Hell 21: The baptism of fire

Posted: May 4, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

What Luke does with the imagery of fire is more radical and interesting than any other biblical writer. It may disturb you.

Luke gives us, from John the Baptist, the traditional ‘Gehenna‘-type image of fire as something you get thrown into:

every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   3:9

But more prominent and distinctive of Luke’s emphasis is the other way John uses the image:

 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.    3:16

For Luke this baptism seems to be an image of inundation, of drenching – as we will see. This time, the fire is thrown onto the person, not the other way round. The original of this image is of course the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where fire fell from heaven. In the next sentence John connects this baptism-of-fire image with the usage of the OT prophets, calling it ‘unquenchable fire’ (3:17). The fire that Messiah will baptise with is the fire of God’s judgement.

The next time fire crops up, it is in the minds of the disciples. A Samaritan village expresses its hostility to Jews by refusing to welcome Jesus:

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.    9:54-5

This is the inundation image again. No doubt the disciples have in mind Elijah’s example (2 Kings 1). But they are clearly on the wrong track. Jesus has no wish to destroy this village with fire. Was John the Baptist on the wrong track then?

Interestingly, having rebuked the disciples for wanting to call down fire, Jesus later says,

“I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!     12:49

This language of fire being kindled (Gr. root apto) is a common prophetic image for the arrival of God’s wrath, especially characteristic of the prophet Jeremiah (LXX). The fire Jesus is longing for is the fire of judgement. But Luke is emphasising that the Gehenna-fire of God is not something awaiting people in an afterlife: it is much more real and immediate than that. Jesus program is to pour out Gehenna on earth.

This saying sets the readers’ expectations for Jesus’ ministry: we are waiting to see that fire kindled. And yet the disciples were rebuked! A puzzle.

Jesus then goes straight on to say:

 I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”  12:50

 These are parallel sayings. They have the same structure:

I intend X event to occur, and I am impatient for it to happen.

In other words ‘to bring fire on earth’ and ‘my baptism’ are two ways of speaking of the same event. John the Baptist had said Messiah would bring a baptism of fiery judgement and of the Spirit: now Jesus says that he himself must go through it first. And that he is impatient to do so!

This is a shocking moment in Luke’s gospel. There is little explanation of the meaning of the cross in Luke, but this is a moment of revelation when we finally begin to understand what Jesus has in mind in travelling to Jerusalem. This saying of Jesus, more than anything else in Luke, shapes our understanding of his passion.

Later still Jesus is threatening exactly the sort of judgement which he had rebuked his disciples for suggesting:

But on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them —it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.    Luke 17:29-30

 It is not easy to see how Jesus’ message about ‘fire from heaven’ hangs together! But it seems to hang together in his own person.

We the readers are waiting for the fire on earth to be kindled, as is Jesus himself. As soon as his enemies put their plot into action and arrest him, Luke signals that the time for this event has arrived:

Then they seized him and led him away into the high priest’s house. When they had kindled (Gr. root aptoa fire in the middle of the court and sat down together, Peter sat among them.    22:54-55

It is an interesting scene: Jesus being held by the armed temple police in the court (Gr. aule) of the big boss of the Jewish establishment. Interesting because Jesus has already described this scene earlier:

When a strong man, fully armed, guards his court (aule), his property is safe.  But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder.   11:21-22

When Jesus enters the high priest’s courtyard, he appears to be a prisoner in serious trouble. But if we have been following Luke’s narrative, the clues are there that it is the high priest who is in trouble. He cannot guard his court any longer, for a stronger man has arrived who has brought fire upon his court. This prisoner that he has allowed in, is the one who has come to bring fire on earth, and now we get to see it kindled right here in the headquarters of the Jerusalem establishment. In this encounter, the high priest stands to lose everything.

But first, Jesus himself must go through the fires of judgement. For the fire he has come to bring is the one with which he himself must be baptised. And so we follow Jesus through an extended judgement narrative, in which he relives the story of Israel’s exile, handed over to the Gentiles and left to die in the darkness.

It seems the disciples’ mistake about calling down fire, was to imagine they could call it down on others, especially on foreigners!. Whereas Jesus’ program begins with the fire falling on himself and his people, and on Israel. He will not make others take responsibility for human evil until he has first borne the weight of it in his own body. The world cannot be baptised until Messiah is first. 

The agent of this fiery judgement was always the Spirit of God. And this fire-Spirit which condemns is also the Spirit which vindicates and raises up. Jesus now lives and stands in the realm of God’s judging Spirit, purified through the flames. Jesus has not escaped from the fire: rather he has entered into it. But the fire-Spirit is now experienced by Messiah as an empowering gift.

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, having received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.  Acts 2:33 

 And this fire is also poured out on his followers:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.    Acts 2:2-4

For the righteous who stand with Messiah, and place themselves on the right side of God’s judgement, the Spirit falls on them as a did on Jesus: as an empowering gift of fire: 

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”   Luke 24:48

Luke has one last fire-kindling to show us: the contribution of Paul to building the fire. As Paul went around announcing the judgement of God arriving at the cross, the fire Spirit fell in each place. The whole world was being kindled in this blaze. This was a source of great offence to the Jews, who considered the nations unfit for inclusion in God’s holy Spirit. The man who polluted the holy people in this way was the worst of criminals, worthy of death. And the Messiah he proclaimed was a disgrace. Paul, like Jesus, felt the heat! Luke sums up Paul’s ministry in a fire-building scene which comes just before his trial in Rome:

Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds…   Acts 28:2-6

The whole of Paul’s ministry, the attacks he suffered from the murderous Jewish authorities, the slanders against him, and his vindication by God, are all symbolised neatly in this final fire-kindling narrative. The fire is arriving in Rome!

[A note to the engineers among our readers: I know you don’t like this sort of thing. It’s not how you yourself would go about telling a story. But unfortunately Luke, like all the biblical writers and their readers too, were in the habit of including symbolism in their narratives. They simply didn’t feel the need to always make their points in plain propositional sentences. These writers lived a long time ago in a very different culture, and they have their own ways of getting their message across. Sorry, you’ll just have to get used to it! 🙂 ]

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