By F.B. Meyer
"Our God is a consuming fire." (HEBREWS 12.29.)
THIS is one of the shortest texts in the Bible. It takes rank with those other three brief sentences which declare the nature of God, God is Light, God is Love, God is Life. But to many it is one of the most awful sayings in the whole of Scripture.
It rankles in the memory, recurs continually to the uneasy conscience, and rings its wild tocsin of alarm in the ear of the anxious enquirer. And yet there is an aspect in which it may be viewed which will make it one of the most comforting, precious passages in the whole range of inspiration.
Fire is indeed a word significant of horror. To be awakened from sleep by that one awful cry will make the flesh tremble and the heart stand still. A baby's cradle wrapped in flame, a beloved form suddenly enveloped in a burning fiery furnace, a ship on fire amid the wild expanse of the homeless ocean, and slowly burning down to the level of the waves - in any of these figures you have a suggestion of almost unparalleled horror.
And yet, for all that, what comfort and homeliness and genial blessedness there are in the kindly glow of firelight! There is no sign of more abject poverty than the fireless grate. And however warm the rooms may be in Russia or France, the traveller greedily longs for the blaze of the open fireplace of his native land.
Besides, what would we do without this strong, good-natured giant, which toils for us so sturdily? It draws our carriages along the metal track. It drives the machinery of our factories. It disintegrates the precious ore from its rocky matrix. It induces a momentary softness in our toughest metals, so that we can shape them to our will. The arts of civilised life would be impossible but for this Titan worker.
It is obvious, therefore, that whilst Fire is the synonym for horror and dismay, yet it is also full of blessing and goodwill. It is the former only when its necessary laws are violated. It is the latter when those laws are rigorously and reverently observed.
Yes, and are not destruction and ruin the strange and unnatural work of fire, whilst its chosen mission is to bless and beautify and enrich, consuming only the dross and thorns and rubbish, so that there may be a clearer revelation of the enduring realities over which it has no power.
When, therefore, our God is compared to fire, is it only because of the more terrible aspects of His nature, which are to be dreaded by transgressors? Is there not also, and perhaps more largely, a suggestion of those beneficent qualities which are needed for our purity and comfort? Surely there is a strong flavour of such characteristics in the assurance given to us by the prophet Isaiah, "The light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame, and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day" (Isaiah 10.17).
Fire in the Word of God is not always terrible. When of old God came down on Sinai, its upper peaks were veiled with impenetrable folds of smoke, like the smoke of a furnace. And in the heart of the smoke there was the appearance of devouring fire. There is dread here! Bounds had been set to keep the people back, but a special message must be sent to warn them against breaking through to gaze, lest the fire should break forth upon them.
But there was no harm so long as they kept without the barriers, and when Moses entered into the very heart of it, it did not singe a hair of his head, and injured him no more than when it played round the fragile acacia bush, which burned with fire without being consumed, not a leaf shrivelled, nor a twig scorched.
It is quite true that in the desert pilgrimage there was much of the punitive aspect in the divine fire, as when there came out a fire from the Lord, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men with censers who had joined in Korah's rebellion, and had spoken contemptuously of God's anointed servants. But, on the other hand, it did not hurt one other soul, and these were destroyed, awfully indeed, but almost too suddenly to feel the keen smart of pain. And surely that fire did a beneficent work in staying the further progress of evil, which would have honeycombed the whole nation and led to their destruction as a people.
In the days of Elijah the fire of God consumed two captains and their fifties, but the captains and their troops were full of wanton insolence. There was no hurt done to him who knelt at the mountain foot, beseeching the man of God with reverence and humility. And when, shortly afterward, the great prophet was to go home, it was a chariot of fire in which he sat himself, as in some congenial and friendly element, to waft him to his home.
And on the day of Pentecost when each head bent low beneath the sound as of a mighty rushing wind, a moment afterward each was girt with fire. Apostles, disciples, and women alike experienced this sacred investiture, but it hurt them not. They were far from being perfect characters; and yet there was evidently nothing to fear in the descent of that fiery baptism. They were baptised with the Holy Spirit but they were unconsumed.
Do not these instances shed light upon our text?
OUR GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE, AND THERE IS TERROR IN THE SYMBOL. But the terror is reserved for those who unceasingly and persistently violate His laws and despise His love. For those who wilfully follow courses of sin, after they have received the knowledge of the truth, there is doubtless a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation. On those who will not obey the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, clearly presented to them, vengeance will be taken in flaming fire.
No words can exaggerate the terror, the anguish, the dreadfulness of their fate. Sin is no light matter. In this world even it is fearfully avenged. Walk through certain wards in our hospitals, and tell me if anything could exceed the horror, the agony, of the penalty which is being inflicted on those who have flagrantly violated the laws of nature.
And, so far as we can see, the physical penalties which follow upon wrongdoing are not unto life and restoration, but unto death and destruction. It is necessary that these sufferings should be veiled from the eye of man, but surely they must be taken into account when we estimate God's treatment of sin. And if such pain, keen as fire, consumes those who violate physical law, surely we must admit that there is a still more awful doom for those who violate the laws of God's love and grace and pleading mercy.
God forbid that we should say one word to lessen men's dread of the penal consequences of sin. There is a great danger lest, amid our growing conceptions of the love of God, we should come to think that He is altogether such a one as we are inclined to be in our dealings with our children, soft, easy, and indulgent.
God is love, and yet He permits the little child to be burned, if it plays heedlessly with flame. God is love, but He permits bodies to rot in loathsome disease, without hope of cure, if men persistently do despite to his law. God is love, but He allows the whole course of a life to be blasted by one yielding to transgression and sin. And thus, though God is love, it is possible for sins to be punished with sufferings, bitter as the gnawing worm, keen as the fire that is not quenched.
If once we realised these things (and we should realise them if we would quietly consider the clear statements of the Word of God on such matters), we would come to understand much better the desperate nature of sin, and to yearn with deeper compassion over those who obstinately resist the grace of God, either following the evil courses suggested by their own hearts, or led captive by the Devil at his will.
O disobedient soul, who has read these words thus far, stop and think of your danger! Beware lest you be as the chaff or thorns, which are burned up with unquenchable fire, on the part of the Lord Himself. Be quick to turn to Him and live. Yet if you suffer irretrievable ruin, remember you will have only yourself to blame, because you have broken the elementary laws of your nature, and have set yourself in opposition to the God who loves you, and would redeem you, but Whom you have refused and defied.
If only you would bend your stubborn neck and submit to shelter yourself in the person and work of Jesus, God's perfect holiness would bring you, not hurt, but blessing and help.
OUR GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE, AND THERE IS COMFORT AND BLESSING IN THE THOUGHT. When we yield to God's love, and open our hearts to Him, He enters into us, and becomes within us a consuming fire, not to ourselves, but to the evil within us. So that, in a very deep and blessed sense, we may be said to dwell with the devouring fire, and to walk amid the eternal burnings.
Fire is warmth. We talk of ardent desire, warm emotion, enthusiasm's glow and fire; and when we speak of God being within us as fire, we mean that He will produce in us a strong and constant affection to Himself. Do you long for more love? You really need more of God, for God is love, and when He dwells in the heart, love dwells there in power. And there is no difficulty in loving Him or loving men with the love which has entered in majestic procession in the entrance of God.
Live in God, make room for God to live in you, and there will be no lack to the love which shall exemplify in daily action each precept of the holy psalm of love (1 Corinthians 13).
Fire is light. We are dark enough in our natural state, but when God comes into the tabernacle of our being, the shekinah begins to glow in the most holy place, and pours its waves of glory throughout the whole being, so that the face is suffused with a holy glow, and there is an evident elasticity and buoyancy of spirits which no world joy can produce or even imitate.
The light that shone on the face of Moses was different from that which shone on the face of Jesus. That was flung on it from without; this welled up from within. But the latter rather than the former is the true type of the blessed effect produced on that nature which becomes the temple of the indwelling God.
Fire is purity. How long, think you, would it take a workman with hammer and chisel to get the ore from the rocks in which it lies so closely imbedded? But if they are flung into the great cylinder, and the fires fanned to torrid heat, and the draught roars through the burning mass, at nightfall the glowing stream of pure and fluid metal, from which all dross and rubbish are parted, flows into the waiting mould. This is a parable of what God will do for us. No, more, He will burn up the wood, hay, and stubble, the grit and dross, the selfishness and evil of our nature, so that at last only the gold and silver and precious stones will remain. The bonds that fetter us will be consumed, but not a hair of our heads will fall to the ground.
"The Lord shall sit as a refiner of silver." He the refiner, and He the fire. Contact with God, being bathed in His Holy Spirit, the perpetual yielding of the nature to Him, will work a marvellous change on us. At first the face of the melting metal may be dark and lurid - deep orange red, over which a flickering flame will pass, but, as the process is pursued, the colour will become lighter, the dark fumes will pass off, and the metal shall bear the appearance of the highly polished mirror, reflecting the beholder's face. The process may be long, but the result is sure.
Is not fire painful and terrible, though applied by infinite love? It may be so, but He will not ply us with more than we can bear, and He will enable us to endure. And it will be more than a compensation, as we find one after another of the old evils losing its power.
We will never in this life be free from a sinful tendency, which seems part of our human nature. Nor will we ever, on this side of heaven, be perfect, but we may expect to be growingly transformed into the image of the Son of God.
0h God, Who is as fire, be a consuming fire to our inbred sins, burn deeply into our inmost hearts, until all that grieves You is compelled to yield to the holy intensity of Your grace, and our whole being, made free from sin, begins to serve You in holiness and righteousness, through Jesus Christ, who came to kindle Your Sacred Fire on the earth!