Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
At the end of the Book of Exodus, after the workers had build the arc of the covenant, the altar, the tents, and so on, God’s glory descended from on high and filled the temple. His presence was so overwhelming that not even Moses, whom God had spoken to “face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 34:11), was able to enter in. God was meant to come and live in the midst of the people. But how could the people survive God’s holy presence?
Actually, that’s what the whole book of Leviticus is about. It’s about how an unholy, unclean, and impure people could live in the presence of a holy God. It prescribes all kinds of ways of worship which teach the people about who God is and what pleases him. It also prohibits all kinds of activities that were displeasing to God.
This passage with Nadab and Abihu is striking because it shows the seriousness with which God takes his holiness before the people. God’s holiness was lethal, and sin and uncleanness could not be tolerated. Indeed, God’s very being demands that he destroy sin from his presence. God hates evil. “There is something in God’s essential moral being which is provoked by evil, and which is ignited by it, proceeding to burn until the evil is consumed.” (John Stott).
But we don’t really read Leviticus, do we? In fact, we don’t spend all that much time thinking about God’s holiness and the demanding nature of his holy character. We tend to prefer John’s statement, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and to hear about how forgiving God is of our failings. We think more of the freedom we have in Christ instead of our holy obligations. Jesus is our Savior, but not really our Lord. In short, I wonder if we haven’t lost our fear of the Lord.
God’s love is indeed a wonderful thing, and to meditate on it is good and proper for the follower of Jesus. After all, James boldly wrote, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). But, in fact, without a proper understanding of the holiness of God, we only end up with a caricature of God’s love rather than the real thing. We end up with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” The cross becomes a trinket, a novelty, or a mere fact of Christianity.
Without a proper view of God’s holiness, we cannot have a proper view of God’s love. If we do not know that our God is a consuming fire, we will not rightly weigh what it means to be saved from it. If we don’t see God’s righteous, burning anger against evil, we will not see the gravity of the cross.
Indeed, “if we spoke less about God’s love and more about his holiness, more about his judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of his love” (P.T. Forsyth).
Father, we know that you are holy, but we’ve lost our fear of you. We know that you hate evil, but we do not hate it as well. Indeed, we are accused when Paul says, do not use your freedom in Christ for the indulgence of the flesh, for that is precisely what we do. And we do that because we think only of your love, not your holiness. We think about your grace and not about your judgment.
Would you forgive our sins, and teach us to repent of our wicked ways and the wicked intentions of our hearts by showing us your holiness. Purify your people, Lord. Burn away the dross.
But, Lord, do not consume us entirely. Remember the sacrifice of Jesus. And help us to value the cross rightly.