Refiner’s Fire

Years ago, we sang a lot of choruses during worship at church. One of the old Vineyard songs had a chorus that we sang frequently called, Refiner’s Fire. These are the lyrics of the first verse and the chorus to that song:

Obviously, a prayer, we sang out of a desire to be what God wanted us to be. I do not remember when it first occurred to me that what we were praying for was adversity, or at least to endure in the face of it. In this song, the Refiner is God Himself, and the fire is adversity. We were praying to persevere during the adversity that God allows to shape us psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

This idea that adversity is a good thing – where does it come from?

Well, first, it is certainly not a new idea. The Roman philosopher, Seneca (AD 4 – 65) once observed, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” More recently, Lou Holtz, the well-known football coach of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame said, “Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”

We have come to know that adversity is critical to the development of character. Helen Keller, the famous educator, humanitarian, and author, who was blind and deaf from a toddler, inspired millions. She said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

As one might expect, the Bible is not silent on something this important to the development of the human character. As the song reveals, God frequently makes use of a literary device when talking about adversity. He uses the metaphor of a refiner of precious metals to rid silver and gold of the impurities that would tarnish and cheapen it.

“The fining pot is for silver, and the furnace for gold: but the Lord trieth the hearts.” Proverbs 17:3

“Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” Isaiah 48:10

God told the children of Israel that He brought them out of Egypt, out of a furnace of iron, when He delivered them from the affliction of slavery to Pharoah:

“But the Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day,” Deuteronomy 4:20 (Also 1 Kings 8:51 and Jeremiah 11:4)

God, at one point, told Ezekiel that He was ready to pour out His fury upon Israel for their sin, saying that they have become dross in His eyes. Dross is what becomes of the impurities that are refined out of silver:

“Son of man, the house of Israel is to me become dross: all they are brass, and tin, and iron, and lead, in the midst of the furnace; they are even the dross of silver.” Ezekiel 22:18 (also v. 20, 22)

In the three iron furnace passages above, as well as the three passages in Ezekiel, the word “furnace” is rendered from the Hebrew, kur, which means a crucible, the pot that is used in the fire to melt and purify precious metals. This metaphor is not just used from time to time in the scriptures, but it is fully developed and used again and again to paint a word picture of the fires of the refiner being employed in correction and, more often, in judgement to purify a people who are lost in their sins.

In a way, the giving of the law can be seen as the beginning of a refining process that led Israel all the way to Christ. Here, God seems to be using that imagery again:

“And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.” Exodus 19:8

The word used for furnace in the original above is kibshan, a smelting pot, and the use of sulfur in the refining process causes billows of black smoke.

God seems to be painting a picture of a refiner’s fire brought down upon Sodom and Gomorrah with the use of the Hebrew kibshan rendered “furnace” in the passage below. Abraham is looking out at the destruction of the cities of the plain. God rained fire and brimstone upon them. Brimstone is sulfur, again, used in the process of refining precious metals.

“And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.” Genesis 19:28

The smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a kibshan (a smelting pot). The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is being seen through the lense of the refining process. Is the idea of Sodom in the refiner’s crucible troubling? It seems to me she’d need to be refined before she could be restored.

“I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samar′ia and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in the midst of them.” Ezekiel 16:53 RSV

In the New Testament, Jesus, explaining to the disciples two of His parables, said that the angels shall gather those things that offend and sever the wicked from the just:

“And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:42, 50

The Greek kaminos is rendered here as “furnace” and the KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon defines kaminos as a smelting pot, a kiln or an oven.

“And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit.” Revelation 9:2

Again, kaminos is rendered “furnace” in the passage above, but this time, of a smelting pot, a kiln or an oven – the only one that produces billows of smoke is the smelting pot. So, why is God using refiner’s imagery in connection with the abyss of Revelation 9:2? Why not the smoke of a typical household oven? That would have been the Greek, klibanos, typically an enclosed fire pit sunk into the ground outside the house and shared by a few households. A smelting pot would certainly produce more smoke than a typical household oven, but the oven has the pit comparison going for it

The refining metaphor is used again and again: i.e., the trying of our faith by fire is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:7), at the judgement seat of Christ when the fire will try our work (1 Corinthians 3:13-15), and the Lord counsels the church in Laodicea to buy of Him gold tried by fire (Revelation 3:18). We are told repeatedly that our God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29) and Malachi asks bluntly,

“But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire…” Malachi 3:2

Who will stand when God appears on the day of His judgement? This, of course, is a rhetorical question, Malachi is not expecting an answer. No one can stand before God because all have sinned (Ecclesiastes 7:20). But the answer the prophet gives is that no one can stand “[because] He is like a refiner’s fire.” Malachi, in no uncertain terms, points to the Great White Throne Judgement as a refining event.

This leads us to the righteous judgements of God:

“And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand. The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” Revelation 14:6-11

Again, the word picture drawn by the Apostle John is one of a refining event, as is indicated by the presence of fire and brimstone (sulfur – used in refining and produces a heavy smoke).

The word tormented (v 10) is translated from a word related to the refining process as well. Rendered such from the Greek, basanizo, (a verb), according to the KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon, it means to test (metals) by the touchstone, which is a black siliceous stone used to test the purity of gold or silver by the [color] of the streak produced on it by rubbing it with either metal.

The second occurrence, torment (v 11), is basanos, (the noun) and is the touchstone itself. Applying an acid to the gold or silver streak will cause a reaction that produces a puff of smoke and is an indicator of how much and what kind of impurities are present in the gold or silver.

The Greek, eis aionas aionon, was translated, “for ever and ever” in many English Bibles and, unfortunately, the KJV, NIV, RSV, and NASB (the most widespread English translations) are among those in which this is the case. The KJV, the most prevalent English version of the Bible, was influenced greatly by the Wycliffe Bible and the Latin Vulgate, both of which treated the Greek aion (the root word of the phrase above), as meaning forever.

That Greek word is translated many different ways in the KJV: age 20, ages 6, ancient time 1, beginning of time 1, course 1, eternal 2, eternity 1, ever 2, forever 27, forever and ever 20, forevermore 2, long ago 1, never 1, old 1, time 1, world 7, worlds 1

However, The New Greek / English Interlinear New Testament renders the phrase, eis aionas aionon, “into [the] ages of ages”. Both Young’s Analytical Concordance of the Bible and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible render aion as “age” or “ages” and Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible renders it “age” or “ages” throughout the New Testament.

Looking then at the last passage we have been discussing, through lenses free of a predisposition to eternal damnation:

“…and he shall be [tested for purity] with fire and [sulfur] in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their [test on the touchstone] ascendeth up [into the age of ages]: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” Revelation 14:6-11 (paraphrasing)

Summing it up:

The use of a well developed word picture employing a metaphor of the refiner’s fire has been presented in scripture over and over again throughout the Bible. Fire and sulfur, black smoke, the repeated mentions of gold and silver, the touchstone and testing, all lead me to consider (if not to conclude) that the judgment of God is not punitive – but the necessary refining process required to bring all of God’s creation to the place of repentance and the subsequent bowing of the knee to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. How else can we explain these passages?

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:3-6

“For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” Colossians 1:19-20

“And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.”  Revelation 5:13

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'” John 1:29

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:2

“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NIV

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9 NIV

“Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You. All the earth shall worship You And sing praises to You; They shall sing praises to Your name.’” Selah. Psalm 66:3-4

“Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous..” Romans 5:18-19 NIV

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11

These and many other passages of scripture paint a glorious picture of victory over sin, death and the grave where all the people of all the ages bow down in worship before Christ and all of creation is reconciled to God.

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” 1 Corinthians 15:24-28

How can God be all in all when the bulk of those born into this world from the beginning of time, all people whom He loves and died for, are cast into a lake of fire to burn in agony for eternity? How can God be all in all when billions of those whom He is not willing that they should perish do just that?

The ultimate reconciliation of all things is the utter victory over death and evil. It is the ultimate triumph that every heart created by the Lord of Lords gushes with expressions of repentance, thanksgiving, worship and adoration of its maker. That is how God can be all in all.