Return to 4th Quarter 2018 articles.
Many of us will remember the summer of 2018 as the summer of fire. The Does God Exist? ministry was involved in August with a public lectureship in Chester, California. Chester is just east of Redding, California, which is on the edge of the worst of the wildfires that California experienced in 2018.
During the entire time that we were in California we were under a cloud of smoke from the fires. Travel was difficult because many state highways were closed and others were crowded with firefighting equipment. Right after the fire west of Redding was brought under control, we were allowed to drive through the area that experienced what was called a “fire tornado.”
The destructive fires in California were almost entirely human-caused. Over the years there has been no effort to thin the trees or to dispose of the biomass that has accumulated. Before humans came on the scene, small fires and other natural processes prevented the biomass from growing to a dangerous level. With no thinning of the trees, there are now more trees in the United States than have ever existed (according to Keith Crummer, an expert on forest management from the University of California at Berkeley).
When the fire started in the conifer woods area, it grew so big and so hot that winds of over 200 mph fanned the flames. The temperature rose to over 2000 degrees, and a swath over a mile wide tore through the area around highway 299 which we drove through when it reopened. We saw power lines and cars melted by the heat. The soil was so baked that it was like flour. The land was sterile.
There are many lessons to learn from the fires. Some have to do with managing the resources that God has given us. Some have to do with how we respond to what God has done and what God commands us to do.
God's command for us to manage and care for what he created must be done carefully and intelligently. In Genesis 1:26-28 God told Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” We read in Genesis 2:15 that “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” We have the responsibility to take care of what God has given us, and super-fires are a consequence of not doing that well. Building houses in fragile environments is not doing what God has told us to do. When we are unwilling to apply the knowledge we have, we cannot expect God to protect us from the consequences of our stupidity and selfishness. Today we know that pollution causes cancer, but we continue to pollute. We know that volcanoes are going to erupt in tectonically active places, but we continue to build in areas we know will suffer from volcanic activity. We know about earthquake-prone areas like those along the fault systems in California, but we continue to build in those areas. We know the sea will rise, but we continue to build cities like New Orleans below sea level. How can we blame God for our recklessness?
Fire purifies and sterilizes. I was talking to a friend who lives in an area where the wildfires have taken a huge toll and where the ground is like flour. I was complaining about the weed problem I was having in my yard. He said to me, “Send me a bucket of weeds. Any kind of living plant is welcome here.”
In ancient times, fire was the primary tool of cleansing. The Amalekites were constant enemies of the Israelites, and of God. Secular history confirms that every vice of humans today was present among the Amalekites. Drugs, sexual perversions of all kinds, violence, eating of anything even if raw, and drinking of raw blood were all part of their lifestyle. The diseases caused by those abuses ran wild in that nation of people, and forensic tools of our day can verify many of those diseases. How do you rid a population of such consequences of lifestyle? The flour-like ground of wildfires in California is a testimony to how effective fire is as a cleansing agent. It is hard for us to stomach the commands of God to sterilize populations like the Amalekites rather than allow social interaction between them and Israel, but God had no choice.
Human rejection of God's laws creates tragic situations even today. Fire purifies gold because gold has a low melting point and can be separated from all kinds of impurities. First Corinthians 3:13 tells us that every person's work “will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work.” In the next life, fire will not be needed, because all impurity will have been burned up in this life.
Fire transforms. There are two different Hebrew words used in the Old Testament to describe burning. One is the Hebrew saraph which is used in cases such as lesson two above. Genesis 11:3 talks about burning brick. Deuteronomy uses this word when talking about burning idols or groves of trees (see Deuteronomy 7:5, 25; 9:21; 12:3; 13:16).
The other Hebrew word used most commonly in reference to burning incense is qatar (see 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4; 22:17; etc.). In Leviticus, the word qatar is used in the discussions of the priestly duties (see Leviticus 1:9, 13, 15, 17; and chapters 2-9).
In the New Testament, fire is used to convey the transforming nature of Jesus Christ (see Revelation 4:5; 8:8; 8:10; 19:20). The easiest way to understand how we become changed when becoming Christians is to observe how fire changes everything it touches. In Acts 2:3-4 we see that the apostles were together and “saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” These men were transformed just as the burnt offerings of the sacrifice were changed. Their lives would never be the same.
The California fires have changed everything in those places where they have been. People will live and build differently, and hopefully, new growth will happen where the old was before. In our lives, we need to burn up the bad stuff and make way for the new. When the bad has been burned up, there is room for new teaching and new understanding. Romans 6:4 says it well, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
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Scripture links/references are from BibleGateway.com.