How Do We Glorify God? Part 2
Passage: Leviticus 10:1-7
Last Sunday, I began a new series, “Foundations for Church Ministry.” My goal in this series is to articulate a biblical philosophy of ministry, so that we are unified in pursuing God’s will for us. I noted last week that fundamentally our purpose as a church is that we exist to glorify God. Because of that, everything we do must point attention to God. We saw from 2 Corinthians 4:7 that we are simply clay jars intended to point attention to the God’s excellence and glory. This morning, I’d like to consider a second critical aspect of glorifying God. We can only glorify God if we accurately reflect his character by obeying his will. This point should be obvious. For example, the purpose of a mirror is to show you what you look like, but if a mirror isn’t flat, it can create some serious distortions. I’m sure many of you have been at a kids’ park and stood in front of one of those wavy mirrors that is intended to distort what you look like. Depending on how the mirror is formed, it can make you look short and fat or tall and skinny. It may make your forehead look huge and your nose almost unnoticeable or vice versa. These mirrors are fun to play with, but I doubt you would use one if you needed to send a portrait to a job interview because it doesn’t portray what you look like. This is obvious, and it should also be obvious that we can only glorify God if we accurately portray to the world what he looks like. But just because something is obvious doesn’t mean we always do it or that we always see it clearly. Your sin nature and the culture in which we live often resist this principle. Because of that, we may struggle a bit with the account in our text (read).
To appreciate this story, we have to set it in context. This story takes place one year after the exodus (Ex 40:17). God had given Israel the Law, and since then, the people had been making preparations to establish the system of worship God prescribed in the Law. Leviticus 8–10 describe the first 8 days of the Levitical sacrificial system. This was a significant moment because previously there was no tabernacle or temple. Family patriarchs, like Noah or Abraham had simply led their families in worship. But God had promised to dwell with Israel and forgive their sin through the tabernacle worship. God chose Aaron his sons to act as the priests in this new system, and Leviticus 8 describes how they were prepared for this task over a period of 7 days. Chapter 9 then describes the establishment of national worship on the 8th day. God promised that after Israel conducted a series of sacrifices he would come down and show Israel his glory. This manifestation would be an awesome sight, which signified God’s acceptance and the beginning of God’s presence among the people through the tabernacle. Chapter nine describes in detail how Aaron prepared the sacrifices just as God had commanded. And vv. 23–24 describe what happened next. The parallel account in Exodus 40:34–35 states that the “glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” It was so overwhelming that Moses was not able to remain in the tabernacle. As well, fire came from the presence of the Lord and consumed the sacrifices that had been slowly burning on the altar of burnt offering. It was an awesome display, and the people responded with a shout. The word translated “shout” describes a shout of joy and gladness. Israel was overwhelmed by the sight of God’s glory. They rejoiced that it signified God’s gracious presence among them and his commitment to be among them. But then the story takes a tragic turn in v. 1 of our text.
The Sin (v. 1)
Nadab and Abihu were the two oldest sons of the high priest Aaron, and they were Moses’ nephews since Aaron was his brother. Since Aaron’s family was to serve as the priests, Nadab and Abihu were also priests. But after 8 days of careful and detailed preparation followed by the incredible display of God’s glory, Nadab and Abihu made a terrible mistake. The text doesn’t give us much detail about the mistake. It simply states that they offered “profane fire” which God “had not commanded.” What they did wrong is not entirely clear, though we can reconstruct what most likely happened. The Law prescribed that the altar of burnt offering was to remain lit at all times. Whenever the priests needed to light a fire inside the tabernacle, the Law said that they were to use coals from this altar. No other fire was to be used. Therefore, if they needed to lite a fire on another altar, such as the very small altar of incense, they would fill a fire pan with coals from the altar of burnt offering and use those coals to lite the other fire. However, the text states that Nadab and Abihu used “profane,” “strange,” or “unauthorized,” fire. Therefore, the likeliest explanation of what happened is that Nadab and Abihu used coals from a fire other than the one on the altar of burnt offering. It might be that they used coals from a pagan altar, but it’s more likely that they simply took coals from a common fire.
On the surface, that probably does not sound like a big deal. Fire is fire isn’t it? As well, these men were trying to remember numerous details for the first time. They had a lot on their plate, and their job was also physically demanding. They had been slaughtering large animals all day. It was messy, hard work. Nadab and Abihu were probably exhausted, and all that they did was that they used the wrong coals. We might think this was insignificant, but they key to this whole passage is found in God’s analysis at the end of v. 1. They didn’t do what “God had commanded them.” Whether this error was intentional or not, they disobeyed God.
Because of that, God responded.
The Judgment (v. 2)
Since God’s glory had filled the tabernacle, it seems that fire burst out of the Holy of Holies and killed these men. Earlier in the day, the fire of the Lord had consumed the sacrifices and had been a symbol of God’s approval and his gracious presence, but here it functions in a very different role. Here it functions as a symbol of God’s wrath and judgment. God executed Nadab and Abihu for disobeying the order of worship he had prescribed.
Try to put yourself in the scene. Israel has just seen an awesome display of God’s glory, and they are rejoicing in God’s favor toward them. Then suddenly the 2nd and 3rd priest are struck dead by the fire of God. I’m sure everyone was shocked and speechless. And put yourself in Aaron’s shoes. You are at the height of joy because you have just experienced the gracious presence of God. And then suddenly, God’s presence becomes a source of judgment on your own two sons, as they are killed probably before your own eyes. I can’t imagine the pain of watching my own son die this way. I’m sure the joy and celebration stopped and everything fell quiet. If you are Aaron you probably wanted to run off in a corner and mourn over what had just happened.
Imagine if something like this happened in our day. It’s a national event, so the T.V. crews are all watching, and there would be immediate outrage. Twitter would be full of comments about how evil and tyrannical God is, about how it was a simple mistake, or about how Nadab and Abihu shouldn’t be judged for expressing themselves. But then Moses speaks on behalf of God in v. 3, and God justifies his judgment.
The Justification of God’s Judgment (v. 3)
God’s statement expresses the central message of this passage, it cuts at the heart of human thinking, and it tells us much about the nature of God. God had said that when mankind approached him, they must approach him as a holy God. God’s holiness means that he is separate from all sin and corruption. With God there is no gray area. There is right and wrong. There is holiness and wickedness, and Nadab and Abihu failed to regard God as holy through their disobedience. God proceeds to state that he must be glorified before all people. God’s glory is his highest priority. All of mankind needs to know who God is, but the only way man can rightly understand the glory of God, the only way he can be glorified is if people see him in his true holiness.
Through this statement, God identifies the severity of Nadab and Abihu’s sin. The problem ran much deeper than the source of the fire. The problem was that Nadab and Abihu disobeyed one of God’s commands regarding how they were to approach him, and in so doing, they failed to properly represent God’s holiness. Because they disobeyed God and represented him inaccurately, they did not glorify God to the people. It might be that your head is spinning right now as you try to understand how this is just, but let’s finish the passage before coming back to that question.
The remainder of the story drives home the gravity of the sin through the response of Moses and Aaron.
Moses and Aaron’s Response (vv. 3c–7)
Aaron kept silent.
Notice how v. 3 concludes. After Moses speaks for God, Aaron “held his peace.” His oldest sons had just been killed for using the wrong fire. Watching your sons die would be an awful and emotionally disturbing sight for any parent, and yet Aaron recognized that God had acted justly and appropriately. There was no room to complain or to gripe against God, and based on what had just occurred, he knew that if he responded sinfully, God wouldn’t tolerate it. Aaron recognized that his allegiance to God must supersede his allegiance to his sons. Verses 4–5 then note how…
The bodies were carefully removed.
I would imagine that everything inside Aaron wanted to run over and grab his sons in hope that some life still remained within them. I’m sure he wanted to hold them up for all of their good qualities and attend to the bodies in a way that would honor them. And yet the Law stated that the high priest was never allowed to touch a dead body. Therefore, Moses called for Aaron’s cousins to come and carry the bodies out of the sanctuary and outside the camp. Verse 5 notes that they took them out, still in their priestly garments. There are probably two things at stake. First, they wanted to remove them quickly since they were unclean and had no place in God’s presence. Second, because they were unclean, they did not want to touch the bodies directly. They didn’t hold these men up as martyrs or victims; instead, they carried them out in shame as defiled and unclean. Normal sentiments and emotions were superseded by maintaining purity before God.
Aaron and his sons continued their service.
This is the part of the story that can seem the most heartless in our day. In ANE culture, there was a prescribed mourning ritual. Typically, a family mourned the death of a loved one for 7 days. The mourning process involved weeping, wailing, beating one’s breast, and tearing one’s clothes. This process was very significant culturally, but Moses told Aaron and his younger sons that they could not mourn Nadab and Abihu’s death, lest they die and bring God’s wrath on the entire nation. He did so because the Law forbade the high priest from ever touching a dead body, from mourning the dead, or leaving the sanctuary because he was set apart for God. Therefore, Aaron and his two younger sons had to leave the mourning process to their other family members. In v. 7, he tells them that they could not even leave the sanctuary and stop their service because the “Lord’s anointing oil is upon you.” Moses warns them twice that if they failed to obey these commands, they would also face the judgment of God. And so v. 7 concludes by stating that they obeyed. Despite the natural sadness that certainly filled their hearts, they recognized the holiness of God and the honor God deserved and so they obeyed and continued to fulfill their responsibilities.
Conclusion of the Story/Argumentation
That’s how the story concludes. At the inception of Israel’s worship, God made it clear that Israel wasn’t free to mold their worship according to their liking. God had said how it was to be done, and they were required to obey his will. According to v. 3, it was only as the priests obeyed God’s prescriptions and accurately reflected his holiness that God would be truly glorified among the nation.
Before I apply this passage, I want to acknowledge that some of you might be wrestling with the justice of what it describes. You might be wondering if God really needed to kill Nadab and Abihu? Couldn’t he of shown them a little grace and maybe given a warning? You might even be thinking that you can’t believe in a God like that and that even if he exists, you would never love or serve such a mean and intolerant being. It might be that you would never say such a thing so bluntly, but you practically live that way. You might claim to believe the Scriptures, but you’ve created a God in your mind who is more tolerant and less holy because you don’t want to believe in this kind of God. Is the God of this text unjust and unkind? If you believe that he is, I would ask you to consider if your view of God is too small and if your view of man is too big. I would argue that the reason people might have a problem with this passage is not because of something wrong in God but because they don’t see themselves and all humanity in a proper relationship to God. For example, I coached JV basketball for 7 years, and I’ve watched some 10th grade boys strut around the court like they are big stuff because they can dominate a JV basketball game. When a 10th grade boy does that, he has lost perspective on his ability because he’s only comparing himself to his peers who aren’t yet ready to play varsity sports. The problem is that there is a world of basketball talent that far exceeds him that he is not considering. If you put that same boy in a varsity game, or even more a college or pro game, he would be toast. He is not as great as he thinks he is; he has lost perspective. And if you think that God acted unjustly in this passage, I would argue that you have made the same mistake. You are looking at the world with a skewed perspective which fails to recognize that God’s infinite glory. God in his grace created man in his image, so we are significant, but we are still infinitely smaller than God is. This is God’s world, and we exist for God’s glory. And when you consider the infinite glory of God and mankind’s need to rightly know who God is, there is no question that God’s actions are just. Ultimately, since God is the Lord, what he says is true, and it doesn’t matter what we think. God isn’t accountable to us; we are accountable to him. And the fact that God is so great and we are so small is what makes the gospel so incredible. God would be just to strike us all dead for every sin we commit just as he did to Nadab and Abihu, but he is merciful. And rather than immediately judging our sin, he sent Christ to bear our judgment on the cross. What happened to Nadab and Abihu was not unfair, but what happened to Christ was. He took our punishment on himself even though he was perfect. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, you can be saved from God’s judgment if you will turn from your sin and put your faith in the gospel. If you have never done that, I pray that you will receive Christ today.
Returning to our text, what does it mean for us as Christians and as a church.
I’d like to note first of all two applications for us as a body.
For Our Church
We must always obey God.
This passage is clear that the only way we can glorify God to each other and to our community is if we obey God consistently. This passage is also clear that God really values obedience. There are many things that may pull us away from obedience. It’s very easy for churches to get caught up in appearances and politics. It’s tempting at times to bend a bit to keep a friend or to avoid conflict. Numbers and budgets can also pull us away from obedience because doing the right thing isn’t always popular. My point is not to say that we can’t grow and also be obedient because we serve a powerful God. But at the end of the day, as one of my mentors Dr. Ollila used to say, “we don’t have to be big, but we do have to obey.” We better never fudge God’s truth to attract a crowd, meet a budget, or avoid conflict. The way we worship, fellowship, do outreach, and run programs must always be in obedience to God. Even when it is hard, we must continue to do what is right. I pray that we will all recognize the importance of obedience, that you will want obedience from your church, and that you will hold the leadership of our church to a high standard of obedience.
We must show the world and each other an accurate picture of God by our obedience.
We serve a great God who alone offers new life and hope. The people of our community need to see a complete picture of who our God is. We need to show them an accurate picture, not merely one that is easy for them to digest. And we as Christians also need to see who God is through each other. An incomplete God doesn’t help anyone. Let’s commit ourselves as a church to glorifying God by obeying him and accurately representing his glory to each other and to our community.
Most of us were taught the importance of obedience from our childhood, and yet for some reason as we grow older, we like to think that we can outgrow obedience. For example, the statistics demonstrate that we live in a society where lying is no longer considered problematic. If you can lie to get ahead or to avoid conflict, then go for it. Who cares that God said it is sinful? Or consider the sinful ruts we can justify. We lose our temper, go off on rants, refuse to forgive, live with anger or bitterness, and so on, and then we justify it by saying, that’s how God made me. Or maybe we say something like, “I can’t help it” or “it’s too hard to change.” All of that is absurd. If you are a child of God, you are no longer dead in sin. Stop excusing disobedience and start pursuing holiness. God is forgiving and compassionate, but we need to appreciate the fact that he values obedience, and we need to value it just as much.
Trust God with the consequences of obedience.
I’ll admit that obedience can be costly. But praise the Lord that when we obey God, we are following the lead of the Sovereign Lord who knows the consequences better than you and already has a purpose in those consequences and a plan to resolve them. Do right and leave the rest in God’s hands.
My message this morning is simple. Honor God by obeying God. We can’t do it any other way. But when we do, we have the incredible opportunity to display the glory of God to a watching world and to needy brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let’s all stand and close by singing, “Lord, Be Glorified.” We’ve spent the last two mornings reflecting on the fact that this is our purpose. As we sing, I trust that this will be the prayer of your heart, that God will be glorified in your life, in your home, and in our church.