We learn to have a healthy respect for fire from an early age, recognizing just how powerful it is. Primitive people regarded it with awe and reverence. Perhaps this underlies the fact that in Scripture fire is used as a symbol of God the Holy Spirit.
The first occasion we read of God’s making His presence known through fire is when He appears to Moses as a flame coming from the middle of a burning bush (Exodus 3). As a shepherd, Moses had perhaps seen tinder-dry brushwood burst into spontaneous combustion in the blazing heat. But this bush was different because it did not burn up.
Having used this unusual fire to make Moses aware of Him, God revealed His plan for the children of Israel under Moses’ leadership. Then, as they traveled through the wilderness, God announced His presence with them each night by a pillar of fire.
Further in Israelite history, when their loyalty to God was under test, He revealed Himself on Mount Carmel as the true God. As he did so, flames burnt up the water-drenched sacrifice that Elijah had prepared.
So when John the Baptist announced that one was coming who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” Jewish listeners would have understood the symbolism.
It is from the Greek word for fire that the English word “pure” is derived. In industry fire can be used in the refining and purifying processes. Anyone who has had a splinter in his finger knows that it needs a little persuasion to come out. So it’s into the sewing box and out with the needle! But first the needle should be sterilized, purified—by holding it in a flame.
When Isaiah had his vision of God in the Temple, he soon realized that he was sinful and that his life needed purifying. Burning coals were lifted from the altar and placed on his lips to symbolize the purification of his life. As with Isaiah, God wants to use us as His messengers, to bring others into His kingdom. But first of all we need to be purified.
The quality of our spiritual life depends on the fire of the Holy Spirit within us. At Pentecost, what looked like tongues of fire rested on each of the disciples’ heads. This divine fire-power cleansed them and clothed them. It gave those ordinary men and women extraordinary power.
Quite simply, there is no power other than the Holy Spirit’s which can turn men inside out and the world upside down!
Nigel Bovey, Salvationist