Our God is a Consuming Fire

November 4, 2018 Series: Hebrews Scripture: Hebrews 12:25-29 by Chris Strevel

It is alarming to read this. Over the past two centuries, secular man has raged against God, dethroned him, denied him to be the Creator, turned his love into permissiveness or a social gospel, and practically renounced his authority over us. There seems to be little fear of God, even among his professing friends. A warning like this jars us – whom do we serve? Do I think of him with reverence and serve him carefully? Before we get to this, we must determine how this warning relates to the reconciling priesthood of Jesus Christ. Do we really need to be terrified? To be told that there is no escape if we reject God’s word and that we should fear him and serve him reverently? How can the apostle use as one of his final motivations that “our God is a consuming fire?” This seems to bring us right back to the terrors of Sinai. What of the gospel, his mercy, and his longsuffering? And then, preachers have to be very careful when they come to this passage, for the temptation is great to use it as a battering ram against the weak and struggling. The sinfulness of our age leads many to delight in his wrath more than in his mercy, and they try to call down fire from heaven. Perhaps it is simply best to say that we need to be awakened from our sluggishness so that we meekly hear God’s word and yield ourselves to be governed by his hand. He knows what is best for us, and he knows that if left to ourselves, we fall asleep and drift away from Christ. So that we hold fast to him, the Holy Spirit tells us that God’s word is serious and confronts us with his majestic nearness – in the new covenant! With greater grace comes greater responsibility, and we must not receive his grace in vain (2 Cor. 6:1).

No Escape If Refuse His Word (v. 25)

If Then: When God Spoke from Sinai

The warning is direct. See – God is speaking, warning, telling us to wake up – present tense – do not refuse him. Where is he speaking? In this letter to these Hebrew believers; in the preaching of his gospel; God speaks to us when he calls us to himself, warns us against unbelief, and sends preachers to us. This is the great reality that unites Sinai and Zion, the old and the new covenants, Moses and Christ: the speaking God. This is the one reality that sinners wish to avoid, even as the Israelites begged that God not speak to them. It did them no good to send Moses up the mountain for them, for they heard God’s voice anyway. Then, God’s word came back down the mountain and judged their sins. God spoke from earth that day, and they would not hear him. They rejected his word but could not escape it. His word judged them throughout the next forty years as their carcasses fell in the wilderness. Only a few of that generation survived; they survived because they received God’s word with meekness.

Much More Now: For God Speaks from Heaven

The argument is from the lesser to the greater. If they did not escape when they refused him who spoke to them from earth, we shall not escape if we refuse him who speaks from heaven. What is meant by earth and heaven? By earth, he means in the tangible covenant of sacrifices, types, and a human priesthood; Sinai was a type of this. He means the old covenant. It was earthly, had more observable worship and signs, and was fitted to a hardhearted people whose hearts were earthbound. They were like Jesus described the Jews of his day when he said, “If I have spoken to you of earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things” (John 3:12)? Heaven and heavenly things are the more complete order of the church under the new covenant, with a crucified, raised, and reigning Savior, who has gone into heaven and opened heaven for us. Heaven, therefore, does not refer to the consummated state but to the new covenant order of the church established upon the perfect sacrifice and effectual intercession of Jesus Christ. God now speaks to us in his Son (Heb. 1:1). He does not speak in shadows and types. He speaks to us plainly of redemption through the obedience and sacrifice of his Son. He proclaims to us the everlasting gospel. Jacob’s ladder has been let down from heaven, and the Son of God has descended to bring us peace and righteousness. When he ascended, he left the ladder in place. Heaven is opened, and we may draw near to God with assurance of his favor, to our Judge for vindication and defense, and to our loving Father for mercy and grace.

Our Only Safety: Receive his Word with Meekness

How should we respond to such privileges? Perhaps we have heard the gospel so many times that our hearts are a little jaundiced. If you live in a palace full of gold and precious things and rich furnishings, if the King has given you the keys to his kingdom and told you to occupy until he comes, dwells with you by his Spirit, and promises every grace and mercy we need, it is easy to grow cold and presumptuous, unless the privileges are improved, used daily, fill us with thankfulness and wonder, and lead us to walk humbly with our God and Savior. But these believers were allowing the threats of ungodly men to fill them with doubt and fear. Rather than holding more closely to Christ, calling upon with greater fervency, and trusting his lordship and protection, they were drifting away.

But since God now speaks to us from heaven, invites us to heaven, and has brought us to the new covenant order of peace and righteousness, assurance and freedom, we must hear him more carefully. This is a threat, but it is a threat prompted by God’s wisdom, love, and concern for us. He has done great things for us. He speaks to us of heavenly blessings, a heavenly kingdom, heavenly power by his indwelling Spirit, and heavenly help for every need. Our only safety is to receive his word with meekness. This means to have a teachable heart before him, a heart that receives his word gladly with thankfulness, and then determines to be a doer of that word. He draws near to us in a friendly way through his Son. He tells us of forgiveness, peace, and power. He tells us to cast all our cares upon him, for he cares for us. He knows that we must pass through many tribulations as strangers and pilgrims on the earth, but he has given us his Son from heaven to be our good, faithful, and powerful Shepherd. HEAR HIM! This is the great warning, our great responsibility, the custodianship to which he calls his church in every age – to be the pillar and ground of his truth (1 Tim. 3:15). To love and live the gospel that awes and delights the angels. Let us awaken to our privilege and hear his word. 

His Voice Shakes Everything (vv. 26-27)

The Promise: Haggai 2:6-7, 21-22

At this point, we should be seriously awakened and seeking to hear very carefully. If you are looking for something about which to feel strongly or to have your emotional life jolted into proper working order, this truth will do it. God is speaking; hear him, or you will not escape. He gives another reason that we must listen and demonstrates that we shall not escape if we do not listen. He quotes a promise of Christ’s kingdom given to Haggai, one of the prophets of the restoration, the period of the returning exiles and the rebuilding of the temple and city of Jerusalem. Some of them were saddened by the much diminished splendor of their constructions efforts. In the midst of those years, the Lord told the prophet of a better day that was coming, that the second temple would have more glory than the first. God would send his Son, and the heavens and the earth would be shaken. Not simply Sinai, but the entire fabric of the spiritual universe would be radically altered. The thundering terror and veiled nearness of Sinai would give way to satisfaction and peace and nearness of Zion. Christ’s coming would also shake the entire earthly order, as verses 21-22 make clear. God’s new order would not only bring men to heaven through the work of the Mediator, but it will also deliver them from tyranny through his gospel reign and worldwide blessings.

God’s Shaking: Of Heaven and Earth (Dan. 2:44-45)

It was difficult for God’s people to take in the universal scope of this shaking. They were accustomed to thinking in terms of “us and them,” the Jews and the Gentiles, God’s people in Abraham’s family and everyone else in darkness. This is the reason that “shaking prophecies” are found throughout the prophets, and Daniel’s is parallel to Haggai’s and very vivid. Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome were all representatives of the beast, the statist order man builds in rebellion against God. The first attempt was at Babel, and all world empire building has partaken of its devilish spirit ever since. Then, Daniel is shown that “in the days of those kings,” the days of the fourth empire, the Roman, God will set up another kingdom. It will be cut out of a mountain – power! – without hands, apart from human devising and control. Christ’s kingdom will not be from this world but introduced from heaven. As it grows, it will become the highest mountain, and it will crush in pieces all the kingdoms of man. It will do this not with armies carrying swords but wielding the sword of the Spirit, wearing not steel armor but clothed in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness (Rev. 19:14) and proclaiming the everlasting gospel of the remission of sins and the arrival of Messiah’s kingdom of salvation.

What Remains: Only Christ’s Kingdom

It is clear from this and similar prophecies that God would soon shake everything – everything touchable, everything weak, everything in which man places his hope rather than God. This shaking occurred when the Son of God took upon himself our flesh, brought an end to sacrifice and all the old earthly service and covenant, and establishes the new and heavenly covenant of redemption accomplished, God indwelling by his promised Spirit, the law internalized upon the heart, and Jew and Gentile gathered together in one body, the church. When Jesus Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father, all the old powers were shaken and demolished. Now, the Son of God speaks from heaven through his witness-bearing church, the greater company of preachers he continues to send throughout the earth, and his reign over the kingdoms of this world and active warfare against all his enemies. We are in the days prophesied by Haggai, Daniel, Isaiah, and the rest. “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Whatever, whoever does not build upon him as its chief cornerstone or does not listen to his word will be swept away (Matt. 7:25-27). 

 

 

Serve Him Reverently (vv. 28-29)

We Are Receiving an Unshakable Kingdom

And God is giving this kingdom to us as a free gift. The present tense may stress that it is a constant gift, even as we are constantly upheld by the power of God and of his Christ, or perhaps it stresses the present manifestation of the kingdom – what God had promised is now here. Either way, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). It is a kingdom that cannot be shaken. It is the last order of things on earth. The heavenly and the perfect have come (Heb. 7:19; 9:9,11; 10:1) – the mature and free and powerful condition of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ because of his successful mediation and present exaltation. But these struggling believers may have thought that their circumstances did not look very much like “perfection” or a “gifted kingdom.” One reason for this is the church’s perennial temptation to measure the growth, success, and role of Christ’s kingdom according to outward appearances and earthly kingdom standards. Another reason is the constant failure to forget that we reign by carrying our cross and by fervent prayer, so that in the course of daily life, often his kingdom and its growth defy human scrutiny and measurement. The mustard seed parable comes to mind, as does the leaven. Sowing and reaping require time. We are companions in both the “kingdom and the tribulation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:9). We triumph through Christ and his cross. We overcome through warfare and patience. We obtain the crown through faith and obedience, not drawing back but hoping to the end.

We Need Grace to Serve Him Reverently

How are we to respond to God’s gift? What are our responsibilities? What should be the tone of our lives, the attitudes about which we undertake our work, the quality of our words? We are not left to wonder, for God tells us that we need grace. This might mean gratitude, as many argue. It could mean spiritual strength, joy, or God’s favor. Perhaps the one word object of “let us have” is intentionally broad enough to cover our entire thankful, believing, joyful, adoring, energetic response to God’s gift. To sit back passively is unthinkable; to drift away from Christ is inexcusable; to receive such a gift in vain is criminal. Instead, let us have, be filled with all the grace, strength, and kindness of God, a sense of his great favor to us, so that we can serve him with a heightened sense of privilege and responsibility. He is worthy. “Serve” is an homage word, worship, living sacrifice, consecration of life. To serve him acceptably is to seek his pleasure. It is our great daily life as Christ’s disciples to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Col. 1:10). One with Christ and like him, our meat, our food, is to do the will of our Father in heaven (John 4:34). Christ’s kingdom has delivered us from being self-centered and determined to do our will at all costs. “His people will be wiling in the day of his power” (Ps. 110:3). Our Savior makes us willing by subduing our hearts to teachableness.

Pleasing him is modified by two connected ideas. First, we must be reverent or deeply respectful of our great God and Savior. This is very different from the idea that God is our big buddy in the sky, or that talking brazenly or casually to him is a mark of sonship and maturity. Some today talk as if sinning boldly were the new virtue, as if sinning does not matter that much. The Spirit teaches a very different lesson. We are to be a bit shamed-faced or awed as we serve him – or we do not know him as well as we should. Is this not true of all of us? Would these Hebrews have feared the local persecuting powers had they had a healthy reverence for God? To reverence he adds godly piety, a dread of offending God, a careful walk. Careful? This is the opposite of the attitude that says, “I can choose which of God’s commandments I will obey; I take exception to this one, so I will not obey it.” To walk carefully would be, for example, to be confronted with a temptation and feel inclined to yield, but then to stop dead in your tracks when you remember that he is present? Yes, this is the carefulness, the veneration we are to have for the holy God. It means we please him best when we are careful to obey him, dread offending him, fight against sin, and are prompted by wonder and love at his great mercy in Christ. In fact, when we consider that he has given us a kingdom, joined us to himself through the blood of his Son, a consecrated life of careful service is the only legitimate response we can make (Rom. 12:1).

We Serve the Consuming Fire

Now we can all tremble before his majesty and perhaps regain a true perspective of the gospel’s wonder. So much of the modern spirit is that Jesus died on the cross so that we live casually, even loosely, confident that we are forgiven. This is a different gospel. The true gospel is that Jesus Christ satisfied God’s justice and washed away our sins so that we can live in the presence of the HOLY, HOLY, HOLY God, the consuming fire. Consuming stresses that with respect to his people, he will purge away all that defiles us and is displeasing to him. Because he is holy, we cannot know him and remain in our sins. If we are his children, he will purify us (Tit. 2:14). Toward the wicked, he is a consuming fire of judgment, unapproachable fire that kindles hell itself in which one day he will cast Satan and the wicked.

Such a description of God’s majestic holiness and hatred of every form and degree of sin challenges all our conceptions of him, of life, and of ourselves. Understand that God’s nature is not altered since Sinai. We are altered. We are brought near safely to the holy God through his gift of salvation through his Son. We are brought near to the living God who thundered at Sinai, who is righteous in all his ways, and who hates all sin – but we are near because we are clean in Christ. This holy God dwells with us. He is present this morning and is speaking. Will we hear and believe his word? Serve with reverence and adore him for his goodness? Let us do so quickly. He is near not to kill but to love, forgive, and help. He is wonderful and worthy!

 Consuming fire helps us in another way. It reminds us that God hates sin. He did not crucify his Son so that we could keep our sins but in order to purge them from us. Our attitudes toward sin will reflect God’s holy nature, if we are his born-again children (1 John 2:27; 3:9). And like these Hebrews believers, we sometimes need the strongest conceivable incentive to turn away from a destructive course toward one that honors our Savior. By forsaking him, the Hebrews would not find a refuge in Judaism; they would fly straight into the consuming fire. He burns fiercely against those who have heard his truth but who turn away in the hour of trial. That he is a consuming fire encourages us that we have nothing to fear but him. Adoring him, trusting his protection, and walking in obedience, we can meet any enemy with confidence, any circumstance with patience. My great and holy God is near and has brought me near to himself. He loves me, and I am safe. He is holy, and I will please him carefully! God’s holiness is thus one of our greatest assurances that the wicked cannot prevail and that time, the future, and God himself are on the side of truth and righteousness. This truth powerfully gripped our Savior from the cross and set his face like flint to endure to the end (Ps. 22:3). If it grips us, it will change our attitude toward sin, give us great zeal in resisting it, make us merciful to those still in its bondage, and enflame our hearts with hope and love for the God who has so loved us as to bring us near to the consuming fire of his holiness.