CHARIOTS OF FIRE
The phrase “Chariots of Fire” was a fine title for a good movie a number of years ago. It was a picture that told the story of two Olympic runners from Great Britain. One of them, because of his religious convictions about when he could and could not run, honored those convictions even to the point of switching races with another runner. Another fellow ran what was not his race and this fellow ran what was not his race. This was a story of victory and honor when someone respects his conscious and conducts himself accordingly. Chariots of Fire spoke of God’s victory in that situation.
But before Chariots of Fire was the title of a movie, it was a phrase in the Bible. And it is a phrase that has attached to it a meaning that needs to be considered by all of the Lord’s people because so much of our hope and so much of our strength depends on what this phrase means. There are, really, three crucial principles attached to Chariots of Fire in the Bible that we would like to call our attention to this morning. I never had thought especially about how these three are attached to this idea until running across it in our Bible reading this past week.
In the first place, I would like you to notice that Chariots of Fire reminds us God’s sovereignty, his supreme power over everything that is and everything that he has made. The picture of the chariots of God is attached in the Bible to this idea in at least a couple of ways. In Habakkuk 3:8, the Old Testament prophet spoke of God’s chariots of salvation. Here was God’s power used to deliver or to rescue his people. On the other hand, Isaiah 66:15 and following spoke of God’s coming in chariots of the whirlwinds to judge people. They used this picture because the chariot was the symbol of the greatest military power that they would have known in our time. Perhaps were the same lesson being taught today, maybe an M1-A1 tank would be used or maybe a B-1 bomber. But in that day, if a king or an army had chariots, that meant that they were a powerful opponent and they were a formidable foe indeed. In the scriptures look at the way God’s chariots are pictured. In Psalm 104, for example, in the first four verses there is this statement, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire.” The idea of God riding on the clouds of the chariot spoke of the kind of help that came when God’s people called out to him.
In Psalm 18, for example, there is a section when David describes God’s coming in answer to his prayers. Beginning at verse 6 he says, “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Then he uses the picture almost of a big thunderstorm coming. “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through the clouds.” It was a symbolic and vivid way of saying, “God has the power to act in answer to our prayers.” God has the power to come to the aid of his people.
In Psalm 68 this picture is used in praise of God in a wonderful way. This Psalm says in verse 17, “The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary. You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.” It is a picture of a king who has twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands of chariots. So mighty is it that he has won a tremendous victory and captured many of his enemies. Now he leads them like a conquered army, and he receives gifts which he then passes along to his people. At the end of this psalm, in verses 32 and following, it says, “O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God; sing praises to the Lord, to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens, behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice. Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel, and whose power is in the skies. Awesome is God from his sanctuary; the God of Israel – he is the one who gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!” He is trying in every way possible to increase our appreciation for the supreme majesty of God.
In II Kings 7, there is a time when the people of Samaria have been surrounded by Ben-hadad, king of Syria, and his army. They have laid siege to the city so that no food or water could get in or out. Things have gotten so bad that people were actually buying and selling dove’s dung at great price just to be able to survive. It was so bad that at least two families had actually decided that they would exchange children to be eaten to keep themselves alive. It was an awful time. And in that situation, Elisha the prophet said, “By this time tomorrow, God will open the windows of heaven and bread will be sold almost for nothing in the streets of this town.” The people didn’t believe it. How could those thousands of Syrian soldiers surrounding the city be overcome? How could anything change? The Bible says that that night, God made those Syrian soldiers to hear the sounds of chariots, just to hear the sounds, and they all dropped their weapons and left their supplies and took off so that in the morning four lepers with no power at all went out and had themselves a feast out of the things that had been left there. What a change! The chariots of God were able to work.
Now here is what I want to impress on us as Christians. This is exactly the picture that our Lord Jesus Christ used to stake claim to his own deity, to his place as our Lord, to the need that we have to worship and serve him, to his right to be a priority in our lives, and to his expectation to be heard and obeyed. He is standing before the high priest and the others in their judgment in Matthew 26. And in verse 62, “the high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’” He is talking about the false witnesses that they had heard. “But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’” If you remember that our God uses the clouds as his chariots, and that he has chariots that are twice ten thousand times ten thousand, you see what Jesus meant when he said, “You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” The reason that upset them so is that they knew he was claiming the same sovereignty that God the Father has. They knew it was a claim to supreme power. The god that this is talking about deserves our service in life. He is the measure of our morality. He is the one who is worth our worship. He needs to be the one that we respect above all else.
Secondly, the phrase “chariots of fire” in the Bible, is used to speak of the separation of God’s people from the world. The first time I can find that the phrase “chariots of fire” comes up in scripture is in the story of Elijah, II Kings 2. You remember that this chapter begins with God’s purpose to go ahead and take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind. There was a problem, though. Elisha would never get far enough away from his co-worker, Elijah, for God to be able to take Elijah without getting them both. Everywhere they would go the prophets would say to Elisha, “Did you know that God is going to take your master today?” And Elisha would say, “I know. Don’t say anything about it.” And they went three places, and finally, the Bible says in II Kings 2:9 that Elijah says to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken up.” Elisha wanted a double portion of his spirit to be upon him. Elijah said, “You have asked for a hard thing. If you see me being taken up, that is what will happen.” And verse 11 said, “And they still went on and talked, and behold chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Now notice that it doesn’t say that Elijah went up in a chariot of fire. The whirlwind took him. What he says is the chariots of fire and the horses of fire were used to separate Elijah and Elisha. That is the function of these chariots, and it is a function that Elisha never forgot and it strengthened him.
Look in II Kings 6. This time, again, the Syrian king is making war against Israel. It seems like this went on all the time. He had called his counselors together. They would decide their battle plans and what they were going to do to Israel, and then there was an irritating problem for the king of Syria that came up. And that problem was that whatever he would say to his war council in his chambers, Elisha would go tell the king of Israel. Elisha hadn’t been there and heard it, but he, being God’s prophet, would go tell the king of Israel. That would mess everything up. The king of Syria is so upset by that that he hears that Elisha is at a place called Dothan. He takes his big army and goes down there and surrounds them all. It looked like the end for Elisha. One of his servants came in almost panting with fear and said to him, “Master, what are we going to do? Look at all this army with these horses and chariots. What do we do?” Look at II King 6:16. He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” The old boy starts to look around. He doesn’t see anybody but himself and Elisha and all the horses and chariots of the Syrian army. Verse 17 says, “Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw and behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” There was the separation of protection. The same horses and chariots of fire that had separated Elisha from Elijah now separated him from the Syrian king and his huge army and kept him safe.
When you and I get to the New Testament and we find out in I John 4:4 that the one who is with us is greater than the one who is with the world, this is in the background of that statement. Our own security and belief that God is able to take care of us is anchored in this Old Testament story about horses and chariots of fire in the mountain all around Elisha.
One of the lessons for us to learn from this principle is the place of the Lord’s church in this world. If the horses and chariots of fire describe the separation of God’s people so that he can protect them and keep them, then the picture of the church that we find in Ephesians 5 becomes meaningful even more so. The passage says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her (sanctify means to make holy or to set apart for one’s self), having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy and without blemish.” Just as the husband sets this woman apart as his own to be his wife, just as he obligates himself to her in loyal love, God separates the people through the blood of his son to be his very own. And having separated them, he protects them and cares for them and watches over them.
The first principle is the sovereignty of God. The second principle from chariots of fire is the separation of God’s people, and the third principle that grows out of this is the sending of these people to do God’s work. You may not see the connection between the chariots of fire and the sending of Christians to do the Lord’s bidding, but it is there. I want to take you back again to Psalm 68. Verses 17 and 18 said, “The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands, the Lord is among them. Sinai is now in the sanctuary. You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the Lord God may dwell there.” Now we commented on the background of that and the triumph and the leading the procession, and then the gifts given to the conqueror here. Come over now to Ephesians 4, beginning with verse 7. Having mentioned the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and what the Father has done through him, it says, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’” I hope that sounds familiar. Because what Paul the apostle has done in that passage is to take that figure from Psalm 68 and use it for an illustration here. He doesn’t quote it exactly. He changes the word “received gifts” to “giving gifts.” But he says that that savior of ours, the one who has ascended who first descended into the lower parts of the earth (verse 9) has now gone far above the heavens that he might fill all things (verse 10) and he has given gifts to men. The gifts that he describes here are actually functions in the body of Christ (verse 11). “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Among the implications of that statement is that the Lord who rides his chariots of fire has given functions, responsibilities, talents, and opportunities to the people that he has set apart and sent them into his service to build up his body. I can’t look at chariots of fire and just think, “Wow! God is awesome!” I can’t look at this picture and just say, “Thank the Lord that he separated us to protect us.” If I am going to look at this picture, I have to face this third principle, too. I am responsible. He has given me, all of us, function in the body and sent us into his service, and we need to be involved in doing what we can.
The principle of the parable of the talents comes into play in this passage. I think it illustrates the main principle that is here. Each one of the master’s servants was given some amount of money in that story. Each one was given opportunity to make use of that talent or talents for the master’s glory. And the fulfillment and further opportunities that they had came from what kind of use they made of what they started with. And that same thing would go for all of us. We are expected to see things that need to be done, to consider how we personally might be able to do that, and then to get busy doing it. And there is the promise that the Lord who rides his chariots will help us and strengthen us while we do so.
“Chariots of fire.” Every time you see that phrase, please remember the sovereignty of God, the separation of his people, and his sending into his service. A part of responding to the gospel of Christ is wanting God to have his will done in our lives. While we were working on the planning of this assembly this morning and choosing a song to sing at the end of our study and as we were thinking of “Have Thine Own Way” as one possibility, Kerry told me something that he remembers from his teenage days. Think of this. Kerry said they were at a youth rally in Rockford, IL in the late 1960s. The young people had sung a number of songs that were current at the time, and they were beautiful songs. After they had sung awhile, Kerry said that one of the elders got up, an older fellow admired and respected by the people, and he said to the young people, “Those are fine songs, but have you ever heard this one?” Then this gentleman in a soft and older voice started singing, “Have thine own way, Lord. Have thine own way.” Kerry said what he remembers is how many of those kids listening to that song ended up with tears running down their faces.
You and I ought to take a look at the words of this song. It may be that if we believe God actually does ride chariots of fire, we will want to be with him and submit to him. Maybe you are here today ready to confess your faith that Jesus is the Christ and ready to be baptized into him, or needing to come home to him. If that is the case, won’t you say to the Father, “Have your own way in my life?” Come and let us help if we can right now while we stand and sing together.