Chapter 7 – The Baptism with Fire

“He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” Matthew 3: 11. “For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12: 29.

Fire is one of the most powerful and striking elements of the material world. It has always been an object of importance and of superstitious regard in the religious ideas and customs of all nations. In ancient Greece and Rome the sacred fire was guarded by consecrated priests and vestal virgins, and was the center of the commonwealth and the home. When the fire went out, all executive and national affairs were suspended, and it had to be rekindled, either from the lightnings of the skies, from the concentrated rays of the sun, or by the process of friction and the rubbing together of two pieces of wood.

The foreign ambassador had to walk by the holy fire before he could be received in the Council of State. The Slavonic and Teutonic bride had to bow before the holy fire as she entered her new home. The Red Indian sachem walked thrice around the camp-fire before he would give his counsel or confer with his public visitor. The twelve Grecian tribes brought their twelve firebrands to Theseus, and were thus consolidated into the State, and their sacred fires were combined in the Oracle of Delphi. The Persian fire-worshipers looked upon the sun and the flame as sacred things, and it was an unpardonable profanity to spit in the fire or commit any impropriety in the presence of these holy elements. Fire was recognized as identical with life, and the Parsees of India today worship it with holy veneration.

God had always recognized it in His Word, not as an object of superstitious regard, but as the symbol of His own transcendent glory, and the power of His presence and His Holy Spirit.

As the discoveries of science and the progress of human knowledge increase, we learn to trace the deeper analogies and more significant lessons in this sacred symbolism. Fire is the most valuable physical force with which we are acquainted. In yonder sun it is the center of power in our whole planetary system. Stored up in our vast coal-mines, it is the power that drives the engines of commerce and the wheels of industry throughout the world. We see it in the tremendous forces of modern artillery, the torpedo, the bomb, the dynamite, the nitro-glycerine, and the death-dealing cannon. It is the prime factor in all the implements of modern warfare.

In the still higher forces of electricity, with their countless and ever-increasing adaptations, it is revolutionizing all the methods of modern business, and directing the whole course of trade and labor. Science is beginning to believe that the ultimate force of all nature is just electricity, and that the power that moves the planets in their orbits and the stars in their courses is but a form of electric fire. The truth is, that when they get to the end of their ultimatum they will find that God Himself is there, the personal source of all these forces, and by His own will directing this tremendous battery by which the universe is kept in motion. For “power belongeth unto God.” and He is the “Consuming Fire” from whose bosom all other forces emanate.

The Holy Ghost Himself has taught us to recognize in this tremendous force His own appropriate symbol, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” There is something very striking in the analogy between the story of fire and the dispensational unfolding of the Holy Ghost. There was a time in the history of the natural world when yonder celestial fires were the objects of mystery, uncertainty, and almost dread. The lightnings of the skies were known to be real forces, but men knew not when they would strike, and dared not attempt to use or control them. But in these last days science has scaled the heavens, has caught the lightnings, and has brought the tremendous forces of electricity under the direction of such laws that the simplest child can use them at pleasure. They have become the instruments of our everyday life, ringing our front doorbells, driving our streetcars, lighting our chambers and our streets, moving our machinery, carrying on our business, and even conveying our messages on the phonographic and telegraphic wires over the world.

So, in like manner, there was a time when the Holy Ghost’s heavenly fire was a mysterious force, flashing, like the lightning in the skies, we knew not why or whither; coming now upon a Moses, and again upon an Elijah; sometimes falling as at Carmel, in awful majesty upon the altar of sacrifice; sometimes striking, as in Israel’s camp, in the destroying flame of God’s anger; sometimes appearing, as in the burning bush at Horeb, as the strange, mysterious symbol of Jehovah’s presence.

But since Christ’s ascension the Holy Spirit has condescended to dwell amongst us under certain plainly revealed laws, and to place at our service and command all the forces and resources of His power, according to definite, simple and regular laws of operation, in accordance with which the simplest disciple can use Him for the needs of his life and work just as easily as we use the force of electricity for the business of life. He has even been pleased to call Himself “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.”

He has come down to the level of our common life, and is ready to meet us in every need of our being, and to become to us, not only the Author of our higher spiritual life, but the Director and power of our daily conduct, and of all our work here, whether in the secular or the spiritual sphere. Let us first look at some of the illustrations of this figure in the Scriptures, especially the use of fire in the Mosaic ritual.

At the very beginning of the Exodus we find God revealing Himself to Moses under the symbol of the burning bush, the tree that burned but was not consumed, thus making the emblem of fire the special symbol of His presence with Israel. The pillar of cloud and fire was but a grander manifestation of the same glorious emblem. As in the vision of Abraham, centuries before, the symbol of the divine presence that appeared in the night vision given to the patriarch, was a burning lamp and a smoking furnace, so all through the wilderness it was by fire that God manifested His presence. In Mount Sinai He descended in fire and spake to the people from the midst of the fire. The Shekinah glory in the midst of the Holy of Holies was probably a glowing flame of fire. It was by fire that He answered the prayer of Elijah on Mount Carmel, accepted the sacrifice of Samson’s parents, and revealed His presence in times past to His servants.

In all the sacrifices and offerings fire was an important element. The paschal lamb was roasted in the fire and eaten by the people as a symbol of Christ’s flesh prepared for us and ministered to us by the Holy Ghost as our Living Bread. The sin offering was carried without the camp and burned with fire, as a symbol of our sin laid upon Jesus and consumed by the Holy Ghost outside the pale of our consciousness, so that we have nothing more to do with it, but simply to lay it on the Lamb of God and leave it with Him. The burnt offering was consumed upon the altar by fire, the type of Christ, offered not for our sins, but for our acceptance with God, and the type of our true consecration as we yield ourselves up to God by the Holy Ghost.

As the fire was kept ever burning, so the Holy Ghost in the consecrated soul will make our whole life a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God. The peace offering was also connected with the sacred fire. It was the type of our communion with God. In this sacrifice the fat and the inwards were given to God, and consumed upon the altar by the fire. This was the type of God’s part in the communion of the believer. Then the shoulder and breast were given to the priest and eaten by him, a symbol of our part in this holy communion. But it is the Holy Ghost alone that can maintain the true fellowship of the peace offering, and enable us first to give to God the worship and homage due to Him, and then to take our part and feed upon Christ as our Living Bread.

Next, the meat offering was an offering by fire. It was fine flour baked in the fire, mingled with oil and frankincense, and free from leaven and honey. It was the type of Jesus Christ, our spiritual sustenance, nourishing and feeding us with His own life by the fire of the Holy Ghost.
It is one thing to feed upon the truth; it is another thing to feed upon Christ. Only the Spirit of God can make even the life of Christ our Living Bread. The difference is just the same as if you should attempt to feed upon raw wheat instead of prepared bread. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to prepare for us the Bread of Life, and to minister it to us as the Living Christ.

One of the most beautiful of all the offerings was the incense presented in the holy place. This also was an offering by fire. The sweet spices were ground and mixed, some of them beaten very small; and then they were burned in the golden censer, and their sweet fragrance went up in clouds of incense before the Lord, filling all the holy place with fragrance, and breathing out the very spirit of worship continually. This is the type of Christ’s priesthood first, and then of our true ministry of prayer. Like the incense beaten small, it may have to do with the most trifling things. Like the spices, whose very names we do not now understand, and whose nature is unknown, except the frankincense, so in all prayer there is much of mystery, and much that even the praying heart does not fully comprehend. And yet, like the frankincense, which was well known, there are ingredients and elements in prayer of which we do know, and things for which we ask of which we are definitely aware, and for which we may definitely believe.

But above all, the fire which consumed the incense is the type of the Holy Ghost, without whom all our prayers must stop short of heaven, and through whom alone our desires can reach the throne and become effectual with God. There is no deeper experience in the Christian life than this ministry of prayer in the Spirit. “For we know not what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the heart knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

Again, we see the use of the fire in the ordinance of the red heifer. This type was especially for God’s people in their wilderness life. The red heifer represented Christ our Sacrifice, slain and consumed for us on the altar of God. But in the burning of the heifer there come the scarlet wool, the cedar and the hyssop leaves, representing something which is to be consumed, along with the death of Christ. The scarlet wool represents our sins, the cedar our strength, and the hyssop our weakness and the clinging element in our nature. All these things are to be crucified with Christ, and this can be done only through the power of the Holy Ghost. We are not equal to the task of self-crucifixion, but we can hand over anything and everything to Him, and consent that it shall die. Then by the power of His Holy Spirit He will put it to death and make the crucifixion real.

Even after the death of the heifer the fire was to be preserved and made perpetual by the preservation of the ashes. You know ashes are a kind of preserved fire. By pouring water upon these ashes you create lye, a very acrid, pungent, burning substance. Now, these ashes were preserved and water poured upon them, and used as a water of separation or purification when any one had contracted any sin or defilement whatsoever. It was the type of the work of the Holy Spirit in constantly cleansing us from defilement or pollution contracted from earthly things and absorbed from the atmosphere in which we live. This cleansing is not always pleasant. It is sometimes like the touch of lye, a consuming fire; but it is a wholesome thing, like the burning away of proud flesh by caustic, to have our very nature purified for us from self and sin. It is blessed to be able thus to come in every moment of defilement, and to walk in the constant cleansing of the Holy Spirit, knowing that we are not only cleansed but kept clean, ever acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, and ready for constant fellowship and holy service as He may require.

We find the fire manifested in a very remarkable way in connection with Elijah’s history. On Mt. Carmel the fire came from heaven as a special sign of God’s acceptance of the sacrifice and the manifestation of His power to His returning people. As it fell upon the altar it not only consumed the sacrifice, but it licked up the water in trenches. To complete the faith of the people in Jehovah, He made the miracle as difficult as possible by covering the altar and filling the trenches round about with floods of water, so that deception was impossible. God met the faith of His servant, and wrought a work so glorious and divine that it was manifest to every eye that it was the finger of God; and the great multitude sent up the cry, “Jehovah, He is God! Jehovah, He is God!”

The Holy Ghost is thus the power of God in our work, the fire that all the devil’s floods cannot extinguish, the fire that delights in the hardest places and the most difficult undertakings. We need not fear to claim this power for even the impossible, but may boldly bring to God the mightiest difficulties, and glorify Him all the more in the face of Satan’s fiercest and most formidable opposition.

Once more, we see the fire as the emblem of destruction. When the presuming priests dared to offer strange fire before the Lord, then God’s consuming fire fell upon them and destroyed them. And so the Holy Ghost is still present as God’s avenging power. He that struck down Ananias and Sapphira in their presumption and hypocrisy, is still present in the Church as the Executive of Jehovah, and the “consuming fire,” to whom we can safely leave all our enemies and all the hate of earth and hell.

There are several lessons which we may learn from the figure itself. Fire is a cleansing element. It differs from water in this, that, while water cleanses externally, fire purifies internally and intrinsically, penetrating to the very substance of things, and filling every fibre and particle of matter with its own element. The baptism of John represented the cleansing of our life and conduct, the reformation of our character, and the work of the law and the truth upon human hearts. But Christ’s baptism was by fire, and went to the roots of conduct. The purity He required included motives, aims, and “the thoughts and intents of the heart.” He not only requires but He gives the purity that springs from the depths of our being. Like the flame that consumes the dross and leaves the molten metal pure and unalloyed, so the Holy Ghost separates us from our old sinfulness and self-life and burns into us the nature and the life of Christ.

Again, fire quickens and gives life. The returning spring and the solar heat call into life the buried seeds of field and garden, and all nature springs into beauty and fruitfulness. The heated greenhouse germinates the seeds and plants of the gardener and pushes them forward into rapid and luxuriant growth. The process of heat incubates the little birdling in its shell and nurses it into life. So the Holy Ghost is the quickener of life. We are born again by the Spirit, nursed into spiritual being, and cherished into growth and maturity, by the Spirit of God.

Again, the Holy Spirit warms and quickens the heart into love. Like the change from the cold winter to the vernal sunshine of the spring is the transition which He brings into the heart. It is His mission to break the fetters of fear and sorrow, and to kindle in the heart the love of Christ and the joy of heaven, warming every affection of the new nature, and shedding abroad the love of God in the soul until it becomes a summer-land of love.

And, finally, fire is an energizing force. It gives power. So the Holy Ghost is the source of power. Surely, if He has been able to give to the forces of nature their tremendous power; to give to the sun the force that can hold the planets in their course, and quicken and warm the earth into life and luxuriance; if He has stored up in the lightnings, and the coal-mines, and the atmosphere, the yet only half-revealed dynamics which propel the industries of the human race, He Himself is able to accomplish more than any of His agencies or works.

How blind are they who are trying to do the work of God without His power! How we would laugh at the man who today would try to turn the great driving-wheel of a factory by a treadmill, with a dozen men turning it with their weight, as they still do in China! And yet thousands of Christians are trying to carry on their Lord’s work by their own puny hands.

Science has grown wise enough to turn on the forces of steam and electricity. Oh, let faith turn on the dynamo of heaven and the power of the Holy Ghost! This is the secret, of victory over temptation and sin and all our spiritual enemies. Archimedes of old was said to have consumed the vessels of the enemies of his country by setting fire to them in the harbor of Syracuse by a burning-glass, by which he attracted the solar rays in a focus upon the hostile fleet; and they went up in a blaze of destruction. So let us consume our enemies and His by the fire of the Holy Ghost.

When the little camp on the vast prairie finds that a wave of fire is sweeping over the plain, and that in and hour or two they will be engulfed in flame and destroyed by the resistless element, they are wise enough to clear an open space around them and then start another fire from their own camp and send it out to meet the approaching wave. As it rolls across the open plain, destroying every combustible thing that is in the way at length it meets the advancing fire; and the two leap up to heaven in one wild outburst of fury and then expire for the want of fuel, The travelers are left in safety on the prairie, where there is nothing to feed the fire.

So let us meet the fire of evil with the fire of the Holy Ghost. We have divine resources. Why should we stoop to the human? We have God to fight our battles for us. Why should we do it ourselves?

In ancient Rome when the fire went out all state business had to cease. They dared not do a thing without the sacred fire. So all true work ceases when the Holy Ghost is withdrawn from the Church of God and from the midst of the work. God does not accept anything that is not done in the power of the Spirit. In ancient Rome the fire had to be rekindled either from the lightnings of the sky, or from the sun, or from the friction of two pieces of wood. So sometimes God sends us the lightnings of his power to rekindle the flame. Although this is often a very dangerous thing, He has sometimes to strike with a stroke of judgment before His people awake to their need. We can always draw the fire by the burning-glass of faith from the Son of Righteousness. And God has yet another way of increasing our spiritual fire, and that is by friction. The other day, in one of our cities, I was asked to notice the factory where the electric force was generated for the trolley engines. I found it was generated entirely by friction. Great wheels were constantly revolving and producing the electric force by rubbing together.

So God in like manner often quickens our lives and deepens our spiritual force by the tests and trials which throw us upon Him, and compel us to take more of His life and strength. Then let us, instead of quarreling with our circumstances and mourning over our trials, use everything that comes to bring us more of God, and strengthen us for higher service and mightier usefulness, through the power of the Holy Ghost.