The Fire of God
This article was inspired by a dear friend of mine, Joe Hammond, whose insights into the ways of God are among the most brilliant I have ever known.
Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel is an entertaining tale. It has drama, humor, and an amazing hero who just wouldn’t back down, but it is not just a story. It is a wondrous picture of how God breaks spiritual drought in our lives and provides the glorious rain of His presence. Through types and foreshadows it teaches us how God works to reveal Himself in our lives.
We probably don’t remember much about the king of Israel in that day, but we certainly remember his wife, Jezebel. She bewitched not only the king but an entire nation to worship the false god Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility, and people believed he rode the clouds and spoke with the thunder. Because of the people’s disobedience, the Lord sent a terrible drought upon the land. It was so severe that many began to starve. Logically, the people should have put two and two together. Baal was the god of fertility who rides the clouds, and suddenly there were neither clouds nor fertility! Still, it would take much more than hardship to turn Israel back to the Lord. It would take a sovereign act of God.
In a way, this is a story about worship. When we think of worship in our day, we think of singing hymns and choruses. Yet, in that day, they would have thought of sacrifice. Sacrifice was the heart of worship in the ancient world. Elijah’s challenge has the context of the Old Covenant gift offering which was also called the burnt offering. Like the name implies, that which was sacrificed was a gift to God, and it was always burned, so you couldn’t take it back. The burnt offering was generally a bull, ram, or bird, but it also represented the worshipper’s gift of himself or herself to the Lord. Such a sacrifice was thought to be a sweet smelling aroma to God (Ephesians 5:2). It was given in hopes that God would give Himself back in return, thus completing the individual and meeting his needs. The burnt offering was the original love offering.
Baal was a graven image. His worshippers bowed to a finite thing they could see with their eyes. The Lord is the unseen God, the Infinite One. Israel was constantly faced with the choice between the seen and the unseen. Unfortunately, in following Baal, they once again made the wrong choice. Consequently, they didn’t get the prosperity Baal promised but drought instead.
We might think that we would never be so foolish. We would not worship an idol. God would certainly not catch us with a graven image on our bookshelf! However, an idol is more than a graven image. It is an issue of the heart. If we give ourselves to something hoping it will complete us, we are worshipping an idol. All of us worship, even those who do not believe in God. We all give ourselves to something, trusting that it will give us happiness in return. The problem is, like Israel, we often chose that which is seen over the unseen God. We chose the finite over the infinite with grave consequences.
How we define life reveals what we worship. Years ago there was a popular tee shirt that said “Football is Life.” After a while people began to wear other shirts that said things like “Running is Life” or “Golf is life.” Whatever people were into soon made its way to a tee shirt, thus defining life. What would be on your tee shirt? Whatever comes to mind is most likely what you worship, what you give yourself to hoping that it will fulfill you. Of course, Jesus gave His own definition of life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life… (John 14:6).”
In the Old Testament God called Israel His wife, and worshipping another god was tantamount to adultery. This image shows God’s great purpose for worship. We might believe that it is just telling God how wonderful He is. While this is a worthy endeavor, it just scratches the surface of what true worship is. We give ourselves to God, because He has given Himself to us. And when two are given to one another, the two become one. Love is the essence of worship.
The prophets of Baal put on a show for their god, thinking that if it was good enough, he would answer. It began with crying out to Baal, and when that didn’t work, they added a bit of dancing. Everyone knows the gods like a good dance! At this point Elijah began to have a little fun, taunting his adversaries. Some suggest that one of Elijah’s comments could be translated “Maybe he is in the bathroom! Cry louder!” This only encouraged Baal’s men to put on an ever better show. Next, they made things hard on themselves, even drawing blood.
For years when I read this story, I identified with Elijah. Team Elijah for me all the way! Yet, one day as I read this story, the deeds of the prophets of Baal looked chillingly familiar. Who were these guys? I suddenly saw that they are me. I am the one who puts on a show for God!
They represent what Paul might call “the flesh.” The flesh always worships the wrong things, choosing the finite over the infinite. If we love something more than God, it is the flesh, not the Spirit. The flesh by nature loves self more than God. And the flesh is a master performer when it desires God’s favor. Worshiping that which is not God brings out the appetites of the flesh and all sorts of evil, and its performance brings out its good or self-righteousness. The flesh is both good and evil, but even in its good, it opposes God, because its good comes from self. God wants our good to be a product of our union with Him.
Lest we think this analysis is too harsh, let us consider all the times we have put on a show for God. We too cry aloud, and when we really want God’s attention, we make things hard on ourselves. We fast and sacrifice, thinking our deeds will bring God’s blessing. Maybe if we give God a little money, God will really be impressed! (I am not saying fasting is a bad thing, but it can be, when we do it to gain God’s favor. Sincere fasting is far more about seeing than achieving. It is turning our hearts from the finite to the infinite. Giving has the same purpose at heart.)
If we can accept these things, we might think our solution is to try harder to be what God wants us to be. We need to go from being fleshly to being spiritual. Yet, we think this transition is a matter of changing our deeds. We have to do more spiritual things and less fleshly things. But, isn’t trying harder what Elijah mockingly encouraged Baal’s fellows to do? Perhaps trying harder is not the answer. In fact, God gave an infinitely greater deliverance in Christ, one that the burnt offering and the fire from heaven wonderfully foreshadowed.
The Old Covenant altar foreshadowed the cross. It was a place of sacrifice, but worshippers gave different types of offerings. Trespass offerings were for individual sins, and the sin offering was for the whole person or for the entire nation of Israel. We are all familiar with how Christ fulfilled these sacrifices once and for all at Calvary.
Yet, as we saw earlier, the sacrifice Elijah offered that evening was not a sin offering but the gift offering. This sacrifice is also fulfilled in Christ, but it is a little more difficult to understand, because it is one in which we participate. God no longer desires a sacrifice for sin, but He still cherishes the gift offering, and the gift He desires is us. Paul spoke of the gift offering in Romans 12:
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. (Romans 12:1)”
At Mount Carmel the bull Elijah offered represented Christ and the twelve stones which made up the altar itself represented the twelve tribes of Israel. The fire came from heaven and consumed them both together. In a sense we see a picture of Israel consumed together with Christ. Does this sound familiar? To anyone who has read the book of Galatians, it should!
The Lord’s death is something in which we participate. The power of the cross is like the fire that came from heaven and consumed the offering. We don’t often think of God’s power in this way. When we think of His mighty works, we usually, think of God working to rid of us our troubles or to give us a blessing. Yet, God’s power to consume is one of the great proofs of His presence in our lives and a sign that we are His beloved.
Upon what does God bring the power of the cross to bear? We might be tempted to see His work in terms of good and evil. God puts to death our evil and makes us good, instead. If this is so, the process of sanctification is, therefore, the journey from evil behavior to good behavior. While the deeds of the flesh definitely are evil and the fruit of the Spirit is good, this is not the best framework through which to understand the power of the cross. Its power is to deliver us from separateness to union.
I believe the best way to describe the flesh is with the word “separateness.” If we are in the flesh, we are in a state of being separate from God. In this state of existence, we are left only with the finite, and we have only self as the measure of God’s favor. The flesh is all about aloneness and the Spirit all about union. The problem is that the flesh, by nature, loves its aloneness, and it will seek to preserve it and thus resist God. The flesh loves the finite more than the infinite, and it will seek to preserve self at all costs. The flesh is the prophets of Baal dancing around the altar hoping to get God’s attention all the while worshipping a god that is not God.
Therefore, deliverance from the flesh is not just a matter of reform, but the end of one existence and the birth of a new one. Paul explained this transformation in many different ways. He described this rescue in terms of death and resurrection. We have died and we have risen with Christ. In Colossians we see God removing us from one domain and transferring us to another. He says that God transferred us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of His dear Son (Colossians 1:13). He also calls God’s work the beginning of a new creation and the end of the old (2 Corinthians 5:17). He even explains this work with images of being in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5). All these point to God’s great work of bringing us out of separateness into union with Him through Christ.
It is important for us to know what this mighty work of God looks like in our lives. If we don’t understand it, we might think it is the Devil, or we might even try to use our faith to escape the cross! The Lord consumes our self-righteousness and our idols, and it is not pleasant, because at the end we are left empty. As Paul said, I have suffered the loss of all things that I might gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8).
Why would anyone give themselves to the Lord knowing it meant going to the cross? Who would dare approach the altar of God knowing it is the place of God’s consuming fire? The answer is three-fold: faith, hope, and love. We give ourselves to the work of the cross knowing that there is resurrection on the other side. After the fire comes the rain. We have faith that though we lose our finite measures, the infinite is the outcome. We go to the altar in hope, not despair. To the world, suffering has no purpose and it is to be avoided, never embraced. Yet, our hope is in God. We can embrace the fire, because we recognize our Father’s hand, and we know that the purpose of all suffering is glory (II Corinthians 4:16-17). But, most of all we go to the altar in love, knowing it is through loss of self that we gain our Beloved.
This is a divine pattern we see in the scriptures. In the day of Moses, first there was the wilderness, where a generation died. Yet, that same wilderness was also the birthplace of a new generation that walked by faith and not by sight. Likewise, in our own lives the wilderness is the place we come to the end of ourselves. It is the place we encounter the fire of God. It is not the place we gain more and more righteousness until we are worthy of the Promised Land. Rather it is the place where we lose our righteousness that we might enter through the righteousness of Christ. It is not the place where we gain our dreams for finite glory, but the place where we lose the finite measures of life that we might gain an infinite measure, the measure of Christ.
In the Old Testament, this divine scenario was played out in countless gift offerings through the centuries, but all they could do was to point ahead. Finally, Christ came and fulfilled all. He lost His life in faith hope and love, knowing that the glory of the Father was on the other side. We participate in His journey, and its power is readily seen in our lives if we have eyes to see.
As God consumes our lives, it might appear that we are losing everything. This is a work of God so contrary to what we are taught, that we might think this is the Devil’s work. We might try to use our faith to escape the cross in order to save our own lives. We wrestle with the Lord trying to hold onto our dreams, but we kick against the goads! We may look around us, and God seems to be elevating others, but he lowers us. It does not seem fair, and we might feel forsaken, but in reality God is separating us for Himself. Our lot is not found in the finite but in the infinite. We are not forsaken but greatly beloved! God has taken away what the world calls life and He has given us something higher. He has given us Himself.
When I was in my early twenties, my dad asked me to be the pastor of Thorncrown Chapel. He founded the chapel, and everyone loved the little chapel in the woods. Yet, it wasn’t always that way. When dad was building the chapel, everyone thought he was crazy. He was far more likely to be called a fool than a man of God. He not only ran out of friends, he also ran out of money. Half way through Thorncrown’s construction, he found his pockets empty, and it seemed like there was nowhere to turn. Only a last minute miracle saved his dream. He too had to suffer the loss of all things in order to gain Christ (Click here to read the full story). Little did I know, I was coming to Eureka Springs for the very same purpose. Loss awaited me, not the gain I envisioned.
When I arrived, I held in my heart the stories of people who had great faith and saw God move in extraordinary ways. Surely I would be one of those! At first, everything went as planned. Eureka Springs quickly became a premier destination for churches and tour groups, and we had more people coming to the chapel than we could handle. There were times the people waiting to get into Thorncrown lined the entire trail that led from the chapel down to our parking lot, and it wasn’t uncommon to have fifty or more buses daily. We held services from the time we opened the chapel doors until the time we closed them.
On Sundays, our first service started at 7:30 AM and was followed by two more services at 9 and 11 AM. And all three were always full, even the early one. Other pastors envied what I had, and people were always telling me what a wonderful job I was doing. It seemed I was well on my way to being great in the kingdom of God.
However, walking with God is often a journey that stumps the mind. Sometimes when we think we are fighting for God, we are really fighting against Him. From our perspective, we seem to be pursuing Him, but in reality, we are walking away. We are the ones pouring water on that which God intends to consume. Such is the cluelessness of the flesh.
Shortly after that, Eureka Springs’ popularity among church and tour groups began to fall, and it fell fast. The days of fifty buses a day and three full Sunday services ended. Within two years, the number of tour groups visiting Thorncrown Chapel dropped by almost 80 percent, and our Sunday services suffered likewise. We had to lay off employees as our donations dwindled, and all our plans for expansion ceased. One Sunday, I walked in the chapel, ready to preach, and my heart sank when I saw only one person had showed up for church.
People tend to gauge a minister’s success by the size of his or her congregation. When someone learns I am a pastor, they almost always ask how big my membership is. But what they really want to know is how important I am, and I began to loathe the question I once loved. Somehow, on the way to becoming “a somebody” in the ministry, I became “a nobody,” and I could not understand why.
Yet, in the midst of the fire, God gives revelation. God was consuming my ministry which had become my life and the measure of my worth. He was thwarting all my efforts to bring heaven down by my own piety. In the fire we come to the end of our life, and we come to the end of our own righteousness. They both come to nothing, but when we are empty, God begins to fill. We encounter God again and again in this way, from glory to glory, and with each encounter we see His face more clearly. Our disdain for our own righteousness and our idols grows until we see them as rubbish (Philippians 3:8). What we once tried to save, we gladly lose. It is truly the breaking forth of a new nature.
When Elijah went to the top of Carmel, his only hope was the possibility of God. There was no human possibility left, only emptiness, only a cloudless sky. Yet, from this lowliness came the power of God. When the finite was stripped bare, the infinite was revealed. Such is our journey with God. He reveals Himself not in our strength but in our weakness, not in our accomplishing but in our failure to accomplish, not when we have gained the world but when we have lost it.
The rain was symbolic of God’s coming. It speaks not just of finite blessings, but the coming of the infinite. It is not just God quenching our thirst for the finite but God quenching our thirst for the divine. It is not God giving us the world. It is God giving us what Paul called the heavenly places, the very realm of God (Ephesians 2:6). To the natural eye we might still look like we have nothing, but to the Spirit we have God and He has us.
The rain is the coming of the divine nature. It is the revelation of Christ’s nature in us. In the flesh, we were not able to worship God, for the finite can only give itself to the finite. Together with Christ we worship God in spirit and truth. God has removed the heart of stone and has given us a heart of flesh that lives in and for the infinite. It is truly a new realm of existence, a new creation.
The rain is the coming of the righteousness of God, and with the coming of the righteousness of God, we no longer know the Lord as the one who merely visits, but the one who is our home. This revelation comes from above as surely as the fire comes from above. It is at once a work accomplished in Christ but also worked out in our lives.
So, let us give ourselves as the living gift offering to God, knowing full well that the fire of God awaits. While some avoid the cross, let us embrace it as a way of life, or more accurately, the way that leads to life. This is the way of love. It is not the journey from evil to good, nor is it the journey to the life we want. It is the journey that goes from separateness to union, from the drought to the abundant rain.