Words in the Word – So What Exactly is “Holy Fire”?

(This article is an article on biblical lexicography, but I’ve changed the title of my lexicography posts to “Words in the Word”, mostly because the word “lexicography” is intimidating to non-Bible Geeks.  In an effort to not needlessly confuse people or scare off new readers, I’m adopting a far easier title for the identification of my word studies.)

In the recent talk about “strange fire”, there was talk (from far more than just one place) about the “true fire” that was being missed while the strange fire was being attacked.  Apparently many continuationist/charismatic writers fear that the whole conference will lump every charismatic idea/church/person together into 1 big bucket, label that bucket”heresy”, and chuck the entire charismatic movement in the trash as a work of Satan.  I’m fairly confident that this won’t be the case.  That being said, this “holy fire” talk lead me to a rather large study project that has been over 2 weeks in the making.

In Charismatic circles, there is often talk about “fire” of some sort: Holy Fire, Divine Fire, Heavenly Fire, the Fire of God, etc.  The idea of “fire” is basically paralleled with one or more of the following ideas: spiritual passion, having an emotionally intense worship/church service, really “getting serious” with God (or some form of personal revival), or some sort of outpouring of divine power on a person/church meeting/event resulting in various “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit (some form of personal euphoria, tongues, healings, prophecies, miracles of various shapes and sizes, or some/any of the more bizarre “manifestations” like holy laughter, holy glue, holy vomiting, barking, crying, being slain/laid out in the spirit, visions, trances, screaming, physical pain, out of body experiences, etc.).  So, is this usage of the term “fire” a biblical usage of the term?

Well, consider the following:

Let’s do an exploration of the idea of all 430 occurrences of “fire” in the ESV:

1. There are many references to physical fire in the Scripture:

Genesis 22:6-7, Exodus 12:8, 22:6, 27:3, 29:14, 29:34, 32:20, 32:34, 35:3, 38:3; Leviticus 1:7-8, 1:12, 1:17, 2:14, 3:5, 4:12, 6:9-10, 6:12-13, 6:30, 7:17, 7:19, 8:17, 8:32, 9:11, 10:1, 13:52, 13:55, 13:57, 16:12-13, 16:27, 19:6, 20:14, 21:9; Numbers 3:4, 4:14, 6:18, 16:7, 16:18, 16:37, 16:46, 18:9, 19:6, 26:61, 31:10, 31:23, Deuteronomy 7:5, 7:25, 9:21, 12:3, 12:31, 13:16, Joshua 6:24, 7:15, 7:25, 8:8, 8:19, 11:6, 11:9, 11:11, 13:14, Judges 1:8, 6:21, 9:15, 9:20, 9:49, 9:52, 12:1, 14:15, 15:5-6, 15:14, 16:19, 18:27, 20:48, 1 Samuel 2:28, 30:1, 30:3, 30:14, 2 Samuel 14:30-31, 22:9, 22:13, 23:7; 1 Kings 7:50, 9:16, 16:18, 18:23, 18:24-25, 19:12; 2 Kings 1:14, 8:12, 17:31, 19:18, 23:11, 25:15, 2 Chronicles 4:22, 16:14, 21:19, 35:13, 36:19; Nehemiah 1:3, 2:3, 2:13; Job 22:20, 28:5, 31:12, 41:19, Psalm 11:6, 18:8, 18:12-13, 21:9, 46:9, 68:12, 74:7, 78:63, 80:16, 83:14, 118:12, 140:10, 148:8; Proverbs 6:27, 26:18, 26:20-21, 30:16; Isaiah 1:7, 5:24, 7:4, 9:5, 9:19, 10:16, 27:11, 30:14, 30:33, 33:12, 37:19, 44:15-16, 44:19, 47:14, 54:16, 64:2, 64:11, 66:24; Jeremiah 6:29, 7:18, 7:31, 19:5, 22:7; 29:22, 32:29, 34:2, 34:22, 36:22, 36:23, 36:32, 37:8, 37:10, 38:17, 38:23, 43:12-13, 49:2, 51:32, 51:58, 52:19; Ezekiel 1:4, 1:13, 1:27, 5:2, 8:2, 10:6, 10:7, 15:4-6, 16:21; 20:31, 22:20, 23:25, 24:10, 24:12, 28:14, 28:16, 30:8, 30:14, 30:16, 38:22, 39:9-10, ; Daniel 3:22, 3:24-27, 7:9-11; Hosea 7:4; Joel 2:30; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:6; Zechariah 9:4; Malachi 1:10; 3:2; Matthew 3:10-12, 5:22, 7:19, 13:40, 17:15, 18:8-9, 25:41; Mark 9:22, 9:43, , 9:48-49, 14:54; Luke 3:9, 3:16-17, 9:54, 17:29, 22:55; John 15:6, 18:18, 21:9; Acts 2:3, 2:19, 28:2-3, 28:5; Hebrews 11:34; James 3:5, 5:3;  Revelation 8:5, 8:7, 8:8, 10:1, 11:5, 13:13, 14:10, 15:2, 16:8).

Anticipating objections to some of those, I’d say that there are some occurrences where “fire” is used in a metaphor, but the term “fire” itself isn’t being used as a metaphor for something else (i.e. in a simile where something is “hot like fire”, the fire isn’t metaphorical for something else).

2. God’s physical presence is often manifest in some sort of physical fire in the Bible:

a. God appears as a fire pot (Genesis 15:17).

b.  Jesus appears as fire in (Exodus 3:2; Acts 7:30). I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that the text says “the angel of the Lord”, not Jesus.  Well, they’re the same person.  Secondly, you’re thinking “well, the bush wasn’t burned so it obviously wasn’t physical fire”.  I’d dare suggest that it sure looked like real, physical fire…hence Moses saw it and wondered why the bush wasn’t burned (Exodus 3:3).  The strange thing about the fire wasn’t it’s appearance, but rather that it didn’t burn the bush.

c.  God appeared as a pillar of fire during the Exodus (Exodus 13:21-22, 14:24, 40:38; Numbers 9:15-16, 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:33; Nehemiah 9:12, 9:19; Psalm 105:39).

d.  God appeared as fire on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18, 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:11-12, 4:15, 4:33, 4:36, 5:4, 5:22-25, 9:10, 9:15, 10:4; 18:16; Isaiah 4:5; Hebrews 12:18).

e.  God himself lit the first offering in the tabernacle with fire (Leviticus 9:24).

f.  God himself lit the first offering in the temple with fire (2 Chronicles 7:1, 7:3).

g.  God himself lit David’s offering upon altar on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (1 Chronicles 21:26).

h.  God’s flaming chariots, pulled by flaming horses, separated Elijah from Elisha as Elijah ascended to Heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).  Interesting point here is that the flaming horses/chariots kept Elisha away from the whirlwind (and the holy ground that it touched down on).  Interesting detail indeed.

i.  Those same flaming chariots and flaming horses appeared a second time in Elisha’s life; when Elisha’s servant had his eyes opened to see the armies of the Lord defending Elisha at Dothan (2 Kings 6:17).  Now arguably, nobody knows if this was actually physical fire, but the fire was described in that way.

j.  In the future, God will defend Israel from their enemies by appearing as (among other things) fire (Isaiah 29:6; Revelation 20:9).

k.  The Holy Spirit manifested as seven torches (for the seven churches) in the book of Revelation (Revelation 4:5).

3.  God’s judgment is often performed with physical fire:

a. God rained down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah in (Genesis 19:24).

b. The seventh plague in Egypt was one of hail and fire  (Exodus 9:23-24).

c.  God killed Nadab and Abihu with fire (Leviticus 10:2).

d.  God killed some of the complaining Israelites with fire (Numbers 11:1-3).

e. God killed the 250 men offering incense in Korah’s rebellion with fire (Numbers 16:35, 26:10; Psalm 106:18).

f.  God killed the 50 men sent to get Elijah with fire (2 Kings 1:10) twice (2 Kings 1:12).

g.  God killed all Job’s sheep and servants with fire (Job 1:16).

h. God proves himself as God and sentences the prophets of Ba’al to death by raining fire down from Heaven on the altar of Elijah (1 Kings 18:38).

i.  God’s eschatological judgment of sinners/creation will be performed with fire (2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 10:27; James 3:6; 2 Peter 3:7, 3:12; Jude 1:7; Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:14-15, 21:8).  Though there most certainly is debate with regards to the physical nature of the fire, the usage of the term “fire” is not clearly metaphorical in the listed passages.  Exploration of this issue is beyond the scope of this post and is, in and of itself, a rather large post.

4.  Fire is used as a relatively wide-ranging metaphor several times in the scripture:

a.  The consuming nature of fire is used as a metaphor for destruction/desolateness, either by God or Men (Numbers 21:28, 21:30; Deuteronomy 9:3; Job 20:26; Psalm 97:3; Isaiah 10:17; 26:11, Jeremiah 48:5, 49:27, 50:32, 51:30; Joel 1:19-20, 2:3; Obadiah 1:18; Micah 1:7; Nahum 3:13, 3:15; Habakkuk 2:13; Revelation 17:16).

b.  The consuming nature of fire is used as a metaphor for God’s jealousy for his own glory and worship (Deuteronomy 4:24; Psalm 79:5, 89:46; Hebrews 12:29).

c.  Fire is used as a metaphor for God’s judgment/wrath (Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 50:3, 78:21; Isaiah 30:30, 31:9; 33:14, 42:25, 66:15-16; Jeremiah 4:4, 11:16, 15:14, 17:14, 17:27, 21:10, 21:12, 21:14; Lamentations 2:3, 4:11; Ezekiel 5:4, 15:7, 19:12, 19:14, 20:47, 21:31, 21:32, 22:21, 22:31, 28:18, 39:6; Hosea 8:14; Amos 1;4, 1:7, 1:10, 1:12, 1:14, 2:2, 2:5, 5:6, 7:4; Zephaniah 1:18; 3:8; Zechariah 3:2, 11:1; Luke 12:49; Jude 1:23; Revelation 14:18, 18:8)

d.  The consuming nature of fire is used as a metaphor to describe how wealth acquired through bribery doesn’t last (Job 15:34).

e.  The extinguishing of a fire (or candle) is used as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of the life of the wicked (Job 18:5).

f.  The words of the Lord are compared with fire (Psalm 29:7; Jeremiah 5:14).

g.  Fire is used as a metaphor for anger (Psalm 39:3; Lamentations 2:4; Hosea 7:6; ).

h.  Fire is used as a metaphor for suffering (Psalm 66:12; Isaiah 43:2; Lamentations 1:13; Zechariah 13:9; 2 Peter 1:7; Revelation 3:18).

i.  Fire is used metaphorically to (arguably) describe something that cannot be stopped (Psalm 104:4; Jeremiah 20:9; Joel 2:5; Hebrews 1:7).

j.  The destroying/consuming nature of fire is used as a metaphor for the speech of the wicked (Proverbs 16:27; James 3:6).

k.  A lover’s jealousy is compared with fire (Song of Solomon 8:6).

l.  Fire is used as a metaphor for wickedness (Isaiah 9:18, 33:11, 65:5).

m. The consuming nature of fire is used as a metaphor for the tongue of the Lord (Isaiah 30:27).

n.  The illuminating nature of fire is used as a metaphor for wisdom (Isaiah 50:11).

o. God’s word is compared to a fire (Jeremiah 23:29).

p.  Fire is used as a metaphor of impenetrability (Zechariah 2:5).

q.  Fire is used as a metaphor for testing (1 Corinthians 3:13, 3:15).

r. Fire is used as a metaphor for the eyes of Christ (Revelation 1:14, 2:18, 19:12).

s.  Fire is used as a metaphor for a plague (Revelation 9:17-18).

Wow.  That was a lot of passages! I guess I do all this work so that you don’t have to…and before anyone complains, I’m sure that I wrongly classified a few references, mostly because of the question of whether “fire” itself was being used as a metaphor or a literal component of a metaphor.  I didn’t spend a ton of time looking at some of the difficult texts…

For those that are interested, I also checked the original languages and the Hebrew word for fire (‘esh) occurs 373 times in the Old Testament (which is actually more occurrences than in the ESV, but mostly because it’s sometimes translated “fiery” or “burning” or something like that), and the Greek (pyr) occurs 73 times (again, more occurrences than in the ESV, for identical reasons).  That works out to 16 more occurrences than the ESV, so on a list of 430 references; that’s a fairly insignificant percentage (3.72%).

Points to take home:

1.  The Spirit never, ever, uses “fire” in a metaphorical sense describing passion/excitement/commitment/fervor etc.  The only metaphorical usages related to emotions are of anger and wrath.  I have never heard any Charismatic/Continuationist use the idea of “holy fire” in reference to God’s wrath or anger.

Now, I know that getting “fired up/being on fire” is an English expression of speech, but that leads to the second point.

2.  The Spirit never, ever, uses “fire” in the context of cultivation of spiritual renewal/fervor/conviction.  There’s never talk of “Holy Fire” in the scriptures, at least in the sense that the phrase is regularly used in charismatic circles.  The phrase doesn’t even appear in the Scriptures at all.

All this talk about “holy fire” isn’t talking about actually burning things, God manifesting his presence in physical fire, divine judgment, or any of the metaphorical uses in scripture.  When people talk about “holy fire”, they’re not talking about God raining down judgment on his enemies (among other things).

So, when a person conflates biblical terminology and idioms with modern terminology and idioms, they twist the scriptures.  When a person takes verses like Matthew 3:11 as some sort of teaching that the Holy Spirit will give a person an intense emotional excitement/religious sincerity/fervor for God (or as a promise for the manifestation of sign gifts in a church event/service/meting), one is either mishandling or misunderstanding the scripture.

Here’s another thought.

If you pray for God’s “fire” in your life and you don’t experience tongues and prophecy/euphoric experiences of worship, but do experience suffering that matures you and refines you, God’s giving you exactly what you asked for (Psalm 66:12; Isaiah 43:2; Lamentations 1:13; Zechariah 13:9; 1 Corinthians 3:13, 3:15; 2 Peter 1:7; Revelation 3:18).  If you think God’s not faithfully answering your prayers, you’re sadly mistaken.

Until now, you may have been misinformed and speaking out of an assumed tradition or ignorance, asking God for something you didn’t mean to ask for, and then responded in confusion when he didn’t give you what you meant to ask for (but didn’t actually request).

Now you’re informed, so all your excuses are null and void.  God’s far more faithful than we give him credit for, and we’re often a lot more ignorant than we’re willing to admit.

***Please stop talking about the Holy Spirit in language that he never uses of himself.***

Also, if you want more experiences of tongues, ask for more experiences of tongues.  Don’t ask for more “holy fire” in your life; you might get cancer and wonder why God seems to not be listening to your prayers.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “This post is being automatically posted since I’m actually still on holidays” Unger


13 thoughts on “Words in the Word – So What Exactly is “Holy Fire”?

    • Hey Wayne! I’m guessing that’s one of the likely places that the phrase comes from…but you’re totally right about the contextual problems.

      Much of charismatic parlance (i.e. “hedge of protection”, “holy fire”, “we speak [blank] over [a person/a situation/whatever]”) doesn’t come from the Scriptures at all, but only contains one or two words that appear in the Scriptures that are made to mean something utterly contrary to what they mean in the Scriptures.

      Non-Charismatics do that too, mind you. I mean, how often do we drop “biblical” language that we don’t know the meaning of or rip wildly out of context? (i.e. “amen”, “judge not lest you be judged”, “I stand at the door and knock”, etc.)

      I’d like it if we all evaluated our speech and conduct against the Scriptures far more critically and honestly.

  1. Speaking of using phrases that aren’t biblical but use “kind of bibley” words, where does the concept of “speaking something into someone’s life” come from? I know it’s not strictly on topic, but I hear it in church settings from time to time.

    • Well, that’s a good and HUGE question Ed. The short answer is that it’s from eastern religion; namely Hinduism and Buddhism. The whole “speaking something into existence” idea is thousands of years old.

      In the 1800’s, the orient was all the rage and everyone in Europe and the Americas were fascinated with the East; it’s mysterious and is completely foreign to the West in both culture and mindset.

      As Hindu and Buddhist teachings popped up in philosophy and the academy (i.e. in the writings of Nietzsche), the ideas also popped up in medicine (i.e. D.D. Palmer, the founder of Chiropractic medicine) and heretical forms of “Christianity” (i.e. Phineas Quimby, the founder of “New Thought”, or Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of “Christian Science”. It’s also worth looking the “Mind Science” cult and the Unity School of Christianity; two other influential fountains of craziness). There’s even a bunch of influence from some of these movements as late as the setting up the stage for Scientology in the 1940’s. L. Ron Hubbard cites many of the same principles of positive confession theology that Joel Osteen proudly proclaims, and Hubbard picked them up many years before he wrote Dianetics in 1950.

      Interesting connection; Phineas Quimby was taught/ripped off by E.W. Kenyon, who then was taught/ripped off by Kenneth Hagin, who then was taught/ripped off by Kenneth Copeland. Hagin is widely regarded as the patron of modern “word faith” theology, and that theology is easily traced from unquestionably eastern, pagan religion.

      Here is a book that has some good information on Kenyon. The good stuff starts on page 22 (in case that link doesn’t work).

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  4. Thank you for this in depth look at “holy fire”, and for doing all the research for us!
    As a worship leader who attends and serves at what would be considered a “Spirit Lead” charismatic church, I have wondered myself about certain “terms” that have no scriptural reference.
    I have others that come to mind as well!
    I also appreciated the directive to ASK for more tongues…. etc.
    I am striving to lead authentic, scripture based worship.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      I’ve been involved in worship in several Charismatic Churches myself, and definitely feel your pain. The pull between tradition and scripture is often one-sided for many, so praise the Lord that you’re thinking about this stuff and wanting to truly lead authentic, scripture-based worship.

      I hope this helps and pushes you to constantly submit yourself to the Lord and evaluate all things against the scripture.

      May the Lord bless!

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