Church · Heart

Christian Songs Lyrics Explained: Fire Fall Down

One of the things we sing a lot, at least in evangelical circles, is for fire to fall down, or for God to send his fire. In fact, we sang this Matt Redman song, “Here for You,” in our own church just a couple weeks ago, boldly voicing our desire: “God, let your fire fall down.”

If you look at this very literally, it seems like a crazy a thing to ask. I’m not sure any of us want God to send an actual fire into our church in the middle of one of our services (although that would be kind of cool.)

God did actually send literal fire down a number of times in the Bible. The time that comes most immediately to mind, at least for me, is Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth on Mt. Carmel. Israel had embraced idol worship, and Elijah had prophesied a drought over the land as God’s judgment for their worship of the idol Baal (whom they believed provided them with rain, crops, and fertility). After three years, the land was dry and barren, and Elijah made king Ahab and his false prophets an offer: Let’s build sacrifices to our respective gods on the top of this mountain, but not light them. Whichever god answers our prayers with fire is the true God.

They accepted, so Israel gathered at Mt. Carmel to watch the showdown between this one man of God and the 850 prophets who served the nation’s idols.The false prophets went first and called out to Baal for hours. They wept and wailed, and even cut themselves in an attempt to get his attention, but to no avail.

Then Elijah took his turn. He repaired the altar of God, arranged the meat on it and then drenched the sacrifice with water. Now it was going to take a honest-to-goodness miracle for this thing to catch on fire. Elijah stepped forward, and prayed a simple prayer that demonstrated his absolute faith that God was able to do this:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you,Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!'” (1 Kings 18:36-39, emphasis added).

Elijah asked, and God answered with fire. Not just any fire, either, a supernatural fire that burned up all the things we use to contain fire: water, soil, stones. It is this image that is often in my mind when I sing about fire falling down. But this is far from the only time that God sends fire in Scripture. God rained fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah. God sent a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert. God sent fire to consume the sacrifice when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem. And tongues of burning fire appeared over the heads of the believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.

These are all instances of a literal fire coming down from the sky. And as I said before, I’m not sure that’s what we are asking for when we sing these songs. So what are we talking about? We should be careful to consider what the Scripture says about God and His fire.

So often, in the church, I think we equate fire with zeal, as in “being on fire for God,” and some nebulous feeling of being excited about God. But the fire of God is much bigger than that.

Want to hazard a guess at which book of the Bible mentions fire the most? It’s Leviticus, which is not a book we often enjoy reading or studying, but it can teach us a lot about what it really means to ask for God’s fire.

In the book of Leviticus, God’s fire meant a few different things, and they are a pattern for what fire means throughout the rest of the Bible.

Judgment

In Leviticus, the people of Israel frequently turn away from God by grumbling, complaining, losing faith, acting irreverently, and turning to idols. In these instances, God often judged people for their disobedience, and on more than one occasion, the Bible says that fire came out from the Lord and consumed people (Leviticus 10:1-2, Numbers 11:1-3). Through Christ, we are no longer stand accused of our sins, but for those who reject Him, the judgment that awaits them is often described with images of fire and burning (as in Mark 9:43).

Sacrifice

By far, the majority of references to fire in the book of Leviticus had to do with sacrifice. Leviticus is all about instructions for the priests in their duties, one of which was continually offering ritual sacrifices on the altar before the Lord. The fire on these altars was supposed to remain burning at all times. Those who loved God continued to make burnt offerings to God throughout the rest of the Old Testament, and as I mentioned before, there were several occasions when God sent fire from heaven to show his pleasure for a sacrifice his people offered to him (Leviticus 9:24, 1 Kings 18:38, 2 Chronicles 7:1).

Sacrifice looks a little different for New Testament believers. Jesus died once for the sins of the whole world. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t bring anything to offer to God; on the contrary, because God has done so much for us, we owe him everything. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer you bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Purity

Another primary way that fire was used in the book of Leviticus was for ceremonial purity. Because God is holy, and cannot abide where sin is, His people needed to be set-apart and clean. A large portion of the book of Leviticus talks about what makes a person unclean, and how the Israelites were to purify themselves. Things that had touched disease, bodily fluids, mold, or had been in foreign possession had to be purified also, and anything that could withstand fire was usually purified that way (as in Numbers 31:23).

In the New Testament, believers aren’t purified outwardly through ritual, but inwardly through obedience and submission to Christ. New Testament writers often remind us to be joyful in the midst of difficult circumstances, because they often purify our faith and draw us nearer to God. Peter calls these “fiery trials” (1 Peter 4:12, ESV) and Paul teaches, “We also rejoice in our sufferings; because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

God’s Presence

To me, the most significant thing that fire represents in the Bible was the very presence of God. In Leviticus, when they were setting up the tabernacle, God signified that He was with his people by appearing in their midst as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when God poured out His own spirit on New Testament believers that what they saw “seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

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Asking for God’s fire is a big thing, but for those of us who are serious about forsaking ourselves and following after Jesus, I think it’s a wonderful and appropriate thing for us to ask from God. We just need to be mindful that when we sing and pray “fire, fall down” we are not asking for a warm glow of affection for God. We are asking for his blazing, consuming, awesome presence. We are asking for God to come as rightful judge. We are asking for Him to look with pleasure on the meager offerings we bring before Him. And we are asking for God to draw near to us in His fullness and to burn up everything in our lives that is displeasing to him so that we can know Him more and walk in closer step with Him.

Church · Heart

What We’re Talking About When We Sing Christian Songs

Worship

When I was in college, I was part of an on-campus Christian organization. As we grew we did a lot of things, but the way we got started was through a weekly evening of worship at one of the fraternity houses, of all places. (Actually, it was the one with the worst reputation. Isn’t is just like God to reach into a place of darkness and shine brilliant light?)

Eventually, we had this idea to bring in Christian artists and host a concert for them, giving them all of the proceeds, if they would agree to come and lead our worship night, where anyone could attend free of charge.

Thinking back on this as an adult, I am astounded we got anyone to come. I can’t imagine those concerts were very lucrative for these artists. We were a small school and our biggest auditorium didn’t hold much of an audience to speak of, especially not if these artists were used to playing in big arena.

But they must have seen our hearts or something, because some people came anyway, and led worship for us like we had asked.

One of those nights, Todd Agnew came. I had heard his songs on the radio and was excited to hear him play for us, both at the concert and at our worship night, which was first. I had a really full schedule that semester, and hadn’t been around when some of my friends picked him up at the airport and got him settled at our school’s bed-and-breakfast-type inn. We had decided to have the worship night at the old cathedral on campus, because we were expecting a larger crowd than we typically had on an average Monday at the fraternity house.

I had come from work and got there just as it was starting. I expected to see Todd Agnew up on stage, but the only stage lights that had been turned on were the ones behind him, outlining only a vague silhouette of a man on a guitar.

“Tonight isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about the Lord.”

And he proceeded to teach us about worship. He pointed to Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus tells her that the kind of worshipers the Lord seeks are those who worship in spirit and in truth. Todd challenged us: how often do we sing words we don’t understand or words we don’t mean? If God wants people worshiping Him in truth, are we doing that?

Those questions have stuck with me all these years, and I return to them often, evaluating the way I sing when I sing to the Lord and the lyrics of the songs I’m singing to Him. My favorite songs contain rich imagery and language taken directly from the Bible. But I also love songs that force me to stop and ask, “Do I really mean that?” Is God’s grace alone really enough for me? Would I really follow Him anywhere? Do I even know what I’m asking when I ask to see God’s face?

Lately it seems a lot of other people have been asking those same questions, particularly as it applies to the Hillsong United song, “Oceans.” The lyrics to the bridge of this song say, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders/Let me walk upon the waters/Wherever you would call me/Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/And my faith will be made stronger/In the presence of my Savior.”

That is a big thing to ask. And a lot of other people in Christian circles have been pointing this out, and asking us, do we mean it? (I would contend, that if we are call Jesus Lord, we should be praying these things. There is no way to follow Him halfway, but that’s another post for another day.) I am glad that “Oceans” has sparked those questions for people

But “Oceans” isn’t the only song we should be applying those questions towards. We should be asking questions of every song we profess to sing to God. We should be asking:

  • What does it mean?
  • Is it biblical?
  • Do I mean it?

I can’t answer that last question for you, but I can help with the first two. Studying worship lyrics has always fascinated me. As a teenager, I loved reading a passage of scripture and realizing it was the inspiration for a song I liked. And as I’ve gotten older, I have intentionally sought out the history and meanings behind songs that are a part of our tradition, from the most contemporary worship songs to the oldest hymns.

I want to start sharing some of that information here. It’s so easy to get caught up in lyrics that sound good, or that are set to a nice melody. I’m guilty of that as much as the next person. So I thought we could spend a little time together examining the things we say in Christian songs, and what it really means to say to those words to our Lord, so stay tuned.

But in the meantime, would you do this with me? Next time you go to church and sing worship songs, would you read the lyrics before you start singing–I mean really read them? Start asking yourself the questions above. What do these words mean? Do these words line up with the truth in the Bible, to the best of your knowledge? And most importantly, do you mean them?

Heart · Holidays

What it Means To Celebrate Freedom

God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above. 

I was at a church service on 4th of July weekend a number of years ago, where we sang this, along with a handful of other patriotic hymns, such as America the Beautiful and Battle Hymn of the Republic. About halfway through the set of songs, I looked around the room and was surprised to see a number of people with their hands in the air.

I’m from a charismatic background, so it’s not strange or surprising to me to see people lifting their hands as they sing a worship song. But we weren’t singing worship songs. At least not to Jesus.

Are these people even listening to what they’re singing? I wondered. Are we so accustomed to raising our hands simply because a song is slow and moving, that we’ll do it no matter what the song is about? Or are they intentionally raising their hands to this land, this nation, this government that was formed by human hands?

Neither answer makes me feel any better. In fact, both are terrifying. Whether we are worshiping America on accident or on purpose, it’s still idolatry.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love this county. I will help my kids play with sparklers in the driveway today, and then go see a fireworks display later tonight. I will have my hand right next to my beating heart if they pledge allegiance to our flag, or if they sing the national anthem. I will probably cry if they play “God Bless America.”

I count myself blessed to have been born under the stars and stripes, a nation affluent enough that we never went hungry, even when we were poor, and progressive enough that I received a free education even though I am woman. It’s not because of anything good that I did that I was born an American. I am so very, very blessed. And I love this nation that I call my “home” for now.

But I love my Jesus more. 

If America falls apart tomorrow, I won’t lose my identity, because I am first and foremost a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20).

If God calls my family to leave America to proclaim the gospel in a foreign land, we’ll be okay, because we are already strangers and aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11).

And if I begin losing the civil liberties that are currently afforded me as an American, it doesn’t matter, because I am free in a way that has nothing to do with the Bill of Rights (2 Corinthians 3:17).

If in the days to come, the government begins to take away from me my free speech, my right to peaceably assemble, my right to bear arms, my protection against unlawful search and seizure, even my right to vote, it’s not going to shake the core of who I am. Jesus promised us that in this world we would face trouble, and that if we choose to follow him, people will hate us in the same way that they hated him (John 15:18).

For today, my right to worship whatever God I choose is protected under our government. But if that went away tomorrow, if the government decided that my proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord was grounds for my detainment, torture, or even execution, it wouldn’t ultimately be the end of me, because I have already died with Christ and have secured eternal life through his resurrection (Colossians 3:3).

I will celebrate America today. I’ll read my kids the Declaration of Independence and teach them about the America our forefathers envisioned.

But freedom? I will celebrate that every day. Because my freedom doesn’t come from the White House. It comes from Calvary.

Church · Heart

Why Do We Go to Church?

We had to cancel church yesterday because of the weather. Although spending the day at home in my sweats was relaxing, I missed my church family. And it got me thinking about an article I read recently.

Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazzposted on his blog about a month ago about how he rarely goes to church because he finds more meaningful ways to connect with God outside the four walls of the church than within them. It sparked a pretty big controversy, with people jumping to the conclusion that he is anti-church or that he hates the Church. He responded to some of those criticisms in an interview with Relevant magazine.

I think he had a lot of valuable things to say in both the original post and the interview, and I appreciate his transparency. As pastors, Jason and I are continually looking for better ways to guide and shepherd our people, and to teach them the things we think they need to know. It’s good for us to remember that not everyone sitting in our pews is an auditory learner (I know I’m not!) and that to reach those people effectively, we may need to employ some different techniques. We talked about that a lot in the days leading up to the launch of our church, and it’s one of the main reasons that we try so hard to present things in different ways, whether that means Jason and I preach together or we ask people to tweet in questions for us to answer. We have some other ideas that we are trying to figure out how to implement, because we want people to be engaged while we teach.

Another really great point Donald raised is that most people in your typical evangelical church setting do not feel the responsibility or opportunity to lead others to Christ and disciple them as they mature in the Lord. Donald says, “I would love to see a model of church where the pastor stands up and says ‘you are all pastors.’ Just buy a box of sheriff badges and give it out and read Hebrews and say, ‘you are a pastor, and this Sunday meeting is time to equip the thousands of little churches that will leave here and take place in your homes around your dinner table.'”

I could not agree more wholeheartedly. That is the heart of the great commission, that each one of us who follows after Christ would fully embrace his command to “go, and make disciples.” But Donald points out that this would be terrifying for a lot of Christians, because then they couldn’t expect their pastor to do all of that work for them. Honestly, the most evangelistic thing most lay Christians in America have done is to invite their friend to church. And that’s a whole lot easier than sharing the gospel with them, investing in their life, and committing to walk with them for the long haul.

So given that he talked about two things that are very close to my heart – teaching people in a way that will really reach them, and empowering the people in the pews to be disciple-makers, I cannot write Donald’s comments off completely. But I have been pondering them for a while, and I think the thing that bothers me the most about his article is an underlying assumption about why we, as Christians, go to church.

Why do you go to church?

To meet with God? To worship? To learn about Him?

This might shock you, but all of these reasons for going to church are missing the point.

Do you want to know why? It’s because all of these things are about you. Your knowledge of God. Your experience of his presence. Your receiving from Him what you need. 

It’s a selfish perception of the purpose of the church.

I live in an area where churches are everywhere, and if one doesn’t suit your fancy, it’s fairly easy to pack up your family and move to the church down the road. There are people who do this perpetually (we call them “church hoppers”); they are always looking for church that meets their own personal needs perfectly, and never satisfied, they keep moving on from one place to another. It’s easy to see how this type of person may be approaching church selfishly.

But even people who are firmly committed to their local church often primarily believe that the Sunday morning experience is for their personal growth and intimacy with God. They may know they have a responsibility to cultivate these things on their own during the week. They may even serve somewhere within the church, greeting new faces, or teaching little ones in the preschool class. But when they hang up their apron from that task, and come into the sanctuary, it is the job of the pastors to serve; they are there to receive.

You know how I know that?

Because I do it, too. I’m a pastor’s wife. I wear a lot of hats around the church. And on Sundays when I’m not on nursery duty, I often just want to come in to church and listen and sing. I want to receive. But that is not why we are commanded to be a part of the church, at least not most of the time. Sometimes, there is a time and a place to sit and receive from the Lord and the brothers and sisters who have gathered in His name alongside you. When Jason’s sister died last September, we were heartbroken and hurting. Our worship leader stepped in and helped us organize a mostly-worship service. While he played, we knelt and wept and cried out to God, and our church family surrounded us with love and upheld us with their prayers. We received.

But most of the time, it’s our job (and not because we are pastors, but because we are Christians) to come to church ready to serve.

Yesterday was my birthday. I received some lovely presents from Jason and the boys, and I felt special and honored. I laid around the house taking it easy most of the day, and we watched what I wanted to watch on TV last night. I didn’t have to give anything; yesterday was my day. But what if I woke up today and wanted more presents? If I wanted everything to go my way? If I decided I didn’t need to cook or clean because my family was here to serve me?

That would be ridiculous, right?

And yet this is exactly how we treat the church. We come believing that most of the time it’s all about us and what we can get out of it. Which is completely unbiblical.

If you grew up being taught that church attendance was important, you probably learned Hebrews 10:25, which says “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together.” But we would do well to read the verse that comes directly before it, which says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

Do you come to church looking for ways to encourage someone else in their faith? If not, may I gently suggest that you have not fully lived up to the picture of the church that the New Testament offers us?

I know it’s difficult. I know it requires a constant re-calibration to turn our hearts away from ourselves and our own problems, and onto the body of believers of which God has called us to be a part. But it is essential. It’s the reason for the church. If we can’t be this, then let’s just close the doors, and all take nature hikes to worship God like Donald Miller suggests.

But if we can be the body that Christ intended, one where each part supports the others, where we use our unique gifts to bless each other and bring glory to God–and I believe we can–then what will stop that church from changing the world?