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LIKE many other things in this world fire may prove both a blessing and a curse to man. When under control it provides most useful power, but when out of control there are few things more terrifying or destructive.
In the Bible we see many practical uses of fire, beyond the obvious ones of providing heat and light in the home. Tubalcain was "an instructor of every artificer (skilled workman) in brass or iron" (Gen. 4:22) – work which required great heat, firstly to extract the pure metals from their ores and then to shape the metal. In Shinar the ungodly made bricks for their foolish tower by 'burning' or 'firing' them in a kiln (Gen. 11:3). We also see the havoc wrought by blazing fire. During the reign of Zedekiah the Chaldeans came upon the backslidden Jews. "And they burnt the house of God, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem, and burnt all the palaces thereof with fire, and destroyed all the goodly vessels thereof" (2 Chron. 36:19).
Early in Scripture we see a spiritual significance to fire. Fire was first glimpsed at the east of the garden of Eden, when God placed there a "flaming sword" to guard the way of the tree of life, showing to our first parents that now, in their fallen state, there was no way of return to God by their own efforts (Gen. 3:24). Much later fire is seen in connection with great blessing. In the day that the LORD made a covenant with Abraham, promising to give to his seed a land, the patriarch was instructed to prepare animal sacrifices and to arrange the carcases on the ground. Then "when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces" (Gen. 15:17). God was promising to redeem His people through the death of His only begotten Son and pledging Himself to this, whatever the cost. A few years later however we see the darker side of heavenly fire, when the wicked cities of the plain are consumed to ashes. "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven" (Gen. 19:24).
In several places in Scripture the word of God itself is linked with fire. This illustrates the great power the gospel has in the hands of God – and shows us how careful we should be in handling it, whether as preachers or hearers. What are we to learn?
When the apostles preached the gospel the Lord Himself worked with them, "confirming the word with signs following" (Mark 16:16). There were miracles and wonders accrediting their message as bearers of revelation. We see some today who, like Pharaoh's magicians of old, are trying to reproduce these works of God, but it is all "false fire" – often supporting a false gospel. Rather we look for the signs which were seen in Thessalonica. "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance" (1 Thess. 1:5).
The blessing of the Lord upon the pure gospel of His grace gives the word a convicting power. When Jeremiah was the Lord's witness in a day of declension there were many false prophets in the land. Their preaching was noted for "lies" and "lightness." They led the people utterly astray (Jer. 23:32). What marked out the ministry of God's true servant? It was this: "Is not my word like as a fire?" saith the LORD" (Jer. 23:29). To sit under faithful preaching is not always a pleasant thing, for when the truth comes with power it first brings conviction of sin and a burning conscience.
God's law is holy, just and good, the measure of man's righteousness, and "by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). When applied to us the law troubles our conscience, revealing sin and the source of sin. Under the word our heart, the fountain of all our thoughts and actions, is searched and tried by the eye of omniscience. We learn that our mind, our will, our affections – everything – is corrupt and opposed to God. In our experience we are driven before the judgment seat of God and found guilty. We see that God is pursuing us on account of each and every unconfessed sin and we cannot find peace of soul. Shame is written upon our brow and a fear of the everlasting flames of hell comes upon us.
Let us not think that believers in Christ are spared this convicting work of the Spirit once they know divine pardon and peace. David sought to hide from God his grievous sin of adultery. How graphically he later wrote of this period of denial! Day after day the Lord's hand lay heavily upon him. He was being chastened for his sin. Even before Nathan was sent to confront him directly the word of God was accusing him and afflicting his soul – "like as a fire." His soul was dried up. "My moisture is turned into the drought of summer" (Psa. 32:4). The strokes of God's anger were keenly felt: "O LORD, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure" (Psa. 38:1). His mouth was stopped and there was no relief: "My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned" (Psa. 39:3).
Have we felt this fire of God's truth burning in our conscience? More importantly, has it made a lasting impression on us? Convictions are good, but many have tasted the good word of God without it ever leading to a saving change. There has been no transformation of their cold, unfeeling, natural heart. The sinner's heart is truly amazing. A man may be greatly affected by events in this world, from the truly tragic to the simply trivial. When he sees an example of obvious courage, his soul will be stirred to admiration and praise. Presented with a case of injustice he will have a deep sense of anger. Faced with great suffering he will feel pity and be moved to tears. How is it then that the cross of Christ, the most stupendous event in all human history, does not affect him? To most of mankind, the glorious demonstration of a Saviour's love for sinners is a thing of little worth. Thus Jerusalem's lament is also our Lord's lament: "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger" (Lam. 1:12).
Our hearts are like blocks of ice, and how we need the melting, softening power of God's grace! On earth the church baptises with water but our Lord in heaven baptises His people "with the Holy Ghost and with fire" (Matt. 3:11). We need a regenerating work of the Spirit, with the word of truth. The fire of God's word convicts our conscience and converts our soul. The law is applied and then love is revealed. When Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus he was still "kicking against the pricks." A brilliant light appeared and the Lord spoke to him. "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." The great man trembled, full of fear. But he heard words of mercy and grace. "Rise, and stand upon thy feet" (Acts 26:16). He was made a member of Christ and a minister of Christ! His heart was made new by his Saviour, "who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
When a man is in Christ Jesus the fire of communion is kindled upon the hearth of his heart. It is a communion which flows from mutual love. "We love him, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). Christ's love is the original. His love is as "coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame" and it is unquenchable (Song 8:6,5). The believer's love for Christ is a spark from this fire. Are we fanning it into a flame by cultivating a close walk with God and consecration to Christ?
We must remember that communion with Christ in this life is always by means of the revealed word of God. If we reject or neglect the Scriptures and seek direct contact with God we shall find ourselves at sea, drifting upon the dangerous waters of mysticism. Whether it is preaching, praise or prayer, the Bible is our perfect rule. The Scriptures are the fuel which the Spirit uses to porduce true devotion to Christ in our souls. This was the blessed experience of those two disciples to whom Christ, unrecognised, expounded Scripture prophecies on their journey to Emmaus. With joy they said afterwards; "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32).
Fellowship with the Lord is both satisfying and sanctifying. Our High Priest prays to His Father; "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17). The merit of Christ's death and resurrection has secured our salvation, but it must be applied to us more and more if our sin is to be overcome and our holiness advanced. For this the Holy Spirit is to believers "the spirit of judgment," convincing them of their particular sins, and "the spirit of burning," purging these away (Isa. 4:4). In glory they shall be as pure gold.
To hear the gospel is a great privilege but it carries with it a great responsibility. 'What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?" (Matt. 27:22). The hearts of sinners may be hardened under the word, as well as softened. The preaching is the same, the gospel call is the same, but the outcome in eternity could not be more different. The same heat which softens wax hardens clay. The worst men of all are those condemned for refusing the King who invited them personally to His banquet in heaven.
Do we remember Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace? The three who were in the furnace were saved, but those who cast them in were destroyed by the same flames (Dan. 3:22). What made the difference? With Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was a precious companion, the Son of God, the Saviour whom they trusted. Oh, that the gospel might be gladly received by us! "Blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it" (Luke 11:28).