Fire serves as a powerful symbol in the Bible. Most people probably think first of hell. Probably everyone knows about the fire that consumed Sodom and the lake of fire in Revelation. But it means so much more besides.
Even in everyday life, fire destroys, but it’s also a useful tool. Think of a campfire. It destroys firewood. We use it for cooking, for warmth, to draw close to one another, to keep wild beasts away, and more.
Jeremiah 23:29 (NKJV) says, “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Christians ought to read the Bible daily. A believer doesn’t experience that fire as hellfire. So how do we experience that fire? Here are some of the other verses about fire in the Bible.
In Exodus 13:21, we read, ” And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.”
Pharaoh had driven the people of Israel from Egypt but then had second thoughts about losing his slave labor. The people found themselves trapped between the sea and Egyptian chariots.
God placed himself between the two and engineered their escape through the sea. He made himself visibly present to his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
After the escape, God still manifested himself as a guiding fire in the Bible as the people made their way through the wilderness. He led them to the verge of the promised land, but believing an evil report, they refused to go take it.
They wandered in the wilderness until an entire generation had died. But the visible presence of God and his guiding fire continued with them for 40 years.
According to Hebrews 12:29, God is a consuming fire. He removes whatever can be shaken so only what cannot be shaken remains.
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.
Think of the consuming fire in the Bible as trash incineration.
The metaphor of comes from Deuteronomy 9:3. After the generation who had refused to take the promised land had died, Moses addressed their children. All the opposition their parents had feared was still in the land. God promised to be a consuming fire and drive out the inhabitants of the land.
In this case, the fire is indeed a type of hellfire. It wasn’t so much trash incineration as a public health measure. God had told Abraham that his people could not possess the promised land until the sin of the Amorites was complete (Genesis 15:13-16). Think of completed sin either as an offense worthy of capital punishment or an incurable infection that required euthanasia to prevent its spread.
Or maybe refiner’s fire.
Malachi 3:2-3 introduces the image of the refiner’s fire in the Bible.
But who can endure the day of His coming?
And who can stand when He appears?
For He is like a refiner’s fire
And like launderers’ soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.
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. If we’re the silver or gold, we experience the process of refining as uncomfortable.
Isaiah experienced this fire in his call to ministry.
So I said:
“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
“Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged.”
Baptism of fire
John the Baptist appeared to prepare the way for Jesus. He said this about fire:
And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:10-12)
Here is traditional imagery of God’s fire as trash incineration, but don’t miss the new concept: Jesus would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In one of the passages most people don’t like much, Jesus proclaimed,
I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law (Luke 12:49-53).
The beginning of the fulfillment of this prophecy occurred on the day of Pentecost following the resurrection. As Acts 2:3 describes it, tongues of fire appeared over each of the 120 people gathered at a prayer meeting. They spilled out of the house into the street and Peter preached the sermon that launched the church.
Summary of the meaning of fire in the Bible
From Amos onward, prophets predicted a coming Day of the Lord. Revelation paints the final picture of what it will be like. God will reclaim his world and finally destroy sin and all the other works of Satan. Think of that time as when the sin of the whole world, not just the Amorites, is complete. Hellfire to be sure, but there’s more to it than that.
After the destruction Day of the Lord, survivors will live in a restored Eden. They will live joyfully under God’s rule. It will be wonderful.
All of these fire images in the Bible entail the removal and destruction of something worthless so that something worthy will remain.
In the meantime, how do people experience the fire of God? It probably 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.
God 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). We need to remember that whatever role Satan plays in our pain does not matter much. God will turn down the heat when he’s finished with a process.
Is the fire a judgment on our sins? Maybe in part. But here is yet another illustration that judgment is never more than a means to an end. It is a tool God uses to demonstrate his grace.