Tzav: A Continual Fire
The altar was a central part of the sacrificial system. Without it, there would have been no place to burn the sacrifices and offerings. God explicitly commands that the fire of the altar is never to go out. What deeper spiritual significance does this hold for us?
While giving instructions about the duty of the priests regarding the various sacrifices and offerings, God tells Moses, “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning” (Leviticus 6:12). He reiterates in the next verse, “Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out” (verse 13). Because of the need for an efficient system where the offerings would be burned, it was important that the fire never went out. The altar needed to be ready at every opportunity so that offerings could continue to be burned on it.
A couple things were noticed by the rabbis when they read this passage. First of all, the fire was to be kept lit continuously, meaning even on the Sabbath. Previously, God had commanded the people not to light a fire on the sabbath (Exodus 35:3). This shows that the service of the tabernacle had a position which was higher than that of the Sabbath, and therefore the Sabbath restrictions were not to affect the tabernacle services. The next thing they realized was that the fire was to be kept going even when the tabernacle was not set up because it was being moved along with the people as they traveled through the wilderness. Even when the altar was not being used because of this fact, the fire was still not to go out. No matter the circumstances, the fire was to stay lit.
Just as the fire of the altar was to be kept burning continuously, so too we are called to keep the fire of the altar burning. What does this mean? Paul tells us, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18). To pray at all times is to keep the fire burning within us. This fire must be maintained, otherwise it will quickly grow duller and duller until it eventually dies out: “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart… ‘Now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?'” (Luke 18:1, 7-8). Faith and persistence must both be present in order for our fire to be effective.
We also see that the inner flame within us applies to using our gifts: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). We have all been given spiritual gifts, but these must be put into practice in order to be effective. The fire on the altar was not there just to look nice or provide warmth, but it had a specific task to perform. Likewise, God has given us each talents and abilities, and we are to be good stewards of these things, using them for the glory of God and the quickening of Yeshua’s return.
Outside of the regular duties, the fire was to be kept burning on the Sabbath and when the people were on the move. So too, just as we can offer up prayers and stir up the Spirit within us as we go about our regular duties, we must make the extra effort to keep it alive both during the times of rest as well as the times when we are very busy. Starting a fire can be difficult, but once it is hot and burning, it is easier to maintain. God has provided us with a seed of embers, and it is our duty to allow this to grow into a consuming fire. The flame must be guarded so that it is able to grow, otherwise it will die out: “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). And once it goes out, it is difficult to get it started again.
The fire on the altar was the way in which the offering was able to become something more than just a carcass. As it transformed the dead animal into smoke and ashes, the scent rose up to God as a soothing aroma. When we allow the Spirit to be stirred up within us and never go out, we will experience this same transformation from death to life.