Fire from Heaven
"... fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices ..."
2 Chronicles 7:1
The fire of God will never go out. That was the first thing that struck Moses as he observed the burning bush '“ the bush did not burn up but neither did the flames die down. The temple fires on the altar of burnt offerings and the altar of incense never went out; it was holy fire.
The Day of Pentecost was not something the disciples looked back on with nostalgia and longing. What happened on that day lasted throughout their lives. We read a little about how they felt on the Day of Pentecost but it takes the whole book of Acts to tell the story of the impact of that day '“ and even today that is not the end of it! The fire of God does not blaze less brightly as time goes by. The source of that fire is eternal, inexhaustible. As we read in Zechariah, the seven lights on the golden lamp stand received an endless supply of oil straight from the olive trees (Zechariah 4).
At the time of the biblical Pentecost in Jerusalem, magnificent aqueducts channelled water from the hills to the city of Rome. Now all that remains of that remarkable piece of engineering are ruins. The arches are broken and the aqueducts are dry. Is that also true of the Pentecost experience? Does it belong to a long-ago age, 20 centuries before modern times? Is there no longer an Upper Room, no more wind or fire? Is an idealised, stiff representation in stained glass all that the church now has of what was once its vitality?
Notice what Jesus himself said: 'Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?' (Matthew 7:9; Luke 11:11-13).
It is interesting to note how Jesus puts it. A son asks for bread, fish and an egg '“ the basic necessities of everyday life. Jesus did not talk about caviar, rich wines, silk robes, gold, diamonds or other luxuries but about things that are part of daily living. He makes it clear that the gift of the Holy Spirit is on a par with other life-giving necessities. God gives us bread, fish and eggs all the time and has done so for thousands of years. But he also gives us the Holy Spirit. Essentially, we can live without fish, bread or eggs. But why should we? I would not like to try it! So why should we live without the Holy Spirit?
Our personal Pentecost is not just a wonderful experience to look back on, something that happened once and lives on in the memory. It is not the memory of it that keeps us going but its ongoing and inextinguishable duration. We do not have to remember that we are alive. We do not have to remember to breathe. We do not start each day by trying to live or wake up and resolve to breathe all day long. Such thoughts never enter our heads. We just go on being alive and go on breathing! Similarly, we go on living in the perpetual renewal of the Holy Spirit. Our physical bodies are 'renewed' as we use our strength and muscles and our body temperature is kept at the same level even if we feel hot or cold. A change in body temperature is an indication of illness. In Christ there is no variation in temperature. His fire is still burning!
Paul said that Jesus appeared to 'more than 500 of the brothers at the same time' (1 Corinthians 15:6). That was before the Day of Pentecost. I wonder where they all were at Pentecost. They missed it. Pentecost '“ the Festival of Weeks '“ was a pilgrimage festival that all Jews were obliged to attend. So they could have been there. Today, people still miss their own personal Pentecost '“ perhaps because they are too busy with other things. Some people do not like hearing or speaking in tongues any more than they like cod-liver oil. I do not think that anyone has the right not to like a gift of the Holy Spirit. His gifts are imparted by his will not in accordance with our preferences. Maybe those early brothers had a sneaking suspicion that the Upper Room was going to be a place of fiery tongues and chose to stay in the Temple with its familiar ritual. Perhaps the God of fire does not suit everybody. But whether people like it or not, there is no other kind of God.
Some years ago, an English friend of mine was on a visit to New York. His companion asked him if he would like a drink and took him to a refreshment stall where he ordered tea. At that time iced tea was unknown in England and even now 'true Englishmen' regard it as sacrilege! My friend George was given a cup of iced tea. He took one sip and, with a wild look of absolute disbelief, put the cup straight back down on the counter. 'That stuff is stone cold!' he said. His companion could hardly stop laughing at the incredulity with which an Englishman had discovered iced tea. That is how I react to Christianity without fire. A perpetually cold religion is as unattractive to me as a perpetually cold planet. A cold church service is as unappetising to me as yesterday's cold potatoes.
Nevertheless, true fire is lit by the Lord, just as he lit the fires on Israel's altars. Leviticus 9:24 describes the original altar of Moses. The fire was not lit by wood drilling on wood, as was customary in those days. We read, 'Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down.'
When, many centuries later, Solomon dedicated the first temple in Jerusalem, he prayed that fire would fall. 'When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord' (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).
Israel's religion had fire and glory. The priests had to keep that original fire going. Fire was at the heart of temple worship. When Solomon prayed and the fire of God fell, no one objected. The gathered multitudes responded with a vast roar of wonder and praise to God. No one said, 'There's too much excitement in those meetings; I'd rather go where it's quiet and sedate.' In that case the ideal place for them would have been the cemetery.
The fact is that a fireless faith is a false faith. It is not true to the nature of God. He is a consuming fire and I cannot contemplate a faith without God as he actually is. I cannot visualise God at 0°C. He is always a midday sun, always at its zenith. If our religious attitude is devoid of feelings, passion, inward burning and driving energy, then it is like the dank darkness of the tomb. The very thought gives me the shivers! When you dampen down the fire, you dampen down God and you quench the Spirit.
Some say God has compassion but no passion. I disagree. He is an eternal fountain of passion. True, he does not display passions as we sometimes do. He is changeless. As Malachi pointed out, the fire of his passion would consume us:
''˜See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,' says the Lord Almighty. '˜But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap.'' (Malachi 3:1-2)