In the United States, we have a phrase that is used a lot, especially in the South. It’s common to hear a southerner say, “Bless your heart.” On the surface, the phrase seems pretty straightforward. If taken at face value, it means that the person wishes to bless you. However, the phrase has more than this one meaning.
For example, if someone is sick, a friend might say, “Bless your heart,” to express concern. It’s like saying, “I am really sorry for what you’re going through.” In other words, it denotes empathy. In addition, it can be a way to express gratitude. When you give a southerner a gift, instead of a “thank you” you might just get a warm, “Bless your heart.”
The phrase is also used for second-hand embarrassment. For example, if someone trips and falls, or spills food down their shirt, someone might feel embarrassed for the person and say, “Bless your heart,” as a way of expressing their uncomfortable feeling.
In each of these examples, the phrase is used in a generally positive or benign way. However, it can also be used as an insult. If a southerner thinks you’re doing something unwise or irritating, they might hit you with a sarcastic, “Bless your heart,” as a way of saying that they don’t approve. It is also used in arguments. If used in a fight, “Bless your heart,” could mean something closer to a four-letter word than a blessing.
If you aren’t from the South, this might seem kind of strange, and it can take time to figure out the nuances of the phrase. The key to understanding it, however, is simple. You can always figure out the meaning when you consider the context of the conversation.
Was a gift given? Then it’s gratitude.
Was it in the middle of an argument? Then it’s an insult.
Was someone sick? Then it’s empathy.
The same principle is true when we come to the Scriptures. There is a wide range of meaning for words and phrases in the Scriptures. This makes sense when we consider the wide range of writers, cultures, locations, topics, and readers. Despite these many issues, determining the meaning of a word or phrase becomes easy when you consider the context. The context of the passage helps to determine the meaning. I was reminded of this principle in a recent conversation regarding the word fire.
When dealing with the Scriptures, the word fire is often assumed to mean the lake of fire–the final destination of those who never received eternal life by faith alone in Jesus. We learn about the lake of fire in Revelation 20. The context of the passage tells us that this is the final judgment of those who are not found in the Book of Life (v 15). These are people who have died (vv 12-13) and are brought before the Lord at the Great White Throne judgment. Since they have never believed in Jesus for the gift of eternal life, they are ultimately cast into the lake of fire.
In this passage, the context clearly shows that the fire is reserved for unbelievers. However, that is not the only way the word fire is used in the Bible. For example, in John 21:9, when the Lord makes breakfast for the disciples, we are told that He cooked the food over a “fire of coals.” The context tells us that this is a literal fire with which the Lord cooked their fish.
Another example of the word fire being used in a different way is found in 1 Pet 1:6-7. In this passage, the Apostle Peter is speaking to believers (vv 1-2) who are being “grieved by various trials (v 6)”. This is a different context from that of Revelation 20, which addresses the fate of unbelievers in the future. In 1 Peter, the audience is believers who are facing tribulations here and now. Peter is not talking about a future judgment, but about the readers’ present-day struggles. Peter then goes on to say that these trials have a purifying function in their lives. Like a fire that tests gold and makes it stronger, so trials perfect and mature the believer’s faith. Fire in this context means the trials that believers face, which mature us and help us to grow. The goal of this fire is to produce a mature faith that can be found to praise, honor, and glorify the Lord. In other words, this fire is for the believer’s good.
Another example of the Bible’s use of the word fire is found in 1 Cor 3:15. In this passage the Apostle Paul is talking about the works that believers do for the Lord (v 13). He speaks of the Day in which these works will be tested in order to determine their reward (v 14). The Day here refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ where believers will be judged in order to determine their rewards (2 Cor 5:10). This is a different context from that of both Revelation 20 and 1 Peter 1. In this context, we are dealing with believers. Therefore, fire cannot refer to the lake of fire, as in Revelation 20, since believers will never be judged at the Great White Throne (John 5:24). In contrast to 1 Pet 1:7–where Peter is dealing with trials during this life–in 1 Cor 3:13-15 the Apostle Paul is dealing with a future event in the lives of believers in which our works will be tested by fire. In 1 Corinthians, fire refers to the Lord’s judgment of our works to determine their rewardability.
There are many more ways in which the Bible uses the word fire. It can be used to picture the life of a believer who doesn’t abide in the Lord (John 15:6). In the OT, the presence of the Lord is often depicted as fire, such as the fiery bush or the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites. These are just a few examples.
It would be a mistake to come to the word fire and assume that it always refers to the lake of fire. Just as the phrase bless your heart can be used to refer to two totally different concepts–both blessing and cursing–the word fire can refer to both positive and negative concepts. As we come to the Scriptures to see what is true (Act 17:11), let us remember the “Bless your heart” principle and keep the context in mind.