“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11).
N THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY A PARTY of explorers established a camp in the heart of central Africa. Each morning they left for a day of exploration and mapping. On their return in the evening they’d gather twigs and branches to light a fire before darkness fell.
When they returned to camp one day they discovered a most unusual sight. All around the tents had been erected carefully constructed, teepee-like piles of limbs and branches. The men were puzzled until they heard a noise behind them, up in the trees—coming from a group of chimpanzees chattering among the vines. The animals had watched the explorers build their campfires for several days, and when the men left had come down to try it for themselves. The little piles of leaves and twigs had been put together with much care and effort. But there was no fire!
Some of us have spent a great deal of time and energy erecting our ecclesiastical teepees. After much religious effort, we may be very comfortable with our theology, which is arranged “just so.” Our doctrinal houses are in order. Our institutions stand proudly. But the question is: Where is the fire?
What’s Carmel Without the Fire?
Can you imagine what would have happened on Mount Carmel if there had been no fire? The forces of good and evil had reached a standoff that day. Tension filled the air after the unsuccessful efforts by the 450 prophets of Baal to attract the attention of their god.
Now it was Elijah’s turn. The altar was in place. The sacrifice laid out. Everyone was waiting with hushed expectancy. “‘How long will you waver between two opinions?’” the prophet thundered. “‘If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him’” (1 Kings 18:21).
Then as now there were religious counterfeits; cunning voices proclaiming a deceptive and distorted version of reality. A nation was caught between truth and error, and Elijah had come to call the devil’s hand. “‘You call on the name of your god,’” he said, “‘and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God’” (verse 24).
Will the Real God Please Stand Up!
The God who answers by fire! It was Jehovah versus Baal. Truth versus error. The genuine versus the counterfeit. Faith versus works. Divine power versus humanity’s own feeble efforts at religiosity.
A huge crowd had gathered at the mountain that day, including the king himself. Intent on their god’s vindication, Baal’s prophets pleaded with him to answer them. “Can you hear us now, Baal? Can you hear us now?” But Baal did not seem to have his cell turned on! And Elijah just could not resist. “Try harder, guys,” he said. “Perhaps Baal is deep in thought, or busy traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (see verse 27).
Growing more and more frenzied, the Baal group “shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears . . . until their blood flowed. . . . But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (verses 28, 29).
When it was Elijah’s turn, after he’d had the altar and his offering totally drenched, he prayed a simple prayer. “‘O Lord, . . . let it be known today that you are God in Israel’” (verse 36).
The people waited. The king waited. The 450 prophets of Baal waited. No one moved. Total silence.
And then the fire fell. It “burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench” (verse 38). The crowd could not constrain itself. “‘The Lord—he is God,’” the people roared (verse 39).
History has repeated itself. Today there is again much religious confusion in the land. Is there a God? What is truth?
Meanwhile the church has been busy cutting up its sacrifices and tending its altars. But is there any fire on the mountain today? Have we called on the God who answers by fire? Have we accepted the gift from the One who wants to baptize us with fire?
Once again the whole world is waiting and watching. With so much at stake, we must not be content with the religious status quo. There are those of us who are grateful for an altar. We appreciate the sacrifices and are pleased to have a hill on which to worship. But we cannot reconcile ourselves to the absence of the fire!
Only in Christianity
Today God is eagerly waiting to reveal Himself to the world through the fire of the Holy Spirit in the lives of His people. It is Christianity alone that offers this ultimate and exquisite experience to every believer. Among all the religions of the world there is no doctrine that even comes close to it. Like the Baal worship of old, the emphasis of other religions is on men struggling to appease their god, to find favor with him through their own efforts or sacrifices. Only Jesus Christ can offer to men and women the unique opportunity to have the very presence of their loving God right within them now! To inhabit them. To possess them. Without His incredible gift, Christianity would be no different from other religions, which point their adherents toward some distant future reward to be earned by their beliefs, obedience, and good behavior. Only Jesus proclaimed to the world: “The kingdom of God is here right now. The kingdom of God is within you!” Only Jesus offers the incredible gift of the Holy Spirit that makes this possible.
Isn’t it amazing? God is now filling people with the Holy Spirit. In this dark night of the world, “the God who answers by fire” wants to light up our lives with the fire of His supernatural love. “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prov. 20:27, NASB).* Jesus has made Himself dependent on us to reflect His glory and presence and love in this world.
The question is: When people look at your life and mine, do they see the fire? When they look at our church, do they see the fire? Is your life and mine a testimony to the fact that the last Christian did not die on the cross? If your religion does not make you a better father, husband, wife, or parent, is it real?
Christianity must demonstrate that it can produce better people here and now. God is calling you to be an extraordinary person, extraordinarily aflame with His love. Extraordinarily filled with His presence.
The Other Baptism
John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). Jesus is the one who baptizes with fire. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Not a church. Not a priest. Not a pastor. Only Jesus. Have we chosen to allow Jesus to baptize us with the Holy Spirit? Do we have the assurance of this marvelous gift that can transform our lives from selfishness to service?
I can look back to a certain day in a little Alaskan village where I chose publicly to surrender my life to Jesus Christ and was baptized by Pastor Smith. It was a real, historic event.
Our baptism by the Holy Spirit can be just as real an event in our lives as our water baptism or our marriage. This event can become an incredibly significant part of our spiritual history. No, you won’t ever be able to say, “Pastor so and so baptized me with the Holy Spirit,” because it is Jesus Himself who is the baptizer. But this sacred event can take place for you and me and become a part of us just as surely as our water baptism.
There is no need to be afraid of the filling of the Holy Spirit, for it really amounts to experiencing the personal presence and unconditional love of God. Most simply put, to be baptized with the Spirit is to be baptized with love. It’s all about the believer receiving the divine gifts of love, joy, peace, and patience. It’s about becoming an instrument of God’s
compassion, God’s kindness in the world. It’s about receiving power to witness and to overcome fear and selfishness.
It’s That Simple
Anything of value that I have ever received in my life came because I first asked for it. I asked to be admitted to a college of my choice, and I was. Four years later I had a career. While I was in college, I met a young woman and asked her to marry me. She agreed, and I had a wife. When I finished college I asked an organization if they would hire me. They said yes, and I had a job. Some years later I wrote a manuscript, then asked a publisher to print it. They said yes, and I had a book.
As a counselor, one of the most powerful and empowering phrases I have found you can use with a client in therapy is: “You can make it happen.” Therapy teaches you to take the initiative to make change and growth happen for yourself. Part of that process often begins with a person mustering the courage to ask for something they need.
In a sense, it’s up to us to make our spiritual life happen. It is up to us to make the baptism of the Holy Spirit happen for us. It does not come by default—just because we are believers or just because we belong to the church. We can’t sit and wait for our church to have some kind of revival. We must take the initiative and ask—now!
The Bible says: “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). It says: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (Luke 11:13). God does not stand on a street corner and pass out His richest treasures to everyone who passes by. He reserves them for people who care enough to ask, for those who recognize their need.
The last words Jesus spoke on earth came in Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses . . . even to the remotest part of the earth.” And just two things we need to do for that to happen: (1) We surrender our lives to Jesus; and (2) We ask for the baptism of the Spirit and believe by faith that we have received it. Said the apostle John: “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Jesus commanded His followers to “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Obviously, then, it is His will for us to be baptized with the Spirit. So if it’s indeed His will, and we have asked for it, then we can know that the gift is ours.
Our decision to receive the baptism of the Spirit will transform our lives. It will give us power, authority, and wisdom beyond our own, making us instruments of God’s love and kindness in our community and in the world.
*Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Douglas Cooper is a businessman and author who lives in Angwin, California.