Fire on the Earth
By J.P. Thackway
“I am come to send fire on the earth” Luke 12:49
“When our Lord came down to earth,” wrote B.B. Warfield, “He drew heaven with Him. The signs which accompanied His ministry were but the trailing clouds of glory which He brought from heaven, which is His home.” Not only His miracles, but also His every word and work was bright with the radiance of heaven. Believing hearts “beheld his glory” (John 1:14), and so do we.
To think of our Lord’s coming, therefore, is to think cheerfully. His coming opened heaven to us brought us unsearchable riches: God as our Portion, His Son our Redeemer, the Spirit our Comforter, covenant mercies our provision and eternal glory our hope. Paul sums it up in the well-known words of 1 Timothy 1:15 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” We know Whom we have believed, and we are of all men most blessed.
While all this is wonderfully true, we find another aspect to following our blessed Lord – what Samuel Rutherford called, “The cumbersome and stormy, north side of Christ.” Our text illustrates this: “I am come to send fire on the earth.” The Lord means that if we cleave to Him, it will excite opposition: our discipleship will ignite the enmity of others. What we stand for will be hotly contested, the flames of opposition, and even persecution, will be stirred up and we will feel the heat.
That this is the meaning is clear from verses 51-53 of this chapter, where our Saviour said:
Suppose ye that I am come to send peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
This is not to deny that He did come to send peace on earth concerning our reconciliation to God (Luke 2:14). Nonetheless, in our relationship with the unsaved it will usually be the opposite. In the parallel passage of Matthew 10:34-36 the picture is not “fire” but “a sword.” It means the same thing. Both come between people and alienate them from each other.
Whether fire or sword, this is something very painful. For instance, in verse 53 of our passage the Lord says, “and the son against the father.” There are families where unconverted sons are not at one with Christian fathers. I once saw the Bible of such a father. He had an unconverted, alienated son, and at this verse he had written in the margin the son’s initial, the date, and the words, “How long, Lord?”
However, it is possible to understand Luke 12:49 – “I am come to send fire on the earth” – another way. “Fire” may stand for the Gospel itself. We know that our Lord came to send His Word upon earth, because after His baptism “he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all” (Luke 4:15). This is related to the fire of division, because it is the Word that causes the opposition and persecution. For our Lord, it would result in the overwhelming suffering of the cross, “I have a baptism to be baptised with,” verse 50.
Certainly, our Lord’s Word was like fire in His hand, and He cast it upon the earth. How it enlightened and warmed Judea and Galilee! How it caught hold and spread everywhere! It burned up much of Jewish hypocrisy, but for others it proved the word of salvation and eternal life. Truly, it was “already kindled” when He spoke these words. Moreover, it was as if, in His omniscience, He could see its entire future course, for this “fire” was destined to spread throughout the earth (Matthew 24:14).
Let us think, then, about God’s Word as a fire sent upon the earth. In particular, its spreading power, and its blessed effects wherever it goes. This is what we pray for, work for and long for in these days. To encourage ourselves, let us consider these points.
1. THE WORD DESCRIBED
Verse 49 “fire.” We have scriptural warrant for seeing the Bible like this. In Jeremiah 23:29 we read, “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD.”
1] Fire is an emblem of God Himself.
When God signified His acceptance of the sacrifices, He sent fire on them (1 Kings 18:38). Fire symbolises his protecting presence: “For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (Zechariah.2:5). Fire also came in judgment upon guilty Nadab and Abihu, “And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them” (Leviticus 10:2). God expressed His holiness on Mount Sinai in the form of fire (Hebrews 12:18).
2] Yet here, our Lord says the Word is like fire.
Therefore, this equates God with His Word: both are fire. In Scripture we find that what is predicated of God is also predicated of His Word. For example, in Hebrews 12:29 “Our God is a consuming fire” and Deuteronomy 33:2 “from his right hand went a fiery law for them.” Psa.119:89 “For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven” — and that is also true of God on His throne above. In 2 Thessalonians 3:1 Paul wants the Word to “be glorified,” — something that we can only say of God, who will not give His glory to another. “The Word of God” in 1 Peter 1:23 “liveth and abideth for ever” — just like the everlasting God.
a] We cannot separate God and His Word.
The Bible is of God, it emanates, is “breathed out” by Him (2 Timothy 3:16). Everything that is true of God is true of the Scriptures. The Word of God and the God of the Word are one. For any Christian to say “I love my Bible, but I love my God more,” or “doctrine divides but Jesus unites,” is to drive a wedge between what God says and who God is. It is not the high view of the Bible we find in the Bible itself.
b] This must apply to Bible translation.
The distance between the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and our own day is very great. The Holy Spirit inspired Moses, the prophets, and the apostles to write these autographs, but they have perished long ago. Centuries of copies and translations separate those originals and us. The question is: What about this distance? Do we have God’s authentic Word now?
We could answer this question satisfactorily in terms of believing textual scholarship, and the historical transmission of the text. Abundant evidence exists to support our belief that we have the same Word today that the Church has always had. Under God, we are indebted to godly and scholarly men for their researches in this area, men like Dean Burgon, Edward F. Hills, Bishop D.A. Thompson, Alan Macgregor, Malcolm Watts and others.
Donald Grey Barnhouse justly said, “I glory in all that scholarship has accomplished in lower criticism, establishing an ever more accurate text of the original languages. I give practically no consideration to anything that has been done in the field of higher criticism, although I have spent hundreds of weary hours ploughing through the critics, trying to find out what they are driving at, and finally rejecting their conclusions because they proceed on the false premise that the Bible originated with man and that it is the record of man’s thoughts about God.”
However, the simple and believing answer is this: God and His Word are one. Therefore, He is not going to overlook the authentic transmission its original text. It belongs too much to His honour and glory for that. We believe He has providentially preserved His Word in the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Received Text of the New Testament. He has ensured that a reliable stream of copies have come down to us, and are faithfully translated in our Authorised Version. Luther once said, “It is a miracle how God has so long preserved His Book! How great and glorious it is to have the Word of God!” Here is the light and heat of the divine fire!
This is why, when God calls a man to preach, the Word is like “a fire in [his] bones” (Jeremiah 20:9). It inflames the preacher today just as it always has. This “fire” often seems missing in preachers who use modern English Bible translations. Because verses of Scripture tend to sound less familiar to hearers with different translations, less of the Bible tends to be quoted. Sermons can then sound more like damp squibs. Thus, what should be, “Thus saith the LORD,” tends to lack the light and heat the Authorised Version gives.
c] We must treat this Book as we would treat God.
The “poor and contrite heart” that trembles before God is the same that must “tremble at His Word” (Isaiah 66:2). Someone once said, “We should almost worship the Bible,” and we do not misunderstand what he meant. When any believer is heard to say, “I know it is in the Bible, but …” — the implications of this are staggering, are they not? In matters of obedience, may we ever esteem the Word of God as we esteem God Himself.
2. THE WORD READ AND PREACHED
Our Lord says, “I am come to send fire.” If the Scriptures are likened to fire, it suggests certain things about their effect. Let us take notice of this metaphor.
1] Fire warms and enlivens.
And so does the Bible. This is particularly true when God gives converting grace. Consider the case of John Wesley. Brought up in Anglicanism, he was ordained deacon, then went to America to convert the Indians, only to discover that he was not converted himself. A conversation with the Moravian Peter Böehler led him to be “clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.” Then, on 24 May 1738, as God would have it,
I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. Then it pleased God to kindle a fire which I trust shall never be extinguished.
As Christians, we find that the Scriptures deal with a cold, dead heart. David’s testimony in Psalm 39:3 is: “My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned.” How did his heart grow hot? It was while he was “musing,” meditating upon the Word, that “the fire burned.” The Lord applied it in heart-warming blessing. It was like this for the two on the Emmaus road as, in His presence, the Saviour enabled them to understand the Scriptures. Their testimony was, “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).
It important to note that they use the singular, “did not our heart burn within us …?” The Word also warms believers’ hearts to one another. Like-minded fellowship comes through love for, and submission to, the flame of God’s truth (Acts 2:42; 3 John 1). Departure from it undermines Christian fellowship more than any other cause.
2] Fire tests and proves.
Genuinely precious metal will not be harmed by fire. It has been used for smelting gold and silver since ancient times. This refines them. Fire will prove the difference between say, gold and gold-painted material. In the same way, the Word proves whether believers are real. Although we can find an all-round, pastoral ministry challenging and convicting, we willingly put ourselves under it. This is because it has a sanctifying effect upon us. It is discovering dross, purifying the gold of our graces – and the Master’s face is reflected more in us. Unregenerate “Christians” will be found out by this. They will draw back and seek a ministry that is not serious or searching (John 6:66). Pure gold believers, however, will stand the refining because they love the Refiner (Malachi 3:3,4).
3] Fire destroys things.
Whatever is combustible, fire will consume. The Word of God is like this concerning everything that is contrary to God: religious error, hypocrisy, and sins of all kinds.
In the time of Israel, the oracles of God were held within the nation, but think of Rahab and Ruth, and other proselytes. Prostitution, idolatry, heathenish practices were burned up by the Word of His grace! When our Lord came, He scorched the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the liberalism of the Sadducees (Malachi 3:1,2). Then, as He went about and preached, saving love consumed the fraud of Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene’s slavery to the powers of darkness, and Saul of Tarsus’ self-righteousness was turned to ashes.
Think of the ministry of the apostles. As the Gospel spread into all the world, the pagan religions and philosophical systems were burned up. Where are emperor worship, Roman gods and the Greek philosophies now? In Britain, Druidism and paganism also yielded to the pure fire of the Gospel.
Then, how popery was seared at the Reformation! As was ignorance and vice during the 18th Century. The 19th Century missionary expansion saw servants of God going to various lands aflame with God’s Word: John Eliot to the North American Indians, Adoniram Judson to Burma, William Carey to India, John Paton to the New Hebrides, Hudson Taylor to China, David Livingstone to Africa, and a greater host of lesser-known missionaries. Wherever they went, grotesque religions, barbaric practices, moral evil were burned up and replaced by civilized and sober Christian living.
The story is told of a visit to Fiji by a sceptical academic. He cynically remarked to an elderly chief, “You’re a great leader, but it’s a pity you’ve been taken in by those foreign missionaries. They only want to get rich through you. No one believes the Bible anymore. People are tired of the threadbare story of Christ dying on a cross for the sins of mankind. They know better now. I’m sorry you’ve been so foolish as to accept their story.” The old chief’s eyes flashed as he answered,
See that great rock over there? On it we smashed the heads of our victims. Notice the furnace next to it? In that oven we formerly roasted the bodies of our enemies. If it hadn’t been for those good missionaries and the love of Jesus that changed us from cannibals into Christians, you’d never leave this place alive! You’d better thank the Lord for the Gospel; otherwise we’d already be feasting on you. If it weren’t for the Bible, you’d now be our supper!
As we remember what God has done in the past, through His mighty Word, it makes us want to pray in the words of the prophet: “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!” (Isaiah 64:1,2).
And in our personal lives, no secret sin or error can exist while we are in the Scriptures. They burn up the dross and purify our hearts: we are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17). Someone once gave a Bible away, and on the flyleaf had written these words: “This Book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this Book.” How true this is!
3. THE WORD SPREADING
Let us notice again our Lord’s words, “I am come to send fire on the earth.” One great property of fire is that it spreads outwards. Fire spreads by transferring the heat energy from the flames to what is flammable. It can affect an enormous area. Think of a prairie fire or a forest blaze. The Word of God is like that.
1] Here is encouragement for outreach work.
Evangelism, teaching, giving away Bibles and tracts – it might seem small and inconspicuous, yet we think of the fire of the Word. It has energy and spreading power. From just a small beginning it can result in a blaze. “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” (James 3:5). Only a spark is needed. It can be a Bible given away here, a few there, a consignment going off to some country — and who knows what will come of it!
2] The Word spreads by the Holy Spirit.
When the Lord sends His Spirit along with it, it is the wind fanning the flame, “the gospel … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). On the day of Pentecost the Spirit was the “rushing mighty wind,” and how the Word spread then (Acts 2:2). The Lord who sends the Word also sends the Spirit. This is why all our endeavours at spreading the Word must not only be with zeal but with prayer — prayer for the Spirit of God. May much prayer accompany faithful work, and may that prayer be abundantly answered in our day!
See how great a flame aspires,
Kindled by a spark of grace!
Jesu’s love the nations fires,
Sets the kingdoms all ablaze;
Fire to bring on earth He came;
Kindled in some hearts it is:
O that all might catch the flame,
All partake the glorious bliss!