Our God, A Consuming Fire
‘Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire, but was not consumed’…‘Fire must be kept burning on the altar continually; it must not go out.’…‘Moses and Aaron then entered the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown’…’Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’
Exodus 3.2, Leviticus 6.13, 9.23-24, Hebrews 12.29
When Moses visited the burning bush, he was seeing the way God has and in the future would reveal himself to humans. Even in Genesis, when Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, he appeared (as though in a dream) as a smoking firepot and flaming torch. Throughout the rest of God’s revelation to man in his scriptures, this image persists. Like Hebrews says, our God is a consuming fire, and like the offering in Leviticus 9 his fire consumes the guilt offering.
But perhaps it is helpful to be more nuanced in our description of God as the consuming fire. Throughout the Old Testament, fire and smoke together picture Yahweh. The column of fire and smoke in the wilderness signified his presence among his people. In the Abrahamic covenant, the smoking pot and flaming torch was the presence of God committing his covenant love to Abraham and all his descendants. At Sinai, a cloud of smoke like that from a furnace descended on the mountain signifying the presence of Yahweh. At the tabernacle and later at the temple, the fire on the altar was kept burning continually as a sign that God’s presence was in fact there.
The most important descriptor of the fire of God is that it is a consuming fire. Remember Elijah on Mount Carmel. The fire of God consumed the sacrifices and the water and the altar itself. This is quite astonishing. In the sacrifice in Leviticus 9, only the offering was consumed. In the burning bush, the bush was not consumed. What should we make of our God as a consuming fire? His consuming fire is not indiscriminate. A forest fire is nearly impossible to control, and it can go one way and then the other sweeping down into mountain valleys and back up the mountainside like a waterfall. God, the consuming fire is not like this. The rage we attribute to fire seems to be a result of the curse. God’s consuming fire consumes evil. It consumes the sacrifice that was slaughtered for our sin. It will consume those who do not repent and believe. It displays his anger at our wickedness.
But God’s fire is not just about judgment. God’s fire also purges and cleanses. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 3. God’s fire reveals the work of men whether it is precious or worthless according to his divine desire. God’s fire cleanses the evil from our hearts like a refiner’s fire removing impurities and leaving the gold.
This leaves us asking how we should respond. Are our works eternally valuable in the sight of God? Will his consuming fire show them to have been empty offerings or of great worth?