What divides: baptism

christ-dancing-christianThere is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” (v.50)

The word baptizō used here is the same as that used for water baptism elsewhere in the NT. However, clearly Jesus is not referring to a water baptism (Luke 3:21-22) as that has already occurred. The verbal form of the word means to “plunge” offering several possible meanings:

  • Jesus’ plunge into humanity (the Incarnation) is completed with Jesus’ experience of human death
  • At the end of the journey, Jesus will plunge into the fullness of the Father’s will as he willingly accepts “death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8)

Jesus’ language in Luke echoes what we hear in the Gospel of Mark when the apostles James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left when he enters his glory. Jesus responds: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38) This saying in Mark comes on the heels of Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death in Mk 10:32-34. If Luke has adopted this same meaning then “baptism” here refers to the Passion and death of Jesus and is likely to reflect inundation of the waters of divine judgment in floods to wash away the stain of sin (cf. Ps. 18:4, 16; 42:7; 69:1–2; Isa. 8:7–8; 30:27–28; Jon. 2:3–6). This idea of the cleansing action of baptism – because of the death and resurrection of Jesus – is clear in NT writings (1 Pt 3:20, 1 Cor 6:11, Eph 5:26, Hb 10:22, Acts 2:38 and 22:16).

More to the point, the baptism-death of Christ connection is made clear in the NT:

  • Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Romans 6:3-5).
  • You were buried with him [Jesus] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12).

The expression “how great is my anguish” indicates the cost of the cross for Jesus – but the entire referent of “until it is accomplished!” reminds us to be clear about what is being accomplished. Usually this Greek word for “completed” (teleō) is used of “completing” or “fulfilling” a prior written word: the law of the Lord (2:39); the prophets (18:31); scripture (22:37 & Ac 13:29). The verses about fulfilling “the prophets” and “scriptures” refer not only to Jesus’ passion and death, but as later NT passages makes clear what is being fulfilled, or completed, is our being raised to new life in Christ. As well, the Reign of God, is beginning to break into the human sphere.


Luke 12:49 to set the earth on fire: The Greek expression is “to throw fire on the earth.” The image recalls the prophet Elijah who drew down fire from the Lord against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-40) and also on the soldiers of King Ahaz (2 Kings 1:10-14). This image also echoes Jesus’ own disciples who wanted to call down heavenly fire upon a town of Samaritans (Luke 9:45) when they refused to receive Jesus. If the prophetic imagery is the key, then Jesus desires the end-time judgment promised by John the Baptist: the tree not bearing fruit being throw into the fire (3:9) and the chaff thrown into unquenchable fire (3:16). However, Luke also associates fire with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

fire: (pýr) In OT usage fire can represent a theophany of God, a means of judgment, a sign of grace, or be used as a term for God. In most OT theophanies fire represents God’s holiness and glory. The fire may be natural (Ex. 19) or it may be the unusual fire of the burning bush (3:2; cf. Judg. 6:21). The pillar of fire represents God’s ongoing presence (Ex. 13:21-22). At Horeb God himself is not in the fire (1 Kings 19:12); true revelation is by the word. At the call of Isaiah (ch. 6) fire purges unclean lips. In Ezek. 1:28 fire expresses the divine radiance (cf. Dan. 7).

God judges by fire and brimstone in Gen. 19:24. Fire and hail form the seventh plague in Ex. 9:24. Fire from God or from heaven is a phrase for judgment in Lev. 10:2; 2 Kings 1:10. Fire smites both Israel’s enemies (Am. 1:4-14:2:2) and disobedient Israel herself (Am. 2:5). Eschatologically, fire is a sign of the day of the Lord (Joel 2:20), it denotes final destruction (Mal. 3:19), and it stands for eternal punishment (Mal. 3:19). Also see Jer. 43:12; Ezek. 15:7; Hos. 8:14; Nah. 3:13; Zech. 13:9; and Mal. 3:2–3;

Interestingly, only rarely does pýr denote the earthly phenomenon in the NT. Fire is a figure of final judgment (cf. the unfruitful tree in Mt. 3:10, chaff in Mt. 3:12, tares in Mt. 13:40, unfruitful branches in Jn. 15:6). James 5:3 interweaves the material and figurative elements more closely. The testing fire of Prov. 17:3 is applied in 1 Pet. 1:7 to the keeping of hope and faith in afflictions, and in Rev. 3:18 to repentance with a view to true riches. [TDNT 4:928-52]

Luke12:50 baptism: baptizō This is not a baptismal image. In v.50 Jesus uses the image of baptism for all that which he must undergo – from the journey to Jerusalem, through the Passion and unto death on the cross. Some scholars see this reference as the baptism of death being a total human submission into the most absolute God-forsakenness; others limit the participation to a more limited submission, e.g., “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). What is clear is that the image of baptism here refers exclusively to Jesus: He goes his way alone in the expectation of the judgment (πῦρ) which brings salvation, which he brings and to which he submits himself. There are other places in which such an expression carries a meaning that pertains to discipleship (e.g. Mark 10:38 ff, Luke 12:42, 51–53)  [EDNT 1:192-96]

how great is my anguish: synéchōmai literally means “enclosed, hemmed in, constrained.” This same word is used in Phil. 1:23. There the thought is perhaps Paul is governed by two things and hence hemmed in. Luke 12:50 has caused much debate as to how to understand synéchōmai. The reference to death suggests the translation: “How troubled or pressed I am!” but the saying about fire in v. 49 suggests: “How I am totally governed by this!” The saying expresses Jesus’ movement to vicarious death. Like the fire that he has come to kindle, this is the beginning of the new aeon; hence its total claim on him. [TDNT VII:877-87]

accomplished: teleō means to complete, fulfill, accomplish – not as a fate or destiny – but as a mission which plays out its purpose in time and is rooted in the ethic of a higher calling.



  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995) — Lang, pýr, VI:928-52
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990-c1993) –Bieder, “baptizō “ 1:192-96

Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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