We say, “all things in moderation.” Fire may be the best example for this little proverb. We use fire for so many reasons, though perhaps not quite so much as in the past. My old house still has piping used for gas lighting, for example. But even in 2020 most houses are heated by fire (gas or oil heaters), most hot water is heated by gas, most dryers use gas and many kitchen stoves are gas, as well. Then there’s the old fireplace, or a fire pit in the back yard. A fired hot dog, a little wood smoke…fire under control is a dear friend. Put a few candles on the dining room table and voila…romance!!!
Of course, fire out of control is another matter. How many of us have smoke detectors in our houses? We don’t want our houses to burn down and, more importantly, we don’t want our families to burn up. Think about the fires in California. Joni Mitchell sang about losing Paradise to a parking lot. The Eagles claimed that if you called a place Paradise you might as well kiss it goodbye. Then we had the fire that wiped out Paradise, California.
Fire can be delightful, it can provide crucial aid, or it can spell disaster. It’s interesting, then, that God often revealed himself in the form of fire. Is God our comforter? Is he our helper? Is he our destroyer?
God had allowed the Israelites to languish as slaves in Egypt for 400 years before he paid Moses a visit. Exodus 3 records:
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near, take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’”
Why did God choose to reveal himself to Moses in this way? It’s obvious that the burning (not burning) bush grabbed Moses’ attention. However, God revealed himself many times in biblical history, but this is the only time he chose to speak from a burning bush.
The Exodus passage does not explain the phenomenon of the burning bush. God identifies himself, but moves on quickly to the assignment he has in mind for Moses. One thing we know from other Scripture is that no one can actually look on God and survive, so the burning bush serves to represent God while still protecting Moses from over-exposure, if you will. But there is also something biblically thematic about the God who is fire but does not burn.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is the story of the friends of Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, as powerful political figures like to do, had a great statue erected, and instructed all the people to worship the image. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to do so and were, consequently, thrown into a great fiery furnace. The fire was so hot that it burned up their escorts, as the bound Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fell into the furnace. The king was astonished to see the three of them, and then a fourth, “like a son of the gods”, walking about casually in the furnace. The king commanded them to come out. (I imagine them thinking to themselves, “Why don’t you come in here?”) But, with all respect, they came out. Apparently they did not even have the scent of the fire on their clothes. In this case you could say the fire was an arbiter. Those who trusted in God were unharmed by it, while those who trusted in the gods of Babylon were consumed when they came near to it. The consequence of this demonstration was that Nebuchadnezzar granted all Hebrews free reign to practice their religion in Babylon.
This idea of the God of fire acting differently towards different people was also demonstrated during the Exodus. The Hebrews had been chased out of Egypt by Pharaoh who, while hating the thought of losing his slave labor force, had finally come to the realization that the God of the Hebrews was not playing games. The land had been wracked by numerous plagues, the last of which had taken the first-born son of every household in Egypt. But Pharaoh was, perhaps, the most stubborn man in history. Soundly defeated, he changed his mind and decided to go after his slave force and bring it back. That is to say, he chose to challenge God, but this time on the battlefield.
We read in Exodus, chapter 13:
“The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
Pharaoh set out, armed to the teeth with 600 chosen chariots (let’s call them “special forces”), along with all the other chariots of the Egyptian army. The Egyptians caught up to the Hebrews where they were encamped next to the Red Sea. Things looked grim for the Hebrews. The Hebrew people (ever prone to forgetfulness and ever prone to complaint), gave Moses a piece of their mind:
“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”
God was bothered by the Israelites lack of trust, of course, but he had mercy on them anyway.
“The angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.”
So we see this contrast in which the pillar of smoke and fire, a reminder to the Israelites of God’s presence, as well as a light for guidance, is also a warning to the Egyptians of God’s presence. The Egyptians were able to see, and they had the military superiority, but the Comfort of Israel was Terror to Egypt. In this case the fire did not consume Egypt, it only held Egypt back until Israel passed through the Red Sea. When Egypt dared to follow its army was destroyed.
We will return to this theme of how the God of fire has a different effect on different people, but let us look at a couple more passages that underscore the theme that identifies God with fire.
Some time after the massacre of the Egyptians, the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai. It is here that God told Moses his intention of making Israel into a holy nation to serve as priests and representatives of God. It is on Mt. Sinai where God delivered the Ten Commandments.
“Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.”
The New Testament was a tectonic shift in how God he revealed himself to his people. They were looking for a Messiah, certainly, but for the Messiah to actually be God, well, this was quite a surprise. Just as surprising was that this God-Messiah didn’t come as a king prepared to establish Israel at the head of the nations. Instead, he came as a humble teacher/servant. He was received with delight by many in Israel, and he was despised by many in Israel, as well.
But this Messiah did, in fact, establish the new Israel. He established the new nation on the “pillars” of the Apostles, the twelve of whom symbolically represented the 12 new tribes of Israel. And God came again to dwell with his people. This is shown dramatically at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended.
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
What it meant was that the God of Abraham, who had drawn near to his people ever since the encounter with Moses in the form of fire, was now descending on his people and indwelling them via the Holy Spirit.
So why does all this matter? This is the first of a three-part series about the God of fire. The next two parts will be about God, the Refining Fire and God, the Consuming Fire. We will see two fundamental things about fire, when it is referred to in the Bible: that God is the gentle, helping fire to those who he loves, and that he is a consuming fire to those who live according to their own ways instead of trusting him. There are two constants in this: one, that fire is always used by God as a means of purification and, two, that fire always represents God’s presence.
There are those who faithlessly make use of fire, of course. The worshippers of Molech would burn their own children in fires, for example. I’m inclined to believe that this particular behavior is the most horrible example of sin that can be found in the Bible.
“They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” – Jeremiah 32.35
But what I am talking about is fire in the Bible that is associated with God himself. Fire associated with God represents his presence, his purity, and that he is always actively making things pure by means of fire.
This doesn’t fit well with most people’s ideas about the nature of hell. One common idea that circulates in Evangelical circles is that hell is the absence of God. Somehow this idea is commonly linked to everlasting torment in the fires of hell. But if fire represents God’s presence, how can hell be made up of fire and be a place where God is absent? The short answer is: the idea of God tormenting the wicked in flames (or by any means) is a sad myth. There are many reasons to believe that torment in hell is a myth but, for now, we will continue to look at the God of Fire, so we will come to realize how unrelenting these themes of God’s presence and purification are associated with fire.