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Consuming Fire

“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.” Malachi 3:2

Within the Body of Christ, we have often heard the statement God is a consuming fire, however have we taken a moment to reflect on what this really means? In the natural sense fire burns, consumes, creates a cloud of smoke, and paves the way for new life (vegetation) to grow. Throughout the Scriptures we see fire symbolizing something beyond its natural meaning. The Apostle Paul wrote “for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) and in Malachi we read that the Lord is “like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2). What is this refiner’s fire, and what exactly does God wish to consume with it? Delving beyond the natural meaning of the flame, the Apostles and the Early Church understood how God’s Word is a consuming fire, and exactly what it is He consumes in us. They also taught that fire is necessary for purification (we see this in the dedication of the temple in Scripture), and that there is a dual purpose for God’s fire. 

When writing to the Church of Corinth concerning divisions in the Church, Paul explains that being a wise Master builder, he was graced with the revelation to lay the foundation of the Church on Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). He also states that the foundation he has laid is the pattern to follow (c.f. 1 Corinthians 11:1). Further on in 1 Corinthians he asserts:

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. (1 Corinthians 3:12-17)

Paul was not talking about a physical temple, if he were this passage would not make rational sense (why would God care so much about the materials used to construct a physical building?); rather he makes it clear that the temple he is referring to is us. Therefore, if the physical temple is symbolic, this means gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw must also symbolize something other than physical materials. In the following excerpt from his works Against Celsus (Celsus, who was a heretic), Early Church Father Origen explains how our God is a consuming fire and what He comes to consume:

But when He is said to be a “consuming fire,” we inquire what are the things which are appropriate to be consumed by God. And we assert that they are wickedness, and the works which result from it, and which, being figuratively called “wood, hay, stubble,” (cf. 1Co_3:12) God consumes as a fire. The wicked man, accordingly, is said to build up on the previously-laid foundation of reason, “wood, and hay, and stubble.” If, then, any one can show that these words were differently understood by the writer, and can prove that the wicked man literally builds up “wood, or hay, or stubble,” it is evident that the fire must be understood to be material, and an object of sense. But if, on the contrary, the works of the wicked man are spoken of figuratively under the names of “wood, or hay, or stubble,” why does it not at once occur (to inquire) in what sense the word “fire” is to be taken, so that “wood” of such a kind should be consumed? For (the Scripture) says: “The fire will try each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work be burned, he shall suffer loss.” (cf. 1Co_3:13-15) But what work can be spoken of in these words as being “burned,” save all that results from wickedness? Therefore our God is a “consuming fire” in the sense in which we have taken the word; and thus He enters in as a “refiner’s fire,” to refine the rational nature, which has been filled with the lead of wickedness, and to free it from the other impure materials, which adulterate the natural gold or silver, so to speak, of the soul. And, in like manner, “rivers of fire” are said to be before God, who will thoroughly cleanse away the evil which is intermingled throughout the whole soul. (1)

Origen outlines the incongruity to think that wood, hay, and stubble are to be taken in a literal sense. He asserts that these all symbolize “wickedness and the works which result from it” (ibid.). So it is our works that God consumes in His fire. This is in alignment with what the Apostle Paul wrote, “each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work (1 Corinthians 3:13). Origen explains it is the Word of God that is a consuming fire, that refines our rational nature, which according to the Apostles and the Early Church is our spiritual nature. So God wants to refine us, consuming the irrational nature within (wickedness), to be completely rational (spiritual) (c.f. Romans 8:5). In another place, Origen explains more specifically what wickedness God consumes,

But let us reflect that God does indeed consume and utterly destroy; that He consumes evil thoughts, wicked actions, and sinful desires, when they find their way into the minds of believers; and that, inhabiting along with His Son those souls which are rendered capable of receiving His word and wisdom, according to His own declaration,” I and the Father shall come, and We shall make our abode with him?” (Joh_14:23) He makes them, after all their vices and passions have been consumed, a holy temple, worthy of Himself. (2)  

Origen describes that God comes to consume our evil thoughts, actions, and desires. Paul tells us that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.” (Romans 8:7). Paul also, in returning to the Church of Corinth, states “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:1) In Greek the term ‘carnal’ is sarx, and Thayer’s bible dictionary defines it as: mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God. (3) So, it is our fleshly thoughts and mere human (sinful) nature that God consumes in His fire. Origen reiterates that it is through “His word and wisdom” (ibid.) that God consumes our carnality; Solomon declared “How much better to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding it to be chosen rather than silver.” (Proverbs 16:16) Thus, gold and silver are symbolic of wisdom and understanding, respectively. The prophet Jeremiah stated “‘Is not My word like a fire?’ declares the Lord, ‘and like a hammer which shatters a rock?’” (Jeremiah 23:29). We see the continuation within scripture and the writings of Origen, that God’s Word is the consuming fire that burns away the vices and passions within us, for us to be His purified holy temple.  

Purification of the temple:

As aforementioned, we are God’s temple in need of purification, in order for us to become God’s dwelling place; because what does light have in common with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14). In 2 Chronicles we read of the building and dedication of Solomon’s temple. This account is all symbolic of God’s spiritual temple– His people.

When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’s house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).

Notice it was after Solomon had finished praying, that the Lord’s fire fell on the temple. Solomon’s intercession, and the sacrifices he made (which are also symbolic) were what ushered in the glory of God, to consume the offerings and fill the temple. Another Greek definition for the word ‘carnal’ refers to having its seat in the animal nature or aroused by the animal nature (4), and in Ecclesiastes we read “concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals [beasts].” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). Therefore, the animal sacrifices were all symbolic of the beastly (carnal) nature within us, which God considers wicked. David understood this, when he cried out to the Lord “For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart- These, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). 

It was the sacrifice of the carnal nature within, and Solomon’s contrite heart before the Lord, that moved God to send His fire to dedicate the temple. This is symbolic for us – Paul Exhorts the Church in Rome “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” It is a sweet smelling aroma to the Lord (ref. 2 Corinthians 2:15), when we lay our lives down as a living sacrifice, offering Him our carnal nature. John the Apostle puts this beautifully, in writing “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30). 

The dual meaning of God’s fire:

In the natural sense, fire can be both good and bad. In the following passage, Origen explains the twofold meaning of God’s fire.

But fire has a twofold power: to illuminate, and to burn …. When we come to the spiritual meaning, there too fire is twofold: there is a fire in this world and there is one in the future world. The Lord Jesus says: “1 came to cast fire upon the earth” (Lk 12:49): this fire illuminates. The same Jesus says in the future world to the “workers of iniquity” (cf. Lk 13:27): “Depart into the eternal fire which GOD my Father has prepared for the devil and his angels”: this fire burns. But this fire which Jesus came to cast upon the earth really does “enlighten every man coming into the world” (cf. In 1:9), and yet it also has a burning quality to it, as they profess who say: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Lk 24:32). Thus, he both ignited and enlightened as he “opened the scriptures.” (5)

Origen explains the fire Jesus came to bring is the illuminating fire, that burns in us when the scriptures are opened to us (c.f. Luke 24:32). This is the fire that consumes everything in us that is not of God. However, there is another fire that is prepared for the workers of iniquity. Iniquity refers to sin, unrighteousness, and moral wrongfulness (6). This fire is eternal punishment for those who do not want to sacrifice their carnal nature. As mentioned earlier by the Apostle Paul, the fire of God comes to test each one’s works (1 Corinthians 3:13). In tune with Origen, Early Church Father Irenaeus explains this duality of fire below:

 “For the day of the Lord cometh as a burning furnace, and all sinners shall be stubble, they who do evil things, and the day shall burn them up.” (Mal_4:1) Now, who this Lord is that brings such a day about, John the Baptist points out, when he says of Christ, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire, having His fan in His hand to cleanse His floor; and He will gather His fruit into the garner, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire.” (Mat_3:11, etc.) For He who makes the chaff and He who makes the wheat are not different persons, but one and the same, who judges them, that is, separates them. But the wheat and the chaff, being inanimate and irrational, have been made such by nature. But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect like to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself the cause to himself, that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff. Wherefore also he shall be justly condemned, because, having been created a rational being, he lost the true rationality, and living irrationally, opposed the righteousness of God, giving himself over to every earthly spirit, and serving all lusts; as says the prophet, “Man, being in honour, did not understand: he was assimilated to senseless beasts, and made like to them.” (Psa_49:12) (7)

Irenaeus outlines that those who remain and live irrationally (opposed to God), and do not seek to overcome their carnal nature, are people who, by their free-will, will be condemned. We are given a free-will, to seek after the illumination of God’s word, and be cleansed by His fire, or remain in our sinful nature, and give ourselves over to every earthly spirit, serving all lusts (ibid.). The wheat and the chaff are being separated, as the Lord is testing the genuineness of our faith, refining us in His fire for the revelation of Jesus Christ in us, which is our hope of glory (c.f. 1 Peter 1:7; Colossians 1:27). 


God’s consuming fire is coming to the Church in a way we previously might not have considered. His Word is the fire that is released to burn up the sin in our lives, and purify us as His temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). The Apostle Paul said that the Church at the end of the age must be holy and blameless, in order to be presented to the Lord (Ephesians 5:27); the Apostles and the Early Church understood God’s temple could not be defiled, and if it were, it would be consumed in the fire of condemnation. Is this purification process easy? Certainly not. It is not for the weak hearted, but those who are zealous to fight the good fight, and run the race until the end (reg. 2 Timothy 4:7). The blessed words of The Apostle Paul should encourage us- For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). Let us continue to press into God’s fire, that He may consume all irrationality and prepare us for His coming.

References:

1.     Origen – Against Celsus Book IV. Chap XII.

2.     Origen – De Principles Book I. Chap I.

3.     Thayer’s Greek definitions: ‘Carnal’ (G4561)

4.     Thayer’s Greek definitions: ‘Carnal’ (G4559)

5.     Origen – Spirit and Fire pg. 329-330

6.     Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries: ‘Iniquity’ (G93 and G94)

7.     Irenaeus- Against Heresies Book IV. Chap IV. 

All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.