May 17, 2019
Flame of Fire
Divinity & the Humanity It Encounters
"Our God is a consuming fire," wrote the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. What could a Christian of the first century have thought hearing such words being read? What does a 21st-century Christian think of it? How do liberal churches take this and interpret it? Does it say something true about God or, as they often claim, does it merely say something about the writer
I start with the word fire: In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation alone uses the word (Greek pur or pyr as in pyromaniac) and its cognates by my count 27 times.
Some fires in the New Testament, of course, are just physical fires, as the fire on the beach from which fled the snake that bit Paul. Many, such as the verse from Hebrews cited above, carry a deeper meaning.
In general, we respond to fire in one of two ways. We either flee it or are drawn to it. We know the deadly power of fire and we rightly fear it. We flee a burning car or house. We also know fire as warmth, purification, and a means for preparing food. We gather at a campfire or the family fireplace.
People will gather at a bad fire as well: a burning house will draw a crowd. Fire and flame, when not endangering us directly, attract our eyes. Just watch folks sitting in front of a fireplace. The flame draws us in.
Moses was drawn to the Burning Bush, no doubt because it was on fire, but also:
He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned." (Exodus 3:2-3)
The Gospels mention fire about 25 times, mostly in terms of a final judgment. John the Baptist and Jesus speak of fire and judgment.
John says Christ comes to baptize with fire. Jesus later says: "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)
Going back to Revelation, we see Jesus depicted in John's vision, and "His eyes were like a flame of fire." Jesus saw fire in his future, and in Revelation we see fire in his eyes. (1:14)
There is no escaping fire in our faith. It's not just a cultural way of talking that Jesus picked up from his neighbors. Jesus, Son of God, knew what spiritual or eternal fire means. The Lord knew, and warned his followers as an act of kindness:
If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (Jn. 15:6)
He prophesied this fire:
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. (Matt. 13:40)
This final fire is noted by Peter:
... waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Pet. 3:12)
God is a consuming fire-yet Moses saw the fire of the Burning Bush did not consume the bush! So, also, Christ's human body was not consumed by the "fire of divinity." When Thomas touched Jesus's wounded side, Romanus the Melodist (6th c.) wrote,
Who then preserved the disciple's palm unmelted
when it approached the fiery side of the Lord?
Who gave it daring and gave it strength to handle bone of flame?
And then this:
Truly, the bush bearing fire burned and was not burned up;
for, from Thomas's hand, I believe in Moses' story;
though it was perishable and thorny [human], it was not consumed
as it handled the side like a burning flame.
Of old the fire came upon the thorn,
But now the bramble ran towards the fire,
and God himself appeared, protecting both.
Thus I believe, thus I glorify
the same God, who is also man, as I say,
"You are our Lord and our God."
We need not fear the fire of God if we welcome it. It has been said that this is the holy Love of God, which burns those who recoil from it but purifies those who seek his presence. Our prayer is, "Wound our souls with Your love."
Dare we allow our "hearts" to "burn within us" while he opens to us the Scriptures? His fire will not consume us; but it will consume what is unworthy, which means being made holy. Our churches need no fire extinguishers, but rather kindlers of the flame, that we may know Christ in our midst.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.