A Consuming Fire – Hebrews 12
When I was six years old, lightening from a summer thunderstorm struck our family’s home and set it on fire. Thankfully we were away on vacation at the time, but when this kind of thing happens in your early childhood, it leaves its mark. Ever since that day, my family had referred to this event simply as “The Fire.” When we returned, we sorted through what we could, but the things that survived carried the smell of smoke and the stains of water damage for years to come. Some things we lost entirely.
At the end of Hebrews 12, the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” In the larger context, this image conveys the holiness and majesty of God, but on first glance, these words, “a consuming fire,” can conjure up a pretty scary image. An image of a God who is unapproachable, angry, blistering, dangerous, and out of control. A God who consumes everything in His path, like “The Fire” consumed my childhood home. But such a reading is somewhat one-dimensional.
God is not intent on consuming us; He is intent on consuming our sin.
Those first readers of Hebrews would have been familiar with the Old Testament temple system. (Interestingly two other passages in today’s reading—Numbers 15 and Psalm 51—both refer to the sacrificial system.) Among the various offerings that the Israelites brought to God was a specific type of sacrifice known as the burnt offering. This offering was unique because the entire animal was offered up to God and burned to ash on the altar. The fires of God literally consumed it in order to show that the sins of the one offering the animal had fully atoned for.
But Scripture speaks of the fire of God’s holiness in another way too. God’s holiness is also the fire that refines and purifies us. (Malachi 3:3; I Peter 1:7) Not only does the fire of God atone for our sins; it cleanses us of them. It is both our justification and our sanctification.
Earlier in this same chapter, the writer of Hebrews speaks about God’s desire to purify His children. Verse 10 teaches that like a loving Father, God disciplines us for our good “so that we may share his holiness.” If you’re honest, you know that this is exactly what you need. Like David in Psalm 51, all you want is to be cleansed from sin. The guilt, the despair, the self-loathing. All you want is for it to go away, for it to be obliterated.
And this is exactly what a consuming fire does.
A consuming fire burns and burns until there is nothing left. In this sense, the burning wrath of God against sin is a very comforting thing because it is this holy burning that assures us that, one day, He will purify us completely. He will consume our sin until none of it is left. So that “the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 1:7)
Hannah Anderson lives with her husband, Nathan, and their three young children in the haunting Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As a pastor’s wife in a rural setting, no two days are ever the same which suits her short-attention span perfectly. Hannah is passionate about helping women discover their God-given identity as His image bearers and is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). She also contributes to a variety of Christian publications, and you can find her on her blog, SometimesALight.com, and on Twitter @sometimesalight.