What does “fire” represent in the Bible? What about in Matthew 3:11 and 1 Corinthians 3:15?

 Photo: By Awesomoman (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: By Awesomoman (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When most Christians run across a Bible passage talking about fire, they usually think about hell. While that’s sometimes true, fire can actually represent a wide range of literal or metaphorical things. Here’s a list of some ways the concept of fire is used in the Bible.

Practical Things (always literal)

  • Daily activities, like cooking (Exodus 12:8; John 21:9), keeping warm (Isaiah 44:15; John 18:18), giving light (Isaiah 50:11; Matt. 25:1–13), or burning garbage (Leviticus 8:17).
  • Refining metals, such as silver (Numbers 31:22–23; Malachi 3:2–3),
  • Destroying enemy’s cities in war (Joshua 6:24; 8:8; 11:11; Judges 1:8; 1 Kings 9:16; Mt 22:7)
  • Executing criminals (Daniel 3; Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14; 21:9; Joshua 7:15)
  • Burning sacrifices in the Temple (Leviticus 2:2; 6:8–13)

 Divine Things (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical)

  • God’s Presence
    • God first speaks to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3:2)
    • God comes to Moses “in fire” on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:18)
    • God guides the Israelites through the desert with a pillar of fire (Exodus 12:21; Numbers 14:14)
    • Ezekiel describes a vision of God as surrounded by fire (Ezekiel 1:27)
    • God appears as lightning in a storm (Psalm 18:14, 29:7, 144:6)
  • God’s Punishment
    • Fire destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), disobedient priests (Leviticus 10:1–2), and enemies of God (Revelation 20:9; Ezekiel 38:22; 39:6)
    • God’s anger burns and pours out like fire (Hosea 8:5; Nahum 1:6; Lamentations 2:4)
    • God’s present judgment is often represented as destruction by fire (Psalm 97:3; Isaiah 33:12; Joel 2:3; Micah 1:4)
    • God’s future and final judgment is often depicted as fire (2 Thessalonians 1:7; Revelation 8:7-8, 9:17–18, 18:8)
    • Hell is described as consisting of fire (Matthew 5:22; 13:42; 18:8–9; Revelation 20:10, 14–15)
  • God’s Purification
    • The ability for God to eliminate sin and purify his people, like fire purifies metals (Isaiah 1:25; 6:6-7)
    • Being tested is like being purified by fire (Isaiah 43:2; Jeremiah 6:29; 1 Peter 4:12).

So, when you encounter a passage that mentions fire, first determine if it’s referring to a practical thing (usually pretty obvious) or a divine thing. If it’s divine, then figure out if it refers to God’s presence, punishment, or purification. Sometimes, God’s punishment (of the wicked) and purification (of believers) are combined in a single thought. For example, Hebrews 12:29 says “God is a consuming fire.” So, God’s “fire” consumes the wicked and purifies the righteous. It also helps to determine if the fire is used literally or figuratively.

Let’s try applying this process to a couple of passages…

Matthew 3:10-12 - "10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

There are three references to fire within three verses, so it must be a pretty important part of this passage. Before we go any farther, let’s look at the context of this passage so we’re not making any conclusions that don’t make sense in context. This is John the Baptist speaking out (harshly) against the religious leaders. His opening line is “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (v. 7). Ouch! But it gives us an idea of the main theme of his speech – God’s wrath. So, it’s already likely that these uses of “fire” are related to the category of God’s Punishment.

Verses 10, 12 – These are metaphors about burning up useless yard waste. So, within the metaphors, the fire is literal, but the whole thing has symbolic meaning. In both cases, it’s represents judgment against people.

Verse 12 – Now, the tough one… What does “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” mean? Scholars are actually disagree about what this refers to: (1) the fires of judgment, (2) Pentecost in Acts 2, where the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles “like tongues of fire” or (3) the “refining fire” which God uses to purify his followers.

After my research, I lean towards understanding v. 11 as the fires of judgment. Here are some of the reasons why this is a stronger option than the others:

  • The major theme of the passage is judgment and God’s wrath.
  • Verses 10 and 12 clearly refer to judgment. It would be strange for the author to use the same term above and below it but have it mean something different.
  • Matthew use the same word for “fire” 7 other times. 1 of them is a literal fire and the other 6 all refer to fire as judgment.
  • The Old Testament uses the image of a river of fire (Daniel 7:10), so it’s possible that this verse could be talking about two types of “baptisms”, one by the Holy Spirit that leads to life and the other by fire that leads to death.
  • Both of the metaphors in verses 10 & 12 contrast two groups: trees that produce good fruit & those that don’t (v. 10) and the wheat & chaff (v. 12). So, it makes sense the v. 11 would also describe two groups, those baptized by the Holy Spirit and those baptized by fire (judgment).

Here's another passage...

1 Corinthians 3:12-15 - "12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames."

Like before, let’s start by looking at the larger context of this passage. Paul is addressing division, jealousy, and quarreling in the church (vv. 3-4). His argument is that different people have different roles in the development and growth of a church, and none of them are better than the others. In his words, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (v. 6).

Turning to the passage in question, two things are clear: (1) He’s talking about church leaders not regular believers and (2) he’s using a metaphor about building a structure. So, before you can understand the words within the metaphor, you have to figure out its larger purpose.

I believe the main message of this metaphor is that a leader’s work will be judged for its quality. (This the Three Little Pigs.) If a person leads well (using gold, silver, and stones like Solomon’s Temple in the OT), it will last; if a person leads poorly (using wood, hay, straw), their work will not last. So, Paul tells them, stop judging some leaders to be better than others. The truth will come out, either in this life or “the Day” to come.

So, this passage does use fire to represent judgment, but it’s primarily focused on the evaluation of religious leaders, not whether people are going to heaven or hell.

Hope this has been helpful.

Happy Bible reading…