode goes down like this:
They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized (Mark 10:37-39).
The cup the Christ’s drinks is probably in reference to the “cup of wrath” which in this context simply pertains to suffering for God’s name’s sake. All will have to suffer because of the effects of sin in the world. The faithless in their judgement, Christ in bearing the sins of the world, and the faithful in experiencing Christ-like sufferings.
The baptism Christ speaks of is obviously not in reference to water baptism. It is possible that it refers to baptism by the Holy Spirit which occurred on the day of Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit likewise descended upon Christ. However, it is more likely a reference to being “immersed” (i.e. baptized) into sufferings. Obviously, this connects to the reference to the cup and relates to another interesting use of the term “baptism” in the Gospel of Luke:
I have come to cast fire upon 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 accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division (Luke 12:49-51).
In this reference, the baptism Christ undergoes is that of His suffering on the cross. He mentions this in the context of the divisions and suffering that are ordained by God for the sake of following Christ.
What does a baptism into suffering (i.e. fire) have to do with Christianity? In a sense everything. The Bible is replete with references to Christians being given many more brothers, sisters, houses, farms, and persecutions. James admonishes us to consider it pure joy when we are being persecuted. Why?
And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom 5:3-5).
Suffering ultimately brings about hope for the resurrection in the believer, because the love of God is poured into the suffering person’s heart. We also know from Job Chapter 33 that suffering also teaches us to turn from sin and look to our Redeemer. So, the Christian is not only “immersed” in the Holy Spirit, as his heart is sealed with Him, but also he is “immersed” into trials and tribulations.
Now, it is in this context we need to understand the verses in the Bible that speak about purification by fire. Catholics immediately presume these verses refer to purgatory. However, it is rather clear if you read them the least bit closely, they clearly pertain to baptism by fire and not some sort of intermediate state in the after life. Here is a list:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Faith here is compared to gold which is purified by heating it up to a boil, and it is the faith that is tested by fire in a Christian’s “various trials.”
For You have tried us, O God;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net;
You laid an oppressive burden upon our loins.
You made men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water,
Yet You brought us out into a place of abundance (Ps 66:10-12).
Clearly, suffering affliction from the hand of God here is compared to being “refined.” These afflictions are referred to in the past tense and are a clear reference to baptism by fire, not purgatory.
In light of the previous two references, the following two make sense:
And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’ (Zech 13:9).
For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord (Mal 3:2-3).
In Zechariah, God is the one who does the refining, which makes sense with Ps 66 as it is He who “laid an oppressive burden on our loins.” Malachi compares God Himself to the refiner’s fire, because He is the one who ordains baptism by fire. So, obviously God is not Himself the fire, but to view this as purgatory is to take these verses horribly out of context. In Zech 13 clearly the Jews that have left Babylonian captivity are in view while in Malachi the present Church age is in view.
Lastly, let’s put to rest the misinterpretation of 1 Cor 3:10-15. I am not going to exegete the whole passage, but for those who think it is a reference to purgatory it is important to read exactly what is being purged by fire: the works of the builders. “[T]he fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor 3:13). It is the “man’s work [that] is burned up” (1 Cor 3:15). Not the man himself, he is saved!
A consistent hermeneutic and an understanding of “baptism by fire” helps us avoid all sorts of baseless speculations. As a result, we can see purgatory has no place in Scripture without completely butchering the texts themselves and obscuring to us what “baptism by fire” really is.
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes,” (Psalm 119:71)…meaningless words when we apply all the preceding passages to be speaking of purgatory.