Spiritual Arson: Setting The World On Fire For Christ
I wish now to focus your attention upon Luke 12. These words of Jesus are the Word of God.
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Breathe on me, breath of God, and set my soul on fire. Amen.
I choose to call this sermon “Spiritual Arson: Setting the World on Fire for Christ.” God willing, as the sermon unfolds, you will come to understand the reason for the title.
Jesus was under fire. There is no other way to describe it. He was surrounded by angry, hostile religious and political leaders, all of whom were determined to do Him in. The pressure of relentless opposition was closing in upon Him. And in the midst of that crucible of fire, suddenly, there came surging forth from down at the center of our Lord, an anguished soliloquy, a word not so much directed to Heaven or to Earth, but a word that He seemed almost to be speaking to Himself. Suddenly, He exploded, “I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and oh, how I wish it were already ablaze.” I would like now to take those words which erupted from the heart of Jesus, break them apart, and attempt, with God’s help, to analyze their meaning.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire.”
In the Old Testament, fire always represented the powerful presence of God. You will remember, for example, that when Moses encountered God, he encountered God in a burning bush. By the same token, in the New Testament, fire always represented the powerful presence of God. You will remember on Pentecost that the Holy Spirit of God descended upon the disciples in flaming tongues of fire. It’s also worth noting, however, that in the New Testament, fire also is used to represent the pervasive love of God which is clearly revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ.
You see that, I think, very plainly in this handful of words from Jesus. He said, “I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”
And then having said that, He immediately delivers a second sentence. “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed.” All biblical scholars agree that in that second line, Jesus is referring to His baptism of blood, that is to say His crucifixion on the cross. Now Jesus, by placing these two lines in parallel form, that is a time-honored ancient Hebrew teaching device. By placing the two lines in parallel form, Jesus is, in essence, saying, “I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze. But that fire will be ignited by my death on the cross. And the sooner that happens, the better it will be.” That, in essence, is what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to bring fire.”
Now if you wish to understand what happens to someone caught in that fire of Jesus Christ, I submit you need only to look at Saul of Tarsus. Saul was the ultimate Jewish leader and scholar. He worked very, very hard to achieve that high level. And in fact, he worked so hard trying to make himself look good that he wound up making other people look bad. But in essence, his scramble to reach the top of the religious hierarchy of his day left him with a burning hatred for Christianity. He persecuted Christians with savage glee.
He was, in fact, on his way to the city of Damascus in order to snuff out the fledgling Christian community which had emerged there, and it was while he was on the way that he literally met God in the risen Jesus Christ. And the Bible says that God came to him in a searing, flaming light. That light was so powerful that it knocked him down into the dust of the Damascus road. It was so powerful that he was left blind by the brilliance of that fiery light. But the fire didn’t simply affect his eyes. That fire ultimately burned its way down into his heart. And there, it began to soften him and melt him and warm him and change him and transform him so that he stopped being Saul, and instead, became Paul. And when you then read his letters where he, again and again, describes what the power of the fire of Christ’s love has meant in his life, you hear him say things like, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “I preach only Christ, and Christ crucified.” “I am persuaded that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” “For to me, to live is Christ.” Over and over again, he says it. Now what changed Paul from a bitter enemy of Christ into a flaming disciple of Christ? Nothing other than the burning power of the fire of the love of God revealed in the death of Jesus Christ.
Or I would submit, you need only to go back to 17th-century France to a man who was and still is regarded as one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians ever to grace this earth. His name was Blaise Pascal. One day, it was in November one year, he left his work, returned to his home, locked the door, sat down, picked up the Bible, and suddenly began to read. His eye fell upon the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus’s preparation for the cross is so magnificently described. And as he was reading, suddenly God’s love leapt off the page and ignited Pascal’s heart. He found himself suddenly awash in tears, weeping almost uncontrollably. When he then managed to regain his composure, he began to try to figure out how to describe what was happening to him in this fiery experience. And so he took a pen and paper, and across the top of the paper, he wrote the date. And then right under the date, he wrote one big, bold word, “Fire.” And then he began to write phrase after phrase after phrase, these phrases that came tumbling out of his mind and his heart. And all of them were punctuated with the word, “Fire.” “Joy, joy, joy,” he wrote. “Tears of joy. Fire.” Trying to capture oceans of emotion in just a few drops of ink. And all of it revolved around that word, “Fire.”
Ultimately, he wrote a book describing his experience. He called it, The Mind on Fire. And Pascal went on to become one of the greatest saints the church has ever known. Interesting, don’t you think, that his name was Blaise Pascal? Dear friends, that’s what happens to you when you encounter the reality of God’s love revealed in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That’s what happens to you. The fire of that love begins to burn down at the center of your life. It begins to soften you and warm you and change you and remake you, and you find yourself wanting to sing the words of that magnificent little hymn, a hymn which, by the way, was actually written in the First Presbyterian Church or Orlando in 1935. The words of that hymn, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”
That’s what Jesus was driving at when He said, “I came to bring fire, the fire of God’s love. And I will not rest until every human heart is ablaze with the fire of my heavenly Father’s love.” Jesus said, “I came to bring fire.”
And Jesus said, “I came to bring fire upon the earth, upon the world.”
As I study the life of Jesus, I’m amazed at His world view. Right from the very beginning, He saw the kingdom of God as a world-encompassing enterprise. It’s amazing when you look at it, how many times the word “world” crossed his lips. He said, “I am the Light of the world.” He said, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” He said, “As the Father has sent Me into the world, so I send you into the world.” He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” His call was a call to the world, and that means that our call as followers of Christ is also a call to the world.
Maybe you heard about that rather opinionated fellow who was in church one Sunday morning. It happened to be mission Sunday, and it was announced that the offering was going to go to world missions. And everyone was encouraged to give generously. Well, when the usher with the plate came to this particular fellow in the pew, the usher stretched out the plate and the fellow put up his hand and he scowled and he snapped, “I don’t believe in world missions. I wouldn’t give a dime to that.” Whereupon the usher leaned over a bit more, put the plate right in front of the fellow and said, “Well, then why don’t you take some money out? This offering is for you.”
Here’s what is true. Those who say they do not believe in the mission to the world do not truly read the New Testament, and they do not truly follow Jesus Christ. One of the first thing that Jesus said to His followers was this: “The field is the world.” One of the last things that He said to His followers was this: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” And almost immediately, that’s exactly what they did. They went out north, south, east, west telling everybody they encountered the stories of Jesus, planting churches in cities, in towns, in villages everywhere. They understand that the field is the world and that their call was to the world for Jesus Christ. We are living in a time—God help us—in this country when many Christians seem to have lost their missionary zeal. What a shame. Let me tell you, what thrills my soul is to know that that is not true in this church. When I look at the incredible world outreach ministries of this church, when I ponder how generously the people of this church have poured their resources into the world mission enterprise of this church, when I ponder that, I am moved to awestruck wonder. Emil Brunner, the great theologian, once said, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” I would suggest that one of the reasons that this church has so thrived through the years is because right from the very beginning, this church was committed to taking the gospel of Jesus to the farthest reaches of the world. And thank God, that is still true today.
That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “I came to bring fire upon the earth.”
And let me tell you, dear friends, this is a time of great opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ out there in the world. There are things happening all across this world that are clear evidence of the fire of Christ burning. Look, for example, at the Muslim world. The faith of Islam is based upon the Koran. And yet now, there are a number of moderate Muslim scholars and individuals who are suggesting that not all of the tenets of that book are appropriate for life in this kind of world, particularly, for example, the mistreatment and the devaluation of women and also the senseless violence wrought by radical Islamists. There is a crisis in Islam looming today which has not been there before. And it provides a great opportunity for the gospel of Jesus Christ that is new and exciting.
Or look at the far East. Ancient beliefs there that fostered the development of caste systems and denied the reality of human need and devalued the worth of human life, those ancient beliefs are now being called into question. And there are many people in the far East looking at Christianity as the faith of the future. And in fact, there are numbers of people who are saying that faith in Jesus Christ in the far East is spreading like wildfire.
Or look at Africa. Amazing things are happening in Africa. The spark of the spiritual awakening has been ignited there, and it’s beginning to spread. My new friend, Shelly Holmeyer, informed me just this last week that 500,000 people every month are coming to faith in Jesus Christ in Africa. The numbers are staggering, and they’re growing every month. And it’s causing a problem. How do you train enough pastors to lead those people? How do you build enough churches for them to worship in? But oh, what a challenge and promise that really is. Sociologists are now declaring that sometime in this 21st century, the majority of people on the African continent will belong to the name of Jesus Christ. And the same thing is true in Latin America.
Dear friends, this is an exciting time for the church of Jesus Christ in the world. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come to bring fire upon the earth.”
So how do we help Jesus in spreading the fire of the Christian faith in the world? Well, let me say first of all point blank, have you ever pondered the possibility of becoming a missionary? Yes, I’m speaking to all of us here. But I want to speak especially to those who are young people listening. You see, if you have a little goal for your life, you will have a little life. If you have a dull goal for your faith, you will have a dull faith. But if you ever catch the vision of winning the world for Jesus Christ and in giving your life to that cause, then your life will become exciting and thrilling and dynamic and adventurous. So give God the chance to call you into His mission service if that is His will. It may not be His will, and that may not be your call. But still, you can give yourself to an unconditional support of the world mission enterprise of the church through your gifts and your prayers. No matter your age or circumstance, you can pray that the church will reach the unreached peoples of this world for Jesus Christ. No matter your age or circumstance, you can give generously to the cause of the world mission enterprise of this great church. You and I, my sisters and brothers, you and I were made for this. We are made to be the servants of Jesus Christ in spreading the fire of God’s love all across the face of this earth.
Ed Beck, a number of years ago now, was an all-American basketball player. He was also a profound Christian. Ultimately gave his life in mission service to Christ. At one point, he took a group of fellow athletes to Korea for a mission work project. When they had completed the project, they were engaged with the people in this village they’d been serving, trying to find ways to say farewell. It was an emotional time. And suddenly, a little Korean girl approached with bouquets of flowers in her arms, flowers meant for Ed Beck and for the members of the mission team. The little girl, struggling with her English, said, “These flowers will fade and die. But you will smell here forever.” I love that. “You will smell here forever.”
Oh, I hope and pray that you and I will continue to smell forever in those places where our people and our money today are doing the work of Jesus Christ in the world. I hope that we will smell forever in places like Croatia and Costa Rica, Egypt and Ethiopia, Hungary and Honduras, Guatemala and Uganda, and a dozen other places around the globe.
You and I were made for this. This is our call, to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world for Him, and to do it because we know it’s true. The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. Now do you understand why I chose to call this sermon, “Spiritual Arson, setting the world on fire for Jesus Christ”?
Pray with me, please. God on high, hear my prayer. Enable us in this church to continue to spread the fire of the Gospel across the world. Enable us to give of ourselves so generously that the great work of this congregation shall continue all for the glory of our Savior and our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Amen and amen.