Holy Smoke from10.6.16
Last week one of the brothers brought this puzzling text to us; “To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”” (Rom 12:21). The injunction to bless persecutors is a deeply biblical one (Luke 6:27-28). But what does this mean in the context of the swell of discussion amongst biblically committed Christian people who are increasingly persuaded that persecution is coming our way in Australia. If “hot coals on the head” is an ancient metaphor for causing people to be ashamed by our doing good, how does this work out in practice (Rom 12:22)? The old ways of communicating the gospel seem increasingly ineffective and whatever future oppressions may be in store the sort of transformation God is seeking to bring in the Church will be different than expected (1 Pet 4:17). These observations led us to seek a scriptural link between God’s holy presence and shame.
When Adam and Eve rebelled their subsequent shame testified infallibly to their consciences that they deserved to die (Gen 2:17; 3:7). Paul puts the point nicely in a way that applies to our society today; “unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Rom 1:29-32). Despite all surface awareness the depths of the fallen human heart testifies, “God wants to kill me.” Given such fear, the normal shame-based response to the threat of divine punishment is to hide and self-justify (Gen 3:10-12). This happened in Eden when God appeared to judge original sin and it remains true now, for “God is an honest judge. He is angry with the wicked every day.” (Ps 7:11; 1 John 4:18). From the beginning however the Lord has a way of covering over human sin so that he might be approached with confidence.
The Smoke that Saves
In the Old Testament a burning sacrifice turns away the wrath of God. When Noah emerged from the ark he “offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen 8:20-21). Strikingly, the High Priest on the Day of Atonement “shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.” (Lev 16:12-13). Without the cloud of incense the Priest would die before he reached the ark to make atonement with blood on behalf of the people. This image finds its final human fulfilment in the “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” arising before the throne of God in heaven (Rev 5:8). These prayers of the persecuted saints have a powerful impact on the actions of God against the wicked dwelling on earth (Rev 3:10; 8:13; 12:12). But what is the fire in the heart of the saints that causes their prayers to be as soothing incense before the Lord and how does it relate to our churchly worship today. Surely the intensity of most churches is “canned heat” exuding much “unholy smoke”, and our prayers give no sign of turning away God’s wrath against Australia because so few take the wrath of God seriously and show little interest in sacrificing their lives for the lost. We must turn back to the cross to dispel our ignorance.
Scripture teaches emphatically that the death of Christ completely satisfied the heart of God; “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2 cf. Ezek 16:19). What then of this terrible cry; ““My God…why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). An answer is found in the visitation of the angel of the LORD to the parents-to-be of Samson; “Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to the one who works wonders…20 And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar… 22 And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” 23 But his wife said to him, “If the Lord had meant to kill us,he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands,” (Judges 13:19ff.). The term “burnt offering” means “to ascend”, literally to “go up in smoke.” That the angel of the LORD visibly ascended heavenwards was a clear sign of grace sending a message to the fearful, “I do not want to kill you”! The cry of dereliction testifies to the very opposite, Jesus has no witness that his sacrifice is pleasing to the Father (cf. Ezek 18:32). The ultimate shame of the prodigal seems true of Christ; ““I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”” (Luke 15:21). Since he cannot sense his suffering ascending to God it seems to Jesus that he cannot bring his blood to the altar to effect atonement. The prospect of peace through his shed blood is lost from view. The resurrection reverses all this, now the revelation is plain for all to see that the Christ’s death was “a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God” (Acts 17:31; Rom 12:1). The infinite suffering of the cross means limitless pleasure for the Father; “for the joy that was set before him Jesus endured the cross despising the shame…” (Heb 12:2). This has great implications for the future of Church as we know it.
Application and Conclusion
The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus proclaims a message from God; “I don’t want to kill you!” When this penetrates and liberates the depths of the human conscience men and women are moved to cry out from within, “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 2:37; 16:30). If this is not happening today it is because the Church has ceased to be a place of sacrifice in prayer, praise and service (Heb 13:8). When our hearts are coals of fire releasing a fragrance of love before the Lord on behalf of the wicked then we will become catalysts for a shame in some that hates us and a shame in others that loves us (John 15:18; 2 Cor 2:14-16). Willing suffering for the lost is a catalyst for redemptive shame that turns people not away from the Lord but towards him for cleansing by the power of his blood (Isa 6:5; Acts 20:28). This transforming presence is released from the heavenly altar cleansed with the atoning blood of Christ but mediated through the prayers and suffering of the saints (Col 1:24; 2 Tim 2:10). Such agonies for the lost are rarely if ever expressed through the Australian Church today, certainly not publically. For the sake of Christ’s bringing “many sons to glory” this dire situation must change (Heb 2:10). It is time for the people of God to confess that we have not loved the world in the manner of our Saviour (John 3:16). With prophetic assurance the hard times ahead for Western Christianity are integral to an all-wise plan of redemption (Luke 24:16). The greater the persecution coming our way leading us to love our afflicters the richer the revelation to a previously apathetic society that God’s forgiveness is real. “I don’t want to kill/but save you” will become real to very many. Soli Deo gloria.