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LUKE 12:49-51

Brother Joshua Dickerson, of Ohio, desires our views on Luke 12:49-51, and in complying with his request, we will notice the three verses in the order in which they are recorded. They read thus:

“I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay; but rather division.”

Although the heavenly messengers who announced the advent of our Savior made the plains of Judah vocal with their lofty notes of “Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will toward men,” clearly setting forth that the Savior's mission was a mission of peace; that he came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them; and that the very spirit of the gospel is love to God and love men; and that none can enjoy the spirit of Christ in their hearts while they cherish ill will to their fellow men, still the advent of the Prince of Peace was designed to kindle a fire on the earth that should never be quenched until the enemies of the Lord shall all be consumed and the children of God thoroughly purified as the gold. In the first verse of our text, Jesus says, in most positive and emphatic language, “I am come to send fire on the earth.” Not literally by an incendiary torch by him or any of his followers, applied to the persons or property of any of the children of men for when his indignant disciples, on one sore provocation felt disposed to command fire from heaven to consume a village of the Samaritans, because the wicked inhabitants did not receive him, Jesus rebuked them, and told them plainly that he came for no such murderous or destructive purpose. True, these Samaritans were wicked, and enemies of Christ and his cause, but the spirit which the disciples evinced, to resent by retaliation, was not the Spirit of Christ. It is possible that some of Christ’s disciples have subsequently been deceived by the same spirit of revenge which Christ rebuked in James and John on that occasion. It would be well, at least, before indulging in so unlovely a spirit, to enquire of Jesus, as James and John did, whether it be his will that we invoke or command fire for the destruction of either friends or foes.

To harmonize with the uniform teachings and works of the Messiah, and the very spirit of the gospel, his words in our text are to be understood as being metaphorically used, and used to signify the great commotion, strife, opposition and persecution his coming should produce in the earth, and the tribulation his people would have to encounter, and the cleansing and purifying effect upon his church, and the final inevitable destruction of his enemies, and the everlasting salvation of his people. All that was written of him in the law, the prophets, and in the psalms, must be accomplished. And these had all foretold the events to which Christ evidently alluded. A few passages from the many must suffice at this time.

The prophet Malachi, foretelling the day of our Lord, says, “For, behold the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.” “And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet... (Malachi 4:1-3).” “And the Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple,” etc. “But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap, and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,” etc. Isaiah says, “For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise and garments rolled in blood, but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5,6).” Again, “Therefore shall the Lord, the Lord of hosts, send among his fat ones leanness; and under his glory he shall kindle a burning like the burning of a fire; and the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame, and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day (Isaiah 10:16,17).” “For behold the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots, like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury and his rebuke with flames of fire; for by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many (Isaiah 66:15,16).”

In the foregoing passages, as well as in many others to which we might refer, we have abundant testimony that the advent or coming of Christ was designed and before ordained to send fire on the earth, so that his declaration in our text is fully sustained by the testimony of prophecy, all of which he came to fulfill. Fire is the most grand and magnificent of all the elements of nature, and shall survive and triumph over all the rest, melting them with fervent heat and consigning them all to final conflagration. The peculiar properties of fire are light and heat. Its nature is searching, melting and consuming. It is figuratively used in the scriptures to signify and illustrate several very important things.

First. It is applied to God himself. “For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).” To Jerusalem he will be “A wall of fire round about, and the glory in the midst of her (Zechariah 2:5).” In the application of the metaphor to God himself in the first of these scriptures, he is called a consuming fire, signifying the purity and holiness of his nature, that not­ing unholy or impure can endure his presence. As set forth in his fiery law, the Mount Sinai where God proclaimed its precepts, we are told, “burned with fire (Hebrews 12:18).” And that he will be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, when, in the person of his Son, he shall come in the last day to judge the world in righteousness, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Thessalonians 1:7,8). But in the text, Zechariah 2:5, he is a wall of fire for the protection and glory of Jerusalem. Thus when Moses saw the bush enveloped in flame, he was astonished that the bush was not consumed. That bush was a type of the church, and the God of Abraham and of Isaac, and Jacob was in the midst of the burning bush; not to consume, but to protect it. So also with the cloud by day, which was a pillar of fire by night unto the Hebrews in the wilderness. God was in the cloud and in the pillar of fire, for the destruction of their enemies, and for the protection of his covenant people. He sits as a refiner’s fire, not to consume, but to purge the sons of Levi. He will consume their dross and purge out their impurities, and he will utterly destroy his enemies with unquenchable fire. But his saints, like their representatives in the furnace of the idolatrous king of Babylon, shall come forth unsinged by the fire and uncontaminated by the furnace, for the form of the fourth is in their midst, and God has promised that the flames shall not kindle upon them (Isaiah 42:2).

Second. This metaphor is used to signify the word or words of God. “Is not my word like afire, saith the Lord (Jeremiah 23:29).” The searching, powerful and irresistible omnipotence of every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God is frequently set forth by the similitude of fire; an element that no flesh can stand before. In their effect upon the wicked, his words are represented as the “Rod of his mouth.” “Behold, the name of the Lord cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy; his lips are full of indignations, and his tongue as a devouring fire, and his breath as an overflowing stream... (Isaiah 30:27,28).” “And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4).” Compare this last text with II Thessalonians 2:7,8: “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work; only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that wicked be revealed whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.” “For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it (Isaiah 30:33).” “But upon Mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness, and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions; and the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it (Obadiah 17,18).” “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof. Clouds and darkness are round about him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne. A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his enemies round about. His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw and trembled. The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth (Psalm 49:1-5).” The word, in its power and vitality, is well compared to fire in its effects on different objects. It melts the wax, but it hardens the clay; it burns up the hay, wood and stubble, but it refines the silver and purifies the gold. The written testimony or word of God contained in the holy scriptures, when brought in contact with the doctrines of men and devils, will discriminate between truth and error, as fire will separate between gold and dross. Paul says, “If any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is (I Corinthians 3:12,13).”

We will suppose a church started upon the foundation which Paul as a wise master builder has laid, which he says is Christ Jesus, and then, like the churches of Galatia, having began well, are afterward subverted and drawn into error; or like the Corinthians, to whom he was writing, because disorderly in doctrine or practice, how is the wrong to be detected but by the searching power of the fire of God’s word? If we try by any other test we cannot detect the wrong, for human wisdom is vain; it can demonstrate nothing of a spiritual nature. But let every man’s work be tried by the scriptures of truth, and while it will burn up all the wood, hay and stubble, it will prove that the incombustible materials cannot be burned. To this fiery ordeal every doctrine and theory must and shall be brought. God will judge the world at the last day according to Paul’s gospel; that is, according to God’s word. The humble child of God desires this trial. “Search me, O God, and try me,” is his language; while he that doeth evil hateth the light, because his deeds are evil. Amaziah, the wicked priest of Bethel, could not stand before the burning truth of God’s words which the prophet Amos brought, and he accused the prophet of disloyalty to the king, treason to the nation, and conspiracy against the government of Israel, and tried to intimidate and drive him to some other place to eat bread and prophesy. See Amos 7:10,13. It was so also with Micaiah. Ahab could not endure the word of the Lord by him, and he was incarcerated and sentenced to eat the bread and drink the water of affliction. Thousands of instances are recorded to the same effect. But although king-craft and priest-craft, and all who fatten on their patronage, may wreak their vengeance on the messengers of the Lord, the fire of his word they can not quench. They may seem, for a time, to triumph in their suppression of the truth, but they stand on slippery places, and fiery billows roll beneath their sliding feet.

“Those heaps of wrath, by slow degrees,
Are forced into a flame,
But kindled, O! how fierce they blaze,
And rend old nature’s frame.”

There are multitudes of what are called Christian churches scattered all over our land, in which the most pernicious doctrines are promulgated. Would not a plain, clear and unreserved presentation of the word of God among them be like fire among the corn of the Philistines? But,

Third. The ministers of our Lord Jesus Christ are metaphorically represented as fire. Not because they of themselves possess any power superior to that of other men; nor can they receive that power from any other source than from the Lord. But the Lord “Maketh his angels spirits and his ministers a flaming fire (Psalm 104:4; Hebrews 1:7).” This is what He, God himself, maketh them, by calling them by his grace, quickening them by his spirit, and then putting his words in their mouth. The word of the Lord was like fire shut up in the bones of the prophet Jeremiah. When this prophet had encountered Pashur, the priest, and had been tortured in the stocks for telling the truth, and the word of the Lord had become a reproach, even to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, he became discouraged, as perhaps some of the Lord’s servants do at the present day, and resolved, saying, “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more of his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary of forbearing, and I could not stay (Jeremiah 20:9).” The apostles were baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire, on the day of Pentecost; and cloven tongues of fire were given them, so that they could not forbear to publish the gospel in the face of the most bitter opposition and persecution.

But here we must discriminate between the fire itself, which is the word and spirit of the Lord, and those who were under its power and influence. A candle can give no light until it is lighted by the application of fire, and then it burns and gives light to all that are in the house. It was thus when a live coal from off the altar of the Lord had touched the mouth of Isaiah, he was qualified to receive his commission, to bear the messages of the Lord to Israel, and like a lighted candle, he began to shine. John the Baptist also was a burning and a shining light, bearing witness of Jesus (John 5:35); for he came from God and burned with celestial fire. This fire is kindled in the hearts of those who are called to the ministry of our Lord, as in the heart of the two who said, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures (Luke 24:32)?” This is the fire that burns upon the sacred altar of our God, which warms the hearts of all who have ever felt its melting power and experienced its burning love; and it is in all respects unlike that flame which sets on fire the course of nature; for James informs us that that is set on fire of hell.

This is the fire, if we mistake not, which Jesus came to send on the earth. It is the fire of heaven; it burns in the enraptured spirits around the eternal throne. It consumes nothing that is pure and holy; it shines with uncreated radiance, and is the true light of life and immortality. O, for its sacred flame to warm our cold hearts, quicken and animate our languid affections, consume our dross and tin, and melt us in love to God, love to his cause, his doctrine, his ordinances, and all his precepts. This holy fire from heaven, sent forth by our Redeemer on the earth, must so illuminate the church as to make her like a city that is set upon a hill, whose light cannot be hid. It will also qualify not only the ministers of the word, but all the saints individually and collectively to so let their light shine as to glorify their Father in heaven, from whom they have received it. This fire, sent forth into the world, must come in contact with the darkness of this world, and so provoke the wrath of the prince of darkness, the spirit that works in the children of disobedience. And it will assuredly provoke the rage and malice of wicked men who love darkness more than light, because it reveals hidden things of dishonesty, exposes hypocrisy and delusion, and because it exalts God and abases the sinner in the dust. This fire proceeds out of the mouth of God, and as God is true, it shall ultimately consume anti-christ, which is not to be done by armies in the tented field, recklessly shedding the blood of their fellows, but it shall be done by the spirit of his mouth, and by the brightness of his coming. His words are fire, and they proceed out of his mouth, as the breath of the Lord, which shall not return unto him void of the work whereunto he has sent it.

This fire is kindled in Zion. The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame. “Judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God (I Peter 4:17).” “When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughter of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning; And the Lord will create upon every dwelling-place of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for upon all the glory there shall be a defence (Isaiah 4:4,5).” The fire of the Lord shall fill his enemies with consternation and dismay, and they shall realize the force of the words of the prophet, “The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites.” And they are heard to cry out in terror, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings (Isaiah 33:14).” As our Redeemer has come to fulfill these predictions, and to execute these judgments, “Who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth (Malachi 3:2).” How awfully sublime and terrible the display described by in-spired men of God, “Clouds and darkness are round about him. A fire goeth before him and burneth up his enemies round about. His lightnings enlighten the world. The earth is afraid. The hills melt like wax at his presence (Psalm 97:2-5).” “Zion heard and was glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoiced because of thy judgments, O Lord.”

This fire Christ came to send on the earth; this collision of truth with falsehood, of righteousness against unrighteousness, of holiness against sin, and of love against hatred, Christ came to inaugurate and lend in triumph through the earth. With his sword upon his thigh, the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, he rides prosperously, conquering to conquer, until all enemies shall be subdued and put under his feet.

And what will I, if it be already kindled?” This interrogative was not uttered to solicit, but to impart instruction. The conflict between light and darkness was already apparent in the earth. The powers of darkness were already arrayed against the light and glory of the Redeemer’s kingdom. In the former part of the chapter (Luke 12) the evidence of hostilities are seen. Hidden things must be exposed to light. Secrets whispered in closets should be proclaimed on housetops, and this exposure of the hidden things of dishonesty should so much exasperate the convicted parties, as to make them seek revenge by taking the life of the disciples of our Lord, as well as that of the Master himself. This in many cases they should be suffered to do, that the cup of their wickedness might be filled up. But for the encouragement of his trembling followers he bids them, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, for that is the utmost extent of their restricted power; but fear him whose superior and supreme power controls your destiny for time and eternity. God, whose careful providence protects the little sparrows, has numbered the very hairs of your heads, and in this, now begun, and still progressive conflict will shield his saints, who at the exposure of life and liberty, own his name before men and suffer no evil to reach them that he will not overrule to their good and his glory. As this already kindled fire should increase to bursting flames, then they shall bring you into the synagogues, and unto magistrates and powers, but even then, when this battle shall be with burning and fuel of fire, think not what ye shall say. The battle is the Lord’s. It is not to be conducted on the part of Michael, your prince, or any of those who are with him, of the “called, and chosen, and faithful,” with carnal weapons. No revengeful spirit or disposition to retaliate or render evil for evil will be tolerated in any of the soldiers of the cross. Nor should they consult their own reason for words, but confide wholly in God, “For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.” The circumstance recorded in this chapter of an application made to Christ, to adjudicate the settlement of a disputed inheritance, afforded opportunity for him to disclaim all connection between civil and ecclesiastical matters, and at the same time striking at the root of the difficulty in which the disputants were contending, he gave wholesome instructions and warning against covetousness, illustrating his admonition by the parable of the rich man, whose whole concern was to provide much goods for many years on the very night in which his soul was required of him. This opportunity was improved by solemn admonitions to his disciples against an undue concern for the things of this world, seeing that their heavenly Father knew what was needful for them, and he would amply provide. They were admonished to have their loins girded about, and their lights burning, like men who were waiting for their Lord, and to be ready at all times, inasmuch as they knew not at what hour their Lord would come. It was in connection with these important instructions that he said to them: “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled.” That the fire was already kindled, and what he would, or what he himself was personally to share in the conflict, is very forcibly set forth in the next verse of our text, the consideration of which, for want of space, we defer till our next number.

(To be continued.)

Middletown, N.Y.,
April 15, 1864.

Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 6
Pages 17 – 25