In Matthew 3:11, 12, John the Baptist says, “I indeed baptize you with water unto 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 fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

The word “baptism” literally means to immerse. John’s water immersion symbolized the repentance of sins committed by Jewish people. However, Jesus’ baptism had two parts. Baptism with the Holy Spirit begot faithful followers of Christ into a new life. The baptism with fire came upon the unfaithful Jewish nation.

Verse 12 explains Jesus’ first advent work. He came to gather the wheat (the faithful of the Jewish nation) unto Him. The chaff of the nation (the unfaithful Jews) were to be destroyed. Historically, Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome in A.D.70. Its destruction was horrific. The city was burned and those trying to escape were crucified. 

Jesus grieved the hard hearts of His countrymen. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Luke 13:34. Because they killed the faithful, Jesus stated their punishment, “As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Barachiah.…” Matthew 23:35.

When Jesus was before Pilate, Pilate said he wanted to release him. But the people cried, “…His blood be on us, and on our children.” Matthew 27:25. Thus, the nation took responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion.

The nation was therefore baptized with fire, with their complete destruction, because they killed our Lord and the godly prophets.  However, we should not understand that this destruction would forever end their favor in God’s sight. The Apostle Paul writes, “If the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be but life from the dead?”  (Romans 11:15) Soon, God will make a new covenant with Israel, “…I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people…for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:33, 34.