Our first encounter with fire as a symbol of God's Presence is in a picture of judgment. In Gen 3:24 the Lord God positions cherubims armed with flaming swords at the entrance to the garden of Eden to prevent the re-entrance of fallen Adam and Eve into God’s holy temple and kingdom. Fire as illustrative of God's holy judgment continues throughout the Scripture. For example,
Israel is assured that the Lord their God will guide them into the promised land by dispersing and destroying her enemies for he is “a consuming fire.” Dt 9:3. Indeed, he is a consuming fire and a holy God, 4:34. The writer to the Hebrews warns his readers that failing to live faithfully within the covenant community by rejecting God's grace will have disastrous consequences for this holy “.. God is a consuming fire.” Heb 12:29. In the eschatological judgment, those whose names were not written in the book of life, were tossed into the lake of fire along with Death and Hades, Rev 20:13-14.
At a very critical juncture in his life, Moses receives his commission as the mediator of the old covenant who will lead the sons of Israel out of Egypt. In this epochal event, Yahweh appears to him in an incombustible burning bush, Ex 3:1-6. The divine Presence accompanied Israel in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, assisting them in the crossing of the Red Sea, Ex 14:19-20, 24-25, and guiding them through the wilderness into the promised land, 13:21-22; Dt 1:33; Neh 9:12, 19; Ps 78:14; etc. Indeed, the pillar of cloud even appeared to be as fire, Num 9:16. God’s protective Presence as a surrounding “wall of fire” will render the construction of a physical wall unnecessary for Jerusalem, Zech 2:5.
After the Lord God miraculously redeems his people from Egyptian bondage, he summons them to Mt. Sinai to receive his covenant laws that would govern their lives and that would depict them to be the people of his own possession whom he chose from all the nations of the world, Ex 19:5. The Lord God dramatically descends on that mountain clothed in fire and smoke, v. 18; 24:17; etc. The New Testament states that, at Sinai, God’s people had “…. come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest, ..” Heb 12:18. It was there that the Lord God is said to have spoken to his people “out of the midst of the fire”, Dt 4:12, 33, 36; 5:4, 22; etc.
The prophet Isaiah sees the Lord God in his glory and majesty attended by the seraphim, literally, burning ones, who continuously shower praises to their Creator, specifically for his holiness. This vision of the holy throne room of God is so overwhelming and convicting that the prophet immediately declares himself and hispeople to be of unclean lips. Thereupon, one of the seraphim, in an act symbolizing purification, touches his lips witha burning coal from the fire. In consequence, the Lord God commissions him as his prophet to proclaim the Word of God tothe stubborn people of Judah. See Isa 6:1-8.
The New Testament gives us a very powerful presentation of God’sPresence in the form of fire. On the day of Pentecost, when all of Christ’s disciples were gathered in the upper room, “...suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speakin other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:2-4. Here God the Holy Spirit is symbolically represented as permanently resting on and filling each of the believers present, and as enabling them to speak intelligibly in other languages so that representatives of different nationalities and ethnicities understood the gospel message. In this way, the apostolic preaching and teaching on the Person and the redemptive, substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Christ for all peoples, now extends in widening concentric circles from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. This spreading of the gospel occurs according to the exact pattern and the precise manner decreed by Christ to his apostles, Acts 1:8.
From this brief survey we can clearly deduce that the fire motif as the Presence of God is prevalent throughout the Scripture. It is a robust and riveting symbol which immediately rivets our attention and which causes us to reflect on the very character of our souls in the light of God's purifying, consuming blazing glory. Certainly, this a God whom we are to receive in faith and revere in obedience. Sadly, he is also a God whose Presence we may deny. However, most certainly, he is not a God whose Presence we can ignore.