One of the commentators on this passage points out that what we have here in the account of the death of Nadab and Abihu is sadly typical of what we read in the Old Testament. After the Lord placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we have Adam’s failure to obey the Lord’s command. After Noah and his family came out of the ark alive, we have Noah drunkenness in the vineyard. After the Israelites met the Lord at Mount Sinai, we see them bowing down to and worshipping a golden calf.
And now, after the ordination of the priests in Israel, we have two of the new priests offering unauthorised fire before the Lord. It’s a reminder of our sinfulness and our failure to do what the Lord has commanded. However, in the New Testament, we read about the Lord Jesus who never once disobeyed his Father in heaven and who always careful to do whatever the law required.
Verses 1 to 7
What did Nadab and his brother do wrong? According to verse 1, they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord. Now, it’s not clear exactly what that means and the commentators offer a number of suggestions. Since the word translated ‘unauthorised’ also means ‘strange or ‘foreign’, then one suggestion is that they were trying to worship the Lord the way the pagan nations worshipped their gods.
Another suggestion is that the fire they offered was not from the altar in the tabernacle, but came from a fire outside the tabernacle which was not holy. Another suggestion is that they tried to enter the Most Holy Place which only the High Priest could enter. Or since the text refers to wine in verse 8, another suggestion is that they were drunk. And a final suggestion is that they were sacrificing the right offering, but at the wrong time.
Some of these suggestions are better than others, but no one really knows for sure. The important thing though is what we read at the end of verse 1: the fire they offered was contrary to God’s command. So, all through the previous chapters we saw how they were careful to do what God commanded. Now, on this occasion, they did something which he did not command. And so fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them and they died.
And the Lord said to Aaron through Moses:
Among those who approach me, I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people, I will be honoured.
He’ll be honoured one way or another by his priests who approach him in worship. He’ll be honoured either by the faithfulness of his priests and their obedience to his commands; or he’ll be honoured by displaying his wrath against those who disobey his instructions. Either way, the people will learn the lesson that the Lord is holy and no one can approach him in worship without bringing to him the proper offerings.
Compare what happened here to what we read last week. In chapter 9 they did whatever the Lord commanded; in these verses they did what was contrary to his command. In chapter 9 fire came from the Lord and consumed their offering; in these verses fire came from the Lord and consumed the disobedient priests. In chapter 9, the ceremony ended with the people shouting for joy; in these verses, the ceremony ended with silence. Do you see that at the end of verse 3. Aaron was silent. Elsewhere in the Bible, the same word is translated ‘as still as a stone’. So, he was as still as a stone by what had taken place.
Moses, though, instructed two men to take the corpses out of the camp so that the bodies would not make the camp unclean. And he commanded Aaron and his other sons not to join the rest of the people in mourning for his sons. So, they weren’t to tear their hair or their clothes as a sign of their grief. In addition they weren’t to leave the tabernacle, because they had to continue their duties.
There are two points to make at this stage. Firstly, this incident reminds us that there is only one right way to worship the Lord. There’s only one right way to worship the Lord; and it’s by doing only what he has commanded.
Lots of Christians think we can do whatever we want in worship, so long as it’s not forbidden by God. So, it’s up to us to decide how to worship the Lord; and we’re free to follow our imagination and our own inclination and do whatever seems best to us. Or those who organise the service of worship will do whatever they think will appeal to the people, because we have to keep the people happy. Or they’ll do whatever they think will appeal to outsiders, because we have to do something to draw them in and to keep them.
However, in reformed churches we have always said that our worship must always be regulated by God’s word. So, instead of doing whatever the Lord has not forbidden, we will do only what the Lord has commanded us to do in his word. In the words of our Confession, we say:
the only acceptable way of worshipping the true God is appointed by himself in accordance with what he has revealed in his word. Therefore he is not to be worshipped according to human ideas or inventions … or in any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.
And so, we should always be asking ourselves:
Has God commanded us in his word to worship him like this?
But then this passage also shows us so very clearly why we need the Saviour. What happens whenever sinners try to approach the Lord without the proper offering? Well, whenever Nadab and his brother tried to approach the Lord without the proper offering, fire came from the Lord and killed them. And it happened as a warning to show us what will happen at the end of time whenever sinners are brought before the Lord without the proper offering to cover their guilt. Without the proper offering, God’s wrath will burn against them and they will be destroyed.
But the good news of the gospel is that through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we’ll be able to approach the Lord with confidence on the last day, because the Lord Jesus Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And when we come before the Lord Almighty, he’ll not destroy us as he destroyed those two disobedient priests, but he’ll pardon us and accept us and welcome us into his presence, because the Lord Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. Those who never trusted in Christ, will be consumed by God’s wrath, just as Nadab and his brother were. But all those who have trusted in Christ will come before God with confidence. This incident shows us why we need a Saviour; and why the Lord Jesus had to offer himself for us as the perfect sacrifice for sins.
Verses 8 to 15
But let’s move on to the second section of today’s passage which is verses 8 to 15. In verse 8 the Lord spoke to Aaron. Despite what had happened to his sons, Aaron was still permitted to serve as God’s priest. And the Lord instructed Aaron and his others sons not to drink wine or any other fermented drink when they’re on duty in the tabernacle. They weren’t forbidden from drinking wine on other occasions; but they weren’t to drink it when they went into the tabernacle.
Why not? The alcohol may have affected their ability to do what the Lord commanded them to do in the next verses. You see, according to verse 10, they were to distinguish between the holy and the common and between the clean and the unclean. Now, we’ll hear more about that in future weeks, but everything in the tabernacle was holy; while everything outside the tabernacle was common. So, the lambs in your field were common. However, if you brought one of those lambs to the tabernacle to offer to the Lord, it became holy. Also, whatever was common could be either clean or unclean. Your lamb was clean and could be offered as a sacrifice unless if was sick or injured; if it was sick or injured it was unclean. And whatever was unclean could never become holy or be used in the worship of the Lord. So, some things were holy and some were common. And common things were either clean or unclean. And the priest responsible for determining which was which. And according to verse 11, the priest was also responsible for teaching the people the decrees of the Lord.
So, as well as sacrificing the offerings, they were to distinguish the holy and the common and the clean and the unclean. And they were to teach the people. That was the work the priests were given to do. And in verses 12 to 15 Moses gave them some further instructions about the sacrifices they were to offer and about eating the portions which belonged to them.
The priests were not to drink wine when they were on duty. They needed to be clear-headed when sacrificing the offerings. Think now of the Lord Jesus, our Great High Priest, who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. Do you remember when — after he carried the cross to Golgotha — they offered him wine to drink. But after tasting it, he refused to drink it. He refused to drink it, because he is our Great High Priest; and unlike Nadab and his brother who disobeyed God’s commands about the work of the priest, the Lord Jesus was careful to obey everything the Lord commanded the priests to do. Later, he took some wine-vinegar, which was permissible. But he refused to take the wine, so that, on the cross, he was clear-headed and his judgment was intact as he served as our priest and offered to God the perfect sacrifice for sins. He was the perfect sacrifice, but he was also the perfect priest, who always did what his Father wanted in order to redeem us from our sin and misery.
Verses 16 to 20
In the final section of today’s passage — verses 16 to 20 — we read about another priestly error that day. Moses was checking what they had done; and he discovered that the priests has not eaten the meat from the sin offering, but had instead burned it on the altar. This was contrary to the Lord’s instructions. And so, Moses was angry with them, because it seemed to him that they were doing what Nadab and Abihu had done and they were disregarding the word of the Lord. But Aaron defended what they had done: it seemed to him that — given what had happened on that day already, when his sons had died — it wouldn’t be right on this occasion to feast on the meat in the presence of the Lord. Normally, they would eat the meat, as the Lord commanded. But it seemed to Aaron that it wouldn’t be right on this occasion. And so, we read at the end of the chapter that Moses was satisfied with his answer.
And it seems that the lesson we learn from this is that whereas Aaron and his sons often fell short of doing everything the Lord required, the Lord Jesus never ever fell short. Aaron and his sons were sinners who needed to offer sacrifices for themselves as well as for the people. But the Lord Jesus obeyed his Father perfectly. He never once fell short of doing what he was supposed to do as our priest; and he never once had to defend himself the way Aaron had to. The Lord was a better priest; he was a perfect priest; and he offered a better sacrifice than Aaron ever could. And because of Christ our Great High Priest, we’re able to come before God in prayer and praise with confidence; and we can look forward to coming into God’s presence in glory where we will not be silent like Aaron was in this chapter; but we’ll shout for joy and we’ll praise the Lord for ever and for ever.