The Holy Fire Of The Altar.
“For our God is consuming fire.”- Heb_12:29.
Is it not written, ‘God is love?’ Is it not also written, ‘God is light?’ Yet here we read, God, nay, ‘our God is a consuming fire.’ We have like words, once and again, in the Old Testament. ‘The Lord thy God is a consuming fire’ (Deu_4:24). ‘The sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount’ (Exo_24:17). ‘A fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about’ (Psa_97:3).
There seems in our text special reference to the fire of the altar, which consumed the sacrifice without consuming the worshipper. ‘There came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat’ (Lev_9:24). ‘When Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices;…and when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshipped, and praised the Lord’ (2Ch_7:1; 2Ch_7:3).
It does seem strange to read, ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ How is this? Where is the grace here? Where is the gospel, and the pardon, and the childlike confidence? Let us see. The expression is sacrificial and as such let us consider it. It is either the fire coming down from heaven upon the altar, or it is the fire upon the altar fed continually by the wood laid thereon. It is probably both of these; for these are properly one fire, its use being to consume the sacrifice.
I. The fire itself.-It is the symbol of divine anger against evil,- holy, righteous anger,-not the symbol merely of holiness or righteousness (the symbol of these is light), but of holiness and righteousness in their estimate of sin, and in their dealings with sin and the sinner. From Genesis down to Revelation fire is referred to, and always in connection with divine displeasure against the workers of iniquity. We have the flaming sword of Paradise, Sodom and Gomorrha, the doom of Korah, the destruction of the three fifties at the command of Elijah, and the lake of fire. Holy anger against sin,-holy anger consuming the object of its displeasure. It is this that is to blaze forth so terribly against the rejecters of the Son of God when He comes in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God.
II. The place of this fire.-The altar of burnt offering. God has set a place where this fire shall display itself perpetually, burning day and night. It touches nothing but what is on the altar. However many may be standing round, the fire touches them not. It exhausts itself on the sacrifice. The altar receives it, and the victim absorbs it. All else is safe. It is concentrated on this one spot, and pours itself out on the one object, like lightning attracted by a slender conducting-rod, and turning aside to nothing else, but expending itself there. Earth,-the whole earth,-is the guilty region, on which the fire should be poured. But God in His grace withdraws it from this wide sweep, and concentrates it on the one single point, the brazen altar. Nowhere else is it permitted to burn. Earth is safe. The wrath is gathered together and poured down on one spot and one victim. Here is substitution. Here is grace. Here is the withdrawal of the anger from its deserved objects. Here is the assurance that God has no pleasure in the death of the sinner.
III. The power of this fire.-It is the fire of God. It is consuming fire, irresistible fire. It has showed itself in former ages; it is yet to show itself more terribly in the great day. Who can stand before it? Who knoweth the power of Thy wrath? When it waxes hot, it devours all before it. O fire of God, how irresistible art thou! O wrath of God, how terrible art thou! Who can dwell with the devouring fire? who can dwell with the everlasting burnings? Shall not the sinner tremble before it? Shall not the saints of God stand in awe, and rejoice with trembling? An angry God is fearful. Let the sinner turn. A God whose anger is turned away is still to be reverenced and feared by His own.
IV. The effects of this fire.-It may be truly said to have all the properties of earthly fire: (1) it destroys; (2) it purifies; (3) it burns up wood, and hay, and stubble; (4) it separates the dross from the gold; (5) it draws out odor from what is odorous; (6) it makes the bright shine brighter.
But it is of the effects of the fire in connection with the altar that we speak. It quenches itself in the blood of the burnt-offering, and so completes the sacrifice. After this, the sinner who accepts this altar as his place of worship and of approach to God has nothing to fear. The fire is exhausted in so far as the sinner is concerned. The blood waited for the fire, and the fire for the blood. They came at last together, and all was done. ‘It is finished.’ The cry of the victim, ‘Why hast Thou forsaken me?’ showed the completion of the propitiation, and the exhaustion of the holy wrath. The fire is now satisfied. It needs no more. The sin which drew it down (transferred from the sinner to his offering) has been condemned and punished. The offerer is free. There is no condemnation for him. His guilt has been expiated. The fire has consumed the victim, and atonement has been fully made.
Stand by this altar, O man, and this ‘no condemnation’ becomes thine. Meet God here, where the fire and the blood have met, and thou hast nothing to fear. Righteousness propitiated and magnified bids thee come in peace, and go in peace, with ‘Who is he that condemneth?’ upon thy grateful lips, as thy song of praise.