Do Not Quench the Spirit

1 Thessalonians 5:19

Our text has been translated in various ways:

“Do not quench the Spirit” (ESV).

“Don’t suppress the Spirit” (The Message)

“Do not try to stop the work of the Holy Spirit” (New Life Version).

“Don’t stifle the Spirit” (HCSB).

“Don’t turn away God’s Spirit” (CEV).

“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (NIV).

I prefer the NIV translation because it is so picturesque. Fire is one of the most frequent biblical images for God’s presence with his people. The connection is made in such passages as Exodus 3:1-5 (Moses and the burning bush), Exodus 13:21 (the pillar of fire), Leviticus 9:24 (fire from the Lord consuming the burnt offering), I Kings 18:24 ("The god who answers by fire—he is God."), Isaiah 6:1-8 (coals of fire from the altar in heaven), Matthew 3:11 ("He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."), Acts 2:3 ("They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire.") and Hebrews 12:29 ("Our God is a consuming fire.").

Fire represents several things with reference to the Holy Spirit. First, it represents God’s presence with His people. Second, it represents God’s protection of His people. Third, it represents God’s cleansing of His people. Fourth, it represents God’s judgment of His people. Fifth, it represents God’s divine enablement of His people. Sixth, it represents God’s gracious activity in the assembly of His people.

Consider Isaiah 4:4. “He will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.” The prophet Isaiah, though speaking 2700 years ago, prophesies concerning events yet future to us. Chapter 4 describes the terrible events that will engulf Israel during the tribulation period before the return to Christ to the earth. Those seven awful years will climax with the Battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ to the earth (Revelation 19). So great will be the human slaughter that most men will be killed (Isaiah 4:1). But those who survive will see the Lord as he returns to set up his kingdom. His reign will bring great bounty to the Holy Land and great blessing to Jerusalem (vv. 2-3). But the people of Israel still must be cleansed from their sin of unbelief and rebellion against God. And the land itself must be consecrated again because it will be polluted from the final battle. Verse 4 speaks of the fire of coming judgment that will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem and purify it in preparation for the coming kingdom of Christ. That “spirit of fire” will be the Holy Spirit cleansing the land from its sin. Once that purification is complete, the glory of the Lord will once again dwell in the land (vv. 5-6).

The same “Spirit of Fire” works to purify the people of God today. Before revival must come repentance. Before repentance must come confession. Before confession must come conviction. But conviction of sin is the unique ministry of the Holy Spirit. He must “burn” within us until we are willing to face up to our sin. No one likes to do that. Hiding and denying seem much more comfortable. But a red face and a few hot tears will go a long way to bring us back to God. How long has it been since you felt the “burning” of the Spirit in your heart? If you can’t remember, perhaps it’s time for you to get alone with God and let the “Spirit of Fire” do His work in your life.

Quenching the Spirit

In light of this, what does it does mean to “quench” the Spirit’s fire? It helps to know that the word translated “quench” or “put out” generally refers to putting out a literal fire. You might douse a flame with water or you might extinguish it by covering a fire with a mound of dirt. You normally don’t quench a fire by accident. The fire goes out because someone either lets it burn out or takes steps to put it out. This suggests that the Holy Spirit naturally “burns” within us unless we do something to put out the Spirit’s fire.

How would you put out the Spirit’s fire in your life or in someone else’s life? Disobedience would do it. Harboring sin would do it. Criticizing someone else’s love for the Lord would do it. Harboring bitterness in your heart would do it. But the preeminent way to put out the Spirit’s fire is by saying “No” to the Lord. There is a sense, of course, in which every sin and every wrong attitude is a way of saying “No” to God. But I’m thinking especially of personal obedience to the will of God. When we resist God’s call, we put out the Holy Spirit’s fire. This might apply to something huge, such as answering God’s call to be a missionary or answering God’s call to a new job or to make move to a different city or into a different neighborhood. But it applies just as much to answering God’s call to reconcile with a friend. It’s not exactly right to say that unconfessed sin quenches the Holy Spirit (though it does). The real quenching comes with the repeated refusal to do anything about it.

When God calls, we must answer and then we must obey. A few days ago, I spoke with a man who told me that for many years he had a prosperous law practice in southern California. Besides making a very large salary, he had a nice house, two expensive cars plus an SUV, and he had just purchased a lake home in a ritzy vacation area. Life was good. Then one day God came knocking at the door of his heart. He felt the Lord asking him to lay aside the trappings of wealth, move across the country, leave the legal profession, and begin a ministry aimed at moral and spiritual reformation in America. Not an easy thing to do, especially for a man on top of his game. As he prayed about it, the conviction increased that this was the step he must take even though from a career point of view, it made no sense whatsoever. “Did you face skepticism when you announced your plans?” I asked him. Everyone except his wife doubted him. She joined him in believing this was God’s call. His professional colleagues thought he was nuts. Even his father, a godly pastor for fifty years, wondered if this was the right thing to do.

That was fifteen years ago. He gave up his practice, sold his homes and his cars, packed his bags, moved across country, and started the ministry God laid on his heart. The intervening years have been both good and bad. Losing financial security has put him in a difficult place on more than one occasion. Friends he thought he could count on turned against him. It took a long time to get the new ministry going. “Did you ever doubt God’s call?” I expected him to say yes, but he said no, neither he nor his wife ever doubted what God wanted them to do. That confidence kept them going in the hard times. I could tell from the joy in his voice that he would not go back to his previous life, not for any amount of money. God called, he answered, and then he obeyed. That’s why the Spirit’s fire still burns in his heart.

Death in the Desert

What happens when we disobey a clear call from the Lord? Deuteronomy 1 offers a clear answer to that question. Beginning in verse 19, Moses recounts the story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. When they came to Kadesh-Barnea, Moses chose 12 men to spy out the Promised Land. They came back with this report: “"It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving us” (v. 25). The next verse should read, “So the people rose up, marched in, and took the good land the Lord had promised to give them.” But it doesn’t say that. Here is the next paragraph of the story:

But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, “The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there” (vv. 26-28).

I pause here to comment that this is not a false report. Everything the spies said was true. It was a good land flowing with milk and honey. And there were many walled cities filled with powerful people. Though God had promised the land to the Jews, they would still have to fight for every inch of it. To make it even clearer, they would have to fight, and some of them would have to die in the process. God’s promises never cancel the need for nitty-gritty obedience in the details of life. The Jews could have the Promised Land, but if they were unwilling to fight for it, it would never belong to them. God wasn’t going to drop the keys from the sky and say, “Here. I’ve wiped out the bad guys. Go in and make yourselves at home.” No, if they wanted the milk and honey, they could have it, but they would have to believe God enough to fight the bad guys and drive them out of the land.

You know the rest of the story. The people grumbled against the Lord. They made every excuse in the book why they shouldn’t have to go and fight. The desert started looking pretty good to them compared to those “Anakites” who lived in the Promised Land. What are a little sun and dust and a few sand dunes compared to the “Anakites"? Moses appealed to them to remember all God had done for them in the past:

The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place (vv. 30-31).

Kadesh-Barnea was the turning point for an entire generation. Despite seeing the mighty miracles of God in Egypt, and despite having walked across the Red Sea on dry ground, the people chose not to obey God. Notice how Moses puts it:

In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go (vv. 32-33).

Did you get that? God appeared to them “in fire by night.” Every night when they went to bed, they had only to look at the fiery pillar to be reminded of God’s special care for them. How could they possibly lose with Almighty God on their side?

But they chose to disobey anyway. As a result, an entire generation wandered in the wilderness for forty long years. Think of what that meant …

Lost time.

Lost opportunity.

Lost life.

They chose the desert with its scorching heat, the burning sand beneath their feet, endless days and weeks trudging through the Sinai, with flies buzzing around them and scorpions hiding under the rocks. Meanwhile their trail was easy to spot because they left graves wherever they went. Because they would not obey God, they kept burying people left and right. A whole generation died because of unbelief.

They took the long way and the long road. Many people can look back over the course of life and see the same thing. Foolish choices in the past cost your dearly. For some, your sin cost you your marriage and your family. It may have sidetracked you for years. In some cases, rebellion may have landed you in prison. That’s what happens when we disobey the Lord. Life goes on, but everything now becomes difficult.

Riding With the Wind

Yesterday I took a long bike ride from Oak Park to the North Branch Trail. By the time I came home, I had ridden about 37 miles. It was extremely hot yesterday and I didn’t have any water with me so the last few miles were very difficult. Here’s what I have discovered about long bike rides. You need to check the wind before you leave because you want to ride into the wind on the way out and you want the wind at your back when you are on your way home. The two experiences are entirely different. When you ride into a stiff wind, everything becomes more difficult. Hills that should be easy become a challenge. When the wind is howling, you have to pedal with all your strength just to go seven or eight miles per hour. And here’s the most unusual factor: When you ride into a strong wind, the noise can be almost overwhelming. You can hear the wind as it rushes past you.

Everything changes when you turn around and begin to ride with the wind at your back. For one thing, pedaling becomes easy. Hills require minimal effort because the wind carries you along. The strangest thing I’ve noticed is that after riding into the wind, once you turn around, the wind itself seems to disappear. The roaring sound is gone. Often you’re not even aware that the wind is blowing at your back. But when you look at your odometer, suddenly you’re flying along at 15-20 mph. How did that happen? Having the wind at your back makes all the difference. What once was difficult now becomes easy because the wind helps carry you along.

“I Feel God’s Pleasure”

So it is with the spiritual life. When we walk in the Spirit, we are “carried along” and things that once were difficult now become easy. And when we disobey the Lord, suddenly we are riding into the wind and everything in life becomes difficult. Do you remember the story of Eric Liddell from the movie Chariots of Fire? The fleet Scotsman won a gold medal in the 400-meter race at the 1924 Paris Olympics Games. When he was a young lad, his sister asked him why he loved to run so much. His reply became the motto of his whole life, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” This week I spent a day in Dallas teaching at the Global Proclamation Academy. Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary, brought together 23 young Christian leaders from 23 different developing countries for three weeks of intensive training. I flew in on Wednesday, taught them on Thursday, and flew back to Chicago that night. Nearly all of the men are under 35. I met a young man from Zambia who has started 42 churches. I met another young leader from Sri Lanka who oversees 450 churches. I met young pastors from Egypt, Mongolia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Every day a different Christian leader comes in to do the teaching and mentoring. Ramesh told me it cost $6000 per man to bring them to the US, house and feed them for three weeks, and then send them back to their home countries. Since this was the first year, the amount of work was staggering. Why do it? “Because when I help train these young men, I feel God’s pleasure,” Ramesh said.

After I preached this sermon, a man came up to me and said, “Pastor Ray, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I used to be Mr. America. I won the title in 1990. For years, Gary Olson and I lifted weights at the high school. Even though we were covered with sweat when we were finished, we loved it because when we lifted weights, we felt God’s pleasure.”

Those who obey God feel his pleasure.

Those who quench the Spirit don’t.

A few days ago I picked up a book by Lloyd Ogilvie in which he asks this question: “If you could pick one word to summarize what you want the Holy Spirit to do in your life, what word would you choose?” I think I would choose a word like open or willing or ready. I want to be open to what God intends to do in my life. I want to be willing to go where he wants me to go. I want to be ready at a moment’s notice to drop what I’m doing and answer his call. I want to be ready for anything, anytime, anywhere. I want the Spirit’s fire to burn in my life without any hindrance from me.

Let the Fire Fall!

talk a lot about being “on fire” for Christ. You don’t hear that phrase much nowadays but it’s a perfectly biblical image. The supreme need of the church today is for men and women on fire for Christ.

For many years Yosemite National Park in California was the scene of a spectacular evening show. Near sundown the crowds gathered at Camp Currie, located by a lake below a large cliff called Glacier Point. Once the sun had gone down, the rangers built an enormous bonfire on Glacier Point. Once darkness had completely enveloped the valley, the call came piercing the night: “Are you ready?” The crowds shouted together, “Let the fire fall.” The rangers pushed the burning embers over the cliff, creating a spectacular “fire fall” into the lake below. One writer described it this way:

High up at Glacier Point, the living embers slowly begin to fall and continue until they become a blazing stream of red and gold swaying in the wind while sparks fly off like stars. The stream grows smaller and smaller until it becomes a mere thread of gold drawing the curtain of night, and darkness descends.

I believe God calls to America today, “Are you ready?” And he calls to Chicago, “Are you ready?” And he calls to Oak Park, “Are you ready?” And he calls to Calvary Memorial Church, “Are you ready?” And he calls to me, “Pastor Ray, are you ready?” And he calls to each of us, “Are you ready?”

Let the answer ring out to heaven: “Lord, we are ready. Let the fire fall!” Amen.

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