Dishonorable Priests (Lev 10)
In Leviticus 10 we find two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, burning incense as an offering to God. Aaron and his sons had just been sanctified for the priestly duties. Nadab and Abihu offered their incense and the texts calls it “strange fire.” It is described: “which He had not commanded them” (v.1).
The Lord responded to the offering with fire. The fire consumed them, and they died before the Lord. After they died, Moses reminded Aaron of the Lord’s standard: “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.” The text says that in light of this word, Aaron kept silent.
Dialogue continues in the verses that follow but we will focus on these opening 3 verses. I myself, after first reading this passage, put my Bible down wondering, “What exactly did Nadab and Abihu do wrong?” What was their sin? Consider again the phrase, “Which He had not commanded them.”
Holiness is the theme of Leviticus. The book is concerned with God’s people being consecrated to Him. God gave rules and regulations to teach them how to be holy as He is holy. Nadab and Abihu burned incense in a fire that they themselves gathered, not from the fire lit by God to continually burn (Lev 6:12-13). God had not commanded them to do this, thus they were killed. The pathway of holiness was clearly outlined. They were to follow these rules – not taking away or adding to them.
The sin of Nadab and Abihu was twofold. First, their fire was less than what God had prescribed: it was not taken from God’s designated fire for offerings that He lit. Second, their fire was more than what God had prescribed: God did not tell them to sacrifice this incense in the presence of the Lord, and thus they were consumed in fire.
Reckless worship before the Lord does not have to come in the form of omission of His clear precepts. It can also come in the form of addition of other precepts that are not His own. God gave the Israel boundaries to stay within as they brought their offerings and worship to God. Sadly, Nadab and Abihu breached these boundaries on both sides.
In our futile minds and dishonorable intentions, we like to flirt with grey areas. We often consider, “How much can I get by with?” or, “Where exactly is the boundary – how close can I get?” The holiness that God calls us to cannot be so flippantly fiddled with. Those who enter heaven will not be those who profess Him, but those who obey Him (Matt 7:21-23; Gal 5:16-25). We dwell in God’s Word that we might not stray away from it (Ps 119:9). We sometimes forget that sinners stray in two directions, as Nadab and Abihu did. We can stray unto omission or addition. Both omission and addition are forms of disobedience to the Lord, and neither are profitable for holiness.
By recklessly coming to the Lord, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God and did not treat Him as holy (Lev 10:3). Their father, Aaron, knew this – and so when they were killed, he kept silent. They might have believed God was holy but they did not treat Him as such. They brought strange fire before the Lord. In so doing, they dishonored God and treated Him as if He was something less than holy. In 9:24, God wondrously and terrifyingly consumed the offering presented. Why on earth did Nadab and Abihu think they should or even could come before God with their own ideas of how to treat Him as holy?
So how does this text point to Christ? First, Christ is the true and better worshiper, Who entered His presence properly sanctified and holy. Christ’s incense is not burnt on strange fire. His offering is given upon the flames prescribed by God. He does not provoke the wrath of God with careless worship. Nadab and Abihu were guilty of these things, and they received the just reward for their unholy worship. God is pleased with Christ’s worship and through the imputation of His righteousness, we are pleasing to God. God treats us for Christ’s works and not our own. Christ is treated for our dishonorable worship and we are treated for Christ’s honorable worship.
Second, Christ is the true and better priest, Who abided by God’s standards and neither added to nor took from them. He did all that a true priest needed to do in order to make atonement for His people’s sins. He walked the narrow path before us, bringing us to God through His atoning death and exemplifying for us the life that is pleasing to God. Peter calls us a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt 2:9). Who can better show us how to live a holy life in the presence of God than Christ? Who else serves as our own high-priest, to make intercession for us and allow us to enter God’s presence in prayer, as a temple of the Holy Spirit, and one day in eternal worship?