“Come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.“
The great 20th -century expositor Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you want to be odd in the Christian church today, preach the New Testament gospel.” In the 21st-century, following that advice would not, perhaps, merely make one odd, but make one a target for soft, or even severe, persecution, and that from within the church itself. The bulk of contemporary evangelicalism seems to be driven by an overriding concern that biblical truth, and especially the “New Testament gospel,” just might be found offensive. Within evangelicalism in our era, God’s truth is carefully doled out after deliberate doctrinal cleansing so that trigger warnings may be avoided. “We don’t want to offend anybody” is the unwritten presuppositional commandment of pop Christianity.
Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace To You, has aptly made the point:
“The church today is … anesthetized by the suffocating miasma of man-centered teaching and moralistic platitudes that ignore the gospel. Too many churchgoers have been fed for too long on a steady diet of topical messages, motivational talks, feel-good homilies, or even thinner gruel. What is the expected result of that? Worldliness, superficiality, bad doctrine, unsanctified church members, ego-driven church leaders, and virtually every other spiritual malady that is currently crippling American evangelicalism. The only remedy, and (I believe) the best recipe for revival in the church, is a powerful wave of biblical preaching and biblical theology in which we recognize and proclaim Christ as the center and focus of everything God’s Word has to say.”
Yet the contemporary church, mired in our postmodern times, seems deliberately eager to ignore Lloyd-Jones’ suggestion and to willfully disregard Johnson’s observations. The church, so eager to be relevant to the postmodern culture, has become increasingly tentative in speaking on matters of absolute truth. Though it has a Book, the church has largely lost its appetite for divine literacy and has gleefully relinquished its duty to “contend for the faith” by morphing the task into “compromising the faith … because … God is love.” Instead of inculcating the mind of Christ from the Word of Christ for the glory of Christ, the church has largely opted for faith by cultural fiat. It has become a spineless, doctrine-less, culture-reacting institution that contorts the holy doctrines of Christ for the earthly pottage of pagan goats it hopes will be lured into the pews of the saints.
While the culture at large has been vehemently protesting toxic masculinity (a protest which is necessarily gaining momentum within the increasingly worldly church, as well), evangelicalism for decades has been tacitly engaged in combatting toxic divinity. Key attributes of God’s nature and fundamental doctrines of the faith are routinely diminished, deleted, or disregarded for fear of alienating the delicate sensibilities of the worldlings the church so aggressively courts and covets. Biblically illicit church growth methodologies that have subverted the New Testament gospel to be about man rather than Christ have bloated the church with legions of self-absorbed, rather than self-denying, pew sitters. As Lloyd-Jones lamented, “God is nowhere more hidden, than in most churches.”
One example of diminished, and sometimes outright discarded, biblical teaching is given to us in the Pentateuch where Moses describes God as “a consuming fire.” In evangelicalism, that consuming fire has been supplanted by a fully quenched and drenched deity whose only proclaimed attributes are those which favorably harmonize with the narcissistic ambitions of the periodic Sunday morning pew dweller.
The God that is touted on Sunday mornings from scores of evangelical pulpits isn’t the warlike visage of a consuming fire executing just and right wrath on unrepentant sinners. Rather, the Sunday crowd is served up a Jesus who is warm and welcoming, absent demands for repentance, and simply eager to be your buddy. The fiery gospel messages from the vaults of evangelical past have been abandoned for flash and sizzle messages about the Jesus whose greatest desire is for your approval, who is anxiously hand-wringing in the heavenlies as He awaits the invitation to become a part of your life. There is no pending judgment seat before Christ but rather a softening, if not a jettisoning, of divine expectations because, after all, we all make mistakes … and besides, don’t forget, God is love. Here, just repeat this prayer. Oh, and the persistent theme of holiness for the faithful evident throughout Scripture doesn’t quite cut it with the chic crowds motivated most by self-gratification. Rather than being holy as Jesus is holy, what He really meant was for you to be happy. Plus, eternal fire insurance at the end of your Jesus-enabled pursuit of temporal happiness is a nifty perk, too.
A Consuming Fire
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Deuteronomy 4:24
The Scriptural description of God as “a consuming fire” comes in the Pentateuch. As Moses urges Israel to obedience and faithfulness to God prior to their divinely enabled conquest of the Promised Land, he reminds them of the perfect jealousy of the God who had chosen them and freed them from the bondage of Egypt. He is, reminds Moses, “a consuming fire,” who will not tolerate the defilement of His name, His glory, or His Word, by the worship of idols among His chosen nation. After giving again the Ten Commandments and reminding Israel of its past unfaithfulness, Moses repeats the identification of God as “a consuming fire” (Deut. 9:3) who would “destroy” and “subdue” the enemies who would seek to stop Israel’s conquest.
Over 400 times in Scripture, fire is noted, nearly 350 times in the Old Testament and over 70 in the New. We recall that Moses first encountered God revealed in the bush burning with fire that wasn’t consumed (Ex. 3:2). The children of Israel were led by the Lord “in a pillar of fire by night” (Ex. 13:21). In Levitius, the furious wrath of God against unholy worship finds the sons of Aaron, Abihu and Nadab, killed by fire from God (Lev. 10:2).
Scripture gives us the epic confrontation of Elijah and the false prophets of Baal in the episode at Mount Carmel in which the “fire of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:38) fell from heaven. This was God’s answer to Elijah’s solemn, God-glorifying prayer, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God, and that You have turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:37). God answered with fire.
In the New Testament, the reference to fire first comes from John the Baptist just before the baptism of Jesus. “As for me,” Matthew quotes John, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt. 3:11). The fire mentioned by the Baptist is the same fire of judgment described by Moses.
The next fire reference is epic and historic. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place, And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and the rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:1-3). The coming of the promised Holy Spirit is revealed in a description of fire.
Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28-29
A.W. Pink, in his classic text The Life of Elijah, writes of God as “a consuming fire” from its citation by the author of Hebrews (Heb. 12:29)
“How rarely is this text quoted, and more rarely still is it preached upon! The pulpit often declares that ‘God is love,’ but maintains a guilty silence upon the equally true fact that He is a ‘consuming fire.’ God is ineffably holy, and therefore does His pure nature burn against sin. God is inexorably righteous, and therefore will visit upon every transgression and disobedience ‘a just recompense of reward’ (Heb. 2:2). ‘Fools mock at sin’ (Prov. 14:9), but they shall yet discover that they cannot mock God with impunity. They may defy His authority and trample upon His laws in this life, but in the next they shall curse themselves for their madness. In this world God deals mercifully and patiently with His enemies, but in the world to come they shall find out to their eternal undoing that He is ‘a consuming fire’.”
Jesus Is A Consuming Fire
One of the woeful tendencies in the contemporary church is not only to fabricate an unbiblical Jesus to suit the tastes of the target demographic, but also to act as though Jesus of the New Testament is a different sort of God than the God of the rest of Scripture. Though the Son became incarnate, He did not lose any attributes of God. He is truly God. But the description of God as “a consuming fire” is rarely applied to Jesus. Rather, Jesus is often viewed as the expression of God’s kinder, gentler, more humanly pleasing characteristics. In Jesus we see God’s love, God’s humility, and God’s compassion. On the cross, we see the Father’s hatred of sin, God’s wrath, and God’s unyielding expectation for holiness. And all of that is certainly true and rightly affirmed … but it is not exclusively true of the Father to the exclusion of the Son, or vice-versa. The attributes of God are the attributes of Jesus.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Matthew 23:37-39
This text from Matthew records Jesus’ words just prior to the profound prophetic teaching He would give in the Olivet Discourse. On the timeline, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and is approaching His trials and crucifixion. He pauses to vocally lament over “the city of our God” (Ps. 48:1). But it was a profound and providential that our Lord took pause here to overlook the city that was the “delight” of the Lord (Is. 62:4) as He humbly and obediently trod its streets on the predetermined path of God to His own death(Acts 2:23). The city of righteousness (Is. 1:26) would be the city that would kill true Righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). The city of faithfulness (Is. 1:26) would be found guilty of faithlessness in blindly shunning its long-awaited Messiah. The city of the “throne of the Lord” (Jer. 3:17) would deny the Lord, satisfied only as their ancestors had been by killing the Messenger sent to her. Jerusalem, the City of Truth (Zec. 8:3), would be the city that slays Truth incarnate (Jn. 14:6). But, as the Lord stated, it was a city bound for desolation.
But, in circa 33 A.D. Jesus laments with compassion over Jerusalem, the city that was to be joy to the whole world (Lam. 2:15). Yet do not miss this point. While the Lord mourned over Jerusalem for her rejection of Him, He did so as God, knowing that, merely decades later, in 70 A.D., He would divinely and providentially oversee its destruction which He foretold shortly after His lament (Matt. 24:1-2). The Jesus who mourned over Jerusalem is the God who would soon judge it, for all judgment is His (Jn. 5:22).
We must not distinguish Jesus’ lament as simply an exhibition of His human compassion, though it certainly was. To do so is to corrupt His mysterious nature as truly God and truly Man. His lament was both a reflection of His perfect humanity and His sovereign deity. Though He genuinely sorrowed as a Man, He also sorrowed as the God who takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). As the MacArthur Study Bible notes, “The emotion displayed by Christ here is obviously a deep, sincere passion. All of Christ’s feelings must be in perfect harmony with the divine will (cf. Jn 8:29) – and therefore these lamentations should not be though of as mere exhibitions of His humanity.”
The Sissified Jesus
Yet the pop culture church today would largely view Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem as prime evidence for the yearning He has for acceptance. He wanted Jerusalem to accept Him. He was oozing tearful love and tender regret over their callous rejection. The contemporary church would present this as the Jesus who just loved Jerusalem and had a wonderful plan for their life. In words from Voddie Baucham, the contemporary church makes this the “sissified, needy Jesus.” (For a clip of Baucham’s message, go HERE.)
“I despise the picture that’s painted in our culture of this sissified, needy Jesus … and that’s who He is … He’s a sissified, needy Jesus … He’s just yearning for you … He’s longing for you … He wants friendship and relationship with you … He needs you … Oh, you’re breaking His heart. No! He’s gonna break you.”
Baucham unveils the contemporary subversion of the gospel. No longer is the gospel about the work and person of the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God. Instead it’s about the wants and desires of men for the glory of men.
“News flash. By definition God is self-sustaining, self-existent, and self-sufficient. Therefore by definition He needs nothing. God does not need you.”
Baucham points his hearers to Revelation where we are given a blunt, graphic, and divinely authoritative view of exactly who this Jesus is with whom we have to deal.
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Revelation 19:11-16
Baucham makes his point:
“That’s my Jesus. That’s the God whom I serve – not the sissified Christ that’s preached in pulpits around the United States of America. I serve the great God of the universe who gets angry and pours out His wrath. I serve the great God of the universe who demonstrated His wrath when He poured it out on His own Son. And it amazes me that we believe this, that God would crush and kill His own Son, to let you slide? Not for a minute. The spotless, sinless Lamb of God suffered, and bled, and died because of the wrath of God … That propitiation, that satisfaction of the righteous wrath of God – that’s what was experienced on the cross. How dare we take that lightly?”
As we come to worship this Lord’s Day, let us beware confusing the false Jesus of pop Christianity with the true Jesus of Holy Scripture. The Jesus who offered Himself on the cross as the perfect, spotless substitute for hopeless sinners made His gospel call clear: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Lk. 9:23). It is this Jesus who will execute “the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15) against His unrepentant enemies. It is this Jesus whose gospel is fiery precisely because He is the God who is “a consuming fire.” It is this Jesus who is a consuming fire because His holiness demands it. He is a consuming fire because His jealousy for His name and His glory (Is. 42:8), and for His Word (Ps. 138:2) dictates it. He is a consuming fire who tests and tries His saints to purify them to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet. 1:16).
Isaiah asked the pressing question, “Who among us can live with the consuming fire?” (Is. 33:14). The answer from Christ is clear: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Those in Christ can live with the Jesus, the God, who is a consuming fire, and that is all a work of His infinite grace (Eph. 2:8). Let us then rejoice always (1 Thes. 5:16) and daily worship the Lord who is a consuming fire.