Sermon preached on Leviticus 10 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/09/2011 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Would It Have Been Accepted?”
This is a stunning passage of Scripture. I’ve had people mention to me before how difficult this passage is, particularly when non-Christians mention it. There can be a temptation to feel like we need to apologize for it, to try to explain it away. We can be tempted to say well that was the Old Testament, let me tell you about the New Testament. And yet this passage teaches a very powerful lesson. And to confine this to the Old Testament just won’t work. The God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are the same. The God who struck down Nadab and Abihu here in the Old Testament is the same God who struck down Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament, Acts 5. No, there is an important lesson to be learned here. It’s a lesson of God’s holiness. It’s a lesson about what God wants from his people in worship. How he wants us to regard him as holy and glorious as we come before him. And yet it’s in the face of the righteous wrath of this all holy God that we are also drawn again to grace. In fact, its passages like this that show how desperately we need that grace. That’s a grace that we have found in Christ, and it’s a grace that literally saves our lives!
Let’s begin then this morning by thinking first about Nadab and Abihu and what they did that resulted in their death. First off, note that Nadab and Abihu were the oldest sons of Aaron the High Priest, probably about 30 years old at the time. So they were Levites of the priestly line and were consecrated to serve in the temple. Nadab and Abihu were supposed to be priests and leaders among the people. And so in verse 1, we see something that might have seemed like typical priestly service. They take some fire and incense and offer it before the LORD. And yet what happens? Verse 2. Fire from God comes and consumes them. They fall dead to the ground before the LORD. Why did this happen? Well verse 1 gives us two related explanations. It was profane, strange, fire. And it was something he had not commanded of them.
So what then exactly was the nature of their improper offering? Well, we don’t know the details. We’re just not told. Many have speculated. Some have thought they gave this improper offering while intoxicated. That has some compelling support in the text since in the midst of this incident, God instructs Aaron that him and his sons should not drink wine or intoxicating drinks when they enter into the sanctuary. It may be that there was alcohol involved in this, but that would be informed speculation; we couldn’t say for sure. Some have thought that maybe they offered this fire from a source other than the altar – the Torah called for the fire for certain offerings to come from the main altar in the courtyard (i.e. 16:12). That’s possible. Others suggestions have come too. But the point is we’re not told. Ultimately the unknown details don’t matter here as much as what is told. This fire was profane it says in verse 1. Literally, a strange fire. Something unknown. Foreign fire. What’s a strange fire? It’s as the verse goes on to say. It’s the kind that God had not commanded. And this was not just a strange fire, it was one offered to God as an act of worship. Verse 1 says they offered it “before the LORD.” It was an act of worship, but an unauthorized act of worship.
You see, God is very particular about how he is worshipped. He will tell us how to worship him. The Second Commandment tells us that he’s concerned with how we worship him. Worshipping the one true God by idols, is not acceptable. Aaron had made that mistake before, and it’s amazing that his life was spared if you think about it. Of course, we see this with Cain and Abel back in Genesis 4 too. Abel’s offering is accepted, Cain’s was not. The idea you get in Genesis 4 is that somehow Cain knew that it was not the kind of offering God wanted. Jeremiah 32:35 presents a similar problem during his days. Jeremiah brought God’s Word to the people of Israel when they were offering their sons and daughters as a sacrifice to Molech, and God says that he had not commanded that to be done. You see, God will tell us how to worship him. He doesn’t want our inventiveness and imagination when it comes to his worship. Creativity in worship is not a good trait in this regard. Nor does he want us to bring the ways the pagans worship their false gods and bring that into our worship of the one true God. And so, whether Nadab and Abihu were well intentioned, or just drunk, we don’t know. But the point is clear. When it comes to God’s worship, we must not be presumptuous. I’ve mentioned in the past, this is known as the Regulative Principle of Worship. God regulates how we worship him. We ought not to worship him in ways he has not commanded in his Holy Word. God instead regulates for us how to worship him. We see that even here under the old covenant worship. This chapter contains specific instructions on how certain sacrifices were to be offered, verses 12-15, for example. The whole book of Leviticus is largely that – a directory of worship for the Levites, instructing them how to perform their temple service. When I visited Europe and went into all these historic cathedrals and churches, I thought of this passage several times when I saw at the front door where you could purchase a candle to light and setup there in order to offer a prayer. That seemed like strange fire to me. I didn’t buy one.
I’d like to turn now and think about some further assessment of this incident. Moses gives Aaron and us some assessment in verse 3. It points us to the holiness of God. It points us to who God is. Moses explains in verse 3, “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.” And so Moses assessment points to God’s holiness and his glory. But is also points to how the religious leaders of his people must especially promote this before the people. As we read on in this chapter, we see that not only do the priests lead in the worship, but verse 11 says they have the responsibility to teach the people all God’s commandments. And so, the priests such as Nadab and Abihu need to show God’s holiness by treating his commanded Word with honor and respect. They must not stray to the right or to the left, in general. But this is certainly the case as they are leaders to the people. But it’s most important when they are drawing near before God’s presence in worship. Why? Because they are coming before the All-Holy God. Moses says that they must regard God as holy when they draw near to him. They must promote God’s glory before the people.
Well, how do they and we do this? Certainly we can think of many things. We can think of our attitudes. We should come in reverence before God. We can think of the heart of joy and awe we should have as we praise him in worship. But one of the most important things that Scripture says leaders can do to promote his holiness is by keeping his Word before the people. You see, that’s where Nadab and Abihu failed in what Moses says here. They didn’t regard God as holy before the people, because they didn’t keep his word. They offered fire that was not commanded. Moses actually himself would later fail in this and it would cost him greatly. At that time, God would give Moses the same assessment. Remember how later God had told Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead, Moses struck the rock. The water still came, but God was angry for his disobedience. In Numbers 20:12, God says this to Moses. “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Moses disobeyed God’s Word in front of the people. And how did God assess that disobedience? He said that Moses did not uphold as him holy before the eyes of the people. That’s the same sort of thing that Moses said Nadab and Abihu failed to do here. When they came before God with an offering that he did not command, they did not regard God as holy before the people.
Realize the background to this event in Leviticus 10. In the last chapter, Aaron’s priesthood had just been consecrated. This was a special ceremony which involved both Aaron and his sons in an act of consecration through sacrifices. No sooner are Aaron and his sons set apart for leading the people in worship, and this happens. The special consecration that Aaron and his sons had is mentioned in verse 7 of our chapter. They had the anointing oil of the Lord upon them. Nadab and Abihu were supposed to realize that they had been set apart in a special way. Some of that holiness of God had set them apart as holy. To serve God in holiness. Right after their inauguration this happens. Right as the Levitical priesthood is being formed, this happens. Right at the beginning of Israel’s official old covenant worship, this happens. And so God right from the start responds with this strong example.
That is actually pretty similar to what happens in the New Testament with Ananias and Sapphira. Right at the start of the New Testament church, they are killed because they lied to the Holy Spirit. Twice in Acts 5 it reports that the death of Ananias and Sapphira caused great fear upon those in the church who heard about it. It seems that in both incidences, God was teaching the same sort of lesson. As new eras in God’s church and covenant of grace were being inaugurated, he was giving a warning that he is still a holy God. John Calvin says this of what God did with Nadab and Abihu, that it was teaching this lesson to Israel. Calvin said, “It was necessary that their religion should be sanctioned at its very commencement; for if God had suffered the sons of Aaron to transgress with impunity, they would have afterwards carelessly neglected the whole law. This therefore, was the reason for such great severity, that the priests should anxiously watch against all profanation.” God in both Old and New Testaments wants his people to know his holiness.
We see this emphasized in verse 10. God tells Aaron that he and his sons must learn to distinguish between the holy and the unholy and between the clean and the unclean. Those are important distinctions. The tabernacle represented that which was holy, where the holy God’s presence especially dwelt. Outside the tabernacle, in the rest of the camp, was not deemed holy in that sense. But it was to be clean, ceremonially speaking. That’s why you see the people brought the dead bodies outside the camp here. Dead bodies were deemed unclean in the Old Covenant. And so the high priest was not allowed to touch a dead body, even of his family members. We see that being worked out here when Aaron and his sons are not the ones to carry out their brothers’ body to outside the camp. Similarly, the law said that the high priests were not to perform the typical mourning customs for the dead. This is surely related to the special anointing they had. They had been set apart for very divine and holy service. These stronger restrictions from touching unclean things showed their special status. They were in a special place of privilege to go into the most holy places in the Tabernacle. They were set apart, sanctified to this holy service. We see Moses instruct them in this here in verses 6-7. They were made holy to be leading the people in the worship of the holy God. The people were to be clean in coming before the Lord, but not in the same holy status as the high priest. So, here and in the rest of Leviticus we see God saying this is to teach a lesson. It’s supposed to teach God’s people these categories of clean and unclean, and holy and unholy. God stands in the most holiest position. He is the holiest of holy. Holiness in perfection.
My point then, and Moses’ point, is that the holiness of God is why this severe punishment of Nadab and Abihu makes sense. Our worship especially brings us into contact with this holy God. Calvin said of this passage, “If we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us.” In light of how holy God is, we should not be surprised by the death of Nadab and Abihu. What we should be surprised about is that it didn’t happen more often in the Bible. With Aaron and the golden calf, for example. Or with Moses, and the striking of the rock. We should be surprised that it doesn’t happen to all of us. That’s what we really should be struck with when we read this passage. That God doesn’t immediately strike us all down. He is the All-Holy God, and we are unholy, unclean, sinners. We do not glorify him as we ought, nor do we regard him as holy as we ought. It should surprise us that this holy God doesn’t strike us all down. And yet it is grace that keeps this from happening.
I’d like to turn now to highlight this grace of God. But I’ll do that by drawing your attention to the end of this chapter. Verses 16-20 leave us with an interesting dialogue between Moses and Aaron to close out this passage. After this failure of Nadab and Abihu to closely follow God’s commands for the offerings, Moses is angered to find that the sin offering was not handled in the normal way. Verse 16 says that Moses is surprised to find that it was burnt up. Moses makes clear that this was not the normal regulation. The offering was supposed to be eaten up by the high priest, per Leviticus 6:26. But Aaron had not done so. When questioned by Moses, Aaron’s reply is simple, but a bit vague for us. His appeal is that after the events of the day – in other words his sons’ deaths, would God have accepted him to eat the sin offering that day? Aaron is saying that he didn’t believe it would have been good in God’s sight for him to do that. Moses simple reply in verse 20 was to be content with Aaron’s response.
Why did Aaron think God might not be pleased for him to eat of the sin offering that day? We’re not told. I wish we were. Different commentaries had different ideas. I have my own speculations. Yet they all can agree upon this – that in one way or another, Aaron did not think it was appropriate for him as high priest to consume the sin offering that day. That there was something in him or about him that day that would disqualify him from performing that function. Maybe it was the grief of the day. And yet, it’s interesting to note that in the last chapter when he was inaugurated, he had offered a sin offering and in that special case, fire came from heaven at his inauguration and consumed it. Essentially Aaron lets that sort of thing happen again today. It may be that this was Aaron’s way to acknowledge his need for reconsecration that day after his sons did what they did. We don’t know exactly what was going on. Scripture is silent. We are told that Moses is satisfied with Aaron’s response, and so we should be too.
But I think the take away point here is to notice what Aaron felt incapable of doing that day. Read verse 17 again. Moses asks Aaron the high priest, “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in a holy place, since it is most holy, and God has given it to you to bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD?” The purpose of this action by Aaron would have been, “To bear the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD.” As high priest, this was his job. But that day he believed there was something in him that would prevent him from doing this properly. He didn’t think God would have found it pleasing in his sight that day. Would it have been accepted, Aaron asks rhetorically? Well, that’s a loaded statement, isn’t it? Because from the light of the New Testament we realize how right he truly was. We know not only that no number of goats can truly atone for the guilt of God’s people. And we know that Aaron himself was not an adequate high priest. We needed a better high priest and a better sacrifice to truly atone for the sin and guilt of God’s people.
Thus, we have the gospel of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is clear. Jesus is that better high priest. The book of Hebrews makes this contrast abundantly clear for us. But I’d especially like to draw your attention in this to John chapter 17. That’s a passage of Scripture commonly known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer. Why? Because there on the eve of his death on the cross, we have a prayer by Jesus where he prays for his people, interceding on their behalf. And in that prayer, we see Jesus living out what Moses commends to Aaron and his sons in this passage in verse 3. Moses had said that God’s priests must regard God as holy and glorious before the people. We said that’s especially done by closely following God’s Word. Well, that is what Jesus expresses in his prayer in John 17. John 17:1, Jesus expressed his desire to glorify God the Father. In John 17:6 Jesus said to the Father, “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world.” In 17:26 he again says to the Father, “I have declared to them your name.” When you here of God’s name in Scripture, you should think of God’s glory. Jesus says he manifested and declared his name to the people. He brought glory to his heavenly father. He did that by especially bringing God’s holy words to the people. Jesus said in 17:8 to the Father, “For, I have given to them the words which you have given me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You.” As Jesus talks about the Father’s glory in this prayer, he talks about his own glory that he’s had with the father, and looks forward to resuming that when he returns back up into heaven, after his ascension. And so in Jesus prayer, he shows God’s word as holy by accurately conveying it to the people. He had spoken of God’s glorious name to the people. And in this prayer it’s clear that the best way he will show God to be holy to the people is by completing the work the Father had entrusted to him. By his going to the cross.
With that in mind, we see Jesus praying there in John 17:19 this, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” When Jesus talks about sanctifying himself, it’s a word that refers to setting himself apart for some holy service. Well, Jesus did that, so that we could be sanctified. So we could be made both holy and clean. And what was this service for which he sanctified himself? The cross. He set himself apart for the holy service of the cross. Where he would be consumed by the wrath of God on the cross. Why? Because on the cross he would be offered up as a guilt offering. He would bear the guilt and iniquity of the people, to make atonement for the sin of the people.
All of this is what Aaron and his sons were supposed to do. In different ways they fell short in these ways. Nadab and Abihu did not regard God as holy and glorious in the sight of the people that day. Aaron himself did not think it would have been acceptable for him to consume the sin offering that day as the high priest should have. These men couldn’t be the priest we ultimately needed. They rather stand in Scripture to show us that one was yet to come who would be the high priest we needed. That high priest was Jesus Christ. And so I love what we see here. Jesus not only lives out the ideal pattern for priests here. He not only secures our forgiveness of sins through offering himself on the cross. He not only allowed himself to be put to death by God’s wrath, in our place. But he also is the reason we can now grow in holiness. As John 17:19 said, he sanctified himself so that we could be sanctified. That we could begin to regard God as holy as his great name deserves. That we having been made holy in Christ can now draw near to God without fear of death. Christ died for us. We now draw near to God with joy and confidence. We come to the holy God in the holiness that comes from Christ and his Spirit.
And this is a holiness God grows us in through the light of his truth, his Holy Word. And so there is something in this passage for the leaders in the church. Especially pastors who minister the Word and Sacrament in the public worship services of the church. This passage exhorts us with verse 3. In Christ, regard God as holy and glorious as you lead the people in worship. Especially honor his Word by which the Spirit of Truth is growing us in holiness. Yes, that means ministers and churches must apply the Regulative Principle of Worship to our services. We should be careful to do only what he commands us. But this means as well, that whenever we read and handle the Word in the service, we should treat it as holy. We should acknowledge it as holy as we acknowledge it as God’s Word.
And for all of us, God would have us to learn from this passage something about the holiness of God, and his glory. Especially in worship. That is why we look to be attentive to his Word in our worship service. Think about God’s holiness in all that you do in this service. In your reverence. In your posture as you sit and stand. In what is going on in your heart and minds during the service. Learn to give the Word your undivided attention. Treat all what goes on from the call to worship to the benediction as a time of holy worship to the All-Holy God. Worship is not a casual time for us to come and be entertained. No, let us see how serious God wants us to learn his holiness. Rejoice that you have the high privilege then to draw near to this holy God. Rejoice because we approach him through our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the grace that does not put us to death, but makes us alive. Alive to worship in holiness. Alive to praise God’s glorious name. Amen.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.