God on Fire
The Bible contains over 500 references to fire, 90 of them linking it directly with God. We are told that God in action is like a blazing fire. Fire is God's essential characteristic: 'The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God' (Deuteronomy 4:24).
Ezekiel, for example, often uses the language of fire to talk about God, e.g. 'I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord' (Ezekiel 22:31).
Isaiah prophesied, 'The people will be burned as if to lime; like cut thornbushes they will be set ablaze' (Isaiah 33:12). Lime burns slowly but thorns quickly.
Do you picture God like that? A God of fire is the only one there is. Our God is not like an iceberg but like a forest fire. He is never compared to the moon with its cool glow but rather to the sun, radiating warmth. He dwells in the light of the rising sun. Whatever he does shines brightly and is carried out with burning desire and a blazing purpose. He cannot abide anything tepid.
That is what God is like. Can you grasp that idea? Isaiah asks, 'Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?' (Isaiah 33:14). Who indeed?
Elijah presents us with a real challenge: 'The god who answers by fire '“ he is God' (1 Kings 18:24). If you want to be like Elijah, you have to have the God who answers by fire. Can you cope with that '“ incandescent Christianity, hot gospel, the 'fire in your bones' type of faith? Or do you want a casual, non-committal, easy-going God? The God of Elijah and of Isaiah is never half-hearted but a God of tireless vigour and total commitment. He is an enthusiast! What he does, he does with enthusiasm and fervour: 'The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this' (2 Kings 19:31).
Isaiah 33 speaks of God's consuming anger against wickedness. God is like a consuming fire for Israel's enemies. Yet at the same time, this fire will spread like a forest fire, reaching Zion, the people of God: 'The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: '˜Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?'' (Isaiah 33:14). Either in or out of Zion, our God is a consuming fire.
God does not change
God is the same God for everybody, those in the church and those in the world. The God who is angry with sinners is the God we deal with. He does not change. True partnership with the Lord means being on fire; the God of fire has no fellowship with icicles. He does not get far with mild, cool, flabby folk who are undisciplined and haphazard and who work in fits and starts, blowing neither hot nor cold. No matter who we are, God does not adapt to please us; we always have to adapt to him. Is that kind of God too much for you? Too zealous, too challenging in what he does?
Church leaders and pastors are supposed to represent the God of fire. Our duty is to bring the fire of God into people's hearts and lives '“ and they need it badly.
Jesus baptises with fire. John the Baptist said, 'I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with 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' (Matthew 3:11-12; see also Luke 3:16-17).
Some theologians question whether John the Baptist ever said such words; if he did, what did he mean? Some say that his words about Jesus baptising in the Holy Spirit and in fire refer to judgement and the cleansing of Israel. I am sure that they are wrong. When John spoke about baptism in the Spirit and in fire, it was a promise, not a threat, although it was also a kind of forewarning of things to come. Throughout Scripture the fire of God comes both to purge and to bless.
The fire of God is not given to make us cosy but holy and to stir us up. When Moses saw the burning bush, God first warned him that he was standing on holy ground and then told him of the great thing that he was about to do, to release Israel from captivity (Exodus 3). When Isaiah had a vision of the temple being filled with smoke and the burning holiness of God, his awareness of being unclean preceded God's equipping him to be his messenger.
If the God of fire takes over, it will not be a comfortable experience for those who sit around in Zion. The idea of being filled with the Spirit is not to give us nice emotions and lovely church meetings but to set us going for God. In giving power, Jesus makes his purpose clear: 'You shall be my witnesses' (Acts 1:8). It is glorious to be anointed but it is for service, not for nice church services.
Life without fire
Can we live without fire? Not on this earth. Primitive people believed that fire was a gift from the gods, and we can certainly appreciate that. God prepared this world as a place where people could live, and fire is as essential as water or air. Without essential warmth half the population would freeze to death. Without fire there would be no sunlight, no cooking, no metals, indeed no manufacturing; we would never have seen a steam train or steam ship. We could not imagine a more terrible world. No one would want to live on a planet like that '“ and, in fact, no one could.
The universe is full of fire. The sun is a great globe of incandescence, every star shines by its own fire, and even the centre of our planet is fire '“ a molten core of metal. Every volcano is a powerful illustration of God's character. He is a Vesuvius of goodness, life and energy.
If we can no longer see the light of the stars, it is because of modern pollution in the atmosphere. That is the price we pay in our great cities '“ lots of lamps but no stars. These days the wise men would be hard put to find a star to guide them to Bethlehem. Yet that is a modern-day parable. People are not finding their way to Jesus because of pollution. We are too clever by half. No one can see God through a polluting cloud of doubt and sin. Nonetheless, he is still there, shining forever.
On the day of Pentecost there was not only fire but also wind. Wind disperses fog and mist. It clears the atmosphere. The disciples had doubts galore even after Jesus had risen from the dead and spoken to them. We read that Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples as they sat eating a meal together. Some had believed reports of his appearance but others had doubted; Jesus rebuked them for their hardness of heart. However, when the winds of God tore the heavens open and swept into the Upper Room, no doubts were left. God's tornado and the tongues of fire on every head were no hallucination. Jesus had reached the power centre of the universe, just as he had said. He had kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.