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. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
—Leviticus 10:1-2 KJV
If you’ve been reading through the McCheyne Bible Reading program for the year, you’ll be in Leviticus right now. It’s been a while since I read all the way through Leviticus, but the passage above, especially in its KJV rendering is well-known—especially among charismatics.
More than anything else, a reading through Books of the Law should give all us Christians today pause.
No sooner had God begun to lay out the proper way to perform tabernacle ceremonies when Nadab and Abihu fouled up the instructions. The penalty for their mistake was to die in a conflagration of the Lord’s doing. Evidently enough of the two was left over for the remnants to be dragged outside the camp, but the point was frighteningly clear.
Commentaries conjecture about the nature of the strange fire that was offered. Many say that the two sons of Aaron were to take fire consecrated from the altar to light their censers. Perhaps that took fire from another source. Others claim God’s admonitions concerning incense within the tabernacle were only mentioned later in Leviticus, so the very act of using incense at all before God authorized it was their downfall. No matter the exact reason, something was amiss in the way that the two went about their new work.
Steve Camp wrote a song many years ago called “Stranger to Holiness” from an album that was one of my favorites of his. The title of that song continues to drive home to me that most of us are no better than Nadab and Abihu. And while it’s true that like them we’ve been consecrated, the difference between us and them is a chasm bridged by the cross of Jesus Christ. Those two did not have the precious gift of grace that we so easily take for granted today.
We’ve just enjoyed the beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection in this last week. Without Christ’s atoning sacrifice, I suspect that all of us would have committed an act similar to Nadab and Abihu, two men who learned a stunningly harsh lesson about what it means to be a stranger to holiness.
Yet even to those of us who have some maturity and know better, our best intentions often wind up no better than a man with holy intentions, but who was still a man, sin and all:
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. And David was angry because the LORD had burst forth against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day.
—2 Samuel 6:3-8 ESV
Ever pull an Uzzah? I’m certain I have, though maybe not in as extreme a way as this man did. Nonetheless, I think all of us have had that zealous need to do the right thing, but we violated God’s holiness along the way. David’s response is just as human as ours, the anger that comes in the “Why, God?” questions that always follow best intentions that run afoul of our righteous Father in Heaven.
The nature of God is holiness. The nature of Man is anything but. God’s wisdom is in knowing how frail we are underneath such a crushing debt of sin when compared against His holiness. Only Christ’s sacrifice makes it possible for us, unveiled faces and all, to behold Him.
Moses struck the rock. Samson toyed with his sworn vow. Peter fell in with the Judaizers. And you and I are no better in our practice of the Faith than Nadab and Abihu.
The sooner we understand this, the sooner we understand the manifest depths of grace.