Main Idea: God is holy and sovereign over life and death, so when we worship Him, we approach Him as holy and we represent Him to the world as holy and gracious.
I. God’s People Approach God as Holy.
II. God’s People Affirm God as the Powerful Ruler.
III. God’s People Acknowledge God as Judge
IV. God’s People Accept Responsibility to Represent Him.
V. God’s People Announce God Is Gracious.
We’ve all seen it happen. Someone with great potential starts well, but then falls apart. It happens in sports—a young athlete takes some drugs and blows a promising career. It happens in business—a successful entrepreneur attempts a few shady deals and winds up in jail. It happens in public life—a government official makes reckless personal decisions and loses the public’s trust. It also happens in the church. A young man makes a profession of faith in Jesus and begins following with zeal. Then something tempts him, he drifts away from Jesus, and before long we are asking whatever happened to him. Everyone who has followed Jesus for a while has seen that happen, and it’s always sad. We also see it happen in the Bible. The plot is familiar—a good man or woman gone bad. From Adam and Eve, to Samson, to Solomon, to Judas, people with great promise and great opportunity turned from God and experienced God’s judgment. The poet John Greeleaf Whittier wrote,
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
(Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 527)
The story in Leviticus 10 is like that. The ninth chapter of Leviticus records a high point in the history of Israel. The construction of the tabernacle had been completed, God’s instructions for offering the various sacrifices had been received, the priests had been consecrated according to God’s commands, and the inaugural worship in the tabernacle had concluded with God manifesting His power and sending miraculous fire to light the altar. But the tenth chapter of Leviticus records a manifestation of God’s judgment, and the judgment of God is not a very popular subject these days.
The worship of Israel at the tabernacle began with such great promise. Aaron and his sons began with such great promise. Chapters 8 and 9 of Leviticus explicitly state 12 times that Moses and the priests did exactly what God commanded. Then chapter 10 states that Nadab and Abihu did something that God had not commanded. They offered “unauthorized fire” (HCSB) or “strange fire” (NASB) on the altar, “which He had not commanded them to do” (v. 1). That’s what made the fire “unauthorized” or “strange”—God had commanded specific types of sacrifices; Nadab and Abihu ignored God’s commands and offered a different type of sacrifice. After the 12-fold refrain in chapters 8 and 9 repeatedly stating that the worship leaders did everything as God commanded, the statement that they did something God “had not commanded” stands out. Verse 2 says the result was that “fire came from the Lord and burned them to death before the Lord.” In Leviticus 8:35 Moses had warned Aaron and his sons to obey the Lord “so that you will not die.” Nadab and Abihu did not heed Moses’ warning. They did not obey the Lord, and they died.
God’s People Approach God as Holy
Moses stated the reason for the death of Nadab and Abihu. He explained that God had said, “I will show My holiness to those who are near Me, and I will reveal My glory before all the people.” God said that His people must sanctify Him, or treat Him as holy. The word “holy” means to be different, set apart, separate. God is holy because He is other than us. To fail to treat Him as holy is to treat Him as if He is like us. But He is not like us. In Psalm 50 the Lord lists various sins of His people, and in verse 21 He said that one sin was, “You thought I was just like you.” It is sin to think that God is like us or to treat Him as such.
God’s difference from us is not merely a matter of degree, as if we are good but He is considerably better. He is other, separate from us. He is God, we are human. He is the Creator, we are created. A. W. Tozer wrote,
We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. (The Knowledge of the Holy, 111)
Isaiah heard seraphim call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth” (Isa 6:3). In English we have several ways of giving emphasis to something—an exclamation point, italics, or boldface type. In Hebrew the primary way of emphasizing was repetition, and to repeat something three times was to raise it to the superlative degree. God is not merely holy; He is holy, holy, holy. No other attribute of God is referred to in that way in the Bible. Scripture does not say that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy. The seraphim were strongly emphasizing the holiness of God. God’s holiness is emphasized throughout the Bible. First Samuel 2:2 says, “There is no one holy like the Lord.” Through the prophet Hosea the Lord said, “I am God and not man, the Holy One among you” (Hos 11:9). In Revelation 15 the righteous are gathered in heaven giving praise to the Lord, and they say, “Lord, who will not fear and glorify Your name? Because You alone are holy” (v. 4).
We should understand all of God’s attributes in light of His holiness. His power is holy power. The psalmist wrote that He uses His “holy arm” to express His power (Ps 98:1). The words of God are referred to as His “holy promise” (Ps 105:42). The apostle Paul refered to the Old Testament law as God’s holy law (Rom 7:12). His name is His “holy name” (Pss 105:3; 106:47). Since God is holy, other, we worship Him in reverence. Jesus taught us to pray to God, “Your name be honored as holy” (Matt 6:9). Do we treat God as holy? Do we sing and pray to Him as the holy One?
Nadab and Abihu failed to treat God as holy, and to fail to treat God as holy is to treat Him as if He is like us. God judged them by striking them dead. It was strict judgment for a strategic moment. These were the first days, possibly still the first day, of worship in the newly erected tabernacle. God had given specific directions as to how He wanted His priests to conduct worship. If God allowed priests like Nadab and Abihu to lead worship in any way they wanted, that would have established a pattern of disobedience for years to come—perhaps for generations to come. This was the beginning of tabernacle worship, and they were not treating God as holy. If God had not responded with swift and severe discipline, corruption of worship would have continued and the idea of the holiness of God could have been lost for posterity. God acted decisively to remind His people that He is holy and they were to worship Him as holy. God is still holy, so God’s people are still to worship Him as holy.
God’s People Affirm God as the Powerful Ruler
God is the King of the universe, and God’s people affirm that. He is all-powerful, and He is the Ruler over all. The deaths of Nadab and Abihu demonstrate that neither they nor any other human is in charge of how the living God will be worshiped; God is in charge. Leviticus 10:2-3 state,
Then fire came from the Lord and burned them to death before the Lord. So Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when He said: I will show My holiness to those who are near Me, and I will reveal My glory before all the people.
God decides how He will be worshiped; man does not. If man tries to rule God, God overrules. God is the all-powerful, universal Sovereign. God also has power over our lives—whether we live or die every moment.
The fact that God is all-powerful and universally sovereign is good news. The fact that the holy, almighty, merciful, righteous God is in charge is infinitely better than anyone else being in charge, and infinitely better than no one being in charge. The psalmist wrote,
Nations rage, kingdoms topple; the earth melts when He lifts His voice. . . . Come, see the works of the Lord, who brings devastation on the earth. He makes wars cease throughout the earth. He shatters bows and cuts spears to pieces; He burns up the chariots. “Stop your fighting—and know that I am God, exalted among the nations!”
When I was in Vietnam teaching pastors, I was fascinated by the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, a city of ten million people. At any given moment during the day, the multi-lane streets of the city are filled with thousands and thousands of scooters and motorcycles, all of them simultaneously ignoring the traffic laws. I had to cross a major street on foot only a few times, and with all those scooters speeding by I stood there on the curb looking at the other side of the street asking myself, “Do I really need to get over there that badly?” It looked like crossing was not a safe thing to do. The first day I was there I hailed a taxi to take me downtown. I waved at the taxi as he was passing, but he was in the far lane. I knew he couldn’t get to me because 20 or 30 scooters were in the lanes between him and me. But he just turned into the pile of scooters and headed straight to me. What did the scooters do? Imagine scores of salmon swimming in a stream packed side by side, and suddenly the stream narrows in width from twenty feet to five feet wide to nothing. That’s what happened to those scooters. The taxi cut them off from the street and literally ran them into the curb. I jumped in the taxi and began watching this mass of traffic—hundreds of scooters bumper to bumper cutting in front of cars and trucks and one another. It was chaos. When we came to a major intersection, we were in the left lane. A lot of scooters wanted to turn left, but instead of getting behind the taxi and turning left from the left lane, about 20 scooters cut in front of us and went around the front of the taxi. In the middle of all that confusion I looked up and saw a traffic policeman standing on a podium. He was watching all this happen, and he had a whistle. I thought, What good can that whistle do in the midst of this chaos? Nobody is even paying attention to him. As we were going past him, evidently he saw something he didn’t like and he lifted the whistle to his mouth, and then just put it back down. He knew he was powerless to control what was going on around him.
When I saw that, I immediately said, “Thank You, God, that You are not like that!” The policeman had a position of authority, but he had no power and he was not in control. God, however, is all-powerful and in full control. When we observe what is happening in the world, virtually every day it seems everything is spinning out of control. On that day in the tabernacle God demonstrated that He is in control. When we try to take control of His decrees, it does not escape His notice and He does not allow us to overrule where He has ruled. He is in charge. He determines whether we will be able to take our next breaths.
God’s People Acknowledge God as Judge
The judgment of God fell on Nadab and Abihu that day in the tabernacle. People today are prone to think that God’s judgment was severe. How could a good and loving God strike down two priests just because they offered the wrong kind of sacrifice?
We think God’s judgment is too severe because we don’t understand the seriousness of sin. Sin destroys. It destroys not only the one who sins, but others. Sin is not stagnant, so that we sin and that’s the end of it. When we sin, sin becomes easier the next time—easier for us, and easier for those who see us sin and get away with it. Before long sin has proliferated and more and more people are being hurt by it.
Writer Stephen Cole wrote that when he was five years old his family began attending a church pastored by a promising young man. The church outgrew their building, built another building that seated about five hundred, and began two worship services in the new building. By the time Stephen Cole had grown to 18 years old, his dad served on the board of the church, and his dad confronted the pastor with what seemed to be improper use of funds. The pastor was using the church offices for his counseling practice, for which he charged, and he was channeling his counseling fees through a fund mislabeled “Youth Camp Fund” to avoid paying taxes on the income. When the pastor was confronted, he blew up and called for a vote of confidence. The church voted to support him. So the pastor escaped the consequences of his sin—or did he? No, because sin is not stagnant. Shortly after the vote, that pastor left his wife and children and moved in with a divorcee he had been counseling. He went into private counseling and married the woman with whom he had had an affair. He began to gamble, and his new wife left him after he lost their home in a gambling debt. He began drinking heavily; he was alone and utterly penniless (Cole, “A Good Boy Gone Bad”). When that church looked the other way after his indiscretion, they did him no favor. God could have used them to arrest the pattern of sin that had begun in his life. Instead, they took no action, and the floodgates of sin were opened. When God stops our sin, it is an act of mercy.
God’s judgment of Nadab and Abihu stopped a pattern of sin that would have continued and increased. With our limited vision of the future, we see the present suffering caused by God’s judgment. With God’s unlimited vision of the future, He sees the much greater future suffering prevented by His judgment. In Scripture we see other examples of God’s swift and severe judgment at the beginning of a new stage in His salvation plan. When King David first ordered the ark of the covenant to be brought into Jerusalem, a man named Uzzah did not treat the ark as God had directed, and God took his life (2 Sam 6:1-7). When the New Testament church first began to spread like wildfire, Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit, and God took their lives, reminding people inside the church and outside that He would be treated as holy (Acts 5:1-11). In moments when God was doing something new, He made His judgment against sin conspicuous and extensive because the consequences of disobedience could have been so extensive. His judgment reduced future suffering.
God’s People Accept Responsibility to Represent Him
Nadab and Abihu were priests, sons of Aaron. They had a special level of responsibility to lead worship according to God’s directions and to represent God accurately. The New Testament refers to all followers of Jesus as priests. According to 1 Peter 2:9, the church is a “royal priesthood.” In the old covenant period only priests could enter the holy place, and only the high priest could enter the most holy place. In the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, all His followers can enter the most holy place of His presence, and all of us have the responsibility to represent Him to the world. We are His ambassadors.
Nadab and Abihu represented God poorly, and God held them accountable. God also did not permit Aaron and the other priests to mourn the deaths of Nadab and Abihu. For Aaron to restrain his sorrow must have been hard for a grieving father. However, this was a defining moment. The refusal to mourn would make the point that nothing, not even a cherished child, is as important as God Himself or as important as treating Him as holy. If Aaron and the other priests had mourned the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, it could have appeared that they did not accept God’s judgment or that they had greater sympathy for the sinners than they had for God’s holiness. People were watching them, and their loyalty to God was a bigger issue than loyalty to family.
After the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan, a man named Eli served as a priest in Shiloh. As Aaron’s sons disobeyed God in the way they served as priests, Eli’s sons also disobeyed God in the way they served as priests. First Samuel 2:12-17 describes the wicked way they conducted themselves. Eli, their priest father, heard about what they were doing. He did not correct them. He merely told them he had heard about their wickedness and he asked them, “Why are you doing these things?” (v. 23). God told Eli he was honoring his sons more than he was honoring God. Therefore, God said Eli’s two sons would die on the same day, and Eli’s descendants would die violently (vv. 31-34). God said, “I will honor those who honor Me” (2:30), just as God said to Aaron, “I will reveal My glory before all the people” (Lev 10:3). The words “honor” and “glory” translate the same Hebrew word. In both cases God acted on behalf of His glory or honor. God’s glory is the manifestation of His holy character and power. When the priests served God sinfully, they were representing God poorly before the people by associating God with sin. God’s glory was diminished, sullied by sin. God acted decisively to protect His glory before all people and for all generations, dissociating Himself from the sinful activity of the priests. In the case of Aaron’s sons, they died immediately. In the case of Eli’s sons, they died later, when the Israelites were fighting the Philistines in battle. Just as God had said, they died on the same day. On that day, Eli’s daughter-in-law also died, as did Eli himself (1 Sam 4:17-20).
After the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Moses, Aaron, and the other priests showed special care to obey God’s commands. God also gave them additional commands. God told them, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or beer when you enter the tent of meeting, or else you will die” (Lev 10:9). Perhaps God gave this command to make sure the priests were always alert while leading worship. If they were even slightly inebriated they could treat worship leadership lightly and make errors in offering sacrifices. After the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, the priests understood clearly the importance of respecting God and obeying His commands regarding their leadership of worship. God also told them to “distinguish between the holy and the common, and the clean and the unclean, and teach the Israelites all the statutes that the Lord has given to them through Moses” (vv. 10-11). God would elaborate on those commands later.
On the same day, the priests ate the portions of the sacrifice God had commanded them to eat (vv. 12-15). They resumed their obedience to God. Aaron did not eat the “goat of the sin offering” (v. 16), and Moses confronted Aaron about his negligence. Aaron, however, thought he had a good reason to refrain from eating. He thought that if he ate the priests’ portion he might incur God’s wrath because of what had happened that day. Presumably, Aaron thought that since Nadab and Abihu were his sons, he bore some guilt for their actions and therefore he should not participate in worship leadership. When Moses heard Aaron’s reason for abstaining, “it was acceptable to him” (v. 20). Their actions demonstrate that Nadab and Abihu were exceptions. The other priests obeyed God, and after God punished disobedience they were likely even more motivated to obey.
Followers of Jesus are also priests. We have the responsibility to treat God as holy and obey His Word. We also face the same temptations as Nadab and Abihu—disobedience, apostasy, pride, belief in false doctrine, lack of love, and unholy living. Our fallen nature will always be prone to think that the fire we invent is better than the fire God commands. The death of Nabab and Abihu is a warning not to trifle with the commands of God or misrepresent the glory of God. When God speaks, there is no room for innovation; we must not corrupt God’s Word by what we say or what we do. God’s people accept the responsibility to represent Him.
God’s People Announce God Is Gracious
The righteous wrath of God expressed against Nadab and Abihu was also an expression of His grace. God had in mind not only the lives of those two men, but also the lives of all people who would come after them. If God allowed Nadab and Abihu to offer sacrifices any way they wanted, God’s people would think that they could do other things any way they wanted. They could enter Canaan any way they wanted, divide Canaan any way they wanted, and live any way they wanted. Perhaps we too would get the impression that we could worship and live any way we want. It has long been the Devil’s plan to lead God’s people into apostasy. Satan wanted to thwart God’s plan to send the Messiah Jesus through the Jewish people. But God would not allow His salvation plan to be derailed. Instead, He derailed the disobedience of two priests so His purpose of salvation would continue according to His plan. Ultimately His plan was salvation, so in this story we see God’s grace in His judgment.
We still see His grace all around us. Just like Nadab and Abihu, we have sinned, but God does not put us to death. In fact, billions of sins are committed around the world every day, and in God’s holiness and righteous wrath He could put all sinners to death and rid the planet of evil once and for all. But in His grace He is giving us time—time to turn to Him, time to put our faith in Him instead of our own way. As Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.” In the meantime, in this time of God’s patience, He has given His Word that contains the record of His past judgment against sin to warn us of His future judgment against sin.
Some people struggle with the reality of God’s judgment. Others doubt it. If we stumble over the idea of God’s past judgment in Leviticus, what will we do with the descriptions of God’s future judgment in the book of Revelation? Revelation tells us that one day not a few people but every person whose name is not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire forever (Rev 20:15). As for Nadab and Abihu, if they put their faith in the one true God, they will be in His presence forever by grace. Not so with those who turn away from God. So God in His grace has provided warnings of His coming judgment in places like Leviticus 10.
God also graciously offers salvation from sin and rescue from His righteous wrath. I once read a story about a nineteenth-century wagon train winding its way west across America. The pioneers in the wagon train were going to find a place to homestead. They traveled in covered wagons drawn by oxen, so progress was slow. One day they were horrified to see a long line of smoke in the west, stretching for miles across the prairie. In a few minutes it was clear that the prairie fire was heading toward them rapidly. They had crossed a river the day before, but they couldn’t make it back that far before the flames arrived. Then somebody had an idea. He told the people to set fire to the grass behind them. They did so, and when a large area was burned over the whole group moved back into the burned area and waited there. As the flames roared to them from the west and grew close, the little children were afraid and asked, “Are you sure we won’t be burned?” The adults assured them, “The flames can’t reach us here, because we’re standing where the fire has already burned!”
The fire of God’s righteous wrath does not have to consume us. God has already poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross. Jesus is God the Son who took our sin on Himself and accepted the penalty for our sin. When we put our faith in Jesus, God takes our sin and its penalty away, and gives us new and eternal life. All we have to do is take our stand where the fire has already burned, where God’s wrath has already been expressed, on Jesus. As the poet Henry Livingston wrote about Jesus,
On him almighty vengeance fell,
That must have sunk the world to hell:
He bore it for the chosen race,
And thus became their Hiding-Place. (“Hiding-Place”)
The fires of God’s judgment burned themselves out on Jesus, and all who are in Him are safe forever; they’re standing where the fire has been. These days it’s not popular to talk about God’s wrath. However, His wrath is real. But His salvation in Jesus is also real. Thank God that when we put our faith in Jesus, by His grace He gives us new and eternal life!
- Leviticus 8 and 9 state 12 times that Moses and the priests did exactly what God commanded. What changed in chapter 10?
- What made the fire that Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized” or “strange”?
- Why do you think that God judged Nadab and Abihu by striking them dead?
- How do you treat God as holy? Do you sing and pray to Him as the Holy One? Why or why not?
- When God stops our sin, how is that an act of mercy?
- How can you act mercifully toward another Christian by confronting his or her sin?
- What could have been communicated to God’s people if Aaron and the other priests had mourned the deaths of Nadab and Abihu?
- How do you face the same temptations as Nadab and Abihu?
- If we stumble over the idea of God’s past judgment in Leviticus, what do we do with the descriptions of God’s future judgment in the book of Revelation?
- How do we escape God’s righteous wrath?