When God came to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, He did so in memorable fashion. The people were not allowed to come near the mountain, as it shook and burned with fire. God spoke the ten commandments to the people in such a way that struck fear into the hearts of the people and they pleaded with Moses to speak to God because they thought they would die if God spoke to them again. As Moses recounts for the people the events of Sinai and commands them to keep the covenant, Moses declared, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). We often think of God as a harsh and wrathful God in the Old Testament, but a merciful God in the New Testament. However, the same declaration about God is made in the New Testament.
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:25–29; ESV)
The writer of Hebrews makes a point from the lesser to the greater. If the people did not escape wrath and judgment when they refused him who warned them on the earth (God speaking at Mount Sinai the commandments), then we will certainly not escape if we refuse to listen to God who warns us from heaven through his Son. We must not look at God and think that he was harsh and wrathful before Christ, but now he is lenient and gracious. So what does God mean when he says that he is a consuming fire? What are we supposed to learn about this characteristic of God?
Fire Is Frequently Associated With God
God is frequently connected with fire in the scriptures. In Ezekiel 1 in the vision of God in his throne room we read about the one who sat upon the throne whose appearance was “like gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around” (Ezekiel 1:27; ESV). In Daniel’s vision we read, “His throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and come out from before him” (Daniel 7:9-10; ESV). When God descended on Mount Sinai, “The appearance of the LORD’S glory to the Israelites was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Exodus 24:17; HCSB).
It is not just the presence of God that is frequently associated with fire, but fire is also connected with God’s wrath against sin. One of the earliest instances we read about this is with the golden calf incident at Mount Sinai. When Israel worshiped the golden calf, God said, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” (Exodus 32:10; ESV). Moses is also angry with the people’s sin, as he breaks the two tablets of stone, symbolizing the broken covenant between God and Israel. When Nadab and Abihu offer unauthorized fire, the Lord sent fire from heaven to consume them (Leviticus 10:1-2). When Israel complained, fire burned the outskirts of the camp. Fire consumed the 250 men who offered incense during Korah’s rebellion. Elijah called down fire from heaven on the groups of 50 men who came to arrest him. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed with fire and sulfur raining down from heaven. When the John the Baptist came preaching the kingdom of God, he warned Israel of the coming wrath of God, depicting the nation being immersed by fire.
We could continue on and on with examples of God’s wrath and use of fire as a symbol for that wrath. There are many more references in the scriptures to anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are references to God’s love and tenderness, according to Arthur W. Pink in his book The Attributes of God. When we see these images we are able to grasp the idea that God gives to us, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Many are uncomfortable with the scriptures picture of God’s wrath. We do not want to think about God as a wrathful God, executing judgments on the wicked. These pictures that are frequently avoided even in the teachings in churches today. The people want to hear about the love of God and the positive things of God. We do not want to hear about the rest of God’s character. This is not a recent problem. Even in the second century a heretic named Marcion said that the God of the Old Testament, the wrathful God, was not really God. Only the God of the New Testament, the loving, gracious God, was truly God.
However, this concept is completely false. Listen to God’s description of himself in the Old Testament. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7; ESV)
Too often we misunderstand the wrath of God. We think of God being wrathful for the sake of being angry. Often God is pictured as a God who is always angry and needs appeasing. This is not God’s description of himself. God says that he is slow to anger and is merciful and gracious. Notice who God’s wrath is directed toward. It is not toward the world as if God were in a perpetual state of anger. Rather, God will by no means clear the guilty. God’s wrath is directed at sin and those who are guilty of committing sin. Sin is simply defined as a violation of God’s law. Essentially, God’s wrath is a revealing of the holiness of God. In Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 we read about the spiritual beings in the throne of heaven crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!”
God is so holy that he cannot be tempted by sin or look favorable toward sin. “When God’s absolute moral purity collides with man’s rebellion and wickedness, the inevitable result is God’s wrath” (Peeler, 24). God’s wrath is directed toward all unrighteousness. This is what the apostle Paul taught also.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18; ESV)
When God pours out his wrath against sin, we can be assured that it is deserved! We cannot downplay the strong, violent language used concerning God’s wrath.
Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. (Isaiah 63:1–3; ESV)
Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles. (Revelation 14:17–20; NRSV)
When we sing the song, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah we are singing true words from the scriptures when we say, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible, swift sword. His truth is marching on.” Another verse begins, “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat. He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat.”
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 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 Peter 3:11–12; ESV)
So where does this leave us? We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, according to the apostle Paul (Romans 3:23). There is no one who is righteous, not even one person (Romans 3:10).
The Benefits of God As A Consuming Fire
(1) God consumes our enemies. Listen to the pep talk that God gives to Israel in Deuteronomy 9:1-2.
“Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know, and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak?’ (Deuteronomy 9:1–2; ESV)
God says that today you are going against armies that are greater and mightier than you. Their cities are fortified up into the clouds of the sky. Their warriors are great and tall. Their reputation precedes them as people before you have said that no one can go up against them. This is what any army wants to hear just before going into battle. But the next verse is the key to this pep talk.
Know therefore today that he who goes over before you as a consuming fire is the LORD your God. He will destroy them and subdue them before you. So you shall drive them out and make them perish quickly, as the LORD has promised you. (Deuteronomy 9:3; ESV)
For God to be a consuming fire means that he can conquer the enemies that are greater than you. God has the power to drive out those who stand against us. God can bring the victory over any enemy. When we are persecuted for the cause of Christ, God will deal with those enemies. When we suffer because we make the decision to put God first over our work, God will deal with our enemies. Our God is a consuming fire is an encouragement to those who give their lives to Jesus. God will wipe out evil. God will judge the evil. God will consume those who commit violence. God will bring down the sinners. There is judgment on those who disturb God’s people. God will deal with those who resist you in your walk with God. Therefore we leave things in God’s hands to judge those who afflict us while we continue faithful service and endure mistreatment for God.
(2) God’s wrath motivates us to seek forgiveness. Since we have also sinned against the Lord and are deserving of judgment, then we also need to find salvation. A question is raised in Revelation 6:17, “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” In Revelation 7 we read about a great multitude standing before the throne and before the Lamb. In verse 13 the question is asked, “Who are these?” The answer is, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Salvation from the coming wrath can only be found in being joined with Jesus, the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world through his sacrifice on the cross.
Only when we come face to face with God’s wrath can we appreciate God’s love. We cannot fully appreciate that we can be justified through the blood of Jesus until we understand what we deserve the wrath of God and no one can stand against him. Our God is a consuming fire and he will judge his enemies and consume the wicked. We are wicked and we must access the grace of God so that we can stand before God on the day of judgment and find grace rather than fire.