Many times in the Bible the natural elements of wind, water, fire, etc are used to describe various attributes of God or His presence.
Like wind and water, fire is one of the essential elements on our planet. It is a blessing when properly controlled to give warmth and energy, but totally destructive when out of control.
Fire in the natural world is created when energy is released. In the spiritual world, the release of spiritual “energy” can also give the same result. In Christian circles we often talk about the “fire of God” – using the word to describe the feeling of His presence along with words like “glory”, “refining” “power” etc.
This type of spiritual fire can be “felt” or perceived by some people, but most of the time it’s invisible to the natural eye.
However, the Bible gives numerous illustrations where the direct contact of the spiritual world with the natural world results in fire, and on many occasions the fire is visible.
This is first mentioned in Genesis 3:24 where Cherubim and a moving flaming sword were placed at the east of the garden of Eden to protect the tree of life. In Exodus 19:18 the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai in fire, causing the whole mountain to greatly shake, and in the sight of all the people.
When God called Moses in Exodus 3 to give him his great task, He attracted Moses’ attention by appearing to him in a flame of fire out of the middle of a bush. This encounter between God and the world Moses was walking in resulted in a fire that was visible and yet did not consume the bush in the middle of the fire. God called to him from the middle of the fire, told him that the place where he was standing was holy ground, and gave Moses his commission to be part of the deliverance of the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt.
When it was time for Elijah to be translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:11), he travelled there by way of a visible chariot of fire and horses of fire, going up by a whirlwind into heaven, once again in the sight of the people.
Ezekiel (1:4-14) saw spiritual beings as coming out of the midst of fire, with the appearance of lamps, bright light and lightning, and the glory of God (v 26-28) as a fire around His throne.
It wasn’t just in the Old Testament that the presence of God in fire could be seen. In Acts 2:3 the arrival of the Holy Spirit was seen as visible tongues of fire upon each of the believers.
When John first encountered the risen Jesus in the book of Revelation, he described Him in Rev 1 as having eyes like a flame of fire, His feet glowing as if they burned in a furnace, and His face like the brightness of the sun in full strength.
God is even described as a consuming fire.
But there is one important difference between the fire of God and natural fire. Although man can harness the power of fire to provide essential warmth and fuel, uncontrolled earthly fire consumes everything in its path, even objects of value.
The fire God uses also consumes, but only that which is not of Him.
Protection v destruction
In Daniel 3:19-28, in the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, we see an amazing example of God’s supernatural protection of His people right within the intended destructive force of the hottest fire that man at that time could generate – a massive furnace so powerfully hot that it killed the men who were throwing the intended victims in. Rather than destroying God’s three servants as it was supposed to, the fire burned off their bonds and freed them and yet could not touch their bodies. Nebuchadnezzar was greatly astonished to see “four men loose walking in the midst of the fire and having no hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God”! The supernatural fire that the men were walking in was so powerful that the natural fire could not touch them, and when released there was not even the smell of natural fire on them.
This same protection is prophesied by God in verse 2 for the times described in Isaiah 43.
After the people of Israel had been delivered from Egypt, God protected them by a visible pillar of fire between them and the Egyptians. Zechariah 2:5 gives the promise of this happening again at the end of this age.
Psalm 91 also draws powerful pictures of God supernaturally protecting His people in the last days from destructive (nuclear) forces powerful enough to destroy thousands of people at once.
There are many examples where visible fire from heaven is used as judgement. Although not harmful to God’s people, it is frequently destructive to that which is not being directly protected by God – it burned up the sacrifices in the great test between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, and destroyed troops sent to capture Elijah in 2 Kings 1.
In Genesis 19 Sodom was destroyed by fire from heaven. On this occasion brimstone was added, giving a degree of radiation that Lot’s wife encountered when she disobeyed the angels’ command to neither stop nor look back. She stopped, the radiation caught up with her and evaporated her body into a pillar of salt / chemicals.
2 Peter 3:7, 10-12 tells us that the world and its works will ultimately be destroyed by fire. In Revelation 20:9 the hordes of Satan are finally destroyed by fire.
Spiritual fire is described as being used by God in a refining process. Unlike natural fire which destroys indiscriminately, God is so careful in the way He uses His fire that only that which is not of Him is consumed. In Luke 3:16-17 the chaff is burned but not the wheat. In Malachi 3:2 God is described as like a refiner’s fire, burning out impurities so that the pure metal remains. In Revelation 3:18 the apostate church of Laodicea is counselled to obtain (spiritual) gold from God tried in the fire instead of trusting in their natural wealth, which has rendered them spiritually poor in God’s eyes. Peter encourages us in 1 Peter 1:7 to rejoice that the trial of our faith by God’s refining fire will be more precious than gold in His eyes.
Using spiritual fire-power
God anointed many people and prophets in the Bible with power, even the power to call down fire from heaven. But even prophets did not always use such power wisely or in accordance with God’s heart. Elisha took vengeance on children taunting him, and Elijah called down fire on soldiers sent by the king to fetch him.
Jesus made it clear in Luke 9:51-56 that the power to command fire from heaven should not be used with wrong motives or as a result of human reasoning. The disciples thought that Jesus would want them to call down fire from heaven to consume the people who had rejected Him, because Elisha had done just that. Jesus did not say that they did not have the power to do this. Instead He rebuked them for wanting to use it in this fashion, saying that to do so would be operating from a wrong spirit! Power alone is not a sign that we are walking in harmony with God. We are told to look for and operate from the fruits of the Spirit in our lives rather than just the gifts of His power. We must seek to use God’s gifts and power only in accordance with His heart and purposes, just as Jesus did.