Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 1 Kings 18.22-24.
The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a well-known one. Under the influence of his wife, Jezebel, a princess of Sidon and a Baal worshipper, king Ahab has abandoned Israel’s true God and led his people into apostasy (1 Kings 16.31-33) — something which Elijah cannot tolerate and has to challenge. But what catches my attention as I read of his challenge this morning is the particular test that Elijah proposed and that everyone (including the prophets of Baal) agreed to — “the God who answers by fire, he is God”.
Why fire? Moses had long ago told the Israelites, “The LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” and he had told them that in the context of this warning: “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you” (Deuteronomy 4.24). So now, precisely because the people of Israel have forgotten the covenant and given themselves to idol-worship, Elijah invokes that consuming fire. And what happens? “The fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18.38).
So the fire of God is destructive, is it? An instrument of judgment? Well, yes and no. The fire of God does indeed burn things up — it would not be fire if it didn’t do that — but it seems to me that the essential thing about God’s fire is that it is primarily for purification. Judgment itself is part of the process of purification — ridding the universe of evil. The fire falls in response to Elijah’s challenge so as to purge the land of Baal-worship … to get rid of the apostasy into which Ahab and Jezebel have led God’s people. It is a refining fire. “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God'” (Zechariah 13.9). “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire … He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3.2-3).
Surely this is what John the Baptist meant when he said of Jesus: “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3.16-17). The Holy Spirit and fire are not two separate things (as some suggest) for there is only one “with” in the Greek. The Holy Spirit is the consuming fire of God for he is the one who purifies my heart. He is the one who burns up the chaff … gets rid of the rubbish. Though I’m sad to admit that, in my case, it is a long process for, despite my longing for holiness, the purification process in me meets with much resistance.
Purify my heart,
Let me be as gold and precious silver.
Purify my heart,
Let me be as gold, pure gold.
My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy —
Set apart for You Lord.
I choose to be holy,
Set apart for You my Master,
Ready to do Your will.