Luke12v49to53: REVIVAL FIRE.
(A) Introduction. Read: Luke12v49to53
This will be a relatively short exposition! Jesus had been preparing his disciples for service. He knew the time was coming when they would head up the rapid expansion of the Kingdom. In this passage Jesus anticipates and reflects upon the spread of Christianity. I will try and capture Jesus' meaning under four headings:
(B) Revival Fire.
Jesus said: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" v49.
Scholars have different opinions about the fire Jesus was referring to. Whatever it is, it must surely have the characteristics of a forest fire and it must also be something that Jesus cannot wait to start. I believe the rapid church growth, or revival, that occurs as the gospel is preached in the power of the Spirit is like a great forest or grassland fire. It is so in its:
Nothing can quench a great forest or grassland fire at its height. The flames carry all before it. None can oppose it. The great Australia bush fires are awe inspiring - frightening in their intensity.
A determined effort was made to stamp out the early church as it grew. James was killed, Peter imprisoned and Stephen stoned. After the martyrdom of Stephen Luke records: On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Acts8v1. But brutal opposition did not put out the fire but rather spread it. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Acts8v4. (See exposition on Acts8v1to25.)
Once revival is underway nothing can stop it. In the first half of the 18th century John Wesley and his lay preachers were persecuted by clergymen and magistrates but it made no difference to the numbers of conversions and growth of the church. Methodism spread like wildfire and hundreds of societies were established. The same could be said of William Booth and his keen but uneducated band of evangelists and 'Hallelujah lasses'. An unholy alliance of brewers, distillers, publicans and thugs for hire did their best to intimidate Booth and his volunteer army but to no avail. By the end of the 19th century the Salvation army was a force to be reckoned with not only in Britain but many other countries in the world.
(2) Energy and rapid advance.
When the city of London caught fire in 1666 it leapt from building to building like a wild thing. Samuel Pepys in his famous diary described how he sat in a little ale house, the Three Cranes, watching the fire grow; and as it grow darker, appeared more and more, and in Corners and upon steeples and between churches and houses, as far as we could see up the hill of the City, in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire.
Forest, scrub and grassland fires also have immense energy and advance at breakneck speed. They can be highly unpredictable: changing direction with every gust of wind, jumping ahead, doubling back and breaking out in unexpected places.
This is what happens in a revival. It happened in the Third Great Awakening in the U.S.A.. On 21st September 1857 Jeremiah Lamphier began a series of prayer meetings in New York. By the beginning of 1858 his congregation was crowded. Newspapers reported that over 6000 were attending various prayer meetings in New York. Soon, a common mid-day sign on business premises read, "We will re-open at the close of the prayer meeting." By May, 50,000 of New York's 800,000 people were new converts. The movement spread to the United Kingdom where it is estimated a million persons were converted. Missionaries kindled the fire abroad.
Between 1970 and 1991 the number of Brazilian evangelicals grew from 4.8 million to 13.7 million - a phenomenal growth rate ! Revivals are still occurring in different parts of the world. They are still characterised by the fierce, wild energy that they have always had and give rise to phenomena that worry staid, 'orthodox' Christians.
(3) Ability to cleanse and renew.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 cleansed the city of the plague. A new town rose from the ashes including the new St Paul's designed by Christopher Wren.
It is also true that forest, scrub and grassland fires cleanse and renew. Australian Aborigines torch the dry, rank grassland in the outback. The old, dead grasses burn and out of the ashes spring young, tender growth and wild flowers whose seeds needed the fiery heat to germinate.
Religious revival does the same. It sweeps through moribund, dusty churches purging them of outdated and worn out practices and creating renewed, dynamic causes. This certainly happened during the time of Whitefield and Wesley. The fire kindled by the Holy Spirit did not just lead to the formation of new Methodist churches but it also transformed many Anglican churches as well. During the Second Great Awakening in the United States the preaching of Charles Finney, in particular, transformed many staid, Calvinistic fellowships in the North East of America.
(4) Short lifespan.
Great fires are relatively short lived. Forest and grassland fires can be rapidly extinguished if weather conditions change. All that is needed is a shift in wind direction or heavy rain. Sometimes the fire burns itself out - running out of combustible material.
Religious revivals never last long. They are often accompanied by intense excitement and aroused emotions - dancing, shouting and singing were a common feature of the camp meetings held during the Second Great Awakening in the U.S.A.. Revivals are followed by long periods of consolidation marked by far fewer conversions. New converts need a different kind of ministry to the unconverted if they are to grow in grace and the knowledge of God. I deal with this topic in my exposition on: The Ephesus Twelve.
(C) Catch the flame.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon has a sermon on the passage under consideration in which he urges Christians to catch the flame. Now it is undoubtedly true that it is easier to catch the flame in time of revival than in periods of church decline.
If we catch the flame we shall be:
(1) Fearless of opposition.
This was a feature of the heroes of the early church. When Peter and John were arraigned before the Sanhedrin after healing the crippled beggar they were anything but cowed. When the members of the council saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus. Acts4v13. No-one can call into question the boldness of Stephen or Paul and Silas. Paul set such an example in Philippi that he was able to write to the church there: Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. Phil1v27.
In time of revival both leaders and supporters fearlessly proclaim the gospel. Roy Hattersley wrote of William Booth: The church of England denounced him. The Wesleyans ostracised him. The Establishment derided him. The brewers and publicans assaulted him. These were bitter winds and it is little wonder that he was arrogant and dictatorial and that his lamp smoked from time to time. But he never flinched from his vocation. His physical courage was immense and his moral courage even greater. General Booth's whole life was a triumph for certainty. I think I would say that his life was a triumph of faith. Booth's Hallelujah lasses and working class evangelists shared his fearless zeal.
Today in Britain, after many years of church decline, Christians have become very timid and frightened of causing offence. We have lost the flame.
(2) Enthusiastic in service.
It is apparent that the growth in the early church was not down to the efforts of the apostles alone. The Christians who were scattered by persecution witnessed wherever they went.
Methodism would not have spread as it did in the 18th Century without the thousands of new converts being full of enthusiasm to serve Jesus. The same is true of the Salvation Army which by the end of the 19th century had spread world-wide. Huge numbers caught the flame as a result of the Third Great Awakening and it led to a tremendous upsurge of missionary endeavour in Africa and Asia.
God did not use Adoniram Judson in Burma to make many converts during his first 15 years in the country. But Ko Tha Byu was one of those who was converted. He was a slave when he responded to the gospel. Before that he had been a bandit and murderer - responsible for the deaths of at least 30 men. Judson bought him out of slavery. Ko Tha Byu was a member of the Karen people - a primitive, hunted minority group of ancient Burmo-Tibetan ancestry. No sooner baptised than he set off into the jungle to evangelise the Karen people. He caught the flame. His rough, undisciplined genius, energy and zeal was used by the Holy Spirit to bring thousands of Karen to Christ.
Enthusiasm for service - the kind of service that makes a difference - is not common among Christians in Western Europe - although it would be wrong to say that none have caught the flame. There is still considerable enterprise shown, for example, in charitable work. We desperately need the Holy Spirit to fan what flames there are.
(3) Fervent in prayer.
There is no doubt that during times of revival there is a great passion for public prayer. As indicated earlier the Third Great Awakening started with a series of prayer meetings in New York. Not only were 6000 attending such meetings in New York but the same number in Pittsburgh. Daily prayer meetings were held in Washington D.C. at 5 different times to accommodate the crowds.
There are few churches in Britain where as many attend the weekly prayer meeting as the worship services on Sunday. The prayer meeting is generally poorly supported if it is held at all. There are fewer surer signs of spiritual apathy than the reluctance of so many Christians to gather for public prayer. We need to catch the flame and pray privately and publicly with fervour.
(4) Confident in the gospel.
Evangelists like Paul preached Christ and him crucified in the expectation of conversions. This is I believe a common feature of the gospel preachers in time of revival. Wesley, William Booth, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody and the like expected souls to be saved when they lifted Christ up.
The flame of holy confidence is almost extinguished in many churches after years of proclaiming Christ without conversions occuring. How we need it to be rekindled.
(5) In love with Jesus.
Some of the extravagant, indeed, outlandish behaviour exhibited by converts in time of revival is a consequence of being overwhelmed by love for Christ. When the fire is kindled by God's Spirit many find themselves ravished by the love of Jesus. They catch such a flame of devotion to him.
I often feel the want of this flame. I can only prayer with Charles Wesley:
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
Jesus said: "But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!" v49.
A great forest and grassland fire can only occur when the conditions are right. There usually has to be a period of drought and high temperatures. Then the fire has to be triggered by a flash of lightening or the sun shining through a broken piece of glass. Finally there needs to be a strong wind to fan the flames.
Jesus couldn't wait to kindle the fire of revival and renewal. He said: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" But Jesus had to wait. He was under a restraint. Before the Holy Spirit and the gospel were unleashed to turn the world upside down Jesus had a baptism to undergo. There was something for Jesus to go through. He had to endure: betrayal, denial, desertion, rejection, pain, humiliation, mockery and death. God's Son had to suffer, bleed and die to make the ultimate sacrifice for man's sins.
Here we have a great truth that is often overlooked. Revivals invariably follow a period of waiting and preparation. It takes years of effort by God and man before the fields are white unto harvest. See exposition on John4v27to42. God unceasingly works his purposes out. He uses a great variety of means to prepare a people for revival fire.
There are numerous examples of this. The revival in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and later in Samaria owed a great deal to the earthly ministry of Jesus himself. Peter reaped a great harvest in Jerusalem and Philip the deacon did the same in Samaria but Jesus had sowed and watered the seed. The Karen people in Burma, mentioned earlier in connection with Adoniram Judson, were strangely prepared for the gospel message of Ko Tha Byu. The ancient oracle traditions of the Karen included a belief in an unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, of man, and of woman formed from a rib taken from the man. They believed in humanities' temptation by a devil, and its fall, and that someday a messiah would come to its rescue. The Karen lived in expectation of a prophecy that white foreigners would bring them a sacred parchment roll. (Information taken from Wikipedia - the free online encylopaedia.) It is no surprise that they responded eagerly to the good news about Jesus - the Saviour of the World.
(E) The divisive influence of the gospel.
Jesus warned: "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three." v52.
In society, among friends and in families there is a fundamental division between the saved and the unsaved. This is the emphatic teaching of Scripture. Becoming a Christian is like coming out of darkness into the light. It is compared to being: set free from prison, released from debt, born again and raised from the dead.
The saved are different from the unsaved in many ways. In their:
(1) Allegiance and affections. Christians love Jesus, God's word and his people
(2) Priorities. The true believer puts service to Jesus above everything else.
(3) Interests. The saved have peculiar interests - the word of God, worship, public and private prayer, the work of mission and the local church.
(4) Conduct. Christians have a powerful incentive to obey Jesus and if they do so their conduct will be different from the worldly person. Goodness is not necessarily observed as something remarkable. John the Baptist did not seem to realise how it qualified his cousin to be the Messiah! (See exposition on John1v19to34.
(5) Future. When the Titanic foundered two lists were publish: Lost and saved. The passengers on the ill-fated ocean liner were either in one list or the other. Such will be true for all humanity. In the end we will be either lost or saved.