Fire! I used to love fire growing up. It meant camp fire. Cottage. Marshmallows. Wieners. Singing songs. Fire was wonderful.
In the passage in Matthew, however, fire isn’t such a good thing. Fire speaks not of warm feelings and childhood memories, but of the judgment of God. It’s more like the sparks my parents always warned me about. “Don’t let the fire get too high. The sparks can land on the cottage and burn it to the ground.” Indeed, fire can consume things you don’t want it to consume.
Fire, in Matthew, means the consuming fire of God’s judgment. It is fire that burns and sooner or later catches up to everybody. Nobody escapes the judgment of God. It’s just a matter of fire now, or fire later. If we will stand the purging fire now, we will not enter the eternal fire later.
That is essentially what Matthew records here. 3 Fires. The first in verse 10 (“...every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.) and the last in verse 12 (“...but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”) refer to that eternal fire of judgment that never stops - an unquenchable burning, burning of the body in torture, burning of the soul in torment, forever. And sandwiched between those two is a fire of judgment now - a refining fire - to those who have received Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. So, you can be anointed for judgment fire through sin. Or through Jesus you can be one who is anointed by the Spirit and fire to receive a judgment now. Personally, I’d much rather be the anointed who is judged now.
We often think of God’s benefits. But how many of us think of fire as a benefit? Yet that’s exactly what Jesus means to give us: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Holy Spirit I like. Fire not so much. It usually hurts.
One time my dad and uncle Bob were burning a dock at the cottage. I could hardly wait. They spent all morning breaking it apart and stacking the pieces into a pile. Then my dad poured gas on it. Without thought, my uncle threw a match into the pile. Unfortunately, my dad was standing down wind in the gas fumes with nothing but a swimsuit on. The ignition sent a fireball straight at my dad who was burned badly. It consumed skin and hair and nerve endings. I remember my dad screaming in pain.
My mother, the nurse, came running. When she saw my dad, she immediately yelled, “Get in the lake.” He ran into the water and immersed himself up to his chin in the water. It was the only saving grace. It sealed his skin away from the air and the unbearable pain. Mom knew she had to get dad to the hospital for treatment, but for hours he couldn’t get out of the water. She gave him a maximum dose of 292’s (remember those!) and a bottle of whiskey. He consumed as much painkiller as he could, and two 26ers of whiskey in four hours and he still couldn’t get out of the water. Finally my mom brought sheets down and immersed them in water. She layered them upon him and they finally got him into the hospital for treatment. He had first degree burns all over the front side of his body, with some second degree burns on the high points. It was days before he was able to return to normal functions.
Fire lights up. In the dark of the night, when the stars were out, you could see the orange yellow faces around the campfire because it lit up everything for yards around. So in our lives, fire can be a source of God’s illumination so we can see what is wrong, or directions we are going that are unsafe. It can save us from pain and heartache if we will pay heed.
But fire also consumes. It didn’t kill my father, but it did cause incredible pain. He recovered and never stood down wind in gas fumes again. So the Lord is, sometimes with us. He sees the danger we are in. But we don’t. And sometimes there is no other way to learn but to experience fire. So the baptism of Christ comes with the Holy Spirit, the great Witnesser to our spirits that we are children of God; our Counsellor; our Comforter; the One who leads us into all true; the One who intercedes for us. The baptism of Christ, however, also comes with fire. It can be a consuming and painful fire. The good news is, it is only to make us more glorious. It is never for eternal judgment. In fact, it is for judgment now, that we might avoid judgement later.
In our communion service we read from 1 Corinthians 11:29-32:
29 For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
This is the judgment I speak of - as a refining fire. When Jesus comes to us, He comes to purify against the day of judgment. So we are wise if don’t resist. Not everyone sees it that way. Many resist. Many run. Many hide. Many will not stand and let the Holy Spirit burn away sin as a consuming fire.
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. Malachi 3:1-6 says this about him:
1 “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
C.S. Lewis once said,
I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity.
Lewis knew that when we open our hearts to God, He comes into our hearts running with one purpose - to make us glorious; to make us like Himself; to reflect Him. And I don’t know about you, folks, but I’m a ways off of that mark. That means, to be in close with God, to be like Him, to be His friend, I’ll need more than a baptism of the Holy Spirit; I’ll need some fire. This gold - don’t know about your gold - but this gold needs some refining. Will you let Him refine you? Will you receive the baptism of Jesus? It’s probably going to hurt. But it will save you from hell, and eternal fire, and suffering forever. Will you receive His baptism? [Communion]