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May 6, 2013 in Hebrew Understanding

Luke 12:49-50 - “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!”

John the Baptist prophesied that The Coming One would baptize with fire (Matthew 3:11). As we learn from the book of Acts, Jesus did baptize his disciples with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. At that same time did he also baptize them with fire? Many Christians have assumed the answer is yes, that the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of fire took place simultaneously. They take for granted that the “tongues like fire” mentioned in Acts 2:3 are a fulfillment of John’s prophecy about a baptism of fire.

Were these “tongues like fire” on the Day of Pentecost that “baptism of fire” which John prophesied? It seems very unlikely. When Jesus himself later prophesies about the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 11:16), he says nothing about fire: “John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In this post resurrection saying of Jesus, he instructs his disciples not to return to Galilee, but to remain in Jerusalem for a few more days until they are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Jesus, clearly referring to what would take place on the Day of Pentecost, makes no mention of fire or a baptism of fire. Those Galilean disciples who remained in Jerusalem until Pentecost waited for the promised Holy Spirit, but not the baptism of fire.

What John Meant in Matthew 3:11 by a baptism “with fire” or “in fire” he clarified in the very next verse through a beautiful allegory:

Matthew 3:12 - His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will purge his threshing floor and gather his grain into his granary. But the chaff he will burn in a fire that never goes out.

For John, as for the Old Testament prophets, fire was a symbol of judgement. Isaiah often used this symbol:

Isaiah 66:15-16 - Here comes the Lord with fire, his chariots are like a whirlwind to vent his anger with fury; his rebuke with flames of fire. For with fire will the Lord execute judgment.

Fire is an awesome thing. It can destroy a home in a matter of minutes, or a huge forest in a few hours. The Old Testament usually speaks of fire as “eating” or “eating up” (“devouring” in King James English). Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24, pronounces: “Our God is a devouring fire.” Fire is a perfect symbol of destruction, and thus a figure of judgment. Luke 12:49-50 remains a puzzle to the English reader for the same reason so many other verses of our Gospels do. These verses are not English, nor Greek; but pure, undisguised Hebrew. In just two short verses we have a whole complex of Hebraisms.

Luke:49-50 - I have come to cast fire upon the earth, But how could I wish it [the earth] were already burned up? I have a baptism to be baptize, And how distressed I am till it is over!

First of all, we should note that these verses are a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry. It is not rhyming the ends of verses of the poem. It is not a repetition of the same sound, but a repetition or echoing of the same thought. One says the same thing twice, but each time in a different way, in different though equivalent words. This feature of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. Parallelism,  the placing of two synonymous phrases or sentences side by side, is the essence of Hebrew poetry. We meet it repeatedly in the old Testament. For instance:

II Samuel:20-1 - “We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.”

Both parts of this verse express identical thoughts. “The son of Jesse” is a synonym for “David,” and “inheritance” is equivalent to “portion.” Another example of parallelism in the Old Testament is:

Hosea 13:14 - “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol. I will redeem them from death.”

“Ransom” is a synonym for “redeem,” and “Sheol” is parallel to “death.” In our passage, “baptism” is parallel to “fire”; “baptize” is parallel to “cast”; and “How distressed I am till it is over” is the equivalent of “How could I wish it were already burned up.” To the English speaker, such doubling is disconcerting. It appears entirely unnecessary. For us, it seems quite superfluous to say the same thing twice. We could easily omit either of the doublets, either side of the parallelism. But for the Hebrew speaker, this repetition of an idea is the most beautiful form of the language.

So let’s look at this difficult scripture (Luke49-50) and translate it into modern day English using Hebrew logic and understanding. What Jesus(Yeshua) was saying is this. “My task is to set the earth on fire. That I am doing. The earth is burning. I already have begun to sow the seeds of judgment, and one day there will be a final judgment. But I do not look forward to that Day of Judgment, that final moment – the moment of my return – when men will no longer have a chance to accept me as Lord. How could I wish for that! I am required to baptize the earth, to judge the world. That is the task I have been given by my Father. But in the meantime, until that judgment is complete, how difficult it is for me! How I agonize as some men decide to become my disciples, and others decide to reject my messianic claims.”

Up to this point, we have ignored one important fact. Luke 12:49-50 is really only an introduction to the next three verses. Verses 51-53 restate verses 49 and 50, explaining and amplifying them. Verses 51-53 should, therefore, indicate whether our interpretation of verses 49 and 50 is correct. Jesus was a prophet. So often we forget his prophetic role. He acts like a prophet. And like the Old Testament prophets, he frequently speaks in allegory. Unfortunately, when a prophet speaks in allegory, he is hard to understand. Fortunately, he usually repeats in less veiled language what he has just said in allegory. This creates a doublet, the feature so characteristic of the Hebrew mind. We might call it an additional type of parallelism. The prophet delivers his message once in allegory, and then a second time in more straightforward terms.

In our Gospel passage, Jesus first speaks in allegory (Luke:49-50), and then repeats in more explanatory words (Luke12:51-53). Notice the parallel between the allegory and its explanation. Both “I have come” and “earth” appear in the allegory as well as in its explanation. We can also easily see that “give division” in the explanation is the parallel to “cast fire” in the allegory. It seems obvious that verses 51-53 are a clarification of what Jesus has said in the allegory. Now the question is: Can we understand the clarification any better than the allegory?

Verses 51-53 do turn out to be easier to understand than the allegory of the two previous verses. Jesus is causing division. The Hebrew word which must have stood in the original text means disagreement, dissension, or dispute. Jesus was not going to bring peace and harmony, but division and dissension. Even members of the same family would disagree about Jesus. One would become a disciple; another would not. This is undoubtedly the same dissension that the righteous Simeon had prophesied in the Temple:

Luke 2:34-35 - “This child is destined to cause the downfall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that many people will speak against [a cause of division]… so that the thoughts of many minds will be revealed.”

The “sign spoken against” of Simeon’s prophecy is Jesus himself. Jesus, as himself declared, was a sign to his generation just as Jonah was a sign to the people of Nineveh(Luke 11:30). The people of Nineveh were forced to make a decision about Jonah and what he was preaching. Their choice was to believe God, who spoke through the prophet, or face destruction. They had to accept God’s sign or reject it. The people of the generation in which Jesus lived had to make a decision about Jesus, and like the people of Nineveh, had to either accept God’s sign or reject it.

Simeon in his prophecy speaks of thoughts being revealed. This, like “the sign spoken against,” is a reference to the controversy that would surround Jesus. The messianic claims of Jesus would cause division, even family disputes. Each person Jesus called would be forced to take a stand for or against Jesus. Each person’s thoughts would be revealed, each person’s stand made public.

In this sense, the judgment of which Jesus spoke in Luke 12:49-50, that baptism of fire which John predicted, had already begun. It began the moment Jesus started calling men and women to join his movement, the Kingdom. The final judgment would take place at Jesus’ Second Coming; but in the meantime, people were making decisions which would determine their eternal destiny. If they did not believe him, did not repent, they would be condemned. Furthermore, the men of Nineveh, who did repent, would be their accusers at the judgment(Luke 11:32).

So much was at stake – life or death, salvation or damnation. For this reason Jesus was distressed. He hung on every decision. He rejoiced over every sinner who repented. His heart fell at every “righteous” person who thought he needed no repentance. This passage, Luke 12:49-50 is extraordinary in still another way. It is a saying in which Jesus indirectly claims to be God himself. In the Old Testament it is always the Lord who comes with fire or who kindles a fire of judgment. “I will send fire” or “I will set fire” are recurring phrases in the Old Testament, “I” referring to the Lord. When Jesus spoke in the first person of casting or sending fire, his listeners must have been shocked. Nor is this the only instance in which Jesus hints that he is the Lord almighty. Jesus never hesitates to speak or act like God.

Jesus is also like God in his concern for the sinner. “The Son of Man,” Jesus says, “has come to seek and to save the lost sheep.”(Luke 19:10) Like a good shepherd, Jesus knows and loves every sheep. He would not think of abandoning even one of them which had somehow wandered away from the flock. This concern for the lost is what explains Jesus’ anxiety in Luke 12:49-50. Until the Day of Judgment he is under great emotional stress; and yet, in spite of this stress he does not at all long for that day because then it will no longer be possible to rescue the lost.

In the Second Epistle of Peter, there is a striking parallel to Luke 12:49-50. Like Luke 12:49-50 it speaks of judgment, but also of the compassion and patience of the Lord. It is such a fascinating parallel that I quote it in conclusion:

II Peter 3:7-10 - And God has commanded that the earth and the heavens be stored away for a great bonfire at the judgment day, when all ungodly men will perish. But don’t forget this, dear friends, that a day or a thousand years from now is like tomorrow to the Lord. He isn’t really being slow about his promised return, even though it sometimes seem that way. But he is waiting, for the good reason that he is not willing that any should perish, and he is giving more time for sinners to repent. The Day of The Lord is surely coming, as unexpectedly as thief, and then the Heavens will pass away with a terrible noise and the heavenly bodies will disappear in fire, and the Earth and everything on it will be burned up.