By Timothy K. Cain
Only God can send the fire to consume the sacrifice on the altar! It is up to us to provide the necessary fuel to maintain the fire. This is true both physically and spiritually. Fire on the altar is needed to purge, destroy, cleanse, sanctify, purify, and make sacred that which is unholy. Without fire, the altar experience is incomplete. Fire has an empowering force of its own, which comes from its source. Take away the source, and the fire dies. Failure to stoke the fire to allow it to breathe causes the fire to die. Without fuel, the fire dies. What good is the fire without an altar and/or a sacrifice?
Fire is the third required element of a complete altar experience. As with the altar and the sacrifice, preparation must be done before the fire can come and do its work. Once the fire has been sent by God, we must do some things to maintain the fire. For the purposes of this work, we will look at the physical aspects and the spiritual aspects of fire from biblical texts. As with the other required elements of an altar experience, we will look at fire in the context of the OT, NT, and its manifestation today. As we will see, the requirement for fire throughout the Bible has not changed, but its form has. Furthermore, its empowering force has not diminished and is still essential for us to possess today!
Let’s briefly look at the original Hebrew and Greek words that have been translated to the English word fire. With a few exceptions, the primary Hebrew word used in the OT for fire is the term ‘esh. This term ‘esh in the Hebrew means “fire(literally or figuratively): burning, fiery, fire, flame, flaming, hot.” From this definition above, we see that the term ‘esh is used in a broad variety of contexts in the OT. The first use of the word ‘esh is found in Genesis 19:24, which is referring to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the NT, the primary word used from the Greek for fire is pur. The word pur is used in the NT in all but seven occasions (Mark 14:54; Luke 22:56; Acts 28:2, 3; James 3:6; II Peter 3:12; Revelation 9:17). Pur simply means “fire (literally or figuratively), or fiery.” The first use of the word pur in the NT is found in Matthew 3:10, in reference to the destruction of trees which are cut down if they do not bear fruit. Note that the first use of the word fire in the OT and NT is in the context of destruction due to disobedience. It is also important to note that the Hebrew term ‘esh of the OT and the Greek word pur of the NT are both used literally and figuratively to describe fire.
The natural elements of fire have been with us since God created the heavens and the earth. Like the altar and the sacrifice, fire is a part of what God has given to us. Whether by lightning from the sky, molten lava from the earth’s core, fire from the heat of friction or combustion, or the more modern engineered forms of controlled fire, they are all a part of God’s creation. It is these forms of fire that we think of in the natural realm. Most, if not all, of these forms have their place in nature and the development of modern-day mankind. Much of our current knowledge about the physical form of fire is just that, knowledge. Because the elements that are necessary to make up natural fire exists all around us and because uncontrollable elements of nature can ignite fire at any moment without warning, we are reduced only to control fire when possible. Billions of dollars are spent annually by nations around the world in an attempt to control the destructive force of fire. This may explain why we humans tend to think of fire as simple a destructive force. One of the first things parents still teach their children is, “Don’t play with matches. If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.” While there should be a healthy respect for the nature of fire, fire should not be viewed entirely in a negative connotation.
Much can be learned from physical fire that transcends earthly concepts and can be applied to our spiritual lives. For a physical fire to be ignited, three fundamental elements must be present. Some type of fuel is needed, along with oxygen and a source of heat. These elements are required regardless of whether we’re talking about an out-of-control forest fire to the head of a match. Fire in both of these contexts can result in enormous loss or be very useful. Several years ago the wildfires of Yellowstone National Park initially seemed to have utterly destroyed much of the park. Today, those burned-over areas of vegetation thrive with new plant life once thought to be extinct. Burning away of the overgrowth and the intense heat of the fires are said to have caused once dormant seeds again to germinate. In this sense, the destructive force of fire brought about new life.
A flame from the head of one match could have been the igniting source of fire which resulted in the destruction of millions of acres of land. Yet a single match is all that is necessary to maintain life. Wilderness survival trainers stress the importance of keeping your matches, or other source of fire, dry at all costs. Persons lost in wilderness around the world have been found and saved by the flame of one match. Miles from civilization, on the verge of starvation, confusion setting in, numb, and almost dehydrated from walking step by step through waist-high snow at a high altitude, your life could be saved with the flame from one match. That single flame could be the source of a larger fire for warmth, water, food, and yes, life. Catastrophic destruction and remarkable stories of survival, all the result of fire.
In the OT, God chose to use the natural element of fire to demonstrate and to teach His people about the destructive force and the life-giving source of fire. The first demonstration of this by God is found in Genesis 3:24 when Adam and Eve were kept out of the Garden of Eden by a “flaming” (or fiery) sword. In this example, God decided to separate Adam and Eve from the “tree of life.” Where there is sin, fire makes the separation between that which is holy and that which is unholy. This concept was later reinforced in the life of Abraham. In Genesis 19:24, fire came down from heaven to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sin. Before God destroyed the cities, He first separated out Lot and his family (that which was holy/righteous). Just three chapters later, we find Abraham taking fire into the mountains of Moriah to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). God saved Isaac from the fire and allowed a ram to become the substitute sacrifice.
Let us now turn our attention to the encounters of Moses with fire prior to Mount Sinai. Moses’ firs encounter with the presence of God was through fire (Exodus 3). When God called Moses for service, He called to Moses from a bush in the wilderness near Mount Horeb. The bush was blazing, or aflame, yet it was not consumed (3:2). Standing before the bush, God told Moses to remove his sandals, for he was standing on holy ground (verse 5). As God began to speak to Moses, Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (verse 6). The Bible tells us that Moses was, in essence, on the backside of the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Moses appeared to be alone in the wilderness with no other witnesses to this event. In other words, it appears that God intentionally separated Moses out first before revealing Himself to Moses in the bush. Moses’ next experience with fire was as the appointed leader of the Israelites in Egypt. To bring the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God told Moses to stretch forth his rod in Exodus 9:23-24. As Moses stretched forth the rod, fire came down and ran along the ground. A short time later, we then find God commanding Moses to use fire to roast the Passover meal and to burn any remaining portions in the morning (Exodus 12:8-70) prior to the Exodus.
The children of Israel, upon exiting the bondage of Egypt, were led into and through the wilderness by a pillar of fire (exodus 13:21-22). It was God who looked through the pillar of fire to destroy Pharaoh and the pursuers of the Israelites (exodus 14:24). These encounters by Moses and the Israelites were a prelude to what God was about to show them at Mount Sinai. These encounters with God and fire would later pale in comparison to the demonstrations at Mount Sinai. The appearance of God on Mount Sinai in the fire is still considered one of the most spectacular biblical lessons of all time. Only three months after exiting Egypt, Moses was instructed by God to prepare the people for His appearance (Exodus 19:4-6). Furthermore, Moses was told by God how to prepare the people for the fire. The successful preparation for this first event hinged on two key decisions. First, “will ye obey my voice?” (verse 5). Second, would the people agree to heed the words of Moses as their leader (verse 8)? God wanted a mediator between Him and man, a man who would be willing to receive instruction from god and see that the instructions were carried out in the prescribed manner. The next few verses of Scripture leading up to God’s appearance in the fire are a foreshadowing of sacrificial altar worship in the Tabernacle, the Temples, the cross, and our plan of salvation today.
Moses’ instructions for the people began with the washing of themselves and their clothes for two days prior to the occasion (Exodus 19:10-11). This signifies the preparation by the priests before making sacrificial offerings. The priests were to wash their flesh and were required to wear certain clothing, priestly garments specifically designed by God for carrying out their priestly service (Leviticus 16). Next, God told Moses to set boundaries around the mountain (19:23-13). Violations of the boundaries resulted in immediate death. The boundaries could only be crossed by God’s select few, who were properly designated and prepared, thus symbolizing the boundaries around the sacrificial altar of the Tabernacle and the Temples, where the priests ministered. As with the Tabernacle and in the Temples, the people were able to participate and observe but from a distance. This is implied as well in verse 17 when Moses brought the people to meet God. Moses had the people stand outside the boundaries he had set for them. Yet they could see the mountains and hear the voice of God. Moses became the sacrificial offering on the altar of the mountains that day. He interceded to God on behalf of the people. It wasn’t until after Moses and the Israelites had made the required preparations that God descended upon the mountains “in fire” (verse 18).
After Moses came down from the mountain and charged the people to obey the Book of the Covenant, God called for Moses and his minister Joshua to come up again into His presence. The Israelites could see the glory of the Lord but not like Moses and Joshua did. “Now the Presence of the Lord appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:17-18 JPS). In the presence of God on the mountain Moses learned the importance of a proper altar and a proper sacrifice upon which God will send the fire. When Moses came down from the presence of the Lord, he was “not aware that the skin of his face was radiant” (Exodus 34:29 JPS). Thereafter, when Moses would come out of the presence of the Lord, he would wear a veil because his face was so radiant. The fire that consumes a worshipper in the presence of God changes the physical man and the spiritual man. It causes otherwise involuntary reactions to take place in the spiritual man, just as there are physical and chemical reactions that take place within a natural fire. Fire is transforming! You cannot come in contact with fire without being changed!
In the chill of an autumn afternoon after a satisfying meal, it’s soothing to bask in the warmth of the fire coming from a stone fireplace. Better still, to have hiked or worked outside on a cold snowy day and relax by the warmth of a blazing campfire. In either case, we typically don’t get very close to the actual fire except to throw on more wood. We tend to sit back and enjoy a measure of warmth, while watching and listening to the fire consume the wood. When stoking such a fire, the varying intensities of heat as one gets closer to the center of the fire has always amazed me. Along with varying intensity of the heat is the changing of color in the flames and the coals. Spiritually speaking, few people seem to venture past the warmth of God’s presence and into the fire. What if Moses would have been content to have stayed outside the boundaries of God’s presence? In hindsight, it seems impossible that he would have even considered not going up the mountain. Yet God desires someone (like Moses) who is willing to go into the fire, come out changed, and keep the fire alive!
Throughout the OT, natural fire was required for sacrificial worship to God. As we have already discussed, Leviticus chapters 1-7 spell out for us the way sacrifices were to be offered upon the sacrificial altars of the Tabernacle and in the Temples. Leviticus 1:7 tells us who is to maintain the fire once the fire has been sent by God. Additional instructions are found in Leviticus 6:5-6 (JPS), “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” Clearly, it was the priest’s obligatory function to keep the fire going continually! As a part of this function, additional wood had to be placed on the altar before the ‘olah (whole burnt offering) was placed on the altar. Keep in mind, the sacrifices were offered during the daylight hours. Most of the fat parts and the altar portions would easily be consumed. However, the entire carcass of the ‘olah sacrifice would naturally take longer to burn. So the fire was to be kept burning throughout the night until morning to consume all of the remaining parts on the altar. Therefore, it became necessary for the priests to clear away the ashes from the altar hearth and stoke the fire back to life every morning. One Haggadah source reveals that this perpetual fire has served for generations as a “symbol of unquenchable devotion” to God. The fire “came forth from God’s presence (Leviticus 9:24), and it burned continuously for 116 years, yet the thin copper sheathing of the altar never melted, and its wooden core was not charred.”
In fact, Leviticus 9 is where we find the fire being sent from the presence of God to consume the sacrifice on the altar. However, this was after Moses, Aaron, and the priests were consecrated prior to their service in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 8). Moses was very specific in his instructions (just as God had been) to the priests concerning what animals should first be brought to the Tabernacle and the reasons why (Leviticus 9:1-4 JPS). After the proper sacrifices had been slaughtered and placed on the altar as God had commanded, “Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people” (verse 23 JPS). “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces” (verse 24 JPS).
Immediately after God had sent the fire to consume the sacrifices on the altar, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took a fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on the fire. Then they offered before the Lord alien fire which the Lord had not enjoined them to do (Leviticus 10:1 JPS). “And fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed them” (verse 2). Within a matter of moments, the nation of Israel witnessed the awe-inspiring use of fire to provide atonement from sins’ death sentence, followed by the destructive force of fire for those who disobey God’s word. From the death of Nadab and Abihu to today, God’s Word has provided specific instructions of how to prepare for the fire. Obedience to God’s Word was and is the prerequisite that we must fulfill in order to experience the fire.
Just as there was fire on the sacrificial altar to consume the sacrifice, fire was also used outside the camp to burn those parts of the sacrifice that were not fit to be used as an offering. Throughout the OT, fire was used to consume and destroy what was deemed “unclean” or “unholy”. The ANE Israelites made the distinction between what was “unclean” and what was “unholy” within their laws. Things considered to be “unclean” were not unnecessarily considered sin, but they could be the result of sin or lead to sin if not cleansed properly. An Israelite, for example, could have a physical problem or disease classified as “unclean”. If not properly attended to, progression of the ailment might result in the individual’s being classified as “unholy”. Violations classified as “unholy” were considered more serious violations of moral, ethical, or ritual laws. Those who dared to challenge God’s commands or the words of the prophets of God typically received their punishment directly from God. Knowing this helps us to better understand ancient Israel’s daily preoccupation with what was considered clean, unclean, holy, and unholy. In the writings of the prophets, these terms are defined as that which is “profane” and that which is “sacred”. Fire was therefore seen as a means of making clean that which was unclean, and holy that which was unholy. In a much broader context, that which was pleasing to God and that which was not pleasing to God.
A further clarification of the purifying qualities of fire is found in Leviticus 16. This chapter deals primarily with the instructions and the procedures to be carried out by the priests on the Day of Atonement. It becomes blatantly clear that everything sacrificial altar. Sacrifices were brought daily and offered on the sacrificial altar. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the designated priest would go into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the sins of the nation (Leviticus 16:34). However, the priest could not go into the Holy of Holies without first making the proper sacrifices on the brazen altar. Then, after properly washing his flesh and putting on the priestly garments, the priest would take coals from the fire of the sacrificial altar with him to the golden altar of incense (verse 12). If these procedures were not correctly followed, the priest would die. The animal that had been brought and sacrificed on the brazen altar could no longer be identified as a bullock, goat, ram, etc. Fire that consumed the animal forever changed its appearance. No longer was the wood recognizable. Yet the wood and the animal were both in the coals that were carried to the altar of incense, giving life to the Israelites for another year. When God sends His fire to purge us, our sin is no longer recognizable, thereby giving us new life.
When a natural fire occurs, we sometimes only see gross destruction that has been left behind. Although not visible to the naked eye, many things left behind offer growth. There are three elementary things that an arson investigator looks for at a fire scene. They are: the overall burn pattern, signs of heat intensity, and chemical makeup within the ashes. Like the fire in Yellowstone National Park, heat produced much more than a scarred landscape. The heat was so intense in places that seed well below the surface was germinated and brought forth new life. Trees and other plant life that had been so crucial in the function of the ecosystem were now in ashes covering miles of barren land. Within the ashes on the ground lay vast amounts of nitrogen and other natural chemicals which would act as fertilizers to bring forth new plant life. With sin lying couched at the door and evil all around us, we must be transformed by the power of God’s fire. Without it, we are nothing more than a heap of ashes outside the camp. Furthermore, without the transforming power of God’s fire, we, like the Israelites, are powerless to obey His commands. God said, “Ye shall keep my statutes and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you” (Leviticus 20:8). As children of the most high God, in order to fulfill this command, we too must daily allow the fire to purge out the old man (our carnal nature) and bring forth new life!
Most scholars believe Moses was approximately eighty years old when he led the Israelites into the wilderness from Egypt. Eighty years of preparation so that he could lead God’s chosen people through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Furthermore, it is commonly believed that the Book of Deuteronomy is the account of Moses’ last few months before his death. At this point in Moses’ life, he certainly understood the relationship of fire as a tool of God’s divine power. Deuteronomy documents Moses’ repeated warnings to the Israelites to stay true to their God and be obedient to His word. Moses recounted much of what is already known about ANE Israelite worship but gave us bits of new information as well. In Deuteronomy 4, Moses summarized his views and experiences with fire, “And the mountain [Sinai] burned with fire unto the midst of heaven… The LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire…The LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire… The LORD thy God is a consuming fire… Hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire… And upon earth he shewed thee his great fire; and thou heardest his words out of the midst of the fire” (verse 11, 12, 15, 24, 33, 36). Moses continued by stressing the importance of fire again in chapters 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 18, 32. Without question, Moses clearly understood the destructive force of fire and its life-giving purpose.
Like the altar and the sacrificial offerings, natural fire continued as an essential element of sacrificial worship in the Temples until about A.D. 70. After Israel entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, there were periods of time up to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 when sacrificial worship was undocumented. However, we know that the fire continued to burn in the hearts of God’s prophets. They longed at times for the reinstitution of sacrificial worship. One such occurrence is found in the Book of Isaiah. While having a prophetic vision, the prophet Isaiah found himself in the presence of the Lord, while at the same time watching seraphim praising the Lord (Isaiah 6:1-4). Isaiah realized he was “a man of unclean lips” and therefore not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord (verse 5). “Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, … thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (verses 6-7). This, of course, represented the act of atonement carried out by the priests in the Tabernacle earlier in Leviticus 16. Moreover, it was a reminder to the Israelites that the function of the altar was still relevant even if they could not carry out the ritual practices in the Temple.
Almost every book of the OT has something to say about fire in its natural form or its spiritual form. Without oversimplifying the subject, most OT references show us fire’s destructive force or its living force in the physical realm or the spiritual realm. An OT metaphor involving fire can be found in Obadiah 1:18, “And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau.” One contemporary Chasidic sage gives us this analysis concerning this verse:
“Why is Jacob compared to a fire and Joseph to a blaze? A fire is localized; it is kept under control – in the furnace or on a candle – and does not spread. A blaze is a fire that is out of control, sweeping vast areas, consuming everything in its path.
“Jacob, the older, more sedate generation, is compared to fire… But Joseph, the young generation, is ablaze with a consuming and ecstatic love of God that ignites enthusiasm…
“But a blaze can flare only as long as it is fed by the fire to which it is connected, and the youthful fervor of Joseph can continue burning only if its nourished by the teachings of the elder farther Jacob.”
This advice closely follows that of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy to pass on the teachings from one generation to another in order to keep the fire alive. We can conclude then that in this context the Word of God is the fuel element necessary to maintain the fire.
We also find OT prophecy concerning the changing form of fire revealed in the NT. One such reference is in the last book of the OT, Malachi. Speaking of the coming of Jesus Christ, Malachi wrote, “But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire… and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier” (3:2-3). This is the last reference to fire in the OT, but the fire did not die out. It simply changed form. John the Baptist came preaching and prophesying in the wilderness of Judea about this new form of fire (Matthew 3:1). John said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, who shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (verse 11). Immediately after John the Baptist had spoken these words, Jesus appeared at the river Jordan and was baptized by John, whereupon He (Jesus) received the Holy Ghost (Luke 3:21-22).
Jesus Christ came to this earth to show us by example how we should live. He was to receive and distribute the new form of fire (Holy Ghost). Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Yet He did not want to leave us powerless or without the fire. In His last words to his disciples, Jesus said, “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” (Acts 1:5). “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” (verse 8). The disciples and others (about 120) went to an upper room where they “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (verses 13-14). “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come…Suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind…And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4). This new form of fire could thereafter be experienced by anyone willing to follow the example set by Jesus Christ and the apostles. The apostle Peter made this abundantly clear when asked by those observing the events in the upper room that day, “Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (verses 37-38). Therefore, we should have to conclude that, following our confession through repentance and our obedience in water baptism, we too can be consumed with the fire of the Holy Ghost!
Since the institution of this plan of salvation by Jesus Christ and the apostles, many have tried to create their own source power through various types of worship. However, the Word of God has not changed nor a new plan of salvation has been instituted since Jesus Christ. Like the fire that was sent forth from God to consume the sacrifices on the brazen altar (Leviticus 9:23-24), only God can fill us with the fire of the Holy Ghost. This is accomplished, of course, through obedience to His Word. The fire of the Holy Ghost living inside of us changes the inner man by burning away the sin in our lives and empowers us to live like Christ (Christians). Therefore, as part of the “royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:9), the full responsibility to daily maintain the fire of the Holy Ghost rests on each individual who receives it. The apostle Paul told the Corinthian church, “For the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (I Corinthians 3:13). If we do not have the spiritual fire of the Holy Ghost consuming our lives, on the Day of Judgment it will be the physical “lake of fire” that consumes us (Revelation 20:9, 10, 14, 15; 21:8). The question then becomes: how do we maintain the fire of the Holy Ghost?
The answer is found in Exodus 20:24. We must first make an altar, then daily offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice” unto God. God will then send His fire to consume our sin and breathe new life into us. This can only lead to one conclusion; daily communion with God at an altar is not an option. It is a command that must be followed. The Word of God is the nourishing fuel, prayer is the oxygen, the intensity of heat is provided by God through the consuming fire of the Holy Ghost. We now function as the priests. Therefore, we must stoke the coals and breathe new life into the fire every morning.
“A person at prayer is like a bed of coals; As long as a single spark remains, a great fire can again be kindled. But without that spark there can be no fire.
Always remain attached to God, even in those times when you feel unable to ascend to Him. You must preserve that single spark lest the fire of your soul be extinguished.”
Where is your altar?
The above article, “Fire on the Altar!” is written by Timothy K. Cain. The article was excerpted from the sixth chapter of Cain’s book Building an Altar Unto Him.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.