After several years of drought, the wildfires of Southern California left some residents thinking of them as acts of God. This disturbing impression was reinforced when news sources began referring to one as the Holy Fire. Many unfamiliar with the area didn’t realize it was a reference to the Holy Jim Canyon region. But who was Holy Jim? According to local history, he was a nineteenth-century beekeeper so irreligious and cantankerous that neighbors tagged him with that ironic nickname.
John the Baptist’s reference to a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire” also came with its own story and explanation (Luke 3:16). Looking back, he was likely thinking of the kind of Messiah and refining fire foreseen by the prophet Malachi (3:1–3; 4:1). But only after the Spirit of God came like wind and fire on the followers of Jesus did the words of Malachi and John come into focus (Acts 2:1–4).
The fire John predicted wasn’t what was expected. As a true act of God, it came with boldness to proclaim a different kind of Messiah and holy flame. In the Spirit of Jesus, it exposed and consumed our futile human efforts—while making room for the love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:22–23). Those are the acts of God that He would like to work in us.
Fire shows up in the Bible in literal and figurative ways. As a common source of light and heat, it’s a word picture for both the danger and consequences of sin (Proverbs 6:27–28; Isaiah 9:18) and for God (Deuteronomy 4:24). He speaks to Moses from within a burning bush that wasn’t consumed (Exodus 3:2) while describing Himself as a consuming fire that rages against evil and refines what He wants to preserve (Deuteronomy 4:24–26; 1 Peter 1:7). God is with His people through the literal fires of human persecution (Daniel 3:19–22) as well as in the figurative fires of cleansing judgment (1 Corinthians 3:11–15).