The instruction for the fire on the altar to burn continuously comes from Leviticus 6:13, which says “Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.” This was part of the regulations given by God to Moses regarding the offerings and sacrifices made by the priests on behalf of the people of Israel.
There are a few important reasons why God commanded that the fire on the altar must be kept burning continuously:
1. It showed God’s constant presence with His people
The tabernacle and later the temple were viewed as God’s dwelling place among His people. The perpetual fire represented God’s constant presence with them – He never withdrew or abandoned His people. Even when they sinned and were sent into exile, God preserved a remnant and eventually restored them. So the never-ending flame was a visible reminder that God was always present with them.
2. It enabled sacrifices and offerings to be made at any time
The fire was necessary to burn the sacrifices and offerings presented to God. Since people could come to present offerings at any time of day, the fire had to be kept going around the clock so sacrifices could be made whenever needed. This perpetual fire enabled people to seek atonement and forgiveness as soon as they realized they had sinned. They didn’t have to wait for the fire to be lit and readied.
3. It was symbolic of God’s work in His people
Fire in the Bible often represents purification and cleansing from sin. Just as a refiner’s fire burns away impurities from metal, God’s spiritual fire removes sinful tendencies and habits from the lives of those who follow Him. The perpetual flame on the altar was a constant reminder of God’s desire to purify the hearts of His people and make them holy as He is holy. As the sacrifices were offered up, the fire consumed them, symbolizing God’s work of cleansing them from defilement.
4. It was symbolic of their consecration and commitment
In the same way that the fire never went out, the people’s devotion to God needed to be constant and unwavering. When they were exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah rebuked the people for allowing their consecration and commitment to God to flicker out like the dying embers of an untended fire (Jeremiah 52:13). Just as the priests were responsible to keep the altar fire always burning, so God’s people were called to tend the fire of their faith and love for God, not allowing it to diminish.
5. It foreshadowed God’s presence through the Holy Spirit
The perpetual fire was prophetic of the gift of the Holy Spirit which God promised to pour out upon His people. John the Baptist declared that Jesus the Messiah would baptize people with the Holy Spirit, represented as tongues of fire resting upon them (Matthew 3:11, Acts 2:3). Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, God is now with believers everywhere, never to depart from them. What was portrayed physically on the altar through the perpetual flame is now manifested spiritually in believers by the Holy Spirit.
So in summary, the perpetual fire on the altar in the tabernacle and temple had great symbolic significance for the people of Israel. It gave assurance of God’s constant presence, enabled ongoing sacrifices for sin, depicted God’s purifying work in their lives, called them to unwavering consecration, and foreshadowed the gift of the abiding Holy Spirit that believers enjoy today. By commanding the fire to always burn, God was teaching His people to never let their devotion, gratitude, worship, and dependence on Him falter or fade away.
6. It showed that God accepts continuous worship
Human worship of God through sacrifices didn’t end with the daily sacrifices, but continued with personal sacrifices. The perpetual fire indicated that God welcomes continual worship and offerings by His people at any time. Just as David exhorted in Psalms 34:1 – “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” God’s desire is for His people to live in continuous awareness of His presence and in perpetual readiness to offer sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to Him.
7. It was symbolic of God’s wrath against sin
Fire is often associated in the Bible with God’s righteous anger against evil. The flames of the perpetual fire could remind the Israelites of the consequence of straying away from God’s commands. In Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire from the Lord for offering “unauthorized fire” before Him. So the fire on the altar served as a sobering warning that God’s wrath burns hot against all disobedience and sin. His people must approach Him on His terms or face dire judgment.
8. It was part of Israel’s unique identity as God’s people
The perpetual flame helped distinguish Israel as those belonging to the one true God, set apart from the pagan nations surrounding them. Their monotheistic worship centered around the altar of burnt offerings stood in stark contrast to the idol worship of polytheistic cultures around them. The continuous burnt offerings communicated that God was not like the mute idols – He was the living God who makes provision for an ongoing relationship with His people.
9. It enabled burnt offerings to be made day and night
Burnt offerings were an important part of Israel’s worship system. Having perpetual fire on the altar allowed burnt offerings to be made continuously day and night by the priest on duty (2 Chronicles 13:11). This enabled the regular morning and evening sacrifices to be offered “a regular burnt offering to the Lord” (Exodus 29:38-42). The perpetual flame facilitated Israel’s continual worship through burnt offerings.
10. It was part of maintaining proper worship rituals
The fire on the altar had to be kept burning according to the rituals and regulations God outlined for proper worship in the tabernacle/temple. Just as the menorah lamps were to stay lit at all times (Exodus 27:20-21), so the altar fire was to remain constantly burning as well. God was very concerned that every detail of Israel’s worship followed His instructions. The perpetual fire ensured proper observance of the rituals He had instituted.
In conclusion, the perpetual fire on the altar served many important purposes – it signified God’s presence, enabled ongoing sacrifices, depicted purification from sin, called for complete consecration, foreshadowed the Holy Spirit, facilitated continual worship, warned against disobedience, identified Israel as God’s people, allowed burnt offerings day and night, and maintained proper ritual worship. God gave many visual object lessons to teach spiritual truths to His people. The perpetual fire was a constant reminder of His nature, work, and relationship with them.