God saved us to make worshippers of us. Thus, the obsession of a regenerated heart should be to bring God a pleasing offering in view of his mercy. But how do we know what will please him? We search the Scriptures. When we do, we find that the Lord loves His own Word. Throughout the Bible, worship is filled with God’s Word read, sung, confessed, prayed, preached, pictured in sacraments and responded to with tithes and offerings. We dare not come to God in corporate worship on any terms but his own.
For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell lived alone and unarmed among the bears of the Alaskan wilderness. He got closer to the creatures than anybody ever dared. He petted them, sang to them, wrestled with cubs, and even swam with them in salmon choked rivers. His bravery, or foolishness, earned him national celebrity. During one interview he declared, “I will not die at their claws and paws. I will fight. I will be strong. I will be master.” But Treadwell was wrong and in the fall of 2003, his life came to a grizzly end when he was devoured by one of the bears he thought he knew so well. Treadwell’s fatal error was that he forgot. He forgot that grizzlies aren’t teddy bears. He forgot to respect them. He forgot to fear them. And because he forgot, he lost his life.
Nadab and Abihu, the men at the center of an alarming account in Leviticus 10:1-3, made a similar mistake. They forgot that the God they worshiped is a roaring lion (Hosea 11:10) and an all-consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). They forgot that the Lord’s way is in the whirlwind and the storm and that the mountains quake and hills melt before him (Nahum 1:3,5). They forgot that while God is good, he is far from safe. They forgot that the God of the Bible is holy and heavy. We are prone to make the same mistake. The world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to make us lose sight of who God is and how he deserves, no demands, to be worshipped. Passages like Leviticus 10:1-3 disabuse us of any carnal notion that we may approach God on any terms but his own.
Taking a closer look, we see that this short, sordid tale is wrapped in the yellow tape of a crime scene. There, at the foot of the altar of incense in the holy place of the tabernacle lay two charred, smoking bodies. What happened here and why? To answer these questions, we’ll need to exegetically analyze the crime scene.
Nadab and Abihu were the eldest of the four sons of Aaron, the high priest of Israel and brother of Moses. Nadab and Abihu were unspeakably privileged men. In Exodus 24, they were invited by God himself to accompany Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders of Israel up to Sinai’s summit where they beheld the glory of God. The saw the sapphire pavement beneath Jehovah’s feet! What’s more, they had just been ordained to serve as priests beside their father. While good Presbyterian ordination services can sometimes stretch two hours, they can’t hold a candle to the ordination service of a Levitical priest which lasted 7 days. On the 8th day, the entire congregation of Israel, well over one million strong, gathered around the tabernacle to witness the dramatic birth of the Levitical priesthood: “And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (Leviticus 9:23–24).
By understanding who these two men were, their proximity to the Lord, and their privileged position in Israel, we can begin to grasp the gravity of their crime. And what was that?
In the preceding chapters, we find Moses preparing the tabernacle for opening day, careful to follow the Lord’s instructions to the letter. We find a precious refrain echoing throughout this section: “as the Lord commanded.”
“And Moses did as the LORD commanded him, and the congregation was assembled at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 8:4).
“And he set the turban on his head, and on the turban, in front, he set the golden plate, the holy crown, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Leviticus (8:9).
“And Moses brought Aaron’s sons and clothed them with coats and tied sashes around their waists and bound caps on them, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Leviticus 8:13).
“But the bull and its skin and its flesh and its dung he burned up with fire outside the camp, as the LORD commanded Moses (Leviticus 8:17).
“He washed the entrails and the legs with water, and Moses burned the whole ram on the altar. It was a burnt offering with a pleasing aroma, a food offering for the LORD, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Leviticus 8:21).
“And Moses took the breast and waved it for a wave offering before the LORD. It was Moses’ portion of the ram of ordination, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Leviticus 8:29).
“But the fat and the kidneys and the long lobe of the liver from the sin offering he burned on the altar, as the LORD commanded Moses” (Leviticus 9:10).
But in Leviticus 10:1, something goes horribly wrong: “Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them.”
What do you picture when you hear the words “strange fire”? Maybe you think of green or blue flames? Or perhaps you see something like what Moses saw in Exodus 3: a fire burning without consuming fuel? What made Nadab and Abihu’s fire strange is that it was unauthorized. God never commanded them to bring it.
In Exodus 30 we read that the altar of incense stood in the Holy Place, before the curtain into the Holy of Holies. Priests were commanded to burn fragrant incense upon this altar, morning and evening, as a picture of the prayers of God’s people ascending to heaven. Not just any incense would do. God gave Moses a specific recipe: “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy” (Exodus 30:34-35). What’s more, he demanded that this holy incense be used exclusively in worship and threatened bootleggers with exile. Perhaps God’s recipe bored Nadab and Abihu? Maybe they wanted to spice things up in the Tabernacle and try something new? Whatever the reason, they brought God incense that He had not commanded. They brought him strange fire.
To many of us, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But imagine: you call your favorite pizza place and place your order: “I’d like a pizza with ham, bacon, pineapple, and extra cheese.” Then you wait 30 minutes, your mouth watering, your stomach growling. This is your favorite pizza. The flavors blend together perfectly! You can’t wait to devour it. But when the pizza guy shows up and you open the box, you see something very different than what you ordered: black olives, slimy tomatoes, broccoli, blue cheese, spinach, and celery. Yuck! You look to the pizza guy and say, “Hey buster, this isn’t what I ordered. Didn’t you hear what I said?” The pizza guy shrugs and replies, “You never said you didn’t want these toppings. I thought you’d like them.” Now, is that a pizza you’d pay for? Wouldn’t you be offended by the hubris of the delivery guy? How much more then, does God, who is infinitely high and holy and separate from sinners, have the right to determine precisely how he wants to be worshipped by those he created and redeemed for his own glory?
We find this regulative principle of worship beautifully articulated in the Westminster Standards: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations & devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture” (WCF 21:1).
Nadab and Abihu teach us not to worship God on our terms but on His. He is not our guest on Sunday, we are His. All too often, discussion and debate about worship swirls around the question: “What do I like?” But one question ought to dominate all liturgical conversations: “What does God like?” “Does the God that made us and saved us by the blood of his Son, not have the right to regulate His own worship? Does our loving heavenly Father not have the authority to instruct His children in heavenly worship?”
God saved us to make worshippers of us. Thus, the obsession of a regenerated heart should be to bring God a pleasing offering in view of his mercy. But how do we know what will please him? We search the Scriptures. When we do, we find that the Lord loves His own Word. Throughout the Bible, worship is filled with God’s Word read, sung, confessed, prayed, preached, pictured in sacraments and responded to with tithes and offerings. We dare not come to God in corporate worship on any terms but his own. Because the consequences are real.
“And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD” (Leviticus 10:2). Bishop Hall said, “It is a dangerous thing, in the service of God, to decline from his own institutions; we have to do with a God who is wise to prescribe his own worship, just to require what he has prescribed, and powerful to revenge what he has not prescribed.” Dangerous indeed. As Nadab and Abihu sinned by fire, so they died by fire. So terrible was their sin in the sight of God that he demanded Aaron’s family members to drag their burnt bodies outside the camp and forbid them from mourning their deaths (Leviticus 10:4-7). In Numbers 3:4 and 1 Chronicles 24:2, we are reminded that Nadab and Abihu died childless. God blotted out their names from Israel.
It is a dangerous thing to draw near to God on any terms but his own. It was dangerous for Uzzah who was stricken down dead by the Lord for putting his hands on the ark to keep if from falling onto the ground (2 Samuel 6:1-7), because, as Jonathan Edwards said, Uzzah’s believed “his hands were cleaner than the dirt under his feet.” It was dangerous for King Uzziah who, in his pride, played the priest and offered incense himself. For this, the Lord struck his face with leprosy and he lived out the rest of his days alone (II Chronicle 26:16-21).
“Yes,” you might be thinking “that’s just the wrathful God of the OT. The God of the New Testament isn’t like that!” Really? What happened to Ananias and Sapphira when they lied to the Holy Spirit? (Acts 5:3). What happened to Herod when he refused to glorify God? (Acts 12:2-23). They were slain. Why did Paul urge the Corinthians to approach the table of the Lord in a worthy manner? “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). If that sounds harsh to us, may I suggest it is because, like Nadab and Abihu, we take God too lightly. We forget his character.
The Character of God
It’s hard to imagine the searing pain Aaron must felt on this dreadful day. God took not one, but two of his boys. In the midst of that unspeakable heartache Moses came to his brother, with a word from God: “Among those who draw near to me I will be sanctified” (Leviticus 10:3). This word “sanctified” is taken from the Hebrew word cadosh which means “to separate.” God isn’t ordinary. He is sacred. He isn’t our fellow creature. He is our Creator. We are weak but he is mighty. We are a vapor but he is eternal. We are ignorant but his wisdom is unsearchable. We are finite but he is infinite. We are always changing but God is immutable. We are vile and corrupt but God is sinless and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16). His eyes are too pure to even look upon evil (Habakkuk 1:13). God is not like a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19). God is so holy, he made Moses remove his sandals and the seraphim veil their faces in his presence. Berkhof said, “God’s holiness ought to awaken in man a sense of absolute nothingness, a creature-consciousness… leading to absolute self-abasement.” But Nadab and Abihu forgot that God is to be consecrated and instead treated him as something common. They forgot that God is holy. And they forgot that God is heavy.
“Before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). This word “glorified” means “to be regarded as heavy, substantial.” In other words, God will not be taken lightly by his people. He’s not just a bumper sticker, keychain, Facebook status, or an item on your to-do-list. He is immeasurably weighty and infinitely significant. He is the Ancient of Days robed in light. He is the Son of Man whom the wind and the waves obey. At his word kingdoms rise and fall. The earth is his footstool. He holds the swirling galaxies of endless space in the palm of his hand. He hung, numbered, and named the stars. In him all things live and move and have their being. He holds the keys of death and hell and one day, every soul will stand before and face the judgment. But Nadab and Abihu forgot that God is heavy and instead treated him like something light. They forgot that He’s glorious.
We would spend less time debating about the hows of our worship if we spent more time discussing the Who of our worship. Jesus was consumed in the flames of God’s hatred for our sins on the cross so that we might be made acceptable to a holy a heavy God. Jesus suffered alone, outside the camp, so that we might have bold access to the throne of grace and the Father’s everlasting embrace. Even now, he who made us by his powerful word and saved us by his powerful grace intercedes for us that we might worship God on earth as he is worshipped in heaven. Even now, the Father is seeking those who would worship him in Spirit and in truth. May he find such joyful, obedient worship in our hearts.
Jim McCarthy is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor-elect of Trinity PCA in Statesboro, GA.