Few smells are as pervasive as the smell of smoke. Anyone who’s sat around a campfire can attest. The smell seeps into clothes, hair, and skin. It clings with an iron grip. Only a stronger, more potent smell can banish it.
Sin’s pervasiveness works much the same way. Its flames flickered and fluttered before our birth. David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We were conceived and born into the smokey fire of sin. We can’t escape the smell sin’s flames leave on us. We carry it everywhere we go.
Despite our attempts to cover sin’s scent with redolent aromas, its stench travels far. I grew up in south Florida, near where civilization stopped and sawgrass ruled. Even in our highly suburbanized area on the edge of the wetlands, you could smell the smoke from wildfires miles deep in the Everglades. We might fool fellow foul-smelling sinners, but God still smells our sinful, petulant odor. The flames of the Old Adam rage on no matter how hard we try to put them out.
A Fiery Rescue
Smoke and fire play prominent roles in Scripture as agents and symbols of judgment and wrath. In Daniel 3, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, better known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faced fiery judgment. Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, set up a golden statue and ordered all people bow in worship to it. The three men refused. So Nebuchadnezzar ordered the heat turned up to eleven. He had them bound and thrown into the fiery furnace, clothes and all.
Then, the king leapt up in alarm. He peered into the furnace. Instead of three, fully clothed men tied up, he saw four men unbound walking around freely. The appearance of the fourth man, “like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25).
Nebuchadnezzar called into the fiery furnace, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” (Daniel 3:26). He ordered his governors, satraps, prefects, and counselors to examine them. All the king’s men saw the fire had not burned their skin, singed their hair, or harmed their clothes. They couldn’t even smell smoke on them.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego not only walked out of the fire unburned, but odor free. It was as if they were never thrown in. As if the king’s men had never lit the fire.
A Fiery Exchange
In Luke 3:16, John the Baptizer spoke some unsettling words regarding Jesus. “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Baptized with fire? That doesn’t sound good. But, as with all things regarding Christ, it’s wonderfully more than what it appears. The baptism we receive, Christ first took upon himself.
Before starting His ministry, Jesus entered the Jordan River to be baptized and take on humanity’s sinful stench (Luke 3). As He rose from the waters the Spirit descended upon Him. The Father’s voice from heaven called Jesus His beloved and well-pleasing Son (Luke 3:22).
Jesus, then, journeyed to a sort of second baptism. “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). He endured a baptism of fire as He incurred the full wrath of God the Father in our stead. A baptism of blood and judgment as He hung on the cross.
Like the fourth man with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Christ willingly entered the fiery furnace of God’s judgment with us and for us. He didn’t join to watch us burn, bound by our sin. Instead, He sends us out unbound, unburned, and free from sin’s stench while He stays behind.
On the cross He took our old, sinful Adam into the flames of God’s judgment. In return He gives us His new, resurrected, and recreated Adam. He took our bindings and our punishment. He gave us His robe of righteousness and His freedom from sin.
John Kleinig, in his book Grace Upon Grace, put it this way, “Christ has taken on our sin with its impurity and put our old polluted self to death by His death so that He could share His own perfect purity and holiness with us… As we come into the Father’s presence, He regards us as people who are clothed in Christ and dressed up in His holiness” (p. 276).
In baptism, Christ exchanges our rank, foul, and petulant scent before God for His sweet, soft, pleasing aroma. Christ’s blood extinguishes the flames the Old Adam ignited. Our sinful stench goes up in smoke, blown away by His breath, the Spirit of God. In baptism, we are justified by the grace of God in Christ. It is as sin’s flames were never lit. As if we never sinned.
In our baptism, God speaks to us the same words He spoke to Christ at His, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Hear those words again! Know God speaks them to you. “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter; on account of Jesus Christ, with you I am well pleased.”