Baptism of the Lord: Baptism by Fire (Luke 3:15-22)


Lectionary this week: John the Baptist

In this week’s gospel reading, we see the ministry of John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry by filling people’s hearts and minds with expectation — giving them a taste of God’s goodness, while making them hungry for something more substantial. John’s baptism by water was a good thing, but he was clear that his ministry didn’t compare to the work of Jesus. John brought water, but Jesus brought baptism by fire.

The passage: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (NRSV)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Baptism by fire

How often have you heard someone describe a difficult experience or a challenge as baptism by fire? The phrase doesn’t sound very appealing. But in this passage, John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is better than his own because Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The references to fire in this passage have often been used to depict Jesus as the ultimate judge — the one who will separate the “wheat” (i.e., good people) from the “chaff” (i.e., evildoers). In this scenario, the chaff will be judged and consumed by fire. That’s one interpretation. But I think the pairing of the Holy Spirit with fire changes its meaning and its use.

When the Holy Spirit is present, fire isn’t ominous or judgmental. Instead, it becomes a positive element that purifies us, tempers us and makes us vessels of the Spirit. We aren’t just washed on the outside with water. Baptism by fire changes us and makes us new. It transforms our being. The useless chaff in our lives — worries, distractions, hatred, bitterness, and more — is consumed by the work of the Holy Spirit.

In this context, baptism by fire isn’t something to fear, even though it will likely be painful as we surrender our lives to God’s transforming work. But once the chaff is burned and blown away, we find ourselves cleansed and prepared to serve as seeds of hope in the world.


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