The product of burning which produces heat, light, and flame. One of the earliest human discoveries, probably first seen as a result of lightning. Humans soon discovered ways to use it and found it to be not only a very useful servant, but also a dreaded master. The invention of fire antedates history, but no nation has yet been discovered which did not know the use of fire. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from Olympus, when Zeus denied it to immortal beings, and gave it to humans. For this crime he was punished by being chained to a rock in the wilderness of Scythia. The Bible does not explain the invention of fire. In the account of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15:17), one reads of a smoking furnace and a flaming torch. Fire has been from early times the object of man's worship. This worship among the Canaanites is frequently mentioned in Scripture with the adjoining prohibition for God's people to refrain from the abominable practice (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31; 2 Chronicles 28:3).
Fire is a consistent element in the relationship of God with His people, often being used as an instrument of His power, either in the way of approval or destruction. The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15:17), the appearance of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), the pillar of fire by night to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land (Exodus 13:21-22), and God's appearance in fire on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18; Exodus 24:17), are well known illustrations of such. The appearance of Christ in John's vision (Revelation 1:14; Revelation 2:18), was with eyes “as a flame of fire,” and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3), was accompanied by “tongues like as of fire.” Fire is used often as a symbol of holiness and often equates the idea of God's presence with God's holiness. God Himself is compared to fire not only to illustrate His holiness, but also to illustrate His anger against sin (Isaiah 10:17; Hebrews 12:29).
Our English word “purify” is a cognate of the main Greek word used in the New Testament for fire. As such, it denotes one of the main metaphors of the use of fire, namely as purification. God uses the fire of experience to test us (Job 23:10). Ultimately all of our works done on earth in our lifetime will be tested “as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
In the context of biblical religion, fire was used to consume the burnt offerings and incense offerings. Fire was to be continually burning upon the altar as a visible sign of the continuous worship of God. If for some reason the fire was extinguished, according to the Talmud, it was to be rekindled only by friction. If fire was used for sacred purposes and obtained other than from the altar, it was called “strange fire” (Leviticus 10:1-2), for which use Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron, were punished immediately by divine execution.
The law prohibited any fire to be kindled on the sabbath, even for cooking purposes (Exodus 35:3). Anyone kindling a fire that caused damage to crops was compelled by law to make restitution (Exodus 22:6). Capital punishment was occasionally made even more shameful by burning the body of the criminal after death (Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9; 2 Kings 23:16).
Fire is also used to symbolize: God's people victorious over all enemies (Obadiah 1:18); the word of God (Jeremiah 5:14); the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 4:4; Acts 2:3); the zeal of the saints (Psalms 39:3; Psalms 119:139); of angels (Hebrews 1:7); of lust (Proverbs 6:27-28); of wickedness (Isaiah 9:18); of the tongue (James 3:6); and of judgment (Jeremiah 48:45).
The final destiny of all the enemies of God is the “lake of fire” (Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10). The earth will be consumed by fire (2 Peter 3:7-12). See Baptism of Fire; Molech; Lake of Fire.