Word Like Fire

Text: Jeremiah 23:16-29

The Lord spoke through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes…I did not send [them], yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council…they would have turned [My people] from their evil way.”[1] These words, God directed to His people in Jerusalem and against the false prophets that filled the city. Jerusalem was practically bursting with prophets who proclaimed peace and prosperity. Yet, God’s true prophets had preached for over a hundred years that she would fall because of her sinfulness; but the people only listened to the false prophets who promised peace.

We have in this text a description of what a false prophet is: someone who claims to speak from God’s authority, but ultimately speaks from the dreams of their own heart. The false prophets in Jerusalem were not preaching God’s Word of Law and Gospel. Instead, they only prophesied what they wanted to hear. To the contrary God says, “Is not My Word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?[2] Today we confess that a true prophet and messenger of God proclaims both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes sin and brings to repentance, while His Word of Gospel offers pardon and peace to those who turn to Him in faith.

I.

This is the second time this year that we’ve been in Jeremiah 23. The first time we heard it was in a very different context – the first Sunday in Advent. Jeremiah 23 is where God promises that a Righteous Branch will come who will reign as king and deal wisely. He will make all of God’s people dwell in peace and safety. That portion of the chapter was given to comfort us with the promise of Christ, but it was also directed against the false shepherds, the wicked kings and priests of Israel. In this later part of chapter 23, God’s Word turns against the false prophets who filled Jerusalem in the decades leading up to its destruction.

If you’re familiar with Isaiah, you might remember that he prophesied before the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C. The hope of the prophets, and dare I say God, was that the people of Jerusalem would learn from that and return to the Lord their God. Instead, Jerusalem got worse and worse. There were high points, like the reign of Josiah – which is when Jeremiah started preaching. But overall, Jerusalem was on a steep and steady decline.

One of the major factors in that decline was the false prophets going around and telling everyone that, because it was Jerusalem – God’s holy city – nothing bad could happen. God says this, “They speak visions of their own minds, not form the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you;’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'”[3] The priests, also, were aligned with them.

What’d this look like on the ground level? Idol worship was vastly and widely-spread. It was the norm for people to worship false gods, in addition to God. They even set up idols and sacrificed to them in the very temple of God. Nobody kept God’s Commandments; nobody even tried. Adultery and fornication were openly accepted and encouraged. Bribes were given and received. Selfishness and apathy for one’s neighbor were the way to play. And the false prophets said everything would be okay. But, God did not send them. He sent Jeremiah.

II.

Jeremiah was called by God to prophesy to His people. Though there are many good and comforting words in Jeremiah, in large part his call from God was to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed if she wouldn’t repent. Jeremiah’s call was to preach God’s Word of Law. That’s how God contrasted the false prophets. They did not preach the Law. They did not point out sin nor the need forgiveness. They preached only peace, comfort, and happiness – while wallpapering over everything else. “If they had stood in My council,” God said, “then they would have proclaimed My Words to My people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.”[4]

God’s Word, He says, is like a fire and a hammer. He’s talking about His Law, the Ten Commandments. His Law doesn’t wallpaper over sin; it exposes it and shows it for what it is. The author to the Hebrews says God’s Word is, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”[5] The false prophets were false because they did not proclaim God’s Word of Law against sin. They turned the Word into wallpaper, which, before long, just becomes part of the background. When preached as it should, God’s Law exposes sin. It crushes the sinner like a hammer, when it shows that we aren’t as righteous as we think we are. God’s Law offers no word of comfort; it makes demands.

III.

God’s Law exposes and crushes. It shows that we are sinners. The correct response to the preaching of the Law is: yes, it’s true; I repent. To repent means to sorrow over sin. It means to stop doing one thing and do something else; to change directions. This is what God desired for His people: that they repent of their sins and be forgiven. The false prophets declared that there was no sin, and therefore no need for forgiveness. Jeremiah preached the Law to expose sin, so that he could then preach the Gospel. So, also, the true preachers of God’s Word do today.

As God sent Jeremiah, so He sends pastors to us now to proclaim both His Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. The Law is and remains God’s Holy Word, and its job is to point out our sin. Its job is to show that we are sinful in our thoughts, words and deeds. Its job is to show us that there is nowhere to run or hide, that we can’t wallpaper over our sins. Only once our sins have been shown to us, our need for forgiveness demonstrated, can the Gospel then be preached.

The Gospel is also God’s Holy Word. It’s job is to show us Jesus. All those things that the Law demands, all those things we fail to do, Jesus did. The Law says that, for our sins, we deserve to die. The Gospel says that Jesus paid that debt when He died on the cross for you. Then, He rose again to give you new and eternal life. As Baptized Christians, God’s Law now also serves as a guide for our lives. We seek to serve God by obeying His Commandments, even though we do it imperfectly. For those times when we do fail, we are forgiven in Christ.

But if there is no Law, there is no sin. If there is no sin, there is no forgiveness. This is what the false prophets were preaching in Jerusalem. And, because of the people’s refusal to repent and believe, Jerusalem was destroyed. But, even until the end, God sent Jeremiah. Jeremiah preached both the Law and the Gospel, to point out sin and to declare that people are forgiven by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word of Law is like a fire and hammer that exposes and crushes sin. His Word of Gospel says that Christ gives us His righteousness as a gift. For all those who have been crushed by the Law, there is balm and healing in the Good News of Jesus Christ. God grant that He would continue to send faithful preachers into the whole world, so that we might all hear about the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus.


[1] Jer. 23:16, 21-22, English Standard Version.

[2] Jer. 23:29.

[3] Jer. 23:16-17.

[4] Jer. 23:22.

[5] Heb. 4:12-13.

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