“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:49-53)
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” As we hear these words of our Lord read again, we can almost hear the urgency and emotion that what was in his voice when he spoke them. “I came to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is Jesus describing his mission, his purpose for entering into our world: to cast fire on the earth. Yet it had not happened yet, for with great longing in his voice, he tells his diciples, “how I wish it were already kindled.”
But whatever do these strange words mean? What is this fire about which Christ speaks? How or when did he cast this fire to the earth, if he ever did?
There are occasions in the Bible when fire did fall from heaven. Fire and brimstone fell from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25) and destroyed those towns and all its inhabitants. One of the ten plagues against Egypt was fire and hail from heaven (Exodus 9:3). The prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven that incinerated soldiers sent from wicked King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:9-17). Lightning is sometimes described as fire from heaven in the Bible (Psalm 27:9; Psalm 144:5-6). All of these fires from God, however, were destructive fires. And it is the destructive and consuming force of fire that we usually think of when we think of fire. But Jesus says, “how I wish it were already kindled?” Does it sound like Jesus to be longing and wishing for destruction?
No the fire that Jesus came to cast on the earth is none of those fires. It is not a destructive fire. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures sometimes associates the Holy Spirit with fire. In the book of Revelation, the Holy Spirit is pictured as “seven lampstands with burning flames” (Rev 4:5). John the Baptist prophesied concerning Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
But do we have any Biblical evidence that Jesus ever sent the Holy Spirit from heaven in the form of fire? Yes we do. And it happened on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2.
Later, when Peter stood up and preached a sermon before thousands of curious onlookers, he explained to them what the tongues of fire meant, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing (Acts 2:32-33). The resurrected Jesus, ascended to the right hand of God had poured forth the Holy Spirit from heaven; he had cast the fire of the Holy Spirit to the earth.
When the fire of the Spirit fell upon the apostles they were transformed; they were filled with boldness, they praised the mighty works of God in many languages, and they spoke the Word of God to the gathered people. The fire was kindled! 3000 were baptized and converted on that one day. And that kindled fire spread throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
But when Jesus spoke the words of our text, the day of Pentecost was still in the distant future. Our Lord knew that before the great day of casting fire upon the earth could come, something of monumental significance had to happen first. Our Lord put it this way, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”
One thing is sure. Jesus was not referring to his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist; that baptism had already happened. No he was referring another kind of baptism, a baptism that filled Jesus with distress as he thought about it; a baptism that he desperately wanted to be completed. He was talking about the baptism of his death and resurrection. For truly baptism is a death and resurrection.
Listen to Paul in Romans 6 describe what happens when a Christian is baptized:
Paul is not merely saying that baptism pictures a death and resurrection. He is saying that those who are baptized truly die with Christ, are buried with Christ, and rise again with Christ. Their sinful nature is put to death and they arise as new creations.
That is what Christ meant by his baptism: His death and resurrection which atoned for the sins of the whole world, by which God offers forgivness and eternal life to all who believe and are baptized (“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” 1 John 2:1b-2).
But once Jesus underwent his “baptism,” then he could, and did, cast fire on the earth, that is, gave the Spirit to his church. From that day until this the fire of the Spirit has fallen on the Church, and through it, has set the unbelieving world ablaze; this raging fire has spread, bringing not destruction, but salvation to an uncountable number.
But the events of Pentecost happened only once. So how has Jesus continued to cast the Spirit of fire to the earth? Through the Ministry of the Word of God and those two visible words of God, the Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Where do we get the idea that the Word of God brings with it the fire of the Spirit? In Jeremiah 23:29: “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” The Word of God, when it is preached or taught or read brings with it the Holy Spirit of fire. And when this fire comes to people through the Ministry of the Word, it accomplishes three different things.
1. It Ignites a Fire of Cleansing
Fire burns and kills and destroys. But it also cleanses and purifies, as when a forest fire removes what is already dead, or as when steel is purified of its impurities through fire. The same thing happens when the fire of the Spirit comes to sinful people: it cleanses them from sin.
Fire cleansed the prophet Isaiah. When Isaiah was called, he saw a vision in which he was standing before the throne of Yahweh himself. And when he realized that he a sinner was standing before the most high and holy God, this is what happened, as he tells it.
Isaiah’s guilt was atoned for through fire (the burning coal taken from the altar) and the Word of the Gospel, spoken by the seraph.
Similarly, the Spirit of God works through the Law to convince sinners that they are condemned and drives them to repentance. Through the Gospel, the Spirit of fire, cleanses their hearts by faith. When sinners hear and believe the Gospel that their sins were completely forgiven at the cross and freely offered, the fire of the Spirit, like that burning coal, touches their lips, their hearts, their bodies and souls, and cleanses them from all sin. They are forgiven!
2. It Ignites a Fire of Passion and Zeal
When Isaiah’s guilt was atoned for by means of the burning coal and the spoken Gospel, he immediately was filled with passion and zeal. “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me.” A Fire of Zeal for the Lord and willingness to serve was ignited in his heart, which he then devoted his entire life to.
Another example of this fire of passion, is the two disciples who spoke with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t know it was Jesus until he broke bread with them and vanished; then their eyes were opened and they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Their hearts burned within them, they were filled with passion and zeal, when Jesus talked to them, and quoted and explained the Old Testament Scriptures to them. The fire of the Spirit, working through the Word of God, ignited a fire of passion within them.
3. It Ignites a Fire of Division and Opposition
Yes the Holy Spirit of fire ignites the fire of cleansing of sin and the fire of passion and zeal. But on this occasion, Jesus was thinking especially of a third kind of fire which the Spirit of fire ignites: a fire of division and opposition.
In the very next verse of our text, the Lord says,
Jesus knew that whenever the Holy Spirit of fire came to people through the Ministry of the Word, it would ignite division. Why? What about God’s Word brings about division and opposition?
Think again on the Jeremiah 23:29: “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” When sinners are confronted and condemned by the Law of God and urged to repent, the Law acts as a fire and a hammer which seeks to shatter their hard hearts. In some, the Spirit of fire brings about repentance; but in many others it brings about a raging anger toward God and the messenger.
Jesus understood this. John 7 records that he said to his unbelieving brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). People don’t like to be told that they are wrong. Far worse when they are told that even the good things they are evil in God’s sight apart from Christ. It burns them up. They react to the Spirit of fire working through the Law with anger, opposition, and ultimately division. They want nothing to do with those confront them with their sin (another example is Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51-60).
Yet it is not only the Law which accuses which breeds opposition. It is also, perhaps especially the Gospel. What about the sweet Gospel brings opposition, hatred and division? The fact that it is so exclusive; that fact that it says that only through faith Jesus Christ is salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life given. Because this message excludes those who refuse to turn to Jesus, it offends them, angers them, and often opposition and division result.
Martin Luther put it in these words:
Therefore we should not be surprised when such things occur in our lives. Faithful confession of the Word will result in division and opposition. When such opposition happens we will be powerfully tempted to give up our faithful confession, to become silent, or to change our position, in order to get along, in order to have external peace. But when we put external peace, getting along with others, ahead of faithfulness to the Word, we are deeply offending God and sinning against him. Then this Word of Jesus needs to be spoken, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). And also this word of Jesus: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38).
When we become silent or change our position for the sake of external peace, just to get along, we are quenching the fire of the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). When we do this we are robbing our loves ones of the cleansing power of that fire.
The old saying, “Blood is thicker than water” is true in more ways than one. Too often the blood of family relationship (those related by blood) inspires more loyalty than the water of Baptism. In my Ministry I have seen too many examples of faithful Christians who have abandoned their confession of faith or became silent when a family member fell into a sin that their confession of faith condemned. For example, they were against nonBiblical divorces, until one of their children procured such a divorce. Then they changed their position, or became silent, in order to maintain peace with their children. Blood is thicker than water. Yet it should be the other way around.
This does not mean that we should be loud and brash and argumentative, looking for fights, getting in people’s faces. It does not mean that we cannot continue a relationship with friends or relatives who oppose us or are angry at our confession of faith. It does mean, that we must not compromise God’s Word, neither Law or Gospel, but must firmly confess the truth.
Having been baptized with the baptism of his death and resurrection Jesus atoned for all our sins, including our choosing peace over faithful confession. This is good news because this is a sin that most have committed many times. If you have, repent and you will be forgiven.
Our Lord Jesus continues to cast fire on the earth, the fire of the Spirit, through the Ministry of Word and Sacraments and the faithful confession of his people. Through this fire, he cleanses, and ignites passion for faithful confession, so that we might stand firm and refuse to compromise his word for the sake of external peace. Amen.
Pastor Richard P. Bucher, Th.D