"Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD." -- Lev. 10:1, 2
Such controversial verses! This Old Testament passage is the linchpin upon which hangs the whole worship argument -- who is in charge of what our worship looks like? Does God tell us how to worship Him? Do we decide how we want to worship Him? Those who say that God decides, use this verse to show that bringing to God our "creative" worship, is a very dangerous thing. He doesn't want "strange fire."
But how exactly was this fire "strange"? Did Aaron's two sons intend to be disrespectful? What did they do that was deserving of death? No preacher has ever answered these questions for me.
Central to these questions is this: what's with the fire? What kind of fire was supposed to be used? Clearly, the two men used the wrong fire, but what was the right fire?
Well, that's easy enough to answer. We've just seen at the end of Lev. 9 that the fire on the altar in the tabernacle came straight from God. Moses and the Israelites built the tabernacle and all its furnishings, according to God's specific instructions. And they provided the sacrifices that were offered. But when the critical moment came for the very first sacrifices to be burnt on the altar, no human provided that fire. "Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering ...." Can you imagine? I don't think they had warning of this act of God. The Israelites did what I would have done: they all screamed and fell on their faces before the fire of God.
Lev. 6:12 gives us another clue about the altar fire. This passage instructs Moses about how to maintain the fire -- before anyone has a clue about how the fire will get there in the first place! "And the fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out ...." Okay, so God will send His own fire down to the altar, and the priests (that's Aaron and his sons) are supposed to never let that fire go out.
The last piece off the puzzle comes from Lev. 16:12. Where are the priests supposed to get the fire, that goes into their firepans? You guessed it: from the altar. The altar that has God's own fire on it. "And he shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil."
With all that information, my conclusion about Nadab and Abihu is simply that they decided to light their firepans themselves. The didn't use God's fire. They used their own.
And from what I can deduce, the Regulative Worship folks seem to stop there. That's enough for them, from this passage. God said to use his altar fire, and they didn't, and they died. But my mind wants to know more. Is God that arbitrary? Yes, the Levitical laws are rather nit-picky, but do they also have to be arbitrary? Does God have reasons behind these laws?
So I ask this: what does the fire in the tabernacle mean? The animals are already dead when they're put on the altar. The sacrifice has been made; the life has been taken. Why torch it up? Why consume the animal and burn it to a crisp? From my reading, it appears that the burning of the meat is not to make it edible; the priests boil their portions, when they eat them (Ex. 29:31, Lev. 8:31). The "burning with fire" seems to be reserved for meat that is not eaten (Lev. 7:16-19). When the sacrifice is burned with fire, it is totally consumed; nothing remains to be eaten.
So, what is the purpose of God's fire?
(If you're still reading this, congratulations!)
Let's look at other passages that deal with God and His fire:
Moses speaks with God at the burning bush. God appears to Moses as fire. (Ex. 3)
God gave the Israelites light for 40 years in the desert, with a pillar of fire each night. (Ex. 13)
God showed them His power on Mt. Sinai by descending on the mountain with fire and smoke. (Ex. 19)
So we see that Israel already associates their God with fire -- His power, His leadership, His presence.
God's fire descending on the mountain, and on the altar, reminds us of Elijah on Mt. Carmel. Remember? In a contest with the pagan prophets, each side builds an altar with a sacrifice, and each side asks his god to send fire upon the altar. Note Elijah's prayer in I Kings 18:37: "Answer me, O LORD answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O LORD, art God ... Then the fire of the LORD fell ... they fell on their faces; and they said, 'The LORD, He is God ....'"
When God sends down His fire from heaven, upon an altar, He is declaring Who He is. He sees the sacrifice, and his wrath consumes the guilty one -- the sacrifice. Why must it be God's fire? Because He is the judge. Only He judges sin, and exercises wrath upon it. And only His wrath will do! God's wrath must be discharged, must be spend, before His forgiveness can be given.
Hebrews 12:24 says, "... for our God is a consuming fire." And check out the previous verse: "Let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe." -- Wow! Paul says it this way: "Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." (Rom. 12)
As my brain turns on these things, I remember that Jesus is the final, complete, absolute sacrifice. He died on the altar of the cross. God's wrath fell on Him. The wrath of Roman soldiers was nothing -- nothing -- compared to the wrath of His Father. God's anger was forever discharged on His Son, and He has no more wrath left for the sinner, me. Thus we see why the fire of God's wrath is a horrible thing for those who reject Him, but for me, His child, I can be so happy that His anger is spent.
What did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? They put their own fire, their own wrath, in place of God's. They put themselves, in God's place. What place did their fire have, in the sacrificial system? No place at all!! God's wrath is the only wrath that must be satisfied. It's silliness to imply that man's fire is of any significance at all.
But the Hebrews passage above is also still disturbing. God's wrath still burns, and He is still a consuming fire. His anger against anyone who rejects Him is fierce. As his child, I lay my own body down on the altar, uncut, alive, and He deems to withhold His fire, thankfully. His anger against me is spent already on Christ. But on His enemies? If you don't kneel to God as your King, and claim Jesus as the sacrifice in your place, God's anger still burns against you. Claim Jesus as your sacrifice.