Malachi 3:2-3 NRSV: (2) But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; (3) he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 1 Corinthians 3:15 NRSV (15) If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
All builders will build on foundations of various materials. 1 Corinthians 3 uses silver, gold, wood, precious stones, hay, and straw as examples. Verse 11 states the Jesus Christ is the foundation; silver, gold, precious stones. Anything built on other than Christ is wood, hay, or straw, flimsy and corruptible. "The builder will be saved, but only as through fire". This was written by Paul to believers who were still young in the Spirit yet older in the flesh. Focus please on the saving fire. If we were to have a brick of gold full of impurities what can be done to see the true value or to make the gold usable? Refine the gold, the impurities are separated, the gold is saved as pure. A refiners fire.
Malachi also speaks of the refiners fire, the messenger is like a refiners fire. Malachi speaks of purifying the tribe of Levi, the priests that have become impure. The LORD does not seek the destruction, total, of the priestly tribe but rather wants to refine them for His future purposes. A purifier of silver removing the dross to reveal pure silver. This passage is very particular in its audience however it speaks to the purpose of the fire. A refiners fire is consuming yet the end goal is not total destruction.
A less familiar metaphor is the use of fullers soap. Near Jerusalem there was a fullers field as told of in Isaiah 36:2. A fuller cleaned linens. Circular vats were filled with water and fullers soap, linens were then trampled on by foot. The soap was very strong and able to whiten fabrics. A field away from the city was necessary as the smell of the process was not desirable. The linens were roughly treated with a purifying result. So, this passage of Malachi presents two important metaphors regarding the purifying nature of our Lord.
Both are a means of purification and are extreme. One is of fire hot enough to melt a precious metal to it's liquid state in order to remove impurities, the other is a rough trampling meant to pound out the ground-in debris and discoloration of linens. If one is to imagine being a brick of impure silver, of a heavily soiled linen, the thought of being melted in such heat or trampled on would be frightful. This is the intent, to melt, to purify.
Ezekiel 22:17-21 NRSV (17) The word of the LORD came to me: (18) Mortal, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them, silver, bronze, tin, iron, and lead. In the smelter they have become dross. (19) Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you have all become dross, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. (20) As one gathers silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin into a smelter, to blow the fire upon them in order to melt them; so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. (21) I will gather you and blow upon you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted within it.
Fire that proceeds forth from the mouth of God, "the fire of my wrath", is the purifier. God IS the source of the fire. Wrath has a purpose, to purify. Zechariah speaks of a number of God's people from Israel that will be put through the fire for refinement.
Zechariah 13:9 NRSV (9) And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, "They are my people"; and they will say, "The LORD is our God."
Israel, as a nation, grew in Egypt. God refers to this growing period as a furnace. The people were raised up in a land that became hostile toward them. The nation of God's chosen grew into maturity in the furnace of adversity. The furnace had a reason, to refine until the product was prepared to enter the world.
Jeremiah 11:1-5 NRSV (1) The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: (2) Hear the words of this covenant, and speak to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. (3) You shall say to them, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be anyone who does not heed the words of this covenant, (4) which I commanded your ancestors when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron-smelter, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, (5) that I may perform the oath that I swore to your ancestors, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day. Then I answered, "So be it, LORD."
The words of God as spoken through the prophet Jeremiah in verse 4 describe Egypt as an "iron-smelter". The furnace was not a place of destruction, it was not the end, it was not a place of eternal torment but it was the beginning for Israel. It was a time of strengthening and preparation. A time to display the mighty works of God. Israel was to grow in faith and trust of their God. The world was to learn of God.
And what of eternal punishment for the lost in a lake of fire? Was this ever God's intention? The valley to the east and south of Jerusalem was a place of abomination. Israel followed the idol worship of other nations by offering their children to Molech. In several places of the Old Testament God speaks of disgust with Israel for this act of heathen worship where children were made to pass through the fire of Molech, to their death. It is said that the idol was a very high statue of metal, hollow, hands outstretched with palms facing upward. The fires were constantly kept burning within the idol heating the hands to unbearable temperatures. The hands held the children as they burned alive. What was God's statement on this cruel practice?
Deuteronomy 12:29-31 NRSV (29) When the LORD your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, (30) take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, "How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same." (31) You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 2 Kings 17:16-18 NRSV (16) They rejected all the commandments of the LORD their God and made for themselves cast images of two calves; they made a sacred pole, worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. (17) They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. (18) Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone. 2 Kings 21:6 NRSV (6) He made his son pass through fire; he practiced soothsaying and augury, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Ezekiel 20:31 NRSV (31) When you offer your gifts and make your children pass through the fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be consulted by you, O house of Israel? As I live, says the Lord GOD, I will not be consulted by you. Jeremiah 7:31-32 NRSV (31) And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (32) Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. Jeremiah 19:4-6 NRSV (4) Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, (5) and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal,which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind; (6) therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter.
The LORD said of this terror, "which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind;". Burning a person alive never entered the mind of God. God never even thought of this, ever, until the Israel began to burn their own children. Understand, God NEVER thought of this. God did not foresee that anyone would do such a thing. It NEVER entered God's mind. Is God a liar? God has never intended to burn anyone alive, for eternity, as a punishment for any reason. This should cause us to wonder about the fire that comes straight from the mouth of God. What are the properties of such a fire. Is the fire literal or metaphoric? Are those who are "destroyed" in the fire of God's wrath gone forever? 1 Corinthians 3:15 NRSV: (15) If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.