John the Baptist faithfully reports for duty every December with his wilderness wardrobe and insect diet, ready to make straight the path of the long-expected Messiah as our Advent preacher. John was certainly not one to mince words. Among those words, I have been asked to explain what he meant when he said that he baptized with water, but Jesus would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” It’s that last word, “fire,” that stands out, especially to a Californian; the fires were not exactly kind to my beloved state last year.
This phrase “baptism of fire” is often associated with the birthing of something new through affliction. For example, a baptism of fire might refer to a stormy first year of marriage or a difficult first game for a new starting quarterback.
John preached that all of us need a baptism of fire. In fact, he argues that fire will either be the birth or the death of us:
…and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:9-12).
According to verses 9-10, the whole Abrahamic tree is headed for the flames. In fact, Israel stands at the head of a human race destined for fiery judgment (e.g. Zeph 1:18; 3:8). And, to add insult to injury, in verse 12, Christ the Judge will burn up all the chaff “with unquenchable fire.” I enjoy my typical year-round “sunny and 72-degree F” San Diego weather, but unquenchable sounds rather uncomfortable.
Since the flames are being stoked by sin, what are we to do? Fight fire with fire! Firefighters often conduct a “controlled burn,” setting fire to an area under controlled conditions, burning fuel that could potentially feed a future wildfire. In biblical terms, we must be “baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” and in Lutheranesque fashion, we ask: What does this mean?
Jesus Offers His Own Baptism
The next significant thing to happen in the Gospel record is for Jesus Himself to be baptized by John. Incredibly, the One whose shoelace John is unfit to tie joins the queue of sinners at the Jordan River. As the Jews repent and confess their sin, Jesus goes to the head of the pack and is baptized. He self-identifies with those he has come to save. Instead of burning them up with unquenchable fire, He comes in solidarity, to be God with us and God for us. Jesus is baptized into our life, so that He could gift us His life.
He carries that solidarity with us throughout His life all the way to the cross. There, Jesus stands as Israel’s true King–the Head of the human race–and He bows His head to the fiery judgment we all deserve. On the cross, He is offered up as a whole burnt offering. He endures the unquenchable fire and comes through the other side the resurrected victor (1 Cor 15:57).
Instead of burning them up with unquenchable fire, He comes in solidarity, to be God with us and God for us. Jesus is baptized into our life, so that He could gift us His life
Interestingly, when the Apostle John later sees the ascended Jesus he says, “His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace…” (Rev 1:15).
On the other side of the furnace, Jesus offers us His own baptism. He was baptized into our kind of life – so that we can now be baptized into His kind of life (see Rom 6:1–13).
In Jesus’ baptism, we will not escape the fires of affliction. We will, as the St. Paul writes, fellowship in His sufferings (Phil 3:10); but in Christ, this baptism of fire will truly be a new birth, which includes the gift of the Holy Spirit, pictured by tongues of fire resting on the disciples at Pentecost.
In the words of Nelly, “It’s getting hot in here.” Baptized into Christ, you need not fear. He’s taken the heat so that you can be gathered like wheat into the storehouse of His love.