When we closed our study yesterday we found God lighting the fire on the altar and consuming everything on it. No fire other than that kindled by God is ever allowed to be offered before the Lord in the tabernacle---not the fire on the altars and not the fire in the incense censors. While we've been studying the details about the tabernacle and its furnishings we've been told exactly how offerings of incense, grain, and animal sacrifices were to be conducted. Aaron's sons, as priests and as the children of the high priest of Israel, knew better than anyone else in the entire congregation of Israel (with the exceptions of Aaron and Moses) how the services in the tabernacle were to be conducted. But today we find two of Aaron's sons deliberately going against the Lord's instructions and paying the ultimate price for their sin.
"Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censors, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to His command." (Leviticus 10:1) The golden censors were to be filled with ashes and fire from the altar---with the fire the Lord had kindled---and with the special incense that was only to be used at the tabernacle. The incense was to be burned while the people gathered together in prayer, so by this we know the congregation was aware the men took the fire from somewhere other than the source God provided. Scholars suggest they used fire that burned under the cooking pots for the portions of sacrifices the priests were allowed to keep and eat. Whatever its source, the NIV calls it "unauthorized fire" while other versions of the Bible refer to it as "strange fire". All we can say for certain is that these men, knowing the commandments of the Lord regarding the precise order of everything that was to be done in the tabernacle, chose to burn the incense in the wrong way. They didn't do this by mistake or because they were unaware of what the Lord had said.
The Bible doesn't provide us with their motive for doing this. Perhaps they were lazy and disrespectful and didn't think it mattered much whether they obeyed the Lord's rules for His house. Perhaps they were lifted up in pride after their ordination ceremony and believed they were a law unto themselves and could do whatever they pleased without consequence. Or perhaps they sought a relationship with the Lord on their own terms, through works instead of faith, and tried to approach Him by other means that that which He had clearly laid out for them.
We can learn a lot from the mistake Nadab and Abihu made. It does matter whether or not we follow the Lord's instructions fully. Partial obedience is disobedience. These men went to the tabernacle to offer the smoke of the incense as part of their prescribed duties but they failed to offer the incense in the manner God directed. They only partially obeyed Him.
Was their sin due to pride? If so, there's a reason why the Bible tells us pride leads to a fall, (Proverbs 16:18) for when we're lifted up in pride with our noses in the air we aren't looking where we're going. When we don't look where we're going we're bound to stumble and fall. These men may have pridefully believed their positions in Israel were so highly exalted that they could make decisions on their own without consulting the Lord and without thinking about the laws and commandments He had already clearly given them. When we start thinking we're a law unto ourselves we are headed straight into sin.
And, thirdly, if these men were attempting to approach the Lord on their own terms, they were highly mistaken to believe they could come into His presence in this manner. We can never have a relationship with the Lord on our own terms; we come to Him only on His terms. He is the Lawgiver and it is His laws we have broken and it is His terms we must accept and abide by in order to have forgiveness and fellowship with Him. He has provided the means of access to Him and we cannot come up with any other avenue that is acceptable in His sight. This is why the Lord Jesus Christ said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." (John 14:6) We can't get to the Father without going through the Son who gave Himself for us, just as in Old Testament times no one could get to the Father without going through the sacrificial system that pointed toward the perfect and eternal sacrifice Christ would someday make on behalf of mankind.
What happens when these men insult the grace of God and presumptuously behave in a manner forbidden in His house and attempt to gain access to Him by the works of their own hands? "So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord." (Leviticus 10:2) Their trespass against the Lord was so great that it was considered a capital crime by God. He could not allow these two men to continue officiating as priests in the sight of the people or else the people would be tempted to show the same irreverence for the Lord.
We have to stop and think about how quickly Nadab and Abihu went astray. They just finished their weeklong ordination process yesterday! They just began their duties in the tabernacle. And they immediately sinned against the Lord in the carrying out of their duties. Something was desperately wrong in their hearts and desperately wrong with their relationship with the Lord if they could treat their awesome responsibilities so casually. The Lord had to nip this terrible situation in the bud and He did it openly as an example to all that His holiness is not a thing to be treated casually. Man's relationship with God is not a thing to be treated casually. These priests are way too visible to the people and have way too much influence over them for the Lord not to judge them for their blatant disregard for His rules.
Aaron, no doubt, is shocked and grieved. But Moses his brother points out that Nadab and Abihu are merely reaping what they have sown. "Moses then said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord spoke of when He said: 'Among those who approach Me I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'" (Leviticus 10:3a) I don't think Moses is being callous or unsympathetic about his brother's loss. After all, these men were Moses' nephews and I am sure he loved them and felt his own grief when they perished. But Moses is simply pointing out that these men are reaping the consequences of mocking the Lord's words, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in the New Testament, saying, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6:7)
Nadab and Abihu weren't right with the Lord and they publicly refused to regard the Lord as holy. They refused to honor Him in the sight of the people because they didn't honor Him in their own hearts. The Lord was forced to vindicate His holiness by judging these men's sin swiftly and harshly. He judged them publicly because their sin was public. He carried out their execution in such a way that no one could try to claim their deaths were a result of natural consequences and not a result of their great sin.
Aaron recognizes the truth of Moses' words. In his heart he acknowledges his sons' sin and acknowledges the Lord's right to handle the matter in the way He did. We know these are the thoughts in Aaron's mind because the Bible tells us, "Aaron remained silent." (Leviticus 10:3b) Aaron didn't protest. Aaron didn't blame the Lord. Aaron didn't scream and curse and stomp his feet. He quietly accepted what had happened because he knew his sons had violated the commandments of God and he knew their sin was so public and so great that God had no choice but to take them out of the congregation of Israel.