A Fire From the Presence of God

The inspiration for the song of that title on our Songs page came from noticing how often God’s will makes itself known by fire from heaven in the Old Testament. This post will explore the theme of fire from God’s presence in relation to His acceptance or rejection of priests, temple, and repentance. We’ll also see how these relate to the events of the day of Pentecost and how they may have shaped the Apostle Paul’s view of the church.

A Fire of Acceptance
The book of Leviticus tells the story of the establishment and functioning of the Aaronic priesthood of the Israelite Covenant. When the time came for the priests to be set apart for holy service for God, they went through a seven-day purification ritual that culminated with a burned offering as a sacrifice to God. The priests and Moses entered the Tabernacle to present the priests before God after the offering has been prepared and set upon the as-yet-unlit altar. As they presented themselves before God, His presence filled the tabernacle. As this happened, fire came down from God’s presence and completely consumed the offering. This signified that God had accepted the Tabernacle and the priesthood as part of a worship system pleasing to Him. [Leviticus 9:22-24]

When Solomon finished building the Temple that David had desired to build for God, the dedication ceremony and prayer were also accompanied by the presence of the Lord and fire from heaven. Again, this signified acceptance by God of the Temple and of Solomon’s dedication prayer. [2 Chron. 5:1 – 7:1]

A Fire of Renewal
The two events above form the background of the famous story of Elijah calling fire down from heaven. The God who answers by fire is none other than the God who established Israel and Israel’s true worship. It was a miracle specifically designed to call Israelites back to their own roots of faith. It also showed them that Israel’s God accepted Elijah as the true prophet in that assembly. [1 Kings 18:20-39]
The story of King David frequently reveals his darker side along with His love of God. The defining characteristic of this man is his ability to realize when he has strayed from God and repent. One particularly strange incident involves David deciding to number Israel. God accepts his repentance by consuming the offering with fire from heaven. [1 Chronicles 21:1-27]

    {As an aside: Much ink has been spilled trying to figure out why the numbering was a sin. The numbering involves the attempt to determine the potential military strength of Israel, which is at least indirectly prohibited by the covenant. [Deut. 17:16 and 20:1-9] The kingdom doesn’t even seem to be at war yet. This makes God particularly angry because it sends the message that he does not trust God to defend Israel, in spite of everything he and God have been through together.

    The two previous times that Israel had been numbered God was the one who required it, for His own purposes. [Numbers 1:1-3 and 26:1-4] Both occasions had to do with preparations to enter and conquer the land of Israel, a circumstance that did not apply to David’s time. The second census seems to have been also taken to prove that the generation that God had declared would never enter the Promised Land was all dead. [Numbers 26:63-65]}

A Fire of Judgment
Though this is not the main point of this particular message, God has used fire from heaven to show His displeasure, too. Two of Aaron’s sons who used an unauthorized fire to light the altar were both consumed by fire from heaven. [Lev. 10:1-10] So were 250 followers of Dathan and Abiram, who thought they could supplant Aaron’s family as priests. [Numbers 16:1-35] This will prove to be a marked contrast to a New Testament event of great import to the entire church.

Where’s the Fire?
In the days of Ezra the Priest a remnant of Israel returned to Judea and eventually rebuilt the Temple that had been destroyed during the Babylonian conquest of Judah. Unfortunately, something is noticeably absent during the dedication of the Second Temple. There is no fire from heaven to signify God’s acceptance or even His presence among them. [Ezra 6:17-18] The fire was to come in a way and at a time that would surprise the nation and the world.

A New Fire Burns Brightly
Just before Jesus’ ascension to heaven, He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” When the day of Pentecost arrived, a tremendous manifestation of the sound of a mighty wind announced the appearance of tongues of fire over each of Jesus’ assembled disciples.

The picture of a tongue of fire over each disciple ties into the entire Old Testament witness of fire from God’s presence in the following ways:

    1. It demonstrates God’s acceptance of a new way of worship “in spirit and in truth” instead of at a particular location that has a physical temple or tabernacle (tent). Instead, Paul sees the entire church as a new temple of God that brings worthy sacrifices of praise. [Ephesians 2:18-22]

    2. It demonstrates God’s acceptance of the repentance of the people of God. Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, tells those who believe his message to repent, be baptized, and they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 2:38-39] Reception of the Holy Spirit demonstrates His acceptance of that repentance.

    3. It shows God’s acceptance of a new priesthood that is not limited to Aaron’s family, but extends to all baptized followers of Jesus Christ. John speaks of this priestly calling in a letter to seven churches. [Revelation 1:6]

    4a. The fact that the fire does not consume them physically, but rests on them instead shows acceptance of a radically different kind of sacrifice: the” living sacrifice” that Paul encourages his churches to live up to. [Romans 12:1-2]

    4b. Not being consumed by the fire also shows that they have already made it through judgment by God. Fire destroys the wicked, but not the faithful.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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