Thursday, February 6, 2014

Give me more fire, LORD!

This article is written in response to Lyndon Unger’s — Burning away misconceptions about “holy fire” — posted at The Cripplegate on January 24, 2014.

“Get on fire for God and men will come and see you burn.” — John Wesley

I don’t use the word fire regularly in my private worship, nor does my local church family. However, I’ve been around plenty of charismatics who do, and I think I get it. I think I know why they use the term and from whence they derive its usage from Scripture (the latter having failed to be properly identified by Lyndon). And while the usage of the word fire is hardly worth spending my time to defend, Lyndon has written a number of things that need to be addressed.

First, I think he makes a fine point about using right words rightly. Fire, like many evangelical catchall phrases, is used so broadly and carelessly in charismatic churches, that whatever its intended usage in any given situation may be, the intended meaning is often lost in the ambiguity of the other dozen or so possible applications of the word. So, I agree with Lyndon, “If you want more love for God, how about you just ask for more love for God? If you want more passion, how about you just ask for more passion? If you want more experiences of tongues, how about you just ask for tongues?” If you teach or pray publicly for something (passion, revival, power, or gifts), teach and pray more precisely, so to avoid miscommunication and/or confusion. Isn’t this the wise and loving thing to do?

Second, as much as I agree with Lyndon’s admonition to use right words rightly, I do not gather from his article that he actually tried to interact with charismatics to understand why they use the word fire in their worship — this, in spite of his prior experience in a charismatic church (people, across the board, do not often know why they say what they say, nor do they understand the etymology of every pop-evangelical buzzword that they may use).  

As I said, fire is not part of my religious jargon, but if I were to defend its usage, I would point to four passages:


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.

 — Acts 2:1—4

If you read this passage on the surface, without considering the historical and symbolic significance of what happens in Acts 2, you’ll merely note that cloven tongues of fire were present when the Spirit came upon the Church. However, if the passage is pressed through a Biblical Theological grid, the appearance of fire showing up here takes on a whole new significance.

More on that in a second.

Lyndon, in ‘point 2’ of his lexical analysis of the words אֵשׁ and πῦρ, provides his readers with a good head start on understanding why the word fire has attained such elevated use in charismatic parlance — though Lyndon, himself, failed to make the connection. I direct you back to his article because fire, being applied as symbolically representative of God’s presence is, I believe, at the heart of the word’s charismatic usage. I’ll highlight a few passages (including a few missed by Lyndon) that I believe are the most helpful in establishing this point. [It will be beneficial to also note the other manifestations associated with God’s presence in addition to fire (wind, earthquakes, God’s thunderings/voice, clouds/smoke) that are also found in these passages]:
  1. At Mount Sinai to Moses / Israel (Ex 3:2, 19:16—19, 24:17)
  2. In the wilderness to Israel (Ex 13:21, 40:38) 
  3. At Mount Sinai to Elijah (1 Kgs 19:11—13; cf. Acts 4:31)
  4. To Ezekiel (Ez 1:1, 4, 26—28)
  5. To the 120 priests at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chr 5:11—14; cf. Ex 19:18)
  6. To Peter, James, and John on the mount with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28—36, cf. Ex 19:18; 2 Chr 5:11—14)
  7. To the 120 kingdom priests in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1—11)1
When considering the theme that emerges from these passages, it would appear, that by the time we get to Luke/Acts, that Luke is building his case for Jesus‘ divinity and the divine indwelling of the Spirit’s presence in God’s people, in part, by directing his audience back to the manifestations of God’s appearing in the Old Testament.  

And that is the significance of fire appearing above the heads of the disciples on Pentecost.2

In the same way that the fire, which appeared above the wandering Hebrews' heads at Sinai designated the presence of God near his people on Pentecost, so too the fire which appeared above the heads of each member of the Church in Jerusalem designated the presence of God with his people on Pentecost.

With that in mind, I do believe that there exists a case for an appropriate use of fire in our prayer and our preaching — if, by its use, we are imploring God for his presence and power to be manifest in our gathering; for our corporate edification and/or for our boldness in gospel proclamation.

Do not quench the Spirit. — 1 Thessalonians 5:19

While fire does not show up here in this verse, the language does have burning in view. The root word, translated as quench in the ESV — σβέννυμι, may mean extinguish, or put out, or quench, or suppress, or stifle, depending upon the words surrounding context. If Paul intended σβέννυμι to be understood in the same way as it is translated in Mark 9:48, Eph 6:16, and Heb 11:34, then 1 Thes 5:19 may properly, though paraphrastically, translated as, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (ISV).

Therefore, if the Spirit’s power is associated with fire, and the referent of that fire is the manifestation of power in charismata (see 1 Thes 5:20, cf. Acts 2:3—4), then it is not inappropriate for charismatics to pray for the fire of the Spirit to come nor to increase.

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? — Luke 24:32

The disciples who met Jesus on their trek to Emmaus had their hearts lit aflame when their Rabbi expounded the christotelic nature of the OT scriptures to them.

Is it an inappropriate request to ask that God would send the illuminating fire of his Spirit to burn in our hearts as we meditate upon his word?  

If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. — Jeremiah 20:9

No commentary required.

Third, Lyndon writes,
If you pray for God’s “fire” in your life and experience suffering, God’s giving you exactly what you asked for...If you think God’s not faithfully answering your prayers just because you don’t have an increase in passion or you don’t speak in tongues, you’re sadly mistaken.

Until now, you may have been misinformed and speaking out of an assumed tradition or ignorance, asking God for something you didn’t mean to ask for, and then responded in confusion when he didn’t give you what you meant to ask for (but didn’t actually request)...Don’t ask for more “holy fire” in your life; you might get cancer when God answers your prayers.

Is God not able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart praying for fire?

If by uttering the word fire, a charismatic means to pray for fervor for courageous gospel proclamation; an increase in their religious affections toward God; or for greater power to manifest the charismata for the up-building of the local assembly, are we supposed to believe that God is going to afflict that person with Stage IV Lymphoma? Does Lyndon actually believe that God is so capricious that he might just make charismatics suffer for using the word fire wrongly — in spite of their proper motivation? Or, does he believe that God is confused by a charismatic’s improper use of the word fire, mistakenly giving them the fire of his judgment when, in fact, they are crying out for the fire of increased intimacy? 

Neither of these describe the nature of our God. 

“For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” — Luke 11:10—13

If your son asked you to pass him some Chicken of the Sea, when what he actually wanted was some tunafish, are you going to pass him a rattlesnake instead of the tuna for using a metaphor that’s never been used in your home?

In closing, while Lyndon’s observation that the Bible never uses the word fire as a metaphor “for the cultivation of spiritual renewal/fervor/conviction” stands, there does appear to be clear exegetical warrant for using the word fire in worship. And that is true whether or not the majority of charismatics using the word fire could articulate why they use it as carefully as I have outlined it here. Unfortunately, whatever benefit might have come from the article and Lyndon's admonition to use right words rightly, it was lost upon charismatics because of his lamentable argumentation and the stumbling block—rhetoric found throughout.

Frankly, I expected more from my brothers at Cripplegate.

1. Surrounding God’s throne [tongues of fire] (1 Enoch 14:8—25, 71:5) — 1 Enoch was extant in the NT age and quoted in Jude.
2. Consider also the significance of the sound of the rushing wind, the languages and dialects spoken, the translation of the message that was heard, the number of disciples who were gathered to pray, the feast days. Also the earthquake in Acts 4:31

Read more ...