In Deuteronomy 4:24 and 9:3, the Lord is first identified as a consuming fire. In Hebrews, the author warns the Hebrews to worship the Lord God with reverence and awe “for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
There is nothing unusual or mysterious about the Hebrew and Greek words translated consuming fire; they mean a fire that consumes or destroys.
In both Deuteronomy passages, the Lord is called a consuming fire. Moses speaks first to warn the Israelites against idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:23-25) because of God’s jealousy, who will not share His glory with worthless idols.
Idolatry provokes the Lord to righteous anger, which is justified when the holiness of God is maligned. In Deuteronomy 9:3, Moses refers to the Lord as a consuming fire who would go ahead of the Israelites into the Promise Land, destroying and subduing their enemies before them.
Here we discover the wrath of God is against those who oppose Him, who consumes and destroys anything in His path.
Biblical Examples of the Consuming Fire of the Lord
Aaron’s sons, Abihu and Nadab, were destroyed by fire when they offered strange fire, which is a profane sacrifice in the tabernacle. Their sacrifice was a sign of disregard for the holiness of God and the need to honor Him in holy fear.
Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel occurred when the prophets of Baal called upon their god all day long to rain fire from heaven to no avail.
Then Elijah built an altar of stones, dug a ditch around it, put the sacrifice on the top of the wood, and called for water to be poured over his sacrifice three times.
Then Elijah called upon the Lord, and the Lord sent fire from heaven consuming the sacrifice, the wood, and the stones and even licked up the fire in the ditch. After that, the anger of the Lord turned towards the false prophets resulting in their deaths.
Isaiah is another example of God’s consuming fire. When prophesying the destruction of the Assyrians who resisted the true and living God and made war against the people of God, Isaiah refers to the tongue of the Lord as a consuming fire in Isaiah 30:27-30.
The Holiness of God and Jesus
The holiness of God is why God is a consuming fire, for it burns up anything unholy. The holiness of God separates Him from sinful man (Isaiah 64:6).
In the death of Jesus, he has provided all the righteousness that sinners would ever need mitigating the wrath of God, exchanging His perfect righteousness for our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Since the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, now those who belong to Him need not fear the same fate as the Assyrians, and we also need not fear the wrath of God, since the purifying blood of Jesus covers the people of God.
Moses and the Glory of God
After Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf (Exodus 32), Moses sought assurance from the Lord that He would not destroy Israel but be with the people and set them apart from other nations (Exodus 33:12-16).
The Lord reassured Moses He would stay with Israel, and then he requested to see His glory (Exodus 33:17-18). The request to see God’s glory is crucial because it first shows the true source of assurance for God’s people is none other than the Lord Himself.
Moses had seen the mighty acts of the Lord in delivering Israel from the Egyptians in the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14).
Given the sin of Israel, Moses sought greater assurance the Lord would not break His covenant even though the people had been faithless with the Lord.
Moses’ request is remarkable because God, in response, reveals an essential aspect of the all-consuming nature of His glory. In Exodus 33:17-23, the Lord agreed to show Moses His goodness but not His face directly because no one can see the fullness of His glory directly and live (Exodus 33:19-20). Moses would have to be content to see the Lord’s back but not His face (Exodus 33:21-23).
Now, the Lord does not have a face or a back as humans do. This is an example of anthropomorphism to best describe the Lord’s glory directly. Even so, the Lord was gracious in granting Moses’ request and letting Him see His glory only indirectly.
One day, the people of God will see the face of God face-to-face, but that cannot happen until all sin has been removed and Christians are glorified. On the final day, the people of God will be like Him (1 John 3:2), but until then, any sinner who would see Him directly will be consumed.
In His glory, the Lord is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29), so sin and sinners cannot be sustained in His presence. Until we are fully renewed after the image of Christ in glorification, we await to see the incompressible brightness of the divine glory of God.
Why the Consuming Fire of the Lord Matters
The consuming fire of the Lord matters because of our worship. Rather than treating worship flippantly, we should worship the Lord properly and reverently. We are to worship the Lord in spirit and truth (John 4:24) because our whole lives are before His face.
The Lord, as a consuming fire, should make the people of God reverent in worship, humble in prayer, and realize the Lord is not to be trifled with since He is holy and deserves all glory. He is loving, but He is our King and the only Sovereign.
Christians should desire to know the Lord more each day and grow to have a more in-depth view and understanding of His majesty. Christians need to maintain both the holiness and love of God in tension without minimizing or neglecting, either.
As the people of God, may we meditate more on His revealed character and ask for the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth of Scripture to both our hearts and minds, for this will stir up our affections to the holy fear and reverence of the Lord.
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Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.