One of the most arresting and suggestive metaphors in the Bible is that of fire, a phenomenon common to all cultures ancient and modern and one that lends itself to a variety of imagery. The most prevalent term for fire in the Hebrew Bible is es [vea]. The Greek word phos [fw'"], also normally rendered "light, " occurs a couple times in the New Testament as "fire" ( Mark 14:54 ; Luke 22:56 ). The usual word for fire in the New Testament is pur [pu'r], the regular Greek translation of Hebrew es [vea] in the Septuagint.
As a commonplace in ancient Israel, fire obviously is to be taken literally in most of the several hundred references to it in the Bible. Its figurative or theological attestations are also numerous, however, generally relating to some manifestation of God's being or action.
Fire, as theophany of existence, communicates, first of all, the very presence of God. This is especially evident in the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses ( Exod 3:2-6 ). Here fire is a manifestation of God himself, for Moses turned away from the sight "because he was afraid to look at God" (v. 6). Similar to this is Yahweh's descent upon Mount Sinai "in fire" ( Exod 19:18 ; cf. Deuteronomy 4:11-12 Deuteronomy 4:15 Deuteronomy 4:33 Deuteronomy 4:36 ). In the New Testament Paul describes the second coming of Christ as "in blazing fire" ( 2 Th 1:7 ), an appearance that carries overtones of judgment as well as mere presence. Also akin to Old Testament imagery is John's vision of Jesus with eyes "like blazing fire" ( Rev 1:14 ; 2:18 ; 19:12 ), again in judgment contexts.
It is not always possible to distinguish the presence of God from his glory for, indeed, glory is frequently a figure itself for divine presence. However, a number of passages focus on fire as synonymous with or in association with God's glory. For example, to the Israelites at Sinai "the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire" ( Exod 24:17 ; cf. Leviticus 9:23 Leviticus 9:24 ; Deut 5:24 ). In visions of God in his glory in both Old and New Testaments, fire is a regular phenomenon.
A special use of fire imagery in the New Testament is that connected with baptism with fire. John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire" ( Matt 3:11 ; cf. Luke 3:16 ), a promise that was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Then "tongues of fire" rested upon those gathered in the upper room with the result that they "were filled with the Holy Spirit" ( Acts 2:3-4 ). The fire here is a manifestation of God, in the case of the Third Person of the Godhead, a theological conception unknown to the Old Testament.
Fire as theophany of action reveals God at work in a number of ways. One of the earliest and clearest of these ways is his appearance in a pillar of fire that led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the Sinai deserts. Another instance of God's use of fire as an active manifestation of his presence is his sending fire from heaven to consume sacrifices offered up to him on special and unusual occasions. The first of these inaugurated Aaron's ministry as priest. Having blessed the people, Moses and Aaron witnessed the appearance of the glory of the Lord, a striking manifestation of which was fire that "came out from the presence of the Lord" to consume the sacrifices already placed on the altar ( Lev 9:23-24 ). Other examples of fire as the expression of God's acceptance of offerings are those of Gideon ( Judges 6:19-24 ) and of the father and mother of Samson ( Judges 13:15-20 ). In both cases Yahweh is present in the person of the angel who touches the altar, causing the sacrifices to erupt in flame.
Because of fire's heat and destructive capacity, it frequently appears in the Bible as a symbol of God's anger and of the judgment and destruction that sometimes are extensions of that anger. The psalmist employs fire as a simile for divine displeasure when he asks the Lord, "How long will your wrath burn like fire?" ( Psalm 89:46 ) Isaiah, referring to God's coming in judgment, sees him "coming with fire" and bringing down his rebuke "with flames of fire" (66:15). Jeremiah says in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem that Yahweh "poured out his wrath like fire" ( Lam 2:4 ). Ezekiel uses the term "fiery anger" to speak of God's outpoured judgment, especially when speaking of the impending Babylonian conquest ( 21:31 ; 22:31 ). This is also the language by which he describes the overthrow of Gog in the end times. In his "zeal and fiery wrath" he will bring about massive calamity ( 38:19 ).
In other passages, the anger of God is not only metaphorically represented by fire, but fire becomes a literal vehicle of his wrath. At Taberah in the Sinai desert Yahweh's "anger was aroused" and "fire from the Lord burned among" the people ( Num 11:1 ). And the rebellion of Korah and his followers also resulted in many of them perishing by fire, a manifestation of God's hot anger ( Num 16:35 ; 26:10 ; Lev 10:2 ). A most impressive display of fire as an instrument of judgment is the destruction of the messengers of Ahaziah of Israel who attempted to seize Elijah the prophet only to be struck with fire "from heaven" ( 2 Kings 1:10 2 Kings 1:12 2 Kings 1:14 ). This is probably an example of lightning, which otherwise is clearly a means of inflicting divine judgment and destruction (cf. Exod 9:23-24 ; Job 1:16 ; Psalm 18:13-14 ).
The same imagery of fire as a sign of God's anger and judgment continues in the New Testament. James and John asked Jesus whether or not they should invoke fire from heaven in order to destroy the Samaritans ( Luke 9:54 ). Paul speaks of fire as a purifying agent capable of testing the quality of one's life and works ( 1 Cor 3:13 ). Most commonly, fire is associated with the judgment of hell ( Matt 3:12 ; 5:22 ; 18:8-9 ; Mark 9:43 Mark 9:48 ; Luke 3:17 ; 16:24 ; James 3:6 ; Jude 7 ; Rev 20:14-15 ), or with the destruction of the old heavens and earth in preparation for the new ( 2 Peter 3:10 2 Peter 3:12 ).
Eugene H. Merrill
Bibliography. E. M. Good, IDB, 2:268-69; J. Patrick, Dictionary of the Bible, 2:9-10; J. C. Slayton, 5:372-73; H. Van Broekhoven, Jr., ISBE, 2:305-6.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[T] indicates this entry was also found in Torrey's Topical Textbook
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fire'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".