Bring burning coals

Have you ever had the experience of being familiar with a text but you harbored major questions regarding the meaning of said passage?

Have you felt like the blind man in Bethsaida in Mark 8? You were given “some sight,” but there was still quite a bit of haze?

In Mark’s account, the blind man said to Jesus after his first touch from the Savior: “I see people; but they look like trees walking around.”

I have had that sort of blurry vision, sometimes, when I read scripture. I just don’t get it.

Well, I had an “aha” moment recently related to a familiar passage in John’s gospel — and it was something I had not recognized at all because of cultural distance between me and the original author. It wasn’t as if things were hazy in my understanding, I just didn’t see it at all.

So here it is:

My favorite post-resurrection appearance of Jesus with the disciples is recorded in John 21, a text I recently preached on.

There, Jesus is waiting on the beach while the disciples are having a completely unsuccessful experience with something they knew very well — fishing. Jesus encouraged them from the shoreline to try casting their nets on the other side of the boat, where they might have better success.


Don’t you think we already tried that?

John tells us that they didn’t recognize Jesus, despite that this was a second experience of fishing with no luck.

Well, obediently, they responded to Jesus’ instruction and they made an enormous haul of fish. The account even records the number and size of the catch. The disciples hauled their heavy load to the shore and, when they arrived at the beach, Jesus was preparing breakfast for them, a meal of fish and bread that he was preparing over a fire of “burning coals (verse 9).”

Seemingly insignificant detail, right?

When I usually read that story, I completely run over that element of the narrative. I honestly get caught up with Jesus’ kind hospitality and the implication that there was a reconnection and restoration going on between Jesus and his followers. I was absorbed with the sensory aspect of warm coals on a chilly morning and the smell of roasting meat over a fire of coals.

It made me hungry.

But there is more to it than that.

My clarity came after someone pointed out to me that “burning coals” is an allusion to something else significant that I had missed.

I was pointed to 2 Samuel 22, where King David was making a reference to the temple, where the presence of God was most intense. He is feeling abandoned and, in his distress, he heard from the temple the voice of God.

Here is part of his extended description: “Smoke rose from his (the Lord’s) nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it (2 Samuel 22:9).”

A 1st century Jew would likely have been familiar with that reference and that image. It is a picture of the presence of the Lord, indicated by fire and specifically “burning coals.”

I, however, was not familiar with that biblical allusion, so I missed it.

Could it be that the description of “burning coals” at the breakfast on the beach between the resurrected Jesus and the disciples — who are in need of reconciliation with their master — is an allusion to the presence of God?

How different is our understanding of that picture of Jesus if we insert the element of the presence of God indicated by the burning coals?

On the beach, Jesus was inviting his followers into the very presence of God, the resurrected Jesus. The allusion of burning coals is that the presence of God is here somewhere.

Remember that that was indeed an awkward encounter. Peter needed to be forgiven and reinstated following his denials of Christ only a few days previous. John’s wonderful account of that breakfast indicates that, though we have been a disappointment and have failed, we are still invited into God’s presence, where there is reconciliation and mercy.

OK, I get it.

I see more clearly that Jesus IS the son of God, crucified and resurrected from the dead, and I am invited into the very presence of God. But there is another reference to that powerful image of burning coals that has always bothered me.

In the book of Romans, chapter 12:20, the Apostle Paul is teaching how to deal with our enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

There it is again. Burning coals. And that is a teaching I really DON’T understand, at least not until now. Perhaps Paul is saying to us, if we want to learn how to deal with our enemy, people who oppose us, then try bringing “burning coals”: Bring love. Bring the presence of God into the relationship.

Now that’s something I hadn’t seen before.

And it seems like a great suggestion.

During this season, there is much dissension and division. Try bringing burning coals into the relationship.

Try bringing the presence of God.

Try bringing love and a desire to be reconciled.

See if that doesn’t clear things up.

Warren Hoffman is a 43-year veteran of pastoral ministry and considers himself a native of Alpena. He is married to his ministry partner and beloved, Laura Hoffman.


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