Every time I encounter the story, I can’t help but think how extreme the consequences were. They were new to the job. Sure they had been trained and instructed on how to fulfill their role, but this week was their first week at actually giving it a try. Along with their father, they came to the tent of meeting and were clothed in their priestly garments. Moses walked them through the offerings and sacrifices that would be needed to “make atonement for you and for the people” (Lev. 9:7). And they seemed to be off to a good start.
Offerings offered per instruction . . . sacrifices sacrificed as commanded . . . the operation of the tabernacle commissioned . . . the priesthood of Israel established . . . God Himself making a “guest appearance” . . .
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 ESV)
But they were new to the job. And the sons of Aaron decided to improvise a bit. And the sons of Aaron made a fatal (literally) mistake and were fired (literally).
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. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Leviticus 10:1-2 ESV)
What a shocker! It’s stunning, really. One moment the glory of God appears and fire from heaven consumes the offerings. And as the glory comes down, the people go facedown. What a holy, awesome moment. But then the sons of Aaron — we can only imagine what motivated them or what they were thinking — play loose with the holy things of God. And they offer “unauthorized fire” . . . “strange fire” . . . “profane fire” . . . “the wrong kind of fire.” They played with fire and got burned . . . literally. The fire of heaven that consumed the offering for their sin was unleashed on them because of their sin.
And as you sit back and try to make sense of it, your head can kind of spin. For those of us who have been wooed by grace, won by grace, and walk in grace, it just seems so extreme. But listen to the words of Moses . . .
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:3 ESV)
“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4). So too, this. Thus, like Aaron, I hold my peace and sit in awestruck wonder at that which the holiness of God demands. Rather than be tempted to ask, “Was that really fair?” . . . instead, I see the fire come down — both on the offering and then on the transgressors — and I too fall to my face.
How holy is my God? Three times holy! Holy, holy, holy! And those who would draw near must set Him apart accordingly. Not playing loose with the things of heaven, but in reverential fear glorifying the God who desires to dwell in our midst. “Among those who are near me, I will be sanctified.” Yes, LORD.
And what of the grace that allows us Nadabs and Abihus to no longer fear the fire of judgment. Sure we might know some heat of testing in order that He might refine us “works in progress.” But we do not fear the fire of judgment. The sacrifice for our sin having been made once for all on the cross of Calvary when the hot wrath of a holy God was unleashed on His blessed Son for our, otherwise fatal, mistakes.
How awesome is our God? How holy is He? And how amazing is His grace?
To Him be all the glory . . .