“There are only two paths in life, and they both lead to fire.”
Fire and brimstone preaching is a well-known, and often mocked, feature in certain types of ministry. The technique centers around the motivation of fear. By stoking the listeners’ imaginations around the horrors of hell, and the certainty of their going there, the preacher hopes to spur to repentance. Salvation from this motivation can derisively be called “fire-insurance” for this reason. People don’t want to burn, right?
I heard a pastor open up Matthew 3:1-12 this past weekend, and he made the provocative statement above. What if the choice isn’t between fire and no fire, but rather between types of burning?
The Matthew passage contains the introduction of John the Baptist and his ministry in the wilderness. A fulfillment of prophecy, John was preparing the hearts of Israel to receive their coming Lord. But it seems that some of the religious elite came to spy out what was going on, or at very least they came to participate but in a compromised way. John understands them immediately and warns them: Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
There it is, that stark message. Turn or burn. He’s not being cheeky though; John is deadly serious.
Directly after this word, he compares his ministry to that of the Coming One. John is known for baptizing in the river, but he declares to those surrounding him that there was a more dramatic baptism on the way. That one would be administered by someone much mightier than John, and it would be with the Holy Spirit and—there again—with fire.
Some debate has circled around just what this fire means. Is it just a representation again of judgment for those who don’t accept the Spirit? Perhaps. But I side with Greek scholar Grant Osborne here, who sees this construction as representing a total package, not an either/or. That is, some would be baptized with “Spirit and fire.”
Who would these be? Well, who were the ones who were baptized with water? They were those who were repenting of their sins, those who responded to John’s message. Similarly, those who would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire will be those who respond to the message of the one who brings that specific baptism, that is, Jesus Christ.
The pastor who preached this sermon did an admirable job exhorting his congregation to consider which path they were on—the fire of judgment, or the fire of the Spirit? But it stirred up in me a connected thought: do we in Christ expect fire, do we welcome it? Should we?
Fire is used to destroy, but also famously to refine. Unlike wood or straw, fire applied to gold doesn’t destroy. Instead, you find that impurities in the gold rises to the top, and can be skimmed off the top. If this process is continually done, you can work the gold over to a level of purity never found in the natural world, when gold is pulled from out of the earth.
The gold during this process is in a distressed state. It isn’t solid, but molten. It’s vulnerable in a way, to spilling, to its shape changing. It’s only in this state that the gold can be remodeled into jewelry or bars or what have you. The comparison to spiritual formation is clear: to receive the purifying fire of the Spirit is to be completely at his mercy, but also to be moving towards greater and greater purity.
Frankly, we wouldn’t mind the purity, but the process is unwelcome. We don’t want the fire of hell, but isn’t there a way to sit happily in the middle, safe from all this burning?
This safety is less desirous than we imagine. Safety from vibrant relationship to Christ. Safety from developing our gifts to serve and bless. Safety from transformation, from putting away the habits that depress and haunt us and putting on Spirit empowered practices that give us access to joy and peace. Safety from a life fully lived. Perhaps we can have this safety—but do we want it? Is too much of this counterfeit safety a signal that it’s not Jesus we’re after, but a crude self-preservation? Is this a self worth preserving?
The advent of Jesus into the world, into a life, never leaves things the same. To expect any different is not to know him. This is a threat, but it’s also the fulfillment of what we’re chasing after all day long. If we have said yes to Jesus, let’s keep saying yes. Let’s today put ourselves under the influence of the Spirit by faith, trusting that he loves us. He alone can bring us to himself, and give us a new, forever self along the way. The refining fire is a fire of passion, and the one who wields it is skilled for our good. Can we trust him enough to choose it? What, really, is the alternative?