Leviticus 6:12-13 makes a strong statement, “The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it. The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously, it must not go out.” These words caught my attention on the morning of February 18, 2013. It was as if God was saying to me, “Read this and grapple with its meaning.” As I studied these verses, I found myself asking a number of questions:
- What does the fire on the altar symbolize?
- What is the firewood that the believer is called to keep adding daily?
- What is the Fire of the Lord, how does one get this fire and why is it so important?
These three questions are but a few of the questions that I found myself wrestling with as I read and studied.
As I studied, I ended up writing 6 pages, single spaced, 12 pt font of my notes related to this passage. I found out that fire is
- A symbol for God’s wrath, a picture of his all consuming holiness that devours anything which is in its path that isn’t holy – Leviticus and the offerings.
- A symbol for Love that must be fed and kept growing to keep it warm – Song of Solomon
- A symbol for the Word of God that can build up or destroy – Jeremiah
- A symbol for purification and entrance into the Kingdom – 1 Corinthians, 2 Peter
- A symbol for the Holy Spirit
It is this last one that I want us to consider today. In chapter 6 of Leviticus God is instructing the priests that they are to keep the fire burning, but there hasn’t been a fire kindled yet. The priests are commanded to keep something burning, which hasn’t even been started yet. If we fast-forward a few chapters to Lev. 9:24 we will read some really interesting words about the origin of this first fire that I think will help us understand why it is so important to keep this fire burning: (Lev. 9:24) Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.
Did you catch that? The fire first begins burning on the altar supernaturally. When Aaron and his sons began their priestly ministry a fire from heaven fell upon the altar and consumed the sacrifices (Lev. 9:24). It is this supernatural fire of God that the priests are commanded to keep fueled and never let it go out.
This same thing happens again when David builds an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah after sinning by counting his fighting men. The sacrifice is consumed by the fire of the Lord and David pronounces the following words, “The house of the Lord God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel” (1Chr. 22:1). Why would David declare these words? Because once the fire of God has fallen on a place, that place is forever holy and it can never be allowed to return to being common. In like manner, as Solomon consecrates the Temple and its altar, God lets his fire fall again to consume the sacrifices and presumably it is this same fire of God, which the priests must keep burning day and night (2Chr. 7:1).
This fire of God falling to earth is a picture of the Holy Spirit which falls upon the earth to purify people from their sin. But purification by the blood of bulls and goats isn’t all that great, it is messy and doesn’t really change the one making the offering, that is why it was merely a picture for the real presence of the Holy Spirit was to fall upon people at Pentecost as a permanent possession. It would be a spirit that purified them from the inside out. But it would do even more than just purify, it would guide them and lead them and empower them to consume the territory of the enemy and consecrate it to God.
This is where the disciples greatly misunderstood the role of fire in the Bible. When the Samaritans fail to welcome Jesus, the disciples recall the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and want to call down fire to destroy the village (Luke 9:54). They had forgotten that the fire of God falls not only to consume the unrepentant, but it also falls in order to ignite the offering and create a new location where the presence and activity of God is celebrated and fanned into flame for the world to see. Jesus wasn’t coming into the world to judge it but to save it (John 12:47). Jesus came to extend the Kingdom and to breathe new life into the world. The fire on the altar that Jesus wanted to see continually burning wasn’t a fire of judgment, but the supernatural, heavenly fire of Pentecost. He desired a fire that would ignite in people a holy passion and zeal for God and His ways. Surely that is why the Spirit fell on the early Church as tongues of fire, which emboldened these first believers (Acts 2:3ff).
Unlike the fire on the altar, which was a picture of the presence of God, the Holy Spirit is the supernatural presence of God, which forever marks one as God’s own possession. And that marking must never be allowed to die out or wane, (not be saltless Christians) for God has purchased you as his own. Give the Spirit fuel to work with in your life. Feed the Spirit, instead of quenching it. Let the Spirit bring conviction of sin, that is fuel. Let the Spirit bring words of instruction and guidance.
The Spirit is alive. He is still speaking to us today. It is one of his main jobs in your life and mine. Remember with me when the fire of the Lord first shows up. Isn’t it in the Exodus story when he appears to Moses to give him direction from a burning bush? Next the fire of the Spirit appears as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night in which the people of God are given a guiding light in order to navigate a darkened world. And interestingly as the Egyptian Army is about to be destroyed, we are told that the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion (Exo. 14:24). One gets the sense that the pillar of fire is the abode of God from which protection and direction comes to the people of God. Listen to the words of the Spirit and put them into practice; that too is part of keeping the Fire burning.
[Story of helping Zeke to pray – laying on my back.]
God’s people are to keep the fire of the Spirit fueled by a constant study of the Word of God applied to every area of life and by an unceasing life of prayer for ourselves and others and with an evangelistic heart preaching the gospel message to the world – this is the wood that is to be fuel on the fire morning and evening. This is how the Spirit will grow the fire of his presence in our lives each day!
As a people of God we are called to come before the altar of our God in penitent worship and joyous sacrifice. We must never fail to render to God what is his due – all praise, honor and glory. We must offer sacrifices of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name. We must confess our sins and receive his freely given pardon in Christ. We must read his Word and feed the Spirit’s fire in our hearts so that our minds are purified and renewed and our bodies live in the newness of resurrected life. We must love one another, pray for one another and spur one another on to love and good deeds, and all the more as we see the Day of the Lord approaching.
We must not grieve the spirit, as one throws water on a fire, but instead must submit to the leadings and prompting that the Word of God and his Spirit place upon our hearts. We must feed the fire of devotion by the corporate and private practice of living in God’s kingdom. For when one person lights a fire, it can grow large, but when the whole town turns out to stoke the coals and pour forth fuel, then a bonfire results which burns with intensity and both warms all those in its presence as well as serving as a light to this dark world showing where the love of God is to be found. So stoke the fire with prayers, scripture study, song and deeds. This is what it means not to quench the Spirit but to keep the fire burning continuously on the altar.
But let us remember this gospel truth: the Triune God is behind all of this. It is God who kindles the fire and it is he who carries it to completion. It is God who is both the one fueling our lives and it is his Son, Jesus, who is the final offering. God is our guide and the one who restores our souls. Without God there could be no fulfilling of the command, “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously, it must not go out.” Thanks be to God.