If you do a study on the “God is” statements in scripture, it gives you an overview of His character and helps reveal some of the things that are most important to Him. It also gives us an idea for how we’re to live as Christians since we’re supposed to become like God. God is love, light, faithful, merciful, righteous, and slow to anger, and we’re to work on becoming those things as well (Ps. 116:5; Neh. 9:17; 1 John 1:5; 4:8).
One of the “God is” statements that might seem unusual is this one: “Yahweh your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24, WEB). I suspect when most people think of fire and the Bible, they think of sinners going to a type of fiery hell that’s based a little more on pop-culture and classic literature than scripture. Clearly none of that is happening in this verse–the fire here is associated with God Himself as part of His nature. It’s presented as a fact of His character that ancient Israel would have to deal with if they “forget the covenant of Yahweh your God” (Deut. 4:23, WEB).
This isn’t the only place that fire is associated with God. It’s often linked to His indignation and wrath when people turn away from Him and do truly horrible things. It’s also associated with purification and holiness. There are positive associations with fire as well as devouring, “jealous” ones. There are even verses that talk about us being in the fire as a good thing rather than a punishment.
Righteous, Jealous Fire
In Deuteronomy, fire is linked with God’s jealousy. Israel was warned to guard against being unfaithful to God’s covenant because He does not take covenant-breaking lightly. He also meets out punishment on nations who didn’t make covenants with Him because as Creator, Lord, and Lawgiver He has the right to punish wrongdoing. God tends to judge people less harshly when they don’t know any better, but even without special revelation there are still general principles available to all people which He can reasonably expect us to follow (e.g. most cultures agree with God that murder is wrong). Paul talks about that in more detail at the beginning of Romans, but for today’s post our focus in this section is on how fire is linked with God’s righteousness and anger.
Yahweh is a jealous God and avenges. Yahweh avenges and is full of wrath. Yahweh takes vengeance on his adversaries, and he maintains wrath against his enemies. Yahweh is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Yahweh has his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. … Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the fierceness of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken apart by himNahum 1:2-3, 6, WEB
Treating God with respect involves acknowledging this side of His nature. There are consequences that we shouldn’t want to face if we “go after other gods” and break covenant with our Creator (Deut. 6.14-15; 29:18-20; Heb. 12:25-29). There is also mercy, though. Fire isn’t simply a destructive force. It’s also used for purifying; it’s something that can help get people back on track. God take no pleasure in the death of wicked people; He wants every single one of us to turn away from sin and accept the eternal life that He offers us (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
In the book of Numbers, Yahweh tells Moses to have Israel purify the spoils they took after battling Midian using fire. All the metal and “everything that may withstand the fire, you shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean” (Num. 31:23, WEB). This is the only place I’ve found where fire was used for purification like this, but it’s still an intriguing moment that connects with later verses about refining fire. And even though fire wasn’t regularly used for purification in Old Covenant worship, it was associated with holiness. The fire on the altar was never supposed to go out, sacrifices for God were routinely burned, and God sent fire down from heaven when Solomon dedicated the temple (Ex. 20:24; Lev. 6:12).
Today, we ourselves (as a collective church body) make up the temple of God. We don’t offer sacrifices on a burning altar; we now offer all of ourselves to living God’s way of life (Rom. 12:1). It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that as living sacrifices we also go through a sort of fire. It’s a metaphor for the things that make people holy by testing and refining us (Is 48.10; Mal. 3:2-3; 1 Peter 1:6-8).
“I will bring the third part into the fire,Zechariah 13:9, WEB
and will refine them as silver is refined,
and will test them like gold is tested.
They will call on my name, and I will hear them.
I will say, ‘It is my people;’
and they will say, ‘Yahweh is my God.’”
For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:11-15, NET
Fire provides testing and purification. When something goes into fire like this, the unholy things get burned off leaving only the holy behind. As the writer of Hebrews says, we who are “receiving a Kingdom that can’t be shaken” should “serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29, WEB). We want to be like God and to dwell with God, which means we need to become something capable of surviving this fire. We need to be holy as He is holy.
Living In Fire
The sinners in Zion are afraid.Isiaiah 33:14-16, WEB
Trembling has seized the godless ones.
Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with everlasting burning?
He who walks righteously
and speaks blamelessly,
he who despises the gain of oppressions,
who gestures with his hands, refusing to take a bribe,
who stops his ears from hearing of blood,
and shuts his eyes from looking at evil—
he will dwell on high.
His place of defense will be the fortress of rocks.
His bread will be supplied.
His waters will be sure.
Sinners look at God and ask how anyone could “live with the devouring fire” and “everlasting burning?” We wonder that, too. There’s a list here in Isaiah of things the sort of people who can live in God’s fire do. They’re righteous, blameless, oppose oppression, don’t take bribes or pay attention to evil. Those are things we should strive for, but we also know we don’t do these things perfectly. We have all sinned and an encounter with pure holiness would be terrifying. If we saw God right now, we’d likely have a similar reaction to Isaiah when he said, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” (Isaiah 6:1-5, WEB). The more clearly you see God, the more you realize how poorly you measure up. But God has a fiery solution.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. He touched my mouth with it, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”Isaiah 6:6-7, WEB
Isaiah’s lips, as a stand-in for his whole life, were purified with holy fire. Similarly, Jesus Christ baptizes each believer “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:15-17, NET). The “fire” part of the three baptisms of Christianity makes us more and more like God, refining us until we look just like Jesus. This process continues our whole lives.
Our God is a devouring, jealous fire who will not tolerate unfaithfulness. He does not want to punish us with His fire, though. He wants to use fire to refine us and make us holy like Him. Even the fiery trials we face serve a purpose when we give ourselves up to Him as living sacrifices to do His will. This perspective helps us contextualize our sufferings and trust God when He chooses to help us through trials rather than immediately take us out of them. When we’re dwelling with God, fire can be a good thing.
Featured image by Pexels from Pixabay
Song Recommendation: “Refiner’s Fire” by TWP Band & Brian Doerksen