Surrounded by Heavenly Fire

Surrounded by Heavenly Fire

Surrounded by Heavenly Fire.

“I myself, Yahweh the Lord, will be a wall of fire surrounding Jerusalem, and will be a source of glory within her.” (Zechariah 2:5).

The Prophet. Zechariah was a prophet in Jerusalem around 520 BC, after the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. Back home after 70 years in exile, the people were harassed by neighboring countries, and discouraged at their small numbers. A majority of the Jews in exile decided to remain in their new home in Persia/Babylon, so this remnant was on their own in the rebuilding process. While in Babylon, the Jews had lost their spiritual identity. Their faith had been consistently ridiculed and discounted for decades, with no central religious leadership or influence, or even a place to worship together. The Jews had no self-identity to rely on as they settled into rebuilding their lives and their Temple. The newly released Jews were more concerned about bringing their homes and livelihoods back from ruins, and not so much their central religious place where God had once met with them to worship. Here comes Zechariah (and his contemporary Haggai) to the rescue. His job was to encourage the people to once again embrace their faith, and to inspire them to rebuild the all-important Temple in order to enjoy the presence of their God. Through his visions, messages and prophecies, Zechariah succeeded in bringing fresh hope and faith to the exiled Jews, and he brought them to a place where they could once again live into their sacred history as God’s chosen people. Zechariah, which means, “he whom God remembers,” wanted to speak the word of the Lord in such a way as to assure this small band of Jews that they were remembered by their God. Zechariah spoke of their present dilemma of the need for repentance and forgiveness. He also spoke often of the future reign of the Messiah at the end of the age. Zechariah’s book is loaded with references to the future appearance of their Messiah. He foretells the gospel story and the coming of Jesus, and is by far the most messianic of all the “minor” prophets. When it comes to anticipating God’s Messiah/King, Zechariah was nothing less than major.

The Vision. Zechariah received a vision intended to encourage the dispirited Israelites in Jerusalem. Yahweh speaks through the prophet and declares three important truths for the people to hear… First, that there will be so many people coming to live in Jerusalem that they will have to continually expand its boundaries. During this expansion, the city will be unwalled and seemingly unprotected. Secondly, though, the Lord announced that He Himself will be the Protector, He will be a wall of fire going completely around the city, leaving no gaps or vulnerable areas. Enemies will be terrified at this wall of fire, and will not even attempt to breach the wall or scale it. Thirdly, the rebuilt city will contain God’s glory, the splendor of His presence, the weight of His spiritual life. God’s glorious presence will be within the city, especially as it rebuilds the Temple, God’s House, within her. Zechariah’s vision, as usual with prophecies, has short-term fulfillment and a longer-termed fulfillment. In their more immediate future, God is saying that the city will be protected while it is being rebuilt. God will be the Protector while it is vulnerable in the midst of its renovation. Long term, the ultimate fulfillment of this vision will take place in the messianic era, when the prophesied Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6) will reign in the New Jerusalem, the restoration of the city for the people of God. In that time, there will be no need of walls, because the messiah will provide all the protection the city needs.

Heavenly Fire. It is not surprising that the presence of God is signified as a wall of fire surrounding Jerusalem. The visible splendor of the heavenly fire signals the Lord’s presence and power throughout Scripture. Yes, God is spirit, but He often seems to announce His presence on earth in the midst of fire. In His holiness, God is described as a “consuming fire” by Moses in Deuteronomy 4:24, and it is repeated in the New Testament by the writer of Hebrews in 12:29. God has certainly proven Himself to be a fiery spirit, a fire that illuminates, warms, consumes, judges, and beautifies. Fire leaves people in awe, just the way God wants it. Scripture has much to say about the heavenly fire of God:

(1.) In the Garden of Eden. The first appearance of a heavenly fire in Scripture is in the Garden of Eden. God couldn’t stomach the idea that someone with a sinful nature could eat from the Tree of Life and achieve immortality in a fallen state, forever wicked. So Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden. To make sure He barred access to the Tree of Life, God stationed cherubim, we don’t know how many, to guard the Tree. Cherubim, those mighty and fearsome winged creatures created by God before the world began. Cherubim, the angel servants of Yahweh who flank the Throne, who accompany God’s glory, whose golden images arch over the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies. These cherubim were appointed by God in the Garden to have one mission… to guard the Tree of Life. Each angel wielded an awesome weapon, a revolving sword of fire, a flaming blade forged in heaven, that constantly turned in every direction, a fiery sword that flashed back and forth to protect the Tree of Life from being violated. This fire came from the celestial consuming fire, the glory of God. (Genesis 3:24).

(2.) In a Burning Bush. Moses was simply minding his own business as a shepherd on the Sinai peninsula. He had been doing this humble work for 40 years, which makes him 80 years old at the time of this miraculous encounter with God. Moses witnessed an amazing sight there on Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb), a big thorn bush that was burning but was not being consumed in the fire. Moses wondered at this inexplicable sight, so when he decided to investigate it, the Angel of Yahweh appeared in the midst of the fiery bush and spoke to him. ‘Moses, Moses!” said this Messenger in the middle of the fire. And Moses responded with the line that is music to God’s ears, “Here am I.” (3:4).  Moses at this point was convinced that this was indeed the Lord he was talking with, so he hid his face. He wouldn’t look directly into the fire because he was afraid to see God full in the face. This Angel, this Messenger of God, was certainly Jesus Christ. And could it be that this unusual fire was the shekinah glory from the Angel’s presence? Or could it be that Jesus was wrapped in the fire of the Holy Spirit? Moses and the Angel then engaged in an extended conversation, in which Moses received the Hebrew Bible’s version of the Great Commission. Moses was asked by the Lord to go to Egypt, liberate His chosen people from their slavery, and lead them into the Promised Land. Speaking the words of the Lord, the Messenger then told Moses God’s name, Yahweh. The ground near the burning bush was holy due to the presence of God. So Moses took off his sandals and bowed low.

(3.) In the Wilderness. God provided a tangible sign of His presence to the Hebrews right from the start of their escape from Egypt, as they were attempting to escape from the Egyptian army. God gave them a pillar of cloud and fire to protect them when the Israelites found themselves at a dead end at the Red Sea. The heavenly pillar was placed between the army and the runaway slaves and kept the Egyptians from attacking them. The fire gave light to the Hebrews, but somehow the accompanying cloud kept the Egyptians in the dark (Ex. 14:20). The fearsome pillar allowed the Hebrews to cross the Red Sea into freedom. That wasn’t the last they would see of that pillar… that was only the beginning of the celestial pillar of cloud and fire. “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire did not depart from before the people.” (Ex. 13:21-22)This pillar that seemed to change when day gave way to night, from cloud to fire, was a gift of Almighty God. The pillar was a constant reminder of God’s presence with them, His direct aid to guide and to reassure them of His help in the wilderness. Many have said that this fire was an angel revealing the fire of heaven. Others have said the fire was God’s shekinah presence. Others say this fire was a clear display of the Holy Spirit, a flame from the consuming fire of God’s glory. With this fire, it didn’t consume anything, it illuminated, guided, and spoke of God’s loving power. The Hebrews learned to trust this, God’s gift to them, as they wandered in unknown territory. And this powerful pillar never left them during their forty year journey, which means God never left them either.

(4.) On Mount Sinai. “On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a shofar, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered His reply.” (Exodus 19:16-19). “Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mt. Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from inside the cloud. To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire.” (Exodus 24:15-18). 

(5.) At the Altar. “Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Then there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they cheered loudly and fell on their faces in awe.”  (Lev. 9:23-24). There were a number of dramatic moments in the Hebrew Bible when heavenly fires came down and kindled the sacrificial altar. The first time, in Genesis 15, was when Yahweh and Abram ratified the momentous covenant between them. Abram cut a number of animals in half, and God provided a smoking firepot and a flaming torch to pass between the pieces of animals. Abram provided the blood and the meat, and the Lord provided the fire of His presence to represent the sacred occasion and His holiness. God’s fire was the visible assurance to Abram that God’s covenant was true and trustworthy. The next altar fire from heaven was with Moses and Aaron in Leviticus 9. After receiving precise orders from Yahweh, Moses instructed Aaron to offer priestly sacrifices so that “the glory of the Lord will appear.” (Lev. 9:6). So Aaron presented the sin offering, the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the peace offering, and finally the wave offering before the Lord. After lifting his hands to bless the people, Aaron witnessed the cloud of God’s glory as it appeared to all the people. Immediately a fire comes down from the sky and consumed the remnants of Aaron’s sacrifices. Yahweh kindled a divine altar to demonstrate His power and formally accept the earlier sacrifices, confirming Moses’ sacrificial system. The worshipful heart of David enters the scene in 1 Chronicles 21, after he purchased the land on which the future Temple would be built. To commemorate the occasion, David built a temporary altar for a sacrificial offering on that site. God responded to David’s devotion by sending fire from heaven to his altar. And David worshiped the God who would demonstrate such holy power and acceptance.

(6.) In the Strange Fire. “Now Adab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective fire pans and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near me I must be treated as holy, and before all the people I must be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:1-3). “STRANGE”  = Zuwr – The Hebrew root used here for “strange” means profane, unholy, wayward, astray, unauthorized, foreign to God and His instructions, disobedient; this word is also used in Proverbs 23:30-33 when referring to drunkenness and the poor judgement that comes from intoxication; it also is used several times in Proverbs to describe sexual immorality or adultery. The fire offered by the sons of Aaron was somehow “strange” in this biblical sense. These two sons of Aaron either were intoxicated, they didn’t have an acceptable heart of worship in the Tabernacle, they tried to enter the Holy of Holies, or they simply were carelessly ignoring God’s special instructions as priests.

(7.) In the Temple. “When Solomon finished praying, fire flashed down from heaven and burned up the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the glorious presence of the Lord filled the Temple. The priests could not enter the Temple of the Lord because the glorious presence of the Lord filled it. When all the people of Israel saw the fire coming down and the glorious presence of the Lord filling the Temple, they fell face down on the ground and worshiped and praised the Lord, saying, ‘Truly He is good! Truly His loving-kindness and mercy is everlasting!” (2 Chronicles 7:1-6). 

(8.) From a Rock. In Judges 6 we find a man named Gideon understandably fearful. Fortunately, he also had a clever and resourceful streak. He decided to use the family winepress to serve as the place where he would secretly thresh his wheat. A winepress during that time was either a large pit dug into the ground or a wide vat carved out of a boulder in the ground, and it was big enough for several people to stand in and crush grapes. Gideon was afraid that some Midianite attackers would see him thresh his wheat out in the open and take away his wheat crop. So he was hiding in the winepress, threshing his wheat, in the protective barrier of the winepress. Gideon’s humility in recognizing his low stature in Israel actually was of spiritual benefit to him. Now the Lord knew Gideon was a ready receptacle for His power. A basic principle of the Kingdom is that “His strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). Suddenly the Angel of Yahweh appeared to Gideon, calling him a “mighty warrior, valiant hero” as he fearfully threshed his wheat. (6:12). The Angel said that Yahweh was with him. Gideon was doubtful, and he wasn’t sure if this was really a heavenly Messenger or just a human visitor. Gideon complained that if the Lord was truly with him and his people, He sure had a strange way of showing it. Look at the Midianites, Gideon blurts out. He then gathered his courage to point out, it looks like Yahweh has abandoned us! The Angel made it clear, though, that Yahweh wanted Gideon to lead the rescue efforts, and God would be with him all the way. The Messenger even performed a miracle to convince Gideon of his divine calling, a little matter of a heavenly fire coming from out of a rock! (6:21). Yahweh saw something in Gideon that even Gideon didn’t see. Yahweh saw courage and valor and leadership.

(9.) On Mount Carmel. Elijah’s first major experience with fire was on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). During his ministry he grew impatient with the double-mindedness of the Israelites. They couldn’t seem to decide between the worship of the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah, or of Yahweh, the God of their ancestry. The people weren’t afraid even to worship a mix of all these deities. So Elijah demanded that King Ahab bring all his pagan prophets, all 850 of them, to Mt. Carmel to have a duel with Yahweh. All the people of Israel seemed to be there on Carmel, because this promised to be quite a spectacular event. Once everyone settled in on Carmel, Elijah shouted to everyone the reason for this moment… “If Yahweh is God, follow Him! But if Baal is God, follow him!” He proposed that the pagan prophets lay their sacrificed bulls on an altar and pray to Baal to light the sacrifice. Once the pagans were completed with that, Elijah suggested that he would do the same. And whoever’s fire was kindled from heaven, that would be the true God. The pagans did as instructed. They prayed and danced around the altar, and even went so far as to cut themselves in religious frenzy in order to convince Baal of the importance of this moment. They hoped that all that blood from the prophets would impress Baal into action. Finally, after a full day of this fervent pagan activity around the altar, it was obvious that nothing would happen. Baal did not in fact rise to the occasion. Now Elijah’s turn at the altar, when he rebuilt the altar, dug a trench around it, and had the people pour large jars of water over the sacrificed bull. Elijah then had water poured over the altar two more times, drenching the altar and filling the trench, convincing the people that a fire now would be practically impossible. After a thoughtful, simple prayer to Yahweh, a roaring fire from heaven descended and burned up everything, including the bull, the wood of the altar, the stones that made up the altar, and even the dirt surrounding the altar. This divine demonstration of power astounded the people of Israel, and they all fell face down on the ground, chanting “Yahweh is God! Yahweh is God!” The duel was over, and it was no contest.

(10.) In the Upper Room. “And when the day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all assembled together in one place, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent tempest blast, and it filled the whole house in which they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues resembling fire, which were separated and distributed, and that settled on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-3, AMP). We see heavenly fire in spectacular fashion ten days after the ascension of Jesus, fifty days after His death on the Cross. The disciples were all together to pray during Pentecost, also known as Feast of Weeks or Feast of First Harvest. This is one of the three major Jewish feast days as instructed by Yahweh in Deuteronomy 16:16, and this particular Feast was always to be held fifty days after Passover. Pentecost was a time set apart to celebrate the first crops, the first harvests. In later Jewish tradition, Pentecost was also a time to celebrate the giving of Torah to Moses. While praying together, there came into their room an unexpected whirlwind, filling the whole house they were praying in. Along with the strong wind, tongues of fire settled on each of the disciples. Luke mentions that these little fires were separated, which seems to imply there could have been one pillar of fire that broke off into separate pieces. These individual flames of fire revealed that the mighty God was present upon them in the form of the Holy Spirit. This was a display of God’s real presence, a tangible manifestation, not a mere symbol. This was a fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy in Luke 3:16 when he told the people, “He who is mightier than I will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This Pentecost fire is a redeeming fire, not a destructive one. It signaled God’s purifying presence on the disciples’ lives. The Pentecost fire does not burn or consume, instead it illuminates and enlightens, it fills, it kindles the heart and sets it aflame. These Pentecost fires are divine and reveal the holiness of God. Could it be these tongues of fire are flames that split off from the very same, in substance, pillar of fire that guided the Israelites throughout the wilderness?

Dare we suggest that these heavenly fires in the Old Testament are one and same as the fire of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost? Was the weapon wielded by the cherubim in the Garden actually a sword of the Holy Spirit? Was that the Holy Spirit burning Moses’ thorn bush? Was that the Holy Spirit’s presence in the form of the guiding pillar all those forty years of wandering? Who’s to say it wasn’t the Holy Spirit that ignited the altars of Moses and Aaron, of David and Solomon, of Gideon and Elijah? Perhaps the overwhelming fire of Mount Sinai was actually a revelation of the Holy Spirit? Heavenly fire, divine fire, holy fire, all coming from the One Source, the almighty God.

Heavenly Fire: Jesus the Firestarter.

“I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  (Luke 12:49).

Of all the heavenly fires in Scripture, the fire brought by Christ is perhaps the most perplexing. What kind of fire did Jesus want to spread when He came to earth from the eternal fire in heaven? Jesus came to set the world on fire and He did exactly that, but in what way? What was Jesus thinking when He said He wanted to kindle a fire? Here are a few fires that Jesus started in the world.

(1.) The Fire of Spiritual Protection. Just as Zechariah envisioned that God the Father will provide a protective wall of fire to surround His Chosen People until the New Jerusalem, so now the Son will provide a wall of protection around His followers until He returns. Jesus promised to protect our souls, to protect our spiritual lives in Him, and to protect our destiny in the Kingdom. Around the Church universal, and around each of His believers, the Spirit of God is a protective wall of fire.

(2.) The Fire of Conflict. He may be the Prince of Peace, but he also brought the sword of division and controversy. “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34). Jesus was, after all, the holy alternative to the tainted righteousness of the fallen world. With Jesus, He introduced either-or predicaments. It follows that He would bring unrest, conflict, division in His wake. Conflict is inevitable when choosing to remain loyal to Christ at all costs. To be loyal to Jesus is in many ways to be disloyal to that which is not in Christ, to those people who would not accept the Lord’s ways of doing things. So Jesus threw division into homes, into intimate relationships. Often enough, the fiery trials of believers began in divided homes and communities. He warned of this happening, and His warnings came true, of course. There will indeed be fires of conflict wherever Jesus goes and wherever His Word is heard.  Christ came to be a Firestarter. “Don’t think for a moment that I came to grant peace and harmony to everyone. No, for my coming will change everything and create hostility among you. From now on, even family members will be divided over me and will choose sides against one another.” (Luke 12:51, TPT).

(3.) The Fire of Passion. Jesus wanted His disciples to be characterized by a zeal, a spiritual enthusiasm, that would turn the world upside down. Or maybe it’s right-side up. He wanted the hearts to be ablaze, eager to spread the Good News, zealous to walk the Christian life, to deepen a passion for Christ. Jesus wanted the initial brush fire of the Spirit to expand into a raging inferno of love and blessing, spreading into foreign lands, crisscrossing the Roman Empire and even encircling it. Christ yearned for the day the eternal fire of His presence would cover the earth with a fire that could not be put out. Christ wanted everyone to know that the kingdom of God was worthy of one’s highest passions. The passionate believer St. Paul encouraged us to “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it – because it does. Give yourselves to the gifts God gives you. Most of all, try to proclaim His truth.” (1 Corinthains 14:1-2, MSG).

(4.) The Fire of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist foretold that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:16-17). John’s words were fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended to a gathered group of believers and appeared as tongues of fire, flames lighting on each believer present. (Acts 2:1-4). The fire of God had come, flames from the ancient pillar of fire, and the world has never been the same. The fires of Christ’s Spirit was kindled, and the fire raged around the world. Jesus said that He came to set the world on fire, and He was true to His word through the Holy Spirit. Those first Christian believers were baptized with fire, and the fire will never be snuffed out.

(5.) The Fire of God’s Word. Perhaps the fire Jesus yearned to bring to the earth was the powerful fire of His Word. Jeremiah said it best… “His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones.” (20:9); “Is not my word like a fire?” (23:29); “Behold, I will make my words in your mouth fire.” (5:14). Nothing can quite burn its way into one’s mind, conscience, and heart like the Word. Jesus wanted God’s Word to blaze hot on the earth, igniting the people, allowing them to almost self-combust when given the privilege of reading God’s mind in His Word. Perhaps Jesus wanted His Father’s eternal Word to rage across the earth, giving spiritual insight and understanding to those who are open to His wisdom. The Word-made-flesh brings a holy fire wherever He goes, a heavenly fire whenever His Word is proclaimed. The flames of the Word bring the fire of salvation.

(6.) The Fire of Purification. Perhaps the fire that Jesus brings is the fire that purifies the heart, burning away the guilt and shame of sin. His fire of goodness will awaken the conscience and expose the shame of unrighteousness. The refiner’s fire may even come in the form of burning coals of shame on the heads of those convicted of sin. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Proverbs 25:21-22). Just as the fires of purification in the Tabernacle burned out foreign objects and the taint of death and sin, Jesus’ fire of purification will burn away those parts of one’s life that are foreign to God’s goodness and life. (Numbers 31). So maybe Jesus wants to set the fires on earth that would purge sin and death from the people.

(7.) The Fire of Judgment. In many ways Jesus pronounced judgment on evil simply by being righteous. He also wasn’t shy about denouncing evil and unrighteousness in no uncertain terms.  Everywhere He went, people would see what goodness looks like and repent of their sinful heart. Jesus too might have been referring to the final judgment. It shouldn’t be surprising that we speculate that Jesus was yearning for the final day of moral accountability, to set the world right. He looked forward to the time when God’s purity and holiness would finally be revealed for the whole world to see. On the one hand, Jesus is waiting patiently for the final judgment so more people could come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). On the other hand, perhaps the fires of judgment will add the needed closure to world history, establishing that God’s justice is eternal, and sin and death are no more. There is no doubt Jesus was looking forward to that day. So perhaps Jesus wanted the fire of judgment to rage on the earth to hasten the day of His coming. There were some people in His ministry, the ones that got a bit of a tongue-lashing, that got a taste of the final judgment when Jesus gave some of His patented spiritual accountability. “The words of the Lord consume like fire.” (Isaiah 30:30).

“I’ve come to start a fire on this earth – how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right-side up – how I long for it to be finished!” (Luke 12:49, MSG).