“Our God is a consuming fire”
(Hebrew 12.29, echoing Deuteronomy 4.24).
In Genesis, the suggestion of fire underlies the sacrifice that Abel made to God, but the first actual mention of a fire is in Genesis 15. After the Lord makes a covenant with Abram in his sleep the Lord tells of the promise he is making about his descendants and “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces” [of the sacrifices Abram had made].
Noah had already built an alter to the lord and sacrificed burnt offerings on it (Genesis 8.20), so fire was no stranger to him as well. Abraham (his new name) made the sacrifice of a burn offering ram (Genesis 22.13), instead of his son Isaac. To make sacrifices without fire is impossible.
Fire, like air and water, are part of creation and the fires of creation are associated with volcanoes that took place before the advent of humans. God must have created fire from earth’s very beginning and when humans were created, they needed it. There are many ways to make fire without matches, and I have watched men do it with a bamboo strip continuously rubbed (fast) across a hardwood stake until the friction produced enough sparks to start some tinder. Samoans do it with two wild hibiscus sticks.
Fire can be very dangerous: In 2 Kings, chapter 1, we read how Elijah the Tishbite told the captain of an army of 50 men that “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men.” We also read in 1 Chronicles 21.26 that David built an alter to the Lord, called on the Lord “and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.”
Fire from heaven also consumed Job’s sheep and his servants (Job 1.16). Fire from heaven is powerful stuff and James and John wanted to destroy enemies who did not welcome Jesus by calling down fire from heaven to destroy them (Luke 9.52-55).
Elijah had an experience with fire on Mt Carmel when he met Ahab and challenged him and the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Elijah built an altar and dug a trench around it and put a bull for sacrifice on wood to be burned on the altar. He had water poured on the offering, on the wood, and in the trench. Then “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench” (1 Kings 18.38). God can make fire destroy water, instead of water extinguishing the fire.
But fire is puzzling too, as when. in Deuteronomy 5.24, God shows his glory and the people hear his voice “from the fire.”
The judgment of God comes by means of fire: when Satan is released from his prison and goes out to deceive the nations of earth, “fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20). “[D]evouring fire” is also mentioned in Isaiah 29.6 and 66.15. Malachi (3.2) likens the cleansing effect of the Lord’s coming to “a refiner’s fire or a launder’s soap.”
An angel of the Lord appears to Moses in flames of fire in a bush (Exodus 3.2) and God makes winds “his messengers, flames of fire his servants” (Psalm 104.4). But even the hottest flames of fire could not kill Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3), showing how God can contain and control fire.
The Holy Spirit came to the disciples on the day of Pentecost and “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2.3). This account was foretold in Matthew 3.11 when John said, “after me comes one who is more powerful than I, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Returning to the phrase, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12.29), we observe the Israelites seeing the glory of God on top of the mountain and it “looked like a consuming fire” (Exodus 24.27), representing a God who is a “jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4.24). David sang a song that said the same thing about God, along with comments about mounted cherubims, bolts of lightning, thunder, and other manifestations that showed God could get very mad indeed.
Fire, like blood and water, can be used to purify, and in such contexts, it becomes metaphorical: in Isaiah 6.6-8, we read that a seraphim touches the lips of Isaiah with a live coal taken with tongs from the altar, relieving him of his guilt.
The day of the Lord will come like a thief and with fire. “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3.10). Even the heavens will be destroyed by fire: “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” But in keeping with God’s promise, “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3.12).
Fire! We find it in our idioms and everyday speech as well: Have you ever had your “ears burn” when you were talked about? Do you get “fired-up” about politics or perhaps you were (once) “on fire” about the Dallas Cowboys? Perhaps you have even jumped “out of the frying pan and into the fire” and have “added fuel to the fire” in an intense situation. You might even be “breathing fire” because you are so angry. Be careful, however, you may “burn yourself out” and everything will “go up in smoke.”
Yes, that is because where “there is smoke there is fire” and it won’t be from heaven!