One of the things we sing a lot, at least in evangelical circles, is for fire to fall down, or for God to send his fire. In fact, we sang this Matt Redman song, “Here for You,” in our own church just a couple weeks ago, boldly voicing our desire: “God, let your fire fall down.”
If you look at this very literally, it seems like a crazy a thing to ask. I’m not sure any of us want God to send an actual fire into our church in the middle of one of our services (although that would be kind of cool.)
God did actually send literal fire down a number of times in the Bible. The time that comes most immediately to mind, at least for me, is Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth on Mt. Carmel. Israel had embraced idol worship, and Elijah had prophesied a drought over the land as God’s judgment for their worship of the idol Baal (whom they believed provided them with rain, crops, and fertility). After three years, the land was dry and barren, and Elijah made king Ahab and his false prophets an offer: Let’s build sacrifices to our respective gods on the top of this mountain, but not light them. Whichever god answers our prayers with fire is the true God.
They accepted, so Israel gathered at Mt. Carmel to watch the showdown between this one man of God and the 850 prophets who served the nation’s idols.The false prophets went first and called out to Baal for hours. They wept and wailed, and even cut themselves in an attempt to get his attention, but to no avail.
Then Elijah took his turn. He repaired the altar of God, arranged the meat on it and then drenched the sacrifice with water. Now it was going to take a honest-to-goodness miracle for this thing to catch on fire. Elijah stepped forward, and prayed a simple prayer that demonstrated his absolute faith that God was able to do this:
“At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you,Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!'” (1 Kings 18:36-39, emphasis added).
Elijah asked, and God answered with fire. Not just any fire, either, a supernatural fire that burned up all the things we use to contain fire: water, soil, stones. It is this image that is often in my mind when I sing about fire falling down. But this is far from the only time that God sends fire in Scripture. God rained fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah. God sent a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert. God sent fire to consume the sacrifice when Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem. And tongues of burning fire appeared over the heads of the believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.
These are all instances of a literal fire coming down from the sky. And as I said before, I’m not sure that’s what we are asking for when we sing these songs. So what are we talking about? We should be careful to consider what the Scripture says about God and His fire.
So often, in the church, I think we equate fire with zeal, as in “being on fire for God,” and some nebulous feeling of being excited about God. But the fire of God is much bigger than that.
Want to hazard a guess at which book of the Bible mentions fire the most? It’s Leviticus, which is not a book we often enjoy reading or studying, but it can teach us a lot about what it really means to ask for God’s fire.
In the book of Leviticus, God’s fire meant a few different things, and they are a pattern for what fire means throughout the rest of the Bible.
In Leviticus, the people of Israel frequently turn away from God by grumbling, complaining, losing faith, acting irreverently, and turning to idols. In these instances, God often judged people for their disobedience, and on more than one occasion, the Bible says that fire came out from the Lord and consumed people (Leviticus 10:1-2, Numbers 11:1-3). Through Christ, we are no longer stand accused of our sins, but for those who reject Him, the judgment that awaits them is often described with images of fire and burning (as in Mark 9:43).
By far, the majority of references to fire in the book of Leviticus had to do with sacrifice. Leviticus is all about instructions for the priests in their duties, one of which was continually offering ritual sacrifices on the altar before the Lord. The fire on these altars was supposed to remain burning at all times. Those who loved God continued to make burnt offerings to God throughout the rest of the Old Testament, and as I mentioned before, there were several occasions when God sent fire from heaven to show his pleasure for a sacrifice his people offered to him (Leviticus 9:24, 1 Kings 18:38, 2 Chronicles 7:1).
Sacrifice looks a little different for New Testament believers. Jesus died once for the sins of the whole world. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t bring anything to offer to God; on the contrary, because God has done so much for us, we owe him everything. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer you bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. This is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Another primary way that fire was used in the book of Leviticus was for ceremonial purity. Because God is holy, and cannot abide where sin is, His people needed to be set-apart and clean. A large portion of the book of Leviticus talks about what makes a person unclean, and how the Israelites were to purify themselves. Things that had touched disease, bodily fluids, mold, or had been in foreign possession had to be purified also, and anything that could withstand fire was usually purified that way (as in Numbers 31:23).
In the New Testament, believers aren’t purified outwardly through ritual, but inwardly through obedience and submission to Christ. New Testament writers often remind us to be joyful in the midst of difficult circumstances, because they often purify our faith and draw us nearer to God. Peter calls these “fiery trials” (1 Peter 4:12, ESV) and Paul teaches, “We also rejoice in our sufferings; because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
To me, the most significant thing that fire represents in the Bible was the very presence of God. In Leviticus, when they were setting up the tabernacle, God signified that He was with his people by appearing in their midst as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that when God poured out His own spirit on New Testament believers that what they saw “seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).
Asking for God’s fire is a big thing, but for those of us who are serious about forsaking ourselves and following after Jesus, I think it’s a wonderful and appropriate thing for us to ask from God. We just need to be mindful that when we sing and pray “fire, fall down” we are not asking for a warm glow of affection for God. We are asking for his blazing, consuming, awesome presence. We are asking for God to come as rightful judge. We are asking for Him to look with pleasure on the meager offerings we bring before Him. And we are asking for God to draw near to us in His fullness and to burn up everything in our lives that is displeasing to him so that we can know Him more and walk in closer step with Him.