Strange Fire

This past Sunday morning we continued our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, with what I think is about the hardest story in the whole of the Scriptures. I didn’t want to write this sermon. But if all Scripture is God-breathed, then we need to be able to deal with this part of it too. Check out what makes it so hard and what we should do with it below. Thanks for reading.

Strange Fire

I didn’t want to write this sermon.  Can I say that out loud?  I didn’t want to write this sermon.  Have you ever felt that way?  I mean, probably not about a sermon, but maybe about something else you’ve done.  You did it.  You had to do it.  It needed to be done.  But you didn’t want to do it.  Maybe you were helping somebody out and you knew it was going to wind up being a lot of effort for you for a little gratitude from them.  Perhaps you were given some task at work that you knew was just not going to be a pleasant undertaking—and you were right, by the way—but the boss asked for it and you were stuck with it.  You may have experienced this kind of feeling in yet some other way.  I don’t know what your experience was.  All I know is that I didn’t want to write this sermon. 

When Dana came to ask me what the Scripture for this week was and I told her, she looked at me blankly for a minute, said, “Okay…” and then went to go start reading through it.  I don’t blame her.  I didn’t want to write this sermon.  And yet here we are.  We’ve been talking about hard passages in the Bible too, so why not? 

Now, I said in the first part of this series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, that the hard stories in the Bible, but particularly in the Old Testament, are often hard because God acts in a way that seems out of sorts with what we had understood His character to be.  As far as I’m concerned, the story we are going to look at this morning is perhaps the chief example of that.  I don’t like this story.  I’ve wrestled with this story before.  I wrestled with it in preparing for this morning.  I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I don’t have all the answers this morning.  But, after spending some time reading and praying and meditating on the story, I do have some thoughts I’d like to share with you.  Let’s take a look at the story and we’ll wrestle together with what we could possibly do to make any sense out of what we see. 

Our story for this morning comes to us from the book of Leviticus.  By a show of hands, how many of you have done a straight-through reading of Leviticus before?  By another show of hands, how many of you have attempted to do a straight-through reading of Leviticus, got bogged down in the details and gave up?  Leviticus is a tough read if you’re not prepared for it.  It’s a tough read if you are.  The biggest reason for this is the sheer weight of all the minute details concerning the various worship practices of the people of Israel. 

But in the midst of all this detail, we’re treated to a story.  Moses describes for us the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.  This was not a simple or easy process.  It took days of purification rites and sacrifices and ritual washings and the like.  It feels a bit like more of the detail for which Leviticus is infamous rather than the kind of story we might find in Genesis.  But the conclusion to all of the pomp and circumstance is powerful.  Listen to this from Leviticus 9:22: “Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them.  He came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the fellowship offering.  Moses and Aaron then entered the tent of meeting.  When they came out, they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.  Fire came from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar.  And when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell facedown.” 

Imagine that for a minute.  Imagine this large, open tent, resplendent in beauty.  Around its entrance are gathered thousands of people.  They all know what’s going on and there is a nervous excitement buzzing among the group.  They are all watching and waiting to see if the Lord will show up to signal His approval for their priests.  And just as the drama was at its high point, with Moses and Aaron standing once again before the people, suddenly a shining cloud descended from the sky and fire shot from out of the Holy of Holies—the center section of the tent that was where the very presence of God dwelled—and burned up the remaining scraps on the altar.  You would have been able to hear the shouts of joy and relief from quite a distance. 

And then, with everyone still gathered there around the tabernacle, two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, grab a couple of censers, which were small metal containers on strings that a priest would use to move coals from one place to another, put some coals in them from a nearby fire, and tossed in a handful of incense.  They then took these and began swinging them before the people as if making an offering to the Lord.  An uninformed observer might have seen this and figured it was just the next thing God had commanded the priests to do as part of the ceremony.  It wasn’t.  And what happens next is jarring to the point of being disturbing. 

Let me just read it for you from Leviticus 10:1: “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his own firepan, put fire in it, placed incense on it, and presented unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them to do.  Then fire came from the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”  As the people watched, another blast of fire shot out of the Holy of Holies.  But this time, instead of consuming another sacrifice as a sign of God’s favor and acceptance, it consumed Nadab and Abihu.  The pair might have been able to get a scream out before the superheated air burned them to death from the inside and the fire from the outside finished the job, but probably not.  All we can really say is that when the blaze subsided and everyone looking could see again, the brothers lay dead on the ground.  This was something like you’d expect to see in an Indiana Jones movie, not in the Bible.  This was literally a Biblical punishment. 

Put yourself in Aaron’s sandals for a minute.  You’re standing confidently with your brother Moses as the Lord has accepted not just your offering, but you and your sons as high priests over the nation and in a flash of light, two of them are gone.  The same Lord who had just accepted your worship had blasted your sons with fire and killed them. 

You could have heard a pin drop.  Everyone was totally silent and in shock for a minute.  And then Moses speaks a word from the Lord: “Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord has spoken: I will demonstrate my holiness to those who are near me, and I will reveal my glory before all the people.’”  Meanwhile, Aaron just stood there in shocked silence. 

No one really knew what to do.  Finally, Moses tells us that he “summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, ‘Come here and carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.’  So they came forward and carried them in their tunics outside the camp, as Moses had said.” 

This all takes a few minutes, but Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, remain rooted to their posts.  They’re all just numb.  They don’t know what to feel.  Their hearts are burning with a mixture of shock and anger and confusion.  And just as they are starting to get to the point they can function again, Moses speaks up a second time in v. 6 now: “Do not let your hair hang loose and do not tear your clothes, or else you will die, and the Lord will become angry with the whole community.  However, your brothers, the whole house of Israel, may weep over the conflagration the Lord ignited.  You must not go outside the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, for the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” 

If the first part of the story made you sick to your stomach, if you’re like me, this part of the story just makes you angry.  How could Moses be so callous to what had just happened to his brother’s sons—his nephews?  What did these young men do that warranted this kind of a response from God?  How was this ceremony so important that Aaron and his family couldn’t pause things in order to grieve the loss of his children in such a sudden and violent fashion?  What are we supposed to do with this story? 

Well, as I told you before, I don’t have all the answers.  This is one of those stories where we have to lean extra hard into God’s character and wave the mystery flag.  That being said, there are a few things we can say before we do that.  First, the reason they couldn’t stop what was happening to mourn was because they were in the middle of something of such a profound importance that grief would have to wait.  When Abraham Lincoln was less than a year into his presidency and with the Civil War still in its fierce early days, his son William died of what was probably typhoid fever.  He was eleven.  It absolutely wrecked Lincoln and his wife.  She went into a deep depression in her grief, but he had a nation to lead and a war to oversee that would have profound implications for that nation.  There are some occasions when the circumstances are of sufficient importance that nothing can interrupt them.  Moses understood this and so kept pushing them forward to finish the task at hand. 

That question pales in comparison to the significance of the other one, though.  Why did God do this?  What did they do that warranted this immediate death sentence?  Let’s start with their sin.  Moses describes them as offering “strange fire” before the Lord.  Now, it’s not totally clear what that means, but we do have some pretty good guesses.  When God sent the first shot of fire to burn up the offering, He also lit the altar fire that was intended to be the only authorized place to obtain fire for the sacrifices.  It had been made ritually clean and nowhere else bore that distinction.  All the various tools and utensils of the tabernacle had been ceremonially purified as well and were the only approved implements for making any kind of an offering before the Lord.  Nadab and Abihu took their own censers and got fire from their own fire pits in order to offer some of their own incense.  So what?   

The reason that was such a big deal was that this was a foundational moment in Israel’s life.  They were laying the groundwork for what would be their central national identity for generations to come.  These young men had just ignored pretty much everything God had said about how to offer sacrifices to Him and did what they wanted.  It was like they were building a skyscraper, but right as the foundation was being poured, they set the whole thing askew.  It may not seem like a big deal here, but had God allowed this to stand it would have introduced a thought into the hearts and minds of the people—and again, at this incredibly foundational moment—that God really didn’t care how they worshiped Him.  Well, it doesn’t take too much thinking about the implications of that idea to see that if God had allowed it to stand by not responding, it would have spelled doom for the nation.  They struggled with the thought enough on their own in spite of the fact that He made it abundantly clear that He cared a great deal about the nature of their worship. 

You see, so much of what God was doing with the people of Israel in these formative days was establishing before them who He was and what that meant.  The book of Leviticus itself is primarily a book about worshiping God and revealing Him to be holy.  Over and over again in the book they were told to do this or that because God is holy.  Now, what does it mean that God is holy?  Well, perhaps the most important aspect of God’s holiness for us to understand right now (as it was for Israel to understand in the moment of this story) is that He is different from us.  He is different from anything and anyone else in the whole of creation.  There is no one and nothing like Him.  If we don’t get that right, we’ll approach Him like we would someone or something else.  The problem is, our misperception of reality doesn’t change it.  It didn’t for Israel either.  If they thought God was something other than He was and approached Him accordingly, they were never going to be able to get to Him because they weren’t actually going to Him.  They were going to someone else they were referring to with His name.  Do you see the problem here?  He was building this nation to live in an ongoing relationship with Him.  That was going to be hard enough without any distractions from the goal.  Had He let them get His identity wrong in these foundational moments, they’d have never gotten to Him at all.  And so He had to make an example. 

Nadab and Abihu were sinning in their treating God as common.  They were sinning in ignoring His commands in favor of what they thought to be convenient.  They were due for judgment for their sin just like all of us are.  The only difference is that God brought their judgment immediately in order to make a graphic point before the people.  In other words, God wasn’t being unjust at all here.  He was simply being just at a time we didn’t expect and in order to make a very clear point: He takes His holiness, His character, very seriously.  He takes it so very seriously because, again, if He doesn’t, we won’t.  And if we don’t, then when we aim our lives at who we think He is, we’ll come to the end of our journeys somewhere other than we intended because our aim was wrong all along.  God takes His holiness seriously. 

Knowing this, though, doesn’t make seeing it any easier for us.  It didn’t for Aaron either.  Look at what happened next in v. 8 now: “The Lord spoke to Aaron, ‘You and your sons are not to drink wine or beer when you enter the tent of meeting, or else you will die; this is a permanent statute throughout your generations.  You must 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.’” 

Wait, so that’s it?  They’re just going on?  God isn’t going to say a word about what He just did and is instead going to call Aaron to make sure he doesn’t mess up like they did or he’ll pay the price too?  It looks that way right now, doesn’t it?  Part of the reason the people brought sacrifices to the Lord was for worship, but part of it was to provide for the priests.  God took that into account when He was giving worship instructions.  And in what follows, Moses just carried right on forward with some instructions (detailed, of course) for what part of the sacrifices the priests were to eat along with how they were to eat it and where they were to eat it.  It may have been food for them just like everyone else had, but it was still God’s first and so how they did it mattered.  In particular, they were supposed to eat some of a goat that had just been offered as a burnt offering.  It was essentially some barbecue for them.  But something’s not right.  Moses gave the instructions, went off to do something else, and when he came back to check on their progress, the goat tenderloin had been left on the altar so long it was burnt to a crisp. 

This was serious stuff that they had already blown once today.  Moses didn’t need any more dead bodies to have to dispose of today.  So, he lays into them.  Look at v. 16: “Then Moses inquired carefully about the male goat of the sin offering, but it had already been burned up.  He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s surviving sons, and asked, ‘Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area?  For it is especially holy, and [God] has assigned it to you to take away the guilt of the community and make atonement for them before the Lord.  Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should have eaten it in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.’” 

At this point you just want to shake Moses.  Seriously?  Your nephews just got burned up in an act of divine judgment that everyone was able to see and you’re just going to ignore it?!?  Not only that, but when your surviving nephews are so shaken by the whole thing that they mess up and don’t eat the right thing in the right place at the right time, you’re going to chew them out for it?!?  Come on, man!  Have a heart! 

Aaron finally speaks for the first time in the story and is more gracious in v. 19: “But Aaron replied to Moses, ‘See, today they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord.  Since these things have happened to me, if I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been acceptable in the Lord’s sight?’”  In other words, after all the chaos of today and the state it has put our hearts in, would God have been happy if we had just carried on like nothing had happened?  If God was so concerned with the heart of what was happening before Him, then surely He cared about the state of the hearts of the people doing it.  Well, as it turns out, He did.  Verse 20: “When Moses heard this, it was acceptable to him.”  And I know that says it was acceptable to Moses, but the connotation is that it was acceptable to God too.  Through Moses, God was saying, “Okay, Aaron.  Take a break.”  In other words, while God cared about His holiness being taken seriously, He cared about the people by whom it was being taken seriously too.  In the face of serious sin, God was hard, but when it came to people struggling with the impact of that sin, He was tender.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t. 

Okay, but what do we do with this?  Well, here is yet another occasion when a cursory reading of a hard story seemed to present God in an unflattering light as someone who was all wrath and judgment, but a deeper look revealed a fuller picture of the God who is perfect in justice and also in love.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t.  Justice and love.  Truth and grace.  The God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures—all of them—is not some one-dimensional deity around whom we have to tread lightly or else we get smote.  He is the fullness of grace and truth.  He upholds the boundaries of reality firmly and the harder we push against them, the harder a time we will have in life.  And, while it is certainly not the sole purpose of the Scriptures, they do spend a great deal of time outlining what those boundaries are for us.  At the same time, when we are smarting from a particularly hard run-in with those walls, He comforts us with rich compassion and bears with our failings with incredible patience.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t. 

There’s something else this story does even more clearly than that.  It points us toward Jesus.  It helps us see why Jesus is so important.  How?  Like this: God’s holiness is a point of strong emphasis in the Scriptures.  It is drummed into the Israelites hearts and minds here in Leviticus and in several other places in the Old Testament.  It makes a reappearance in the New Testament as well.  Jesus specifically calls us to the standard of divine perfection if we are going to be good enough for God.  We have to match the level of His holiness if we are going to be able to be in His presence.  The specific example He used was of the Pharisee who all of His audience knew to be the most righteous person around.  Jesus said that our righteousness, our apprehension of God’s holiness must exceed theirs if we’re going to get to God.  Paul said that if we are going to live by the Law—which was all the people of Israel had before Jesus—then we had to keep all of it.  James, Jesus’ brother, said that to fail on a single point of the Law is to fail the whole thing.  Peter reiterated God’s exhortation in Leviticus that we are to be holy like He is holy—that is, we are to be as different and morally better than the world around us as God Himself is.  That’s the standard to which we are called. 

Be serious now: How often do you take God’s holiness that seriously?  I suspect that, like me, you err in the same direction Nadab and Abihu did.  Think about this now.  If you and I make the same mistake they made—the mistake, the sin actually, of not taking God seriously—then shouldn’t we expect to face the same penalty they did?  Shouldn’t we?  God takes His holiness seriously.  He always has.  He always will.  But that’s only half the picture.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t.  Instead of us facing the judgment we deserve for the faulty thinking and behaving of which we have been most guilty, Jesus faced it for us.  More than that, God sent His Son to face it for us.  Jesus fulfilled the standards of God’s perfect holiness and then died in our place so that we can now receive the grace He earned as we wrestle with getting our own hearts and minds around it.  All we have to do is be willing to receive what He’s given and we are set.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t. 

 Now, does any of this make the deaths of Nadab and Abihu easier to stomach.  Probably not.  It doesn’t for me.  But then, being faced with our own unworthiness and the real seriousness of our sin which is different from theirs only in kind, not nature, is never going to be a particularly pleasant experience.  But when we take in the whole story, we can see the fuller picture.  God takes His holiness seriously, but gives grace when we don’t.  That’s something worth knowing.

So then, I’m calling us this morning to take God’s holiness as seriously as He does.  I’m calling you to take God’s holiness seriously.  If you have embraced it before in Christ and have been living in such a way that your life doesn’t reflect your confession, you need to repent.  The good news is that Jesus has paid the price your sin demands, so you get grace when you drift off track.  Some of you, though, haven’t yet gotten to that place.  Listen: God takes His holiness seriously.  He really does.  But, He gives grace when we don’t.  He’s made grace available to you in Christ.  All you have to do is receive what He’s already given.  If you’ve been wrestling with whether or not to get all the way to receiving what Jesus has given, today is a great day.  And hear this well: I know the thought of coming up here in front of all these folks to share what God has done in your heart is a terrifying one, but I’ll be standing right here and you’re going to have a roomful of people cheering you on as you move.  You can do this.  I hope you will.  Take God’s holiness seriously. 

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