What does the Bible mean when it calls God a consuming fire?
The Bible sometimes refers to God as a "consuming fire." What does this mean?
The first time this concept is introduced is found in Deuteronomy 4:24: "For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." Here, the idea of "consuming fire" stands alongside God's jealousy. The context of the chapter deals with God's command not to worship other gods. Only the Lord was to be worshiped. He would not tolerate worship of others; He was a "consuming fire" in the sense that He desired all of the worship of the Israelites.
Deuteronomy 9:3 also refers to the Lord as a "consuming fire." In this context, God would serve as a consuming fire to destroy Israel's enemies. The idea is that of a wildfire that would destroy those who opposed God's people.
Isaiah 33:14 would later refer to the "consuming fire" of God's wrath in judgment. In this case, the term was not mentioned with God as a consuming fire, but rather spoke of His actions to judge sin. Isaiah 30:27 adds, "his tongue is like a devouring fire," another reference to judgment.
In the New Testament, Hebrews 12:28-29 provides a perspective on this issue as well: "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, for our God is a consuming fire." This passage refers to God's "consuming fire" as a reason for reverent worship. Believers will receive an eternal kingdom and are to offer devoted worship.
Throughout Scripture, fire also often holds the general idea of purifying or of judgment at various times. Jesus even used the idea of "eternal fire" on two occasions in stories related to judgment upon unbelievers (Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41). The Lord also rained down fire from the sky in judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24). Fire served as part of offering the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Moses encountered God in a burning bush consumed by fire (Exodus 3). Fire came as a judgment upon the Egyptians (Exodus 9:23-24), yet the Lord also led the people of Israel by fire at night in the wilderness (Exodus 13:22).
The concept of God as a consuming fire includes both the idea of God's jealous, holy nature and His judgment upon those who oppose Him. Used in more than one way in the Bible, the overall idea is one of power, both in the sense of deserving worship and in punishing those who oppose Him.
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