Jesus came to cast fire on the earth
Of all the ways we might describe Jesus’ ministry, probably few of us would choose to describe it the way John the Baptist, and the Lord himself, described it. Both said that Jesus came to bring judgment. And both described the judgment in fiery terms.
John said his baptism pointed forward to another baptism. His baptism came with water, but the baptism to which it pointed was a Holy-Spirit-fire baptism (Luke 3:16). Should the Holy Spirit be poured out on one who is not himself holy, the results would be disastrous. The result of a sinner being plunged into God’s undiluted holiness is appropriately described by the Bible in fiery terms. And that is why Jesus said two important things about his ministry as firecaster.
baptism of fire
He came, indeed, to bring judgment, to cast the fire of the Holy Spirit upon the earth. And he could wish that it had already been kindled. But it hadn’t. As we noted, sinners could not survive the resulting conflagration. Something had to happen first. So the two things Jesus said about casting fire on the earth are that it is not yet kindled, and he had a baptism to undergo.
Remember, John and Jesus both described their ministries in terms of baptism, and that baptism is an image of judgment. Fire either refines or destroys. And judgment either acquits or condemns. In order for us to be refined by, and not destroyed by, the fire Jesus would cast upon the earth, Jesus had to be baptized in the fire.
Just as we are baptized into Jesus (Romans 6:3), and therefore have the death he died and the life he lived applied to our accounts, so, in a sense, Jesus was baptized into us. That is, he had all of our sin and guilt laid on him, and God’s holy wrath was poured out on him in judgment. Jesus’ baptism happened on the cross, in order that our baptism might happen at Pentecost.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. In anticipation of the fiery judgment, people repented and were baptized with water, in hope that they would receive a favorable outcome at the judgment. That favorable outcome was won for us by Jesus on the cross. But repentance is still in order.
Settling and the Sword
The last two things Jesus tells us in this passage are related. Jesus came to bring division, and our only recourse to avoid condemnation is to settle out of court. They are related concepts because settling out of court involves confessing one’s guilt. When we share the gospel, we are calling people to admit that they are unworthy of God’s love. We are calling them to cast themselves on the mercy of the Court. We are calling them to repent and believe. So often, this gospel gets truncated to simply “believe.” But repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. One cannot have saving faith without also having repentance.
And that’s why the gospel is divisive. Of course, there is a sense in which Jesus came to bring peace on earth. We hear that promise in the Christmas story each year (Luke 2:14). But that peace will only come in its fullness after the judgment, when the ‘chaff’ has been burned up, when the unrepentant wicked have been condemned. In the mean time, the ministry of Jesus brings a sword, not peace. It is divides us even at the level of our closest earthly bonds, the family. When we share the gospel, those who are unwilling to confess their guilt will not like the invitation to do so. And they will attack. This is why everyone who seeks to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12).
Let us embrace the persecution, however. Let us not fear what men might do to us. The worst they can do is harm or kill our bodies. God has power to cast our souls into hell (Luke 12:4-5). Living the life of discipleship is a cross-carrying life. So let us call the lost to salvation, rejoicing if we are found worthy to suffer for the name (Acts 5:40-42), the only name under heaven, given among men, by which we may be saved (Acts 4:12). Let us call people to settle out of court. Apart from Christ, their debt to God simply cannot be paid. Judgment day will come unpredictably. And should the judgment come before their debt is settled, it will never be settled, and they will spend all eternity feeling the searing torture of God’s holiness on their wicked souls, with absolutely no hope of relief. But praise be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, God offers mercy to those who turn from their sins and embrace the saving lordship of Jesus. For those who do, the debt is paid in full. We are baptized into Christ, so that the fire of the Spirit’s holiness refines us and does not destroy us.