Fire is an interesting thing. In the right context, under the right conditions, it is arguably the greatest thing man has ever accomplished; figuring out how to create, harness, and control fire. This discovery literally changed the course of history. Yet fire is also destructive. Fire, in the wrong conditions, a dry windy climate, can quickly become out of control causing destruction everywhere. We’ve all see videos, or the horror up close, of wild fires out of control, destroying miles of real estate and property.
Fire in the right context, contained and controlled, can provide warmth, a way to cook, and protection from danger. Fire in the wrong context, raging out of control, is one of the most destructive forces imaginable.
When Jesus, therefore, talks about coming to cast fire on the earth, is he speaking of something life-giving, or life taking? Is he trying to help lead to our survival or seeking our destruction? Is Jesus ushering in new creation life or is Jesus getting ready to destroy us all for the sins we’ve committed and the ways we’ve turned our backs on God.
Jesus isn’t the first voice of God to speak of fire. Jeremiah also prophesied about fire. Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the days surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the beginning of exile. Because of that, Jeremiah’s message was not pleasant. Jeremiah was tasked with declaring, because of our sins, we are going into exile.
In chapter 23 Jeremiah is addressing God’s frustration with the Leaders and Prophets of Judah who have been caring for themselves and supplying made up dreams to support their own agenda. Because of their sins, Jeremiah is speaking judgment, including the line, the word of God is a fire, like a hammer that breaks the rocks to pieces.
Jeremiah lays out God’s judgment. Jeremiah uses the image of fire to speak of God’s destruction of the people. Your sins have led to your downfall; now you will be consumed with fire.
It’s not that God is excited or joyful about punishing the people. God takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked. While God does not want to punish, sin can not last forever. Evil is destined to be cast into the fire of judgment. Evil can not stand up to the truth of God’s righteousness.
Jesus borrows this language when he says, “I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.” (Luke 12:49) Jesus is bringing the fire of God’s judgment on the Earth.
This doesn’t often match our picture of Jesus as God. We picture Jesus as love, grace, and forgiveness. This is the same one who won’t crush a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick. Jesus doesn’t look forward to judgment, but it is a necessary step in the confrontation with evil. Jesus knows that evil must be destroyed. He has set his face toward Jerusalem knowing that it’s time for Truth to confront evil. All of the powers of evil will be turned against Jesus, but Jesus will overcome. Not through power and might, but through submission and sacrifice. The truth of Jesus will disarm the power of evil, and evil will be destroyed. The fire of God is coming to judge all evil things as worthless, and to completely wipe them out.
As the fire of God’s judgement is coming, I wonder, what things need to be consumed? What needs to be consumed in our society? What lies have we accepted? What false gods have we put our trust in? The god of money, the god of power, the god of control, or even the god of our government. What needs to be consumed in our church? What lies and half-truths have we come to believe about ourselves and who we are? What false narratives have we come to believe as a community, tricking us into thinking we are fulfilling the will of God when we are merely fulfilling our own wants and desires? What needs to be consumed in us personally? What lies have I come to believe about myself, or what false personas am I trying to parade around as the real me? What sins am I hiding, sins that I keep down inside and don’t want others to know about? Sins that are so secret, I may even be trying to hide them from myself. What will the fire consume?
Yet, there’s also life that comes after judgment. Life can not happen in the midst of evil and lies. Real life can only happen after a fire has come in to destroy. It’s only after we have been purified in the fire when the judgment of God has wiped away every piece of us that is not of God that New Creation life can come. So while we may not enjoy the fire, we need the fire to come. We need the judgment, because ultimately we desire the resurrected life.