In chapters 8 and 9 of Leviticus, “as the Lord commanded” is a recurring phrase. The priests—Aaron and his sons (Ex. 28:1)—were following the commands God gave regarding tabernacle worship. God had given the specifics of how He was to be approached in worship; thus, all was well when Aaron and his sons did as God commanded.
Leviticus 10, however, is when things go wrong. It provides an important lesson regarding approaching God in worship. “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). Trouble arose when these men did something other than what God had commanded. It was not that the Lord had explicitly said, “Thou shalt not offer another kind of fire.” No, the text says the offering was not accepted by God because the Lord had not commanded them to use that kind of fire. The fire was “strange”—different from God’s commanded fire. Evidently, they had used coals from outside the temple area, something other than what God had specified. The HCSB renders this “unauthorized fire” giving the sense that without God’s command, Nadab and Abihu were not operating under the authority of the Lord.
Was this a big deal? One might say, “Well, they were still offering something to the Lord. Why get all bent out of shape about the particulars if they are still offering worship to God?” But notice the Lord’s response: “And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (Lev. 10:2). God made sure at the very outset of tabernacle worship that He was to be sanctified and His laws were to be taken seriously lest Israel develop a flippant approach to the entirety of God’s law. While God on some occasions appeared as a fire in a beneficial way in the Old Testament, He also appeared in judgment as a devouring fire as He does here (cf. Ex. 24:17; Deut. 5:22; Num. 11:1; 16:35; 2 Kgs. 1:10, 12). Let us remember to “serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28, 29).
Today, we are under the new and better covenant of Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:6; 12:24). Every Christian is a priest to God today (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 8:1, 2). “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:15). The Old Testament was written for our learning (Rom. 15:4). The sins of Israel in the Old Testament provide examples for us of what not to do (1 Cor. 10:6). We must remember that worship to God is holy. Let us not profane it by bringing in worldly elements that we desire which differ from what God has commanded. What I bring to God in worship matters. If I bring in elements that have no authorization from Him in His word, then I commit the same sin Nadab and Abihu committed. Remember, worship is not ultimately about what I want, but rather is about honoring God the way He has commanded us to pay homage to Him. -Mark Day