When I was a teenager, I splashed flaming oil onto my hand and forearm. Ablaze, the outer layer of skin sizzled and peeled away. At the hospital that night, all the doctors could do was clean the wound, apply some ointment and cover it with a bandage. The following day they scrapped and cut away the dead tissue. It was only a second-degree burn, localized on a small portion of my body, and ultimately it left only emotional scars.
It hurt like H-E-double toothpicks! It was intensely painful. I shudder to think of an eternity in the “ever-burning flames” (Isaiah 33:14, CSB) of “the lake of fire and sulfur... tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10, CSB), the ultimate punishment, meted out on those who reject God’s mercy and grace.
Our God is holy and His wrath is always absolutely just.
The word “fire” in the New Testament translates the Greek word pur, the root from which the English term “pure” is derived. Fire purifies.
“The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24, CSB). “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29, CSB)
The Old Testament prophets acknowledged God’s justice and wrath. Like gold and silver are purified by fire, God’s chosen people passed through the fire of God’s purifying justice. “I have refined you... I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10, CSB).
“I will refine them as silver is refined and test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9, CSB). “But who can endure the day of his coming? And who will be able to stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s bleach. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:2–3, CSB).
In the New Testament, Paul expands on this idea. “For no one can lay any foundation other than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:11–13, CSB).
As we’ve seen this week, fire is emblematic of God’s Presence, Power and Glory. It’s also symbolic of God’s Holiness and Justice.
Fire may also represent the worst of worldly tribulations. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, sentenced Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to death. Their crime: they refused to worship a pagan god. Their punishment: they were tied up and thrown into a super-charged fiery furnace. When the king peered in, he saw the three Hebrew boys standing in the flames, and a fourth, the pre-incarnate Jesus. A moment later, they strolled out of the death chamber, unharmed. Their clothing wasn’t singed, and they didn’t even smell like smoke (Daniel 3:10–28, CSB).
Our Holy God is near. Always. We have nothing to fear... not even the flames.