Luke 12:49 – “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Luke is the only evangelist to make this statement. It must have held a special meaning for him, and this needs to be explored and uncovered.

Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Does this mean that he has brought with him the fire that he will cast upon the earth? It is possible that the fire is already present in a way that is concealed from humans? Is he himself the fire that he will cast upon the earth? What precisely is this fire? I will pursue these questions in search of answers to the statement in 12:49. Luke 12:50 says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is accomplished!” It is clear that “baptism” in this context does not refer to baptism with water as performed by John the Baptist. Is this not yet accomplished baptism the same thing as the fire which is to be cast upon the earth? Jesus’ discussion with James and John the sons of Zebedee in Mark 8:38 may shed some light on the meaning I am trying to uncover. This also calls for investigation. I will try to show that Luke 12:49 and 12:50 do not constitute a unity, and that the differences between the two statements are important for understanding the meaning of fire upon the earth.

I have looked at the references to fire in the Gospel of Luke. The following list constitutes all of Luke’s statements in which fire is used. In Luke 3:9, fire is used in the context of a judgement between trees that produce good fruit and those that do not. In Luke 3:16-17, John the Baptist says he who is coming will baptize with fire, and he will separate the wheat from the chaff, and “will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” In Luke 9:34, fire is mentioned as a potential judgement against the Samaritans who would not receive Jesus. In Luke 17:29, fire is used as a judgement against Sodom. In Luke 22:55, a warming fire is built in the courtyard of the high priest wen Jesus is brought before him. Most of these disclose that fire has a relationship to judgment, conflict, disorder, and often in the context of groups or individuals. I do not believe that the statement in 12:49 about fire belongs with these statements that indicate some form of judgement. I believe that the Evangelist has something different in mind that he wants to communicate to the young church.

Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. He has not come to bring fire upon Jerusalem, or upon any defined geographical area. He has come to do something that will have a universal impact. The fire must therefore be something of special and unique importance. In Exodus 3:2 Moses experiences a theophany, drawn to the burning bush which is on fire but is not consumed. Ezekiel, in 1:4, is confronted by a mysterious fire, a theophany which then defines the nature of his vocation. Elijah on Mount Horeb, I Kings 19:12 is caught up in a theophany involving fire, “but the Lord was not in the fire.” And the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 again involves fire that transforms. I am inclined to believe that the fire in these examples of theophany does not deal with judgement but with revelation. Something is revealed that then transforms people and sets them on a new course of life. It is a revelation of mission and vocation. Those who are participants in the revelation receive a call to service that then promises a new future.

Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” This is his mission. What exactly is revealed in his mission? “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’ Mark 1:14-15. Later on he said to his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also; for this is what I came out to do.” Mark 1:38. The mission of Jesus is an eschatological one, as is the message of John. This is clear from the response he sent to John the Baptist in prison in Matthew 11.

John sent his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is the eschatological message of Jesus. It is the quintessential definition of the kingdom of God on earth. This is also as precise a definition of the church as one may find. The kingdom of God, the church, is a relationship of transformation. The church is where the new creation begins and continues. The church is the new heaven and new earth of which John speaks in the Apocalypse. The church as new creation where transformation is the rule is not a fixed but a pilgrim community. It exists only in movement. Every time Jesus speaks the new creation begins anew. Every time the message of the gospel is proclaimed, the church comes into being. This is the eschatological message. The church is eschatology in action and in mission. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 11:15. And Revelation repeatedly says even more clearly, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

“I came to bring fire to the earth; and how I wish that it were already kindled!” The kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus is saying that the fire that he casts upon the earth is none other than the kingdom of God that is at hand and the church that comes into being through the mission of Jesus. By the time of the writing of the Gospel of Luke it was certainly kindled, and perhaps not much more than “a dimly burning wick,” in a world in chaos. Fire upon the earth is a revelation of the coming into being of the kingdom of God and the church. The fire itself illuminates rather than destroys. The fire as light is also revelation. It reveals the present world as it is, awaiting deliverance. “Are you the one, or should we look for another?” The fire reveals the mission of miracle and mystery: the blind see, deaf hear, the dead are raised, the good news is proclaimed.

In early Greek thought, Aeschylus gave us Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and so gave humanity civilization. The name Prometheus means the one who thinks ahead. He is a forward-looking thinker. I may conclude from this that fire has its origin with the divine and once in the hands of humanity, has the power to point the way ahead. Fire discloses, uncovers something without which humankind is not complete. Heraclitus thinks fire is light. Light illuminates. It makes visible what has been hidden. When Luke 3:16 says that Jesus will baptize with fire he indicates that the outpouring of fire upon humanity brings something new to light. This cannot be the unquenchable fire of verse 3:17, which surely is a metaphor for judgment. Jesus baptizing with fire is something other than judgment. Something is hidden that will be revealed by Jesus in this baptism with fire. Luke does not say what is to be revealed, only that Jesus will baptize with fire. Fire shines brightly. It is light. Baptizing with fire is baptizing with light. He who is the Light will pour out upon humankind his light, that is, he will pour out Himself. Luke may be indicating that Jesus will give Himself for humanity, that baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire is about the sacrifice that Jesus will make, and therefore when Luke says that Jesus will baptize with fire he is conveying the idea of the Passion of Christ. If this argument holds, then I may conclude that the life of Christ is Passion, from beginning to end. Further, those who are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are forever the Passion of Christ. The Revelation of John conveys the same idea: the Passion of Christ is the Passion of the church. The fire is not judgment. It lights up the way into the Passion, and the Passion is sustained by its light. The divine which no longer inhabits fire (Elijah on Horeb) has, by its exit, made room there for the church to exist in the fire and be illuminated by its light and enlightened by its wisdom. That the church exists in the fire and is not consumed may be the essential meaning of Luke 12:50. It may be that today the church is the burning bush, the place of revelation, the final proclamation that God is still with us.

Luke 12:50 says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized with; and what stress I am under until it is accomplished.” The sons of Zebedee were going to be a part of this baptism, as were all the disciples for all will share in the Passion of Christ. The church exists as the Passion of Christ. Wherever the church is found there is revealed the Passion of Christ. The Passion is an eschatological event which brings into being the redeemed and the redemptive community. This is obviously quite different from fire upon the earth. The two statements may have existed in different contexts in the early Palestinian community, but Luke brings them together here for a particular purpose. They do not belong together, for they point to two different motifs. John the Baptist says of Jesus, “he will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire.” Luke 3:16. Luke is the only Evangelist to associate baptism and fire as part of the mission of Jesus. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that Luke has placed verses 12:49 and 50 together. The fire cast upon the earth is a new beginning. “The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep; and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light.” Genesis 1:2-3. This is precisely what we must understand in the words of Jesus, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” This is his “Let there be light!”

“I came to bring fire to the earth.” I have come to inaugurate the new creation, to bring into being the church, the people of God called out to be one from the many corners of the earth. “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” Luke 10:23-24.

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