“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)
With these words, Jesus opens the final part of his teaching registered in Luke 12. What is this fire and what does it have to do with the division of the world in two camps? Why is the Prince of Peace causing a division among people in so much need of accord and unity?
But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. (Luke 12:50:51)
I have thought about this fire of Jesus for a long time but only recently I have realized that Jesus is giving us a very particular view of his mission. The phrase “I have a baptism to undergo” reveals just that.
Jesus must triumph on Calvary before igniting the promised fire, before He divides the world into two camps. Why the fire? you may ask.
Fire is a manifestation of energy constrained inside matter. Fire has a transforming effect. A piece of wood is turned into ashes after all its combustible matter is burnt. The transformation is total and irreversible. In spiritual terms, Jesus is that fire, a unique, ever burning flame. (See Exodus 3 ; Hebrews 1:5-7 )
We can approach fire and be warmed by it in a cold day but get too near to the flames and one can get seriously burned. Our planet is only 18 light minutes from our fiery star, Sol, our sun. If we were to alter that distance by taking from it or adding to it, life on Earth would be impossible. As it is, our Sun sustains and transforms life on earth. We can see our spiritual relationship with Jesus in a similar way.
Jesus came from Heaven to light a fire on earth, a kind of spiritual fire we cannot even imagine. That fire will either transform and feed some of us for eternity or eternally consume those who chose to enter in a collision course with Him.
Imagine the total energy needed to fire up the nuclear furnaces of every star in the universe. I am told the total number of stars is more or less a 10 followed by 24 zeros. It is the will of God that keeps all that fire burning.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)
Imagine yourself standing before the Entity responsible for creating and keeping all that show running. Now think of the self-control of the Logos, who became man to undergo a baptism of death on the Cross and —having all the power there is— he must become powerless and restrain Himself from acting on purifying mankind until the right moment. Sooner or later that restraint will end, and the fiery purification will begin. That purification will take place for our eternal benefit or for our eternal horror.
The coming Illumination of Conscience
St. Edmund Campion (1540-1581), the English Jesuit priest and martyr said:
“I pronounced a great day, not wherein any temporal potentate should minister, but wherein the Terrible Judge should reveal all men’s consciences and try every man of each kind of religion. This is the day of change . . .” (Watkins, Christine. The Warning: Testimonies and Prophecies of the Illumination of Conscience . Queen of Peace Media)
Many consider that the first mention of the Illumination of Conscience, or The Warning, for short) but there were others, two of them we will analyze in the next two posts. The first is the encounter of Simon Bar Yohannan, the Fisherman of Capernaum; the other is the extraordinary experience of Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee who was a disciple of the great Jewish teacher, Gamaliel of Jerusalem.
In what sense are those two men witnesses of The Warning? To answer that question we have to go back to our idea of Jesus, the Logos Incarnate, and His Cross as the wood containing all the energy in the universe. That infinitely powerful energy is presented to mankind in the Incarnation in a state of restraint or latency:
“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47)
Fire will either transform or destroy anything coming near its power. As we humans approach Jesus, He will either transform us or destroy us.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Peter and Paul are examples of that experience. Jesus finds Peter fixing his nets after a night of fruitless toil. Peter and his crew have caught nothing at all. The mysterious Rabbi orders Peter to return to the boat, “go to the deep” and try again. He is not inviting him to “go to the peripheries of our miserable human existence” which is fruitless, but to the mysterious depths of God’s mercy where the great reward of eternal life can be found.
Those who fear the Lord keep their hearts prepared and humble themselves in his presence. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, not into any human clutches; for as high His majesty is, so are the depths of His mercy. (Ecclesiasticus / Sirach 2:16-17)
Predictably, Peter and his crew caught many fish that morning and the long all-night effort is not wasted. That is a small model of how God will redeem this, our history. The long, fruitless night we have lived in since Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise will not end up being a sad tally of battles, kings, and kingdoms that crumble into dust. Christ will turn that awful night into a luminous dawn, the real dawn of a history that will never end!
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:4-11)
Notice the transformation of Peter starts with obeying the unknown Rabbi: “if you say so” says Simon, if you say so I will do this nonsensical act, go in the morning to the deepest part of the lake at a time when the fish have gone to the colder depths. After seeing the amazing results, Simon Peter admits that Jesus is something more than a mere Rabbi. He calls him “Lord” and the transformation begins as they all leave everything and follow Jesus.
God had appeared up Mount Sinai to Moses in an awesome demonstration of power. This time God’s power is restrained. The sweet but stern presence of Jesus attracts every good soul. Next to him all are transformed. Saul of Tarsus experiences an even more dramatic transformation as he goes to Damascus to complete his campaign of persecuting the Christian Jews.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9)
Saul of Tarsus finds Jesus on the road to Damascus. This was not a gentle encounter. Saul was flying headlong into the sacred fire. His intentions were ungodly: to murder and imprison the followers of the Nazarene. The blinding light penetrated Saul’s conscience and made him acknowledge Jesus’ lordship even before knowing who was that powerful presence in front of him. Closer to the fire of truth, Paul immediately aligned his considerable learning and intellect with the will of God. He thought he was in the “straight path” the path of a good Pharisee but he is sent to “the street called Straight” to see a man who would restore his sight. Saul thought himself clean, ceremonially acceptable but the scales in his eyes now told him he was impure, and blind. With all his wisdom, the fruit of decades of study, he has to endure being called a dumb ox:
… I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:14)
Goads are pointy pieces of timber. Farmers used the points to make a stubborn ox move. The ox would naturally kick at the goad. The harder the ox kicked, the more the animal, would hurt itself. The expression is found in many ancient pieces of literature as a quick way to illustrate mindless, stupid resistance to the inevitable.
Saul was a Benjaminite, his name was associated with the first king of Israel who was a giant of a man. But Saul of Tarsus changed his name to Paul, which means “small” as a way to humiliate himself before his Lord.
The transformation was so profound that the man who was going to Damascus carrying letters and chains to imprison Christians, ended up in chains writing letters that would edify Christians through the ages. Paul’s head, containing one of the most powerful intellects of his age, found the most glorious destiny rolling separated from his body by the sword of a Roman executioner. Changed by his fiery encounter with the Logos, Paul was transformed even in his death, humbled under the powerful hand of God to the last minute.
The experience of Peter and Paul should give us a good idea of what the coming Illumination of Conscience is going to be. What Jesus did to Peter and Paul, he is going to do to the whole world at once. One cannot imagine a more awesome demonstration of power and mercy.
At the very end of this age of human governance, let us learn to accept God’s lordship upon us. “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, not into any human clutches; for as high His majesty is, so are the depths of His mercy.”
Prepare to meet Him and gently surrender your soul in faith.