“Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” — Jeremiah 23:29
From the heavenly fire that consumed Sodom to the lake of fire in Revelation, fire serves as a powerful symbol in Scripture. I suppose most people, on associating fire and God, think of hell. Let’s not neglect other meanings.
Christians read, or ought to read, God’s word every day and think about it regularly even without an open Bible nearby. If God’s word is like fire, the Christian certainly does not experience it as hellfire. So what kind of fire is it like?
In Hebrews 12:29, we read that God is a consuming fire–this in the context of removing what can be shaken, with only what cannot be shaken remaining. It appears that God consumes what he removes in the shaking: the temporary, the broken beyond repair, the trivial, etc.
Similarly, Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 3.12) that our works will be tested by fire. Whatever we build on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, or stubble will burn up, revealing whatever we build with gold, silver, or gemstones, if anything. The fire will both test and reveal our works. It is not hellfire, for even the person with nothing of value remaining is still saved.
Malachi 3:2 introduces another fire metaphor, the refiner’s fire. The process of extracting metal from ore to this day entails putting fire under a cauldron of ore until it melts. At that point the slag, all that is not pure metal, can be removed and discarded.
All of these fire images entail the removal and destruction of something worthless so that something worthy will remain. How do people experience the fire of God? It feels more like abandonment or punishment.
People wonder where is God in the midst of all of this pain? He’s the one that’s causing it. He cares much less about our comfort at any given time than about what his perfect craftsmanship can make of us. We are his workmanship, his masterpiece. Whether he uses fire or a hammer and chisel, as in the other half of our verse from Jeremiah, it can really hurt while he’s working on us.
At times like that, it really helps to recall that our trials will not destroy us (unless we completely lose faith), that whatever role Satan plays does not matter much, and that God will turn down the heat when he’s finished with a process.
Is the fire a judgment on our sins? Maybe. But here is yet another illustration that judgment is never more than a means to an end. It is a tool he uses to demonstrate his grace.