Baptism by Fire

What is the baptism of fire alluded to in the Gospels? The tongues of fire at Pentecost, or a fiery judgment?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "The Thief in the Night". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

The idea of a “baptism of fire” has provided imagery for countless worship songs and sermons. Calling down metaphorical fire to empower, bless, or refine the body of Messiah is a common theme in many denominations.

But what were Yeshua and His predecessor John really talking about? Let’s look at a passage from Luke and try to understand:

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! (Luke 12:49-50)

This is a difficult text to understand. The King James Version offers the most literal (and most cryptic) translation:

I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!”

What was He talking about? Our difficulty with the passage stems from both the awkward syntax and the obscure symbolism. What is the fire? Why did the Master wish it were already kindled? What was the baptism He had to undergo?

The context of an impending judgment makes the meaning clearer. Rabbi Yeshua followed the cryptic couplets with the explanation, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no” (Luke 12:51). He earlier said, “The blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, [will] be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:50).

In Hebrew, the expression “I have come to” functions idiomatically to express purpose or intention. Therefore, we can read, “My intent is to cast fire upon the earth.” The fire that Messiah has come to bring upon the earth is the fire of judgment. He alludes back to the prophecy of John the Immerser:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11-12)

This passage does not refer to the tongues of fire that came upon the believers at Pentecost. Instead, John predicted the fire of judgment. The arrival of the Messianic King and the establishment of His kingdom have two different implications. For those who have already entered the kingdom, He brings a baptism of the Spirit. For those who have turned away from Torah and refuse to repent, He brings a baptism of fiery wrath. Apocalyptic cataclysm and certain judgment lie in store for the wicked. The Prophet Malachi said, “Who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2).

In their book, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Bivin and Blizzard suggest translating the words “And what will I, if it be already kindled?” into Hebrew and then back to English as: “How could I wish it were already kindled?” That is to say, “Why would I be happy to see the fire of judgment already kindled?”

As the representative Servant of the LORD who stands for all Israel, He too must pass through an immersion of fire. His suffering and death at the hands of the Romans will portend and set in motion the immersion of divine punishment that must fall on the nation. His crucifixion by the Romans foreshadowed the fall of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation under the Roman armies.

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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