“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
– Luke 12:49, NIV
Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. As He traveled, He commented (Luke 12:-53) on the conflict and division that would occur because of Him. Our attention, as we are studying the Holy Spirit, focuses on verse . Jesus said that He would cast fire upon the earth. The crucial question we are considering is, “What does the metaphor ‘fire’ represent?” Related passages are Luke 3:16-17 and Acts 2:3-4.
With regard to when the fire is kindled, let us read the second part of verse . According to Robertson, a literal translation is, “And what will I if it is already kindled?” This would suggest that the fire was already kindled. Many say it was kindled when Jesus came into the world. Even so, the full conflagration would come later. Many translators, however, put the kindling of the fire in the future. According to the NASB (above), Jesus said, “and how I wish it were already kindled.” The fire would not be kindled until some future event took place.
Although it may be that the fire was lit when Jesus came to earth, it would not be fully kindled (v. 50) until Jesus underwent a baptism of suffering. Jesus said, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” NASU On another occasion (Mark 10:38-39) Jesus spoke of the baptism He would undergo. The baptism that Jesus would suffer was His atoning death upon the cross. Even though He would suffer and the fire would result in division, Jesus desired that it would be kindled quickly. He came to save us, and His suffering was necessary to our salvation.
Jesus continued His teaching (Luke 12:51) with these startling comments, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division.” Jesus is the Prince of peace, yet His death, burial, and resurrection would precipitate discord and division. He would cast fire upon the earth. In Luke 12:52-53 Jesus describes the division that results from the attitude of people toward Him. He said:
52 for from now on five members in one household will be 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” NASU
The discord would happen because some people would reject Christ. When it comes to Christ, there is no middle ground. We are either for Him or against Him. Unfortunately, not all families are in agreement about Him. Because of their disagreement, division is inevitable. Those who accept Christ live in peace, but those who reject Him ultimately will face judgment.
We return now to our key question, “What does the emblem of fire represent?” Major views are that the fire is the Holy Spirit, judgment, or the Holy Spirit mediating judgment. Others say that the fire represents the Spirit enduing men with the message of the cross, the offense of the cross, discord, division, spiritual cleansing, purification, and persecution.
As far as the context is concerned, it deals with discord and division. Because of this, we may think of the fire as the fire of division. Another approach would be to think of the division as a result of the fire. Still another possible view is that both the process and the result can be elements in the fire. Certainly, the point Jesus stresses is that division will result from His presence and activities.
The view that fire represents the Holy Spirit has much merit. On the Day of Pentecost Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, in turn, empowers people to be witnesses. The empowered people preach the message of the cross. This Spirit-inspired message results in division. Thus, in a sense, the fire is the Holy Spirit in action.
John the Baptist (Luke 3:16) said Jesus would administer a baptism “in Spirit and fire.” In my view the fire in this verse represents the Spirit in action. The result of this baptism is division. Ultimately, the fire becomes a fire of judgment (Luke 3:17) to the unrepentant.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit was outpoured on the disciples. According to Acts 2:3, “there appeared unto them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.” The tongues of fire represent the presence of the Spirit that was powerfully upon them. They were empowered to witness. That witness would lead to division. The repentant would be saved, and the unrepentant would be judged. Thus, we perhaps could say that the tongues of fire were emblematic of the Spirit-endued message that the disciples would speak.
Actually, the metaphor of fire does not limit us to one factor. The fire may well represent the Holy Spirit in action, the process leading to discord, and the resultant and even the division. Figures of speech have a wonderful flexibility and often help us see all sides of a truth.
Elements of Fire
When we think of the flexibility of the metaphor of fire, we can think broadly of several factors that might be called elements of the fire. Each of these elements has a role in overall picture. Among the elements are the following:
First, the death of Christ is the basis for the fire. Even if the fire were already kindled by His coming, it began to burn brightly at His death. The fire was more fully lit at the cross. Many would say that this is when the fire was kindled. The death of Christ is an element in the fire.
Second, many believe the fire represents the Holy Spirit. To be sure, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Thus, we can think of the fire as the Holy Spirit in action. We may also think of the Holy Spirit as the oil in the lamp that causes the fire to burn. The fire fully raged on this day and has burned brightly ever since.
Third, the message of the cross confronts men everywhere. Because of this message, they must make a decision to accept or reject Jesus. Jesus is the exclusive Savior of the world. People who accept the message are saved. People who reject the message are judged.
Fourth, the message is delivered by Spirit-empowered disciples. When the Spirit is outpoured on them, they are endued with power to be witnesses. They speak with the power of the Spirit enabling them. As the disciples spoke, the fire raged. People were confronted with the claims of the gospel.
Fifth, as people are confronted with the message of Christ, much discord takes place. The discord is a part of the fire. Because of the message, even family members are turned against each other.
Sixth, the result of the raging fire is division. Jesus said, he came to give division on the earth. As indicated above, many people think of division itself as the fire. The metaphor of fire is flexible enough to include the result as well as all that led up to the result.
What does the metaphor “fire” represent? A concise and simple explanation is that fire is the Holy Spirit in action. The Spirit endues us with the message of the cross. One result of the preaching of the message is discord and division. This division, too, may be considered as a part of the fire.
Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Turner, Max. Power from On High. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. 1996.
Copyright 2000 © George M. Flattery