READ: Leviticus 9-10
THINK: This is a tough passage to digest. The celebration of the first sacrifices showing God’s great mercy for his people almost immediately turned sour by God’s fire burning up Nadab and Abihu after their unauthorized burning of incense before him. I think the 2 major questions that arise in my mind are: Why did Nadab and Abihu get judged and punished in the manner that they did? And what can we learn from that? I’ll try to answer both questions as succinctly as possible.
Why did God consume them fire after they burned the incense before him? The text of Leviticus very clearly says that the fire they burned before him was contrary to God’s command. The words “unauthorized fire” in Hebrew are literally strange fire. The fire was strange because it was not the fire that God had commanded. In chapter 6, God himself had sent fire that was continually burning and was intended to be the source of all the fire for all of the incense burned before him. When Nadab and Abihu decided to make their own fire and light it on their own they did two critical things: they ignored God’s commands and they minimized God’s provision.
Almost immediately after receiving very specific instructions for how God wanted his priests to operate as they offered sacrifices for the sins of the people of Israel, they decided that they could do things their own way and that God’s commands and God’s ways weren’t all that important or necessary. And their actions, as priests, communicated this idea very powerfully and loudly to the entire nation of Israel. Their actions also showed pride and a belief, on some level, that they were self-sufficient. Sure, God provided fire. But we don’t need his fire cause we can make our own. Sure, God can do it. But so can we. And they couldn’t have been more wrong. Somehow they were convinced that their own actions and their own abilities were just as sufficient for atonement and salvation as God’s. Again, this communicated something totally out of whack and untrue to the entire nation.
So why did they have to pay with their lives? So that Israel could live! It seems awkward and counterintuitive, but at those moments throughout the Bible like this one when God immediately demands and takes the lives of those who sinned are not just because of his anger. Sin is serious, and God never makes light of it. But what we think about God and how we understand him is infinitely important. As the great pastor and author A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” And God wants us to understand him rightly. If we don’t, the consequences are greater and deeper and more deadly than we can possibly imagine. So, at some of these critical moments in time when God’s people (Israel as they’re in the desert, the early church in Acts) are being formed into who God calls them to be, God had to be very careful about what people thought about him. The judgment that Nadab and Abihu suffered was because the message their strange fire sent to the people of Israel was so deadly and so untrue and so far from true that God had to make it clear that it was wrong – he had to make clear who he was. If he hadn’t, the whole nation would have suffered deeply by misunderstanding him and acting in sinful rebellion against him.
So, what can we learn? I think there are 2 simple applications: 1. Our sin is serious. So often we’re tempted to minimize it and to believe that grace comes cheap and that the cross didn’t really cost much. We’re tempted to just go on sinning and not think to much of it. But we need to know that God takes it seriously! He is so holy that he cannot stand our sin. And we ought to take it seriously. God does. And he paid for it with his life. 2. We ought to be overwhelmed by the depth of God’s mercy. No matter how tempted we are to believe that we can do things on our own – that we can be good enough and earn our way to heaven – we can’t. We can’t even come close. The gap is huge. But God provides so we don’t have to! That’s huge. It’s bigger than we can even imagine and the measure of what God accomplished for us is almost unbelievable. Our response is simply to stop trying to do it on our own and acknowledge the sufficiency of his provision.
PRAY: Take some time to confess the times in your life recently when you have been tempted to make light of your sin and/or the times when you have tried to earn your own way and been tempted to believe that faith was about your good works and your accomplishments rather than God’s grace. Then take some time to thank him for the cross.