Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Exegeting the Fire of Yahweh. Part 1

This post is drawn significantly on a sermon I preached during our church’s series: The Gospel in Leviticus

I love a good camp-fire. There’s something hypnotic and soothing about the heat and sound. And the smell reminds me of my childhood. Having grown up in regional Victoria, the winter’s air was often filled with the smell of smoke from people’s fireplaces, and occasionally our own. But watching the way it consumes and destroys its fuel humbles me. So at the same time I am both comforted and overwhelmed. This paradoxical experience of fire is evident in the sun’s relationship with life. Without the sun, life would be impossible; Get too close to the sun, and life gets very impossible. Fire has the power of life and death, the difference depends on how you relate to it.

The same can be said of the holiness of God. Indeed, Deuteronomy 4:24 declares:
 “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” 
And this consuming fire burns up anything that is unholy and sinful, as Isaiah 33:14 says:
The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?
This aspect of God isn't a very popular one, and a side of our creator we prefer not to think about too much. As Matt Chandler put it:

More often than not, we want him to have fairy wings and spread fairy dust and shine like a precious little star, dispensing nothing but good times on everyone, like some kind of hybrid of Tinker Bell and Aladdin’s Genie. But the God of the Bible, this God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, is a pillar of fire and a column of smoke.

We like Jesus the compassionate comforter, the selfless suffering servant, and the righteous redeemer. But the just judge who will return to destroy all that is not in accordance with His moral character doesn’t often make it onto T-Shirts, bumper stickers, or the latest Hillsong United album. This is why I appreciate people like Francis Chan, in particular his book Erasing Hell (watch here), and Kenosis with their song Destructor (watch here), for bringing it back on the radar. And our response should be a ‘fear of the lord’ (FOTL). Again, not a popular phrase, but a very biblical one being used over 300 times and as a positive thing: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name.” (Nehemiah 1:11). But its meaning is often wither skewed or misunderstood.

FOTL is often described as ‘respectful awe’ and a great place to begin a definition. But I believe it goes deeper than this. John Piper describes it as “the overwhelming response to the overpowering presence of God’s majesty, power, beauty, and holiness.” This overwhelming feeling creates a sense of vulnerability and intimidation as you realise you have no power over Him. And in this is an awareness of God’s holiness and a realisation that because He is holy, He hates and can and will judge sin. Because of this, the fear of the Lord has different nuances for different people as they encounter this. For the one who rejects Jesus as Messiah, it is a fear of His wrath that will cause them to cower and dread at His displeasure and a response essential for salvation, and the kind of fear that John was talking about:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love (1Jn 4:18).
So this kind of response and definition doesn’t apply to the one who is following Jesus, but one that is still applicable. As Acts 9:31 reports after the death of Annias and Sophira:
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
This understanding of FOTL is best understood as obedience and holy living, as Paul defined it:
“Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2Cor 7:1). Moreover, if the Lord delights in the one who is humble (Isa 66:2), and if we are called to fear and not become proud regarding our salvation (Rom 11:19-21), than our fear of the Lord can also be understood a fear of becoming proud and drifting from the manifest presence of God where infinite joy and pleasure is found (Ps 16:11).

The author of Hebrews connects FOTL and worship, declaring:“let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29).
This lesson is one that Nadab and Abihu learned.
We are told in Leviticus 10, that these two sons of Aaron had brought strange, or unauthorised fire into the Tabernacle and God struck them down as his fire went forth and consumed them. Although a number of theories have been put forward as to what the strange fire exactly is, I think the plainest reading is the most likely: the fire they used to burn incense from did not come from the altar, that God Himself lit (Lev 9:24), which is the place the cohanim* were to draw fire from (Lev 16:12, Num 16:46). Nadab and Abihu approached the presence of Yahweh in the Tabernacle with no FOTL and indifferent to His Holiness.

Another aspect to this act is that they had rejected what God has offered for worship, and thought they’d come up with something better. He had provided His Holy fire to be used, they rejected this and used coals from their own camp-fire, or someone else’s camp-fire, instead. This is similar to how a number of the Israelites in the wilderness rejected the manna from heaven, and complained, saying they wanted meat and the food of Egypt instead (Num 11:4-5). To reject what God has offered, wanting to replace them with the things of this world is insulting and degrading of God’s character.

The lesson we as Berean Baptists (see last blog) are to draw from Nadab and Abihu is to test our worship of God. Both in our gatherings as we praise His name with song and in our daily lives as we bring Him honour with our conduct. The warning of Leviticus 10 is against the mixing of paganism with worship of God. As God declared in Deuteronomy (12:29-31); when you enter the land, destroy all the altars and images, and don’t learn about how they worship their gods because I don’t want you to worship me the way they worship their gods. And the Lord doesn't want us to worship him the way the world worships its idols and gods either.

Yes, God cares first and foremost about the heart, but that doesn't give licence to disobedience. In the case of The Golden Calf, the people were using the pagan image as an intermediary (which is how much pagan idolatry works) to worship God, and it infuriated Him. Ex 32:5: When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.  The people could have said “That’s not what it means to me. I’m redeeming this image. Yahweh is strong, just like a bull is strong.” But to God, that was irrelevant. God wants us to worship Him His way.

So where’s the line? Should be stop singing songs because pagans sing songs? No, I believe the line is crossed when we bring in pagan symbolism, titles, and explicit practices. So pagan fertility rites and icons can’t be used to celebrate ‘God as the Lord of Life’. YHWH is not Allah. And Buddhist prayer practices cannot be ‘contextualised’ and ‘redefined’ as being 'for Jesus'. What is true of the pagan can also be applied to the secular. Worldliness has influenced worship when it becomes individualistic, and driven by performance, profit, success, and image. E.g. When it seeks to draw the crowds by putting the most good-looking, charismatic, and popular person up on the excessively lit stage with a six-figure sound-system.

God has already given us instructions on how to celebrate, what to call Him, and how to pray. Why would we feel the need to replace them with inventions of the demonic? Why would we for the sake of our traditions make “void the word of God” (Matt 15:6). This is not a suggestion that we cannot sing In Christ Alone because “it’s not in the Bible.” God has given us some freedom in how we worship Him, but that freedom has boundaries. And those boundaries are marked by holiness.

Restrictions on worship and FOTL sounds anti-grace and anti-gospel. But to deny and downplay the Lord’s Holiness is to diminish the value of the blood of Jesus, which paid so dearly for our sin. Moreover, it is the same Holiness that in the end will put an end to all sin, remove all injustice, and destroy all evil. The ‘fire of the Lord’ is an expression of God’s zeal for holiness, and we should invite that fire to burn within us as it produces both fear and comfort.

* The Aaronic priesthood, differentiated from the wider Levitical priesthood


Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009), 72-73.

John Piper, “What Does it Mean for the Christian to Fear God”, (1 Apr 2014).

Matt Chandler quotes.

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