God is holy, holy, holy, and while He is also love, He will not allow His worship to be trifled with. Those who treat His courts with flippancy or hypocrisy are asking for His judgments. The sons of Aaron remain a terrible warning to us, and yet also in Christ a sort of type or promise.
“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not…” (Lev. 10:1-20).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Shortly after being ordained to be priests, Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire to the Lord, and the Lord consumed them with His fire (10:1-7). Moses instructs Aaron that there is to be no drinking of wine or strong drink in the tabernacle, so that they pay careful attention to the requirements of the law and teach Israel to do the same (10:8-11). The offering of Nadab and Abihu being interrupted, Moses tells Aaron and his sons how to complete the offering (10:12-15). The chapter closes with Moses asking why the sin offering wasn’t completed, and Aaron explaining his reason (10:16-20).
THE REGULATIVE PRINCIPLE OF WORSHIP
The text does not say explicitly what it was that made the offering of Nadab and Abihu “strange fire.” Since the warning about drinking in the tabernacle is immediately given (10:9), this is one likely thesis, or it may have been a combination of that and failure to follow some of the careful distinctions (10:11). Some commentators suggest that they may have been an attempt to go into the Holy Place or Most Holy Place. At any rate, the foundational problem was disobedience: “strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not” (10:1).
This is one of the key texts for explaining what theologians call the “regulative principle of worship.” All biblical Christians must hold to some version of this, which essentially means that whatever we do in worship must be commanded by God. And the corollary is that whatever God has not commanded is prohibited. The central reason for this is that there is no other way to draw near to God except by faith in His Word. As soon as you begin substituting human traditions or your own bright ideas, you are not drawing near by faith.
Some versions of the regulative principle of worship draw arbitrarily narrow lines, insisting on explicit permission for every detail (e.g. psalms only, no instruments), but for some reason they do not object to women taking the Lord’s Supper or the change from worship on Saturday to Sunday. However, we agree that all of worship must be authorized by Scripture by explicit command or by good and necessary consequence and therefore must be according to Scripture.
And the stakes really are high. Ananias and Sapphira lied about their offering and were struck dead (Acts 5), and many in Corinth were sick or dead because of how they celebrated the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:29-30). New Covenant worship is no less sacred to God. “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). In other words, the question is not whether we will be consumed, the question is whether we will survive. And so this is why we must only come in and through Jesus Christ, the new and living way (Heb. 10:20).
DRINKING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD
It’s a striking change from the Old Covenant to the New, that God has explicitly commanded His people to share wine in His presence, in the Lord’s Supper. Yet, drunkenness is still clearly forbidden (Gal. 5:21, Eph. 5:18). And the same requirement holds outside of worship, since believers are to be vigilant and filled with the Spirit (Rom. 13:13, Eph. 5:18, 1 Thess. 5:7). While we insist that obedience requires wine in the Lord’s Supper, and that the One who turned water into wine gives freedom to enjoy the gift of wine, we of all people must be known for our carefulness, vigilance, and sobriety. Drunkenness is listed among those sins of debauchery that will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:10). We are no less required to pay attention to our lives and our worship, as the priests of old (Lev. 10:10). The same warning applies to other mind-alter drugs. The joy of the Lord is our strength, but this joy is alert and clear-minded, not buzzing and clouded.
FAMILY TIES & THE JUSTICE OF GOD
Our text closes with Aaron’s submission to the justice of God while we assume still feeling the human pain of loss (10:3, 19). This is a tension we often feel in this life, and we need to practice getting our hearts and heads around it in faith. The principles are these: God is perfectly just and in the end, when we see the complete populations of Heaven and Hell, we will be like the saints who witnessed the judgment of Babylon in Revelation, and we will shout Hallelujah! at all of His judgments (Rev. 19:1-3). It will not be pretty good; it will be perfect, glorious, absolutely wonderful. And together with this is the fact that God will destroy the wicked. He will give some over to the Hell that they demand. And some of those may be ones we have known and loved in this life. But Jesus told us this when called us to be His disciples (Lk. 14:26). There is a gleeful acceptance of this that does not know what spirit it is of, but there is sober, joyful acceptance of this in which there is great peace because He is worthy. How can we not trust the One who gave Himself for us for our sins? And finally, precisely because He is a God of great mercy, we plead with Him for the salvation of our loved ones and then rest in His infinite goodness.
In many of the Jewish traditions surrounding this story, Nadab and Abihu are presented as something like heroes or saints, representing all sinners. We need not go that far while still acknowledging that they are mentioned again when God explains the Day of Atonement, the one day each year when one priest could enter the Most Holy Place, without dying (Lev. 16:2).
It’s easy to come to church and not really grasp the glorious reality of what God offers: “By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:20-22).