Summary: If the fire of judgment is early kindled in us, we, as Christ, die to sin but live to God.
Fire is full of symbolic meaning in Scripture. Fire is used as a sign of God’s presence and as a sign of judgment, both of acceptance and rejection.
Fire is a sign of theophany, which is just a fancy way of saying a revelation of God, God’s presence. When God made His covenant with Abram, He appeared as a smoking firepot with a blazing torch, and passed through the midst of the sacrifices that Abram had set out (Gen 15:17). God appeared to Moses on Horeb in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2). God manifested Himself to His people Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21); throughout the entire travel through the wilderness, God led His people in this form. When He gave the Law to Moses, God descended to Sinai like a consuming fire upon the mountaintop (Ex. 19:18 and Ex. 24:17). And at Pentecost, God was manifest in the wind that filled the whole house and the tongues of fire that separated and rested on them (Acts 2:3). Fire signals that God is near.
And fire is a sign of acceptance of God. When Aaron made his first sacrifice as high priest, “Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offerings and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9:24). At Gideon’s calling, he prepared a young goat and unleavened bread as an offering. “With the tip of the staff that was in his hand, the angel of the LORD touched the meat and the unleavened bread. Fire flared from the rock, consuming the meat and the bread” (Jdg. 6:21). When Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, after he had water poured onto the sacrifice three times, “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 Ki. 18:38). And St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 3:12–14, that our lives and faith will be tried in fire to prove their worth, and “If what [we] build survives, [we] will receive [our] reward” (1 Cor. 3:14). Fire is a sign of positive acceptance by God.
But fire is also a sign of the judgment of God. The same fire that tries one man and proves him true will try another man and prove him false and consume him. God sent fire and brimstone raining down upon Sodom and Gomorrah to consume them and make them uninhabitable (Gen. 19:24,28). Nadab and Abihu, immediately after their ordination presented unauthorized fire before the Lord, “So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev. 10:2). In the wilderness, the Israelites complained to God about their hardships. “Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp” (Num. 11:1). When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled against Moses’ leadership, “Fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering incense” (Num. 16:35). Ahaziah sent several companies of soldiers to force Elijah to come to him. But Elijah answered the captain of the soldiers, “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 (2 Ki. 1:10). Despite fire’s signal of God’s presence and his approval, we cannot ignore its mark of judgment.
When I build a fire, if I’ve done it right, the fire gives off both light and heat. God’s fire gives light—truth. “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). When God is present, there can be no darkness. Those things that you and I have done secretly, when we thought we were alone and nobody could see us, the hidden thoughts of our hearts that never reach the light of day, all of these are not hidden from God’s presence. When God comes to us—rather, when we are before Him—His radiance exposes all in us. Everything that we have done by night will be made known in the light of His day. He knows all that we have done, all that we wanted to do but were afraid to, and all that we hope to do. As we pray each Sunday, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” The fire of God brings truth. No falsehood can remain in His presence, because it will vanish like a shadow in the light.