I want us this evening to receive our Scripture reading as our Anglican friends would, with a suitable response. So at the end of the reading I will say, “This is the Word of God,” and you will respond, “Thanks be to God for His word.”
Our reading this evening is from the Second book of Kings chapter 2 verses 23-25
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
“This is the Word of God.” “Thanks be to God for His word.”
My question for this evening is very simple. Two bears maul 42 of the “yoofs” of the parish, just for calling Elisha, “Baldy.” In what possible sense is that story “God’s Word.” What does that passage have to say to us in Chelmsford in the 21st Century?
The story of Elijah in the previous chapter raises similar questions. The King of Israel called Ahazia had an accident and sent messengers to consult the false god Baal-Zebub to see if he would recover. On the way the messengers met Elijah. Elijah rebuked the messengers for going to a false god instead of consulting the one true God of Israel and sent back the cheerful message, “You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die.”
When he received this message Azariah was not happy and sent a captain with 50 men to summon Elijah to him. We read
1 Kings 1 9 … The captain went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “Man of God, the king says, ‘Come down!’ ”
10 Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men.
The King sent another captain with another fifty men and exactlythe same thing happened.
12 “If I am a man of God,” Elijah replied, “may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed him and his fifty men.
“This is the Word of God.” “Thanks be to God for His Word.”
But here’s the question. What kind of God sends down fire from heaven and kills two lots of fifty messengers? In what sense is that story the Word of God? What does that passage have to say to us in Chelmsford in the 21st Century?
There are many similar examples in the Old Testament but let me choose one more. After Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, after they had received the 10 Commandments and while they were wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years, a Levite called Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Korah was supported by 250 of the leaders of the community. They were complaining that the people were still stuck in the wilderness instead of being comfortably settled into the Promised Land. This is how the story of Korah’s rebellion ended in Numbers 16.
28 Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.”
31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!”
35 And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
“This is the Word of the Lord.” “Thanks be to God for His Word.” This time it was 250 men consumed by fire from heaven. How is that “the Word of the Lord”? What does that passage have to say to us in Chelmsford in the 21st Century?
Some people say “It never happened.”
Particularly the rise of historical criticism in the 19th Century has left many people in the church and most people outside it thinking that the narratives in Scripture which challenge our understanding simply never happened. Many people say that stories of God sending bears, or fire from heaven, or indeed working miracles of healing and deliverance, just never happened. They were made up by priests or scribes.
I reject that view. Either you believe in a God who can work miracles or you don’t. Either you accept that God raised Jesus from the dead, or you don’t. If you accept the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then all the other miracles, the parting of the Red Sea and fire from heaven are all possible. There is no rational basis for accepting the truth of some miracle stories but not others. Either God did all of these things or none of them happened and we might as well all go home.
A more subtle variation of this would be to say that the events happened, but the theological interpretation of the events we find in Scripture is incorrect. So yes, the bears came and mauled the youths, but some people think the writer of 2 Kings was mistaken to suggest that this was God’s response to Elisha uttering a curse. Yes the ground opened up and swallowed Korah, but some people say that was just a coincidental earthquake and nothing to do with Moses. It happened, but God did not do it. When Ananias and Sapphira dropped down dead in Acts 5 some people say that was just a coincidence and not God’s judgment on them for lying to the apostles. Some people say that Peter was heartless or cruel or spoke rashly or was basically just wrong to say that they died because they lied to the Holy Spirit.
I don’t want to take too long dealing with this. When Christians say that God inspired the Bible, we mean that God inspired to writers to make records of important events which are historically reliable. But we also mean that God inspired the writers with correct theological understandings of those events. So it is a consquence of our understanding of the inspiration and the reliability of Scripture that if the Bible says that God did something, God did in fact do it.
The events of the Exodus happened three and a half thousand years ago. Elijah and Elisha lived around ….. BC Those were simpler days. God had to speak in dramatic ways so that people would believe in Him. People nowadays have the whole history of God’s revelation of Himself and of God’s purposes of salvation unfolding. So God doesn’t need to send bears or bring down fire from heaven any more. One particular variation of that understanding goes like this.
“That was the God of the Old Testament. We follow Jesus, the God of the New Testament.”
God has now revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, the image of God, the exact likeness and representation of His being. So if we want to know what God is like, we look supremely to Jesus. And we understand the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. We understand fire from heaven in the light of what Jesus said and did.
Luke 9 51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56 and they went to another village.
There may have been fire from heaven with Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament Jesus refuses to call down fire from heaven to destroy his opponents, and rebukes his disciples for even making the suggestion! So whereas fire from heaven may have happened thousands of years ago, fire and bears don’t fit into the New Covenant or God’s relationship with Christians or with the church today.
If we want to understand the bears and the fire from heaven stories properly we need to think very hard about how we interpret the Bible.
We need to understand how narratives work in Scripture.
We talked about this in our series on Understanding the Bible. In particular we looked at the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament and the story of Gideon laying out a fleece in the Old Testament. In those evenings we made the following points.
Historical PRECEDENT is not NORMATIVE, but it may indicate what is NORMAL and certainly indicates what is POSSIBLE.
PRECEDENT – historical events recorded
NORMATIVE – obligatory for all Christians
NORMAL – common but not universal experience
POSSIBLE – may happen to some
Narratives record what happened – not “what should have happened” or “what ought to happen every time.” What happens in a narrative could be “an example to follow” OR “a sin to avoid” – and the Bible doesn’t usually tell us which!
All narratives are selective and incomplete. Narratives are recorded to achieve the author’s purpose, not to answer our questions.
The Bible teaches us
Doctrine – what we believe
Ethics – how to behave
Practice – the things we do
Narratives act as ILLUSTRATIONS and EXAMPLES of doctrine, ethics and practice. We should interpret what we learn IMPLICITLY from narratives by what is taught EXPLICITLY elsewhere, e.g. in words of God or Jesus or prophets, or letters
So when we looked at the story of Ananias and Sapphira, struck down dead for lying to the apostles in Acts 5, we learned a number of lessons from that narrative. We read that Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:11, NIV). So in the 15 years covered by Acts 1-12 this stood out as a particularly significant but also a very unusual event! We saw that Acts 5 does NOT teach us that Christians must give all their money to the church. On the other hand, it is a good thing if Christians give money to the church and it is good if Christians are generous to the poor. Acts 5 does NOT teach us that all Christians who tell lies will be punished by death, or that lying to God is the worst sin of all. But the passage is a solemn warning that telling lies IS wrong and that God MAY punish in dramatic ways Christians who sin. Acts 5 does NOT show us that God will always give church leaders spiritual gifts to tell them about the sins of Christians. But God MAY give church leaders spiritual gifts to tell them about the sins of Christians and also God MAY bring our secret sins to light. The heart of what the author Luke wants us to learn from the narrative of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is that even Christians can still be tempted sometimes. God is still a Holy God. And God will sometimes punish sin in dramatic ways, so we should definitely resist temptation! We learned those things from the story of Ananias and Sapphira, and that was in the New Testament. So what can we properly say about the fire and the bears in the lives of Elijah and Elisha?
Incidents of “Fire from heaven” had a specific part to play in God’s plan of salvation and his self-revelation.
When God sent fire down from heaven and destroyed those who were sent to arrest Elijah, that was to protect Elijah and to emphasise the authority of the prophet as God’s appointed messenger. When God sent the bears to maul the “yoofs” that was because they had insulted God’s appointed messenger, and in doing so those young men had insulted God Himself. When the earth opened up to swallow Korah and fire from heaven came to destroy 250 community leaders, that was restore the authority of Moses and Aaron over the whole nation of Israel.
Stories like that play a specific part in God’s revelation of Himself and God’s plan of salvation for His chosen people Israel, for the church and for the world. So what do they have to say to us today?
I don’t agree with those people who would prefer to tear those passages out of the pages of Scripture. Too many people, and too many Christians, only read the passages of the Bible they find easy or comfortable. Too many professing Christians in these days are making their reputations and their fortunes by rejecting many of the things which the church has believed for two thousand years. I firmly believe that the whole of the Bible is the Word of God. Not just the stories of Jesus. Not just the New Testament. Not just the comforting words but disturbing words.
In particular many stories in the Old Testament teach us two things. The first is that God is a holy God, a God of justice and righteousness. God is Love and we see that love in the face of Jesus Christ. But God is also holiness and justice. God and His prophets are not to be mocked!
So those stories also serve as warnings for us, even for Christians today. Bears and fire from heaven and the earth swallowing people up. The ten plagues on Egypt and even before that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the story of Noah and the Flood show us that God is not only Saviour but also judge. And we find these kinds of warnings in the New Testament as well as the Old, not least in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
Hebrews 12 25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”
The God of the New Testament is still the God of the Old Testament. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is still the God of bears and of fire from heaven. Our God is indeed a consuming fire. And we should never forget it!