“I have come to bring fire on 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 completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. Luke 12:49-51
We are certainly experiencing fire on the earth, aren’t we?
In fact, there are fires all over the world. It seems like there’s always been a fire somewhere during my lifetime. Billy Joel’s 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” captured the history of my generation.
We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it
Generally the fires of our age – war, conflict, violence, discord and tragedy – are bad things. How is it, then, that Jesus said that he came to cast fire on earth. Do we really need someone setting more fires in this world? What can that possibly mean?
The fire of which Jesus spoke certainly included conflict and division. He spoke of division in families – father against son, and mother against daughter.
Some people despair that “religion” causes conflict. They see religious conflict like any other – based in jealousy, pride, and the desire for power. Certainly much religious conflict arises from our baser instincts. For Jesus, however, the truth of God’s claim on our lives in Christ was essentially divisive. It caused people to make a decision for or against Jesus, to obey or disobey, to believe or disbelieve. It’s not a light and trivial matter. It’s not a football game, where the outcome doesn’t make any difference. It’s not simply a matter of personal opinion any more than murdering innocents, stealing from the poor or oppressing the weak is a matter of personal opinion.
This is a strange conflict, however, insofar as Jesus’ disciples are concerned. They don’t fight back against when they suffer persecution because of his name. They follow their master’s example of sacrificial, redeeming love.
The “baptism” of which Jesus speaks is his crucifixion. When Jesus speaks these words, he knows that times of conflict, trial and tribulation are right around the corner. Jesus won’t fight back. Those who have experienced what Dave Grossman calls “the toxic world of combat,” however, understand what the phrase “baptism of fire” means. Although Jesus entered the conflict armed only with God’s spirit and God’s truth, he suffered just as any combatant suffers. I’m grateful that my savior loved me enough to immerse himself in the world’s suffering and pain. It was this act of sacrificial love that won for us a victory that can’t be won with weapons of war.
The conflict, of which Jesus spoke, then, is the inevitable clash that occurs between the gospel’s claims and humanity’s free will. Ironically, however, that conflict also became an unwitting accomplice to humanity’s salvation.
When John the Baptizer proclaimed the coming kingdom, he used an image of threshing wheat (Luke 3:16b-17). The harvested wheat is crushed on the threshing floor, and then tossed in the air with the winnowing fork. The wind separates the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff is burned. This is the holy wind (spirit) and fire of which the baptizer speaks in Luke 3:16b. (“Wind” and “spirit” are the same word in both Hebrew (ru’ach) and Greek (pneuma).
So “fire” is an image of judgment. That sounds bad to many, but not to me. It is not the case that I’m wheat and you are chaff. No, I’m both wheat and chaff. So are you. I want to get rid of the chaff, once and for all, and I can’t do it by shear mental or physical effort. I long for the day when I am fully what God created me to be – when the worthless parts are blown away and burned into nothingness.
I also long for the day when the worldly consequences of our sin are burned into nothingness. When we think of all the good and wonderful things in this world, and then consider all the horrible things that happen, how do we put an end to the waste-product once and for all? We can’t do it with weapons of war. We can make things better here and now, but we know that evil will raise its ugly head again some day soon – and we’ve seen how ugly evil really is. I long for the day when God will set the world right once and for all, and so did Jesus.
The Baptizer surely saw this separation of the wheat and chaff as an eschatological reality – to come to pass at the end of the age. After Jesus’ resurrection, however, Luke and the other New Testament authors realized that the church experienced “wind” and “fire” right now in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke describes it this way in Acts 2:2-4a:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the fire Jesus cast on the earth. The fire has come. You can see it in the history of the church. You can see it in the lives of believers. People still say, “This church is on fire” or “She’s really on fire for God.” Whether or not all the “fire” attributed to the Holy Spirit really comes from the Spirit is a matter for another day. I do know, however, that I’ve seen what I believe to be Christ’s fire burning in the life of the church and its members. The spirit’s fire begins what the coming of Christ will complete.
I hope that it is encouraging to know that Jesus experienced the difficulties we are experiencing. As the old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows like Jesus.” I hope that it is even more encouraging, however, to know that he will one day make all things new, and the weapons of war will fall silent forever. As we wait for that day, may the fire of his spirit burn within each of us.