Fire in the Old Testament often signifies the presence and power of God. Moses first encounters God in the burning bush in Midian, after fleeing from Egypt.
Once Moses convinces Pharaoh to set his people free, a cloud leads the people through the desert in the day while a pillar of fire is their beacon at night. Later, when Moses calls the people to obey, he describes God as "a devouring fire, a jealous God" (Deuteronomy 4.24).
Elijah, in his contest with the priests of Baal, calls upon God who sends down fire on his sacrifice of a young bull, consuming not only the bull, but also the wood, the stones, the dust from the altar and even the water with which Elijah had doused his sacrifice.
The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah deepen our understanding of fire. My word is like fire, the Lord tells Jeremiah (23.29), after the prophet has told the Lord, "within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones" (20.9).
Isaiah issues a great prophecy: "The Lord will come in fire and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury and his rebuke in flames of fire" (66.15).
God's fire thus guides his people both materially and spiritually - it leads the people through the desert and it burns within the soul. Yet, if one turns their back on the path shown by the fire, the fire is transformed into righteous anger that consumes the person. Sinning against the Holy Spirit is an act of self-destruction.
For it is the Spirit who is symbolized by fire, who is present in the fire. Fire is the most striking and perhaps the most central symbol of the Holy Spirit.
'The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.'
1 Kings 18.38
In the three synoptic Gospels, references to both fire and Spirit are found most frequently in Luke's account. Fire, in Luke's Gospel, is always destructive, and it never leads the people through the wilderness.
Jesus tells his disciples, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled" (12.49). Lest there be any question of whether fire and the Spirit are connected, John the Baptist has already said, the messiah "will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (3.16).
Yet, the Holy Spirit does play a key backstage role in Jesus' ministry, and that role is positive and powerful. Luke's infancy narrative is filled with references to the Spirit. Likewise, the Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism, Jesus goes out into the desert "full of the Holy Spirit" and he returns to begin his ministry "filled with the power of the Spirit."
These references to the Spirit filling Jesus are a prelude to the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke.
In Acts, all the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus' mission in Galilee and Judea was to pass on the Spirit to those who have faith in him. After Christ's resurrection and ascension, the mission of the disciples is to live in the Spirit and to spread God's kingdom throughout the world.
So, at Pentecost, fire comes again in a way similar to how the Spirit led the People of God out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The Spirit comes at Pentecost with power and gentleness in a great wind and tongues of fire. A people are transformed.
Yet, the Spirit retains a destructive power. When Ananias and his wife Sapphira share only part of the proceeds of their land sale with the community, they drop dead at Peter's feet. Their sin: Putting "the Spirit of the Lord to the test" (Acts 5.1-11).
But back to Jesus. The Spirit's power is not only seen in Jesus' miracles, his proclamation of God's word and his supremely virtuous life. It is also to be seen in the renewal of the social order, a process begun through Jesus but which his disciples were to spread through the whole world.
In the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus proclaims his mission: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Lk 4.18).
Jesus' messianic proclamation challenges us to broaden our understanding of the Spirit's activity from that of sparking a privatized "spirituality" to provoking a global societal transformation.
The modern split
The point so difficult for our modern minds to grasp is that no split exists between personal spirituality and the state of the world. The transformed society includes rejoicing in the Holy Spirit as Jesus did (Lk 10.21) and overcoming the desire to hang onto our possessions for ourselves as Ananias and Sapphira failed to do.
Top-down efforts to transform an institution or a whole society are never filled with joy. They lead to compulsion and the replacement of a spirit of service with dutiful adherence to policies and obligations. That we fulfill our obligations is an excellent thing, but it cannot be counted as a source of joy.
God, however, wants to usher us into an eternal life of joy through our free choice to serve and to love both God and others. Invitation, not compulsion, is his usual method. The Spirit within - Jeremiah's "burning fire shut up in my bones" - responds to God's invitation.
Jesus himself found joy in poverty - "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Lk 9.58). God's glory is revealed in our freely-chosen spiritual and material poverty. Christ, though rich, became poor in the Spirit so we might share in the fullness of God's glory.
Isaiah's prophecy has been fulfilled. God has indeed come in fire - a fire that burns away our self-centredness and warms us with the power of his word.