Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49)
Our Lord bears witness that the gospel is an ardent, fervent, flaming thing—a subject for enthusiasm, a theme for intense devotion, a matter which excites men’s souls, and stirs them to the lowest depths: for this reason mainly it arouses hostility. If the gospel were a mere propriety of ceremonies, a truth which would slumber in the creed or lie entombed in the brain; if it were not a spiritual principle which lays hold upon the innermost nature, rules the emotions and fires the affections; if it were not all this it would remain unopposed: but because it is so living and forcible a principle, the powers of evil are up in arms to halt its progress.
Bending over the page, we are struck with the extraordinary doctrines revealed in the gospel. We see revealed to us a love of God so vast as to be incomprehensible, so generous as to be a theme for adoring wonder throughout eternity, since the Father gives up his equal Son that he may bleed and die so that we who are rebellious and undeserving may live through him (cf. John 3:16). Since we believe the doctrine of divine love, we feel it to be a truth which sets the soul on fire with joy, gratitude, and love. It is impossible to read properly in the illuminated volume of the cross, printed in crimson characters, without feeling our hearts burn within us with an unquenchable ardour.
The gospel does not long remain a mere writing; it is no sooner thoroughly read and grasped than the reader becomes, according to his ability, a preacher. We will suppose when a preacher whom God has truly called to the work proclaims this gospel, we will see for a second time that it is a thing of fire. Observe the man! He comes forward in all sincerity, not in the wisdom of words, but with great plainness of speech, and tells to the sons of men the great message from the skies. He abhors one thing above all others—to deliver that message with bated breath, with measured cadence, and sentences that chill and freeze as they fall from frigid lips. He speaks as one who knows that God has sent him, like a man who believes what he says, and moreover, feels that his message is a burden on his own soul, a burden which he must be delivered from; a fire within his bones which rages until he gives it vent, for woe is to him if he does not preach the gospel (cf. 1 Cor 9:16). The absence of enthusiasm in a sermon is fatal; it is the lack of its essential element, the one thing needful to raise the discourse above the level of a mere essay. The fire in the preacher sent by God is not that of mere excitement, nor that alone of an intelligent judgment acting upon the passions; but there is also a mysterious influence resting on God’s servants which is irresistible. The Holy Spirit sent down from heaven anoints all true evangelists, and is the true power and fire (cf. Acts 1:8; 2:3-4). The more we believe in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the more likely we shall be able to see the gospel triumphant in our ministry. Though the reasonableness of the gospel of Jesus ought to make the belief of it universal, yet its plain dealing with human sin stirs up deadly antagonism; and, therefore, the gospel itself would make no progress if it were not for the divine power. There is an invisible arm which pushes the conquests of the truth forward, there is a fire unfed by human fuel, which burns a way for the truth of Jesus Christ into the hearts of men.
As surely as God glorifies his truth, and gives seals to the Christian ministry, opposition is aroused. We may depend upon it there is no good happening if the devil does not howl. When there is no opposition from the infernal powers, it is because there is nothing to oppose. “Let be,” says Satan, “let be; a comfortable congregation, a sober minister; all asleep—let be! Drive on!” he says to his charioteer, “I need not stop here. Another small congregation; more pews than people; somnolent divine; drive on!” he says, “no trouble here for my empire; drive on to that meeting house, where there is an earnest preacher, and a people much given to prayer. Stop,” he says, “I must use my best endeavours to halt this invasion of my kingdom.” Immediately Satan comes to do his best or his worst to hinder the kingdom of Christ. In hell’s opposition we discern a sign of hopefulness, for where that fire of malice burns against the gospel there God’s fire of grace is burning also.
When the fire of conversion has kindled the fire of persecution, it proves its own infinite energy by subjecting even persecution to itself. The Christian man who is slandered and opposed can afford to smile with a sacred contempt at all that can be done against the gospel of Christ. It was during the persecution which raged against the saints at Jerusalem that the church obtained one of the greatest pillars that have ever strengthened and adorned her fabric—the Apostle Paul. Breathing out threatenings against the people of God, he is on his road to Damascus, but the blaze of heavenly fire blinds him, strikes him to the ground, and afterwards he becomes a chosen vessel to carry, like an uplifted torch, that very fire throughout the nations of the earth. Never let us fear; the fire of God which Christ has cast among us shall go on burning, let man do whatever he wishes to quench it.
The gospel is like fire because it is so pure a thing; there is no mixture of error or unholiness in it. It is very pure, like silver purified seven times, free from every earthly alloy (Psalms 12:6). Moreover, it is exceedingly spiritual, so spiritual that few understand it; indeed, no one except those to whom it is given by the Father. It is only the spiritual man, enlightened by the Spirit of God, who receives the things which are of God (cf. Isa 11:2; Eph 1:17-18).
The gospel is like fire, again, because of its cheering and comforting influence (cf. Psalms 9:9; 55:22; 1 Peter 5:6-7). He who has received it finds that the cold of this world no longer bites him; he may be poor, but the gospel’s fire takes away the chilliness of poverty; he may be sick, but the gospel gives his soul to rejoice even in the body’s decay; he may be slandered and neglected, but the gospel honours him in the sight of God. The gospel, where it is fully received into the heart, becomes a divine source of matchless consolation. Fire, in addition to its warmth, gives light. The flaming beacon guides the mariner or warns him of the rock: the gospel becomes to us our guide through all the darkness of this mortal life; and if we cannot look into the future, nor know what shall happen to us tomorrow, yet by the light of the gospel we can see our way in the present path of duty, indeed, and see our end in future immortality and blessedness (cf. Psalms 119:105; John 1:1-5; 2 Peter 1:19). Life and immortality are brought to light by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have learned to rejoice in the Lord always and to be happy in the favour of the Most High, in the salvation of Jesus and in the consolation of the blessed Comforter. Thus we show to others that Christ has sent fire upon the earth.
A third likeness between the gospel and fire is its testing qualities. There is no test like fire. The gospel proves all things, and is the great ultimate test concerning right and wrong. Many a man thinks he carries something good within him, and he wraps himself up in the robes of his own righteousness until the gospel comes, and then he finds that he is naked, and poor, and miserable. Many a professor imagines that he is serving God and doing well, until in the gospel fire his wood, hay, and stubble vanish in smoke (cf. 1 Cor 3:13). All through this world of ours, the gospel will burn up with unquenchable fire everything that is evil, and leave nothing except what is just and true. The gospel enables us to proclaim liberty of conscience to all men; the gospel wields no temporal sword, it asks for no cannon balls to blast open the gates of a nation for its ministry: the true gospel prepares no dungeon, and no rack, it does not ask for Peter’s sword to cut off Malchus’s ear: but while it gives freedom from all bondage, it demands obedience to itself. Within its own realm its power is absolute; its arguments cut and kill error; its teachings lay low every proud hope, and expose every false way. The gospel is merciful to the sinner, but merciless to sin. It will not endure evil, but wars against it to overturn it, and to set up a throne for him whose right it is to reign. It will never enter into league with idolatry. It cannot be at peace with error. Fire cannot be made tolerant of what can be consumed, it will burn the stubble until the last particle is gone, and the truth of God is of the same nature.
Having this fire in us, we shall be trying to do all we can for Christ; we shall never think we have done enough; we shall stir uneasily if ever for a moment we rest; we shall seek if possible to snatch souls from the burning, to preach Christ where he is not known, and to bring him new jewels for his crown. The warm hearted, earnest, thorough Christian, is the life of the church; and if we cannot all be as we wish, may the fiery spirits among us never be retarded by those who are more lethargic. May they live above the influences that would drag them down! May we never be content to do as much as others, to pray as much as others, to give as much as others, but may it be our resolve that we will outstrip all, not out of any rivalry, but out of a love for him who has done so much, forgiven so much, secured so much, promised so much to us who are his people!
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to set our hearts ablaze with the song “Holy Spirit Come With Your Fire”: