Baptism of fire

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Matthew 3:1-12

When the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were decimated at Gallipoli, it was said to be a baptism of fire.  Much less tragically, a baptism of fire might refer to a stormy first year of marriage or a difficult first match for a football manager.  It is the birthing of something new through affliction.

John the Baptist 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.

9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.  (Matthew 3:10-12)

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 judgement (e.g. Zephaniah 1:18; 3:8).  And, according to verse 12, Christ the Judge will burn up all the unfruitful “with unquenchable fire.”

So with the flames beckoning, what are we to do?  Fight fire with fire!  Verse 11: We must be baptised by Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  What does that mean?

Well the next thing to happen is for Jesus Himself to be baptised by John (Matthew 3:13-17).  The Messiah joins the queue of sinners at the Jordan river.  As the Abrahamites confess their sins and repent, Jesus goes to the head of the queue and is baptised Himself.  He identifies with the bad trees who recognise themselves as such.  But instead of burning them down He comes in solidarity, to be with them and for them.  Jesus is baptised into our kind of life.

And He carries that solidarity with us throughout His life.  Indeed He carries it all the way to the cross.  There Jesus stands at the Head of Israel – the Head of the human race – and He bows His head to the fiery judgement we all deserve.  He is consumed on the cross – offered up as a whole burnt offering.  He endures the unquenchable fire… and comes through the other side.  Interestingly, when John sees Him in Revelation he says “his feet [were] like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace.” (Revelation 1:15).  Jesus bears the fiery judgement owed to us, and He passes through it.

On the other side of the furnace, Jesus offers us His own baptism.  He was baptised into our kind of life – and now we can be baptised into His kind of life.

If we accept His baptism, we will not escape the fires of affliction.  We will, as the Apostle Paul writes, fellowship in His sufferings, (Philippians 3:10).  But with Christ, this baptism of fire will truly be a birth.  In Him, the flames are not deadly but only refining.

The whole world is heading for the flames.  But will the fires be our birth or our death?  Will we be baptised into the Suffering Christ or will we face the furnace alone?

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