November 9, 2013

Really Strange Fire: Arson In The Bible

Yes I know, this is not a post on abuses in the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement. Sorry to disappoint. Nor will this post be about the recent conference called Strange Fire by John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Justin Peters and others. Come to think of it (since I'm name dropping), it won't even be about Mark Driscoll crashing MacArthur's conference in the parking lot. What I will admit is that I couldn’t help using this title in a clever effort to draw people in for some honest-to-goodness biblical teaching.

Sorry (*sheepishly* I'm a sinner)

I pray it detracts a little from or offsets the negative aspects that were initiated by the aforementioned conference mostly because of uninformed assumptions, fallacies of composition, broad-stroking and a multitude of other issues. I will state clearly I am remaining neutral for now. What I will state with certainty is this post is about fire. Perhaps not strange but fire none the less.

Fire is mentioned often in the Bible. It is used by men and by God. The most pronounced use that I can think of in the Old Testament is direct from God and is the pillar of smoke and fire in the Israelites wilderness wandering. It is literally a visual symbol of God's presence with His people.

Exodus 13:20-22 ~ “And they moved on from Succoth and encamped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.

The other mentioned use of fire that stands out is the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu who in a moment of laxness lost their lives for their irreverence to God by offering Strange Fire (from which MacArthur drew his analogy). Whether Nadab and Abihu neglected to follow God’s outlined sacrificial system out of presumptuousness or out of thoughtlessness and inattention, their fault was severely punished so that all might learn to comply exactly with God's commands. Not shirk certain aspects or play loose with the rules. Again, in this instance, we see God's presence among His people...this time in sharp judgment.

Leviticus 10:1-3 ~ “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

The most pronounced use of fire either literally or as simile that I see in the New Testament is when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples and followers of Jesus.

Acts 2:1-4 ~ “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

There are plenty of uses (or abuse) of fire mentioned in the Bible outside of Nadab and Abihu also. I will focus on the “firebugs” or what we would consider today to be the more incendiary in the lot. We know them as arsonists or people who deliberately set fires. When I say arson I mean the textbook definition or a crime of intentionally and maliciously setting fire to buildings, vehicles or other property with the intent to cause damage. Please understand this is tongue-in-cheek as many of these incidences of arson are in keeping with God’s plan and are allowed by him.  

First up on the pyre we have Jericho, Ai, Hazar and all the cities of the Midianites (Joshua 6:24, Joshua 8: 19, Joshua 11:11, Numbers 31:9-10). This reaction is actually quite simple to explain if we look to the Cross. God wishes to blot out and eradicate sin. When Christ died on the Cross, sin and death lost once and for all. God didn’t play games. Sin is the most dangerous thing in God’s universe and it doesn’t belong here. The blotting out and eradication of these cities is the same scenario. God doesn’t just wish to sweep sin and depravity off to the side…he wants it gone. So these wicked and sinful cities are literally wiped from the map by fire.

The next episode is exactly the same thing but instead of cities it is individual people(s). God can have wholesale destruction of wickedness or it can be on a more intimate individual level. Intimate is the name of the game here.

Joshua 7:24-25 ~ “And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones.

This punishment deals with not only the guilty parties but it also deals with those that might have been tainted by their attitudes and motives. We see a smaller encapsulation of what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot. Lot and his family had been contaminated by the sin of the city they dwelt within. Those within small isolated groups are easily contaminated with poor thinking. Today we need only look at places like the Westboro Baptist Church to see this same thing. When God chooses to act decisively against sin….it is usually dealt with in a holocaust. As a matter of fact the primary symbol of judgment is usually by fire.

Moving on to the Book of the Judges we see Judah fight the Canaanites at Jerusalem and burned the city. We see a few things here. First of which is that Jerusalem has already been settled albeit by non-Israelite peoples.

Judges 1:8 ~ “And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire.”

Second, we see the city being cleared or purified by fire for the building of God’s city which will inevitably house His Temple. It is the taking of God’s holy city by the very tribe that will give rise to the Messiah. This is not an accident folks. As with the story of the cities, Achan and now Jerusalem we see a desire by God through His sovereignty and/or providence to avoid cross contamination of sinful culture and a people intended as a holy priesthood unto the nations of the world. To prevent contamination you need to prevent contact with the contagion. So…God deems it necessary to remove the contagion. What better way than to burn it off. Sadly, this did not end the pagan influence as the Jebusites would still be a thorn in the Israelites side until the time of David (2 Samuel 5:6)

So what do we have in Judges 9:49? We see the fulfillment of Jotham’s (Abimelech’s youngest brother) curse of Judges 9:20.

Judges 9:20 ~ But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and from Beth-millo and devour Abimelech.”

Judges 9:49 ~ “So every one of the people cut down his bundle and following Abimelech put it against the stronghold, and they set the stronghold on fire over them, so that all the people of the Tower of Shechem also died, about 1,000 men and women.”

Why do these men meet with such a horrid death inside the walls of the stronghold? Abimelech (son of Gideon) was not a monarch so much as a tyrannical despot. He had 69 of his 70 brothers murdered to secure his position of power (all except Jotham). More importantly he is a polytheistic (believed in multiple gods) king of Gerar. He is essentially supported and put into power by Baal-berith worshipers. God sends an "evil spirit" between Abimelech and the men of Shechem (v. 24) that proves disastrous for the men of Shechem and they are subsequently burned to death by the pyro Abimelech. I guess there is no honor among thieves or dignity among wicked depraved sinners. Abimelech will then meet with a similar ignominious and humiliating end by having a millstone dropped on his head like a Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon. He is then thrust through with a sword by an armor-bearer so it would not be the blow of the stone from a woman that actually killed him.

Further on we see Samson the strongmen used “lit-up” foxes to trash fields of grain of the Philistines in his on-again off-again relationship with them.

Judges 15:4-5 ~ “So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.

The men of Dan burned down the Canaanite city of Laish

Judges 18:26-27 ~ “Then the people of Dan went their way. And when Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home. But the people of Dan took what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, and they came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword and burned the city with fire.

The men of Israel turned their swords against the children of Benjamin and then set fires at all the cities they came because of the fallout from the Levite and his concubine

Judges 20:48 ~ “And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.

We then have that genius King Zimri who essentially commits a real painful suicide by burning down his house while he was in it after having seen the city had been taken by his usurper Omri.

1 Kings 16:18 ~ “And when Zimri saw that the city was taken, he went into the citadel of the king's house and burned the king's house over him with fire and died,

In a reverse spin on judgment we see Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem.

2 Kings 25:9 ~ “And he burned the house of the Lord and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.

In the same way that God’s people will burn entire cities upon entering the Promised Land early on, God will reverse the punishment and inflict it on His own people for their stiff-necked rebellion and disobedience against Him. Just as Habakkuk will prophesy…God will raise up a nation as the Israelites enemy (Habakkuk 1:6-The Chaldeans/Babylonians) and use the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar to judge His own wicked people. It is concurrent with this prophecy that Nebuchadnezzar would commence his military march through Nineveh (612 B.C.), Haran, and Carchemish, on his way to Jerusalem.

It is interesting that many of the Old Testament episodes of arson we see that they are deliberate or planned acts that result in the judgment of those that are lit on fire. We see acts that would otherwise be considered criminality are actually acts of justice against those that were horribly wicked and had reached the tipping point of God’s justice that required they be “removed”. This included God’s very own people that, because of their apostasy and sin…had made themselves not God’s people. He therefore removes them to Assyria, Babylonian exile and inevitably the Jews fall in the Siege of Jerusalem at the hands of Rome through Titus in 70 A.D.

Jumping to the New Testament I will mention one more incident and it centers around the seven sons of Sceva in the Book of Acts Chapter 19. The residents of Ephesus had gotten wind of the thrashing that the seven sons had taken at the hands of the demon-possessed man. The seven sons had approached a demon-possessed man and tried to proclaim, "In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out."

It appears that they picked a person possessed by an evil spirit with a "chip in his shoulder" and this particular demon was having none of this nonsense the Jewish men were dishing out. So the demon dished it back. The demon in possession of the man responds. "Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?" The man possessed by this evil spirit proceeds to jump them and pretty much handed them their rear-ends on a silver platter. We then see seven opportunistic hacks sprinting out of a house screaming with a notable shortage of apparel. Talk about a wardrobe malfunction.

This type of story (demons and naked demon-thrashed men) obviously gets around town quickly in Ephesus…

Ephesus 19:17-20 ~ “And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”

Some of the new converts torch their own pagan books on black magic. Certainly they knew of the danger and evil in the books in their possession and felt the need to divest themselves of said material. These books were expensive too. They had to have known the demonic source of said material and burnt them. They gave testimony of their current wicked practices and behaviors. It is important to note that these were current Christians still in possession of books containing the black magic arts. Not pagans who just converted, it is people who already had believed or were currently believers since the word for those who were “now believers” is in the perfect-active-genitive which means it was an act that had been done in the past and continued through until at least the time of this writing. This tells me that the practice of the magic and the demonic was so pervasive that even current Christians had still gotten caught up in it.

It is often expected that once someone converts and becomes indwelt by the Holy Spirit that they will abide by the Spirit and be good believers. Here, like the epistles to the Corinthians says otherwise. We see current Christians engaged in quite sinful actions and practices. Let’s face it people, we’re all fallen and all get into the presence of God by the grace of God through Christ’s work on the Cross. This is just another painful reminder for us to chew on. It is the Spirit within these believers that convicts them to turn over these books for the burning. Their monetary cost is nothing in comparison to the cost to one’s soul if possession of them is maintained.

Fahrenheit 451 indeed. This is censorship and arson that I would condone no matter what.

We see this today in the church when the church and those in the church get caught up in pagan practices that fly in the face of Scripture.  Itemizing them all would be pointless. It is enough to say that we must remain sensitive to the prodding and impetus of the Spirit and use spiritual discernment when it comes to avoiding the sinful things of this world.

It is of paramount importance to note that the books are burned in light of the fact that Jesus’ name is being extolled and demons knew of His name and even Paul’s ( a true Apostle/disciple). It isn’t so much the thrashing at the hands of the demon but the demon’s actual response to those foolish enough to proclaim something not believing in Jesus. We see the power of God in the Gospel, in its proclamation and in Jesus Himself. It is nothing to trifle with. As a matter of fact… misusing Jesus’ name or abusing God’s grace is akin to playing with fire. It is therefore not surprising that these acts by these new converts from paganism and pagan practices just added more fuel to the fire or the cause of the fledgling church.

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