Stoking the Fire Reflection: God’s Consuming Fire

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Friends United Meeting’s 2016 Stoking the Fire conference is coming up! We are posting here a devotional Brian Young originally wrote in preparation for last year’s gathering, and will post others in coming weeks.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28-29, NIV

The image of God as a consuming fire may give us pause. What does it mean to be consumed by such fire? Is this the fire of judgment? Is it a fire that would mean our utter destruction?

This phrase shows up a number of places in the Hebrew Bible, as in Deuteronomy 4:24, referring to God’s jealousy against idolatry, or in Deuteronomy 9:3, describing God’s role as a warrior against Israel’s enemies. And of course it emerges in the New Testament as well, in this passage from Hebrews, and in what John the Baptist says of Jesus: “his winnowing fork is in his hand… he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17).

Among the early Friends, Isaac Penington asked, “To what is he a consuming fire? Is it not to the chaffy, earthy, drossy nature in men and women?” As Penington describes it, this consuming fire is one way that God works in us to refine us, to remove those things in us that are superficial or unworthy or miss the mark.

But the author of Hebrews also seems to evoke here the times when God sends fire to consume an offering made on the altar, and the awe-full response of the people, as in Leviticus 9:22–24. Today, burnt offerings are no longer what God desires of us, but rather the sacrifice of thankfulness, reverence and awe. God is ready to consume everything that we would lay on our inward altars, as the fire consumed the offerings given by priests. But as Friend Isaac points out, God’s fire does not devour us; instead, we are purified, refined, strengthened. Let us not be afraid of God’s consuming fire.

James Bryan Smith (The Good and Beautiful God), referring to this passage from Hebrews, says that each Christ-follower lives in “the unshakeable Kingdom of God.” Every Sunday when I prepare for worship in my meeting, I am thankful for the people whose surrendered lives around me witness to God’s goodness and love. While we have our disagreements and shortcomings, the community that Christ calls us into is unshakeable because it doesn’t depend on any one of us, and it extends beyond us to all who have ever shared in it, living and asleep. We are part of something that nothing can assail, and that no fire can destroy. And for that we can be truly thankful, worshiping God with reverence and awe.

Queries:

  • What does the image of God as a consuming fire bring up for you? Is it comforting or distressing?
  • Have there been times of your life where you have known God’s consuming fire, either as you made an inward offering, or as God burned something away and refined you?
  • Have you known particular times of reverence and awe in corporate worship? How was God present in those times?

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