If there’s one truth about God that the book of Exodus emphasizes, it’s that God is holy, which means He is set apart. He is distinct. He is different, transcendent, and incomparable in every good way. He’s incomparable in power, in wisdom, in knowledge, in presence, in righteousness, and in goodness. As Moses told Pharaoh in Exodus 9:14, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth’”. The plagues were for the purpose of demonstrating that He is holy, that there is no one, even among “the gods” who compares with Him. After the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea that God parted for them and they saw the dead bodies of the Egyptian soldiers washed up on the shoreline, they sang in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?”. We sing of His holiness in one of our songs, “You are beautiful beyond description, too marvelous for words, too wonderful for comprehension like nothing ever seen or heard, who can grasp Your infinite wisdom, who can fathom the depths of Your love”. That He transcends description and comprehension and He’s like nothing ever seen or heard, that’s His holiness. The events of Exodus demonstrate His holiness and different aspects of it: His holy power is like no other, His holy control of this world, His holy knowledge of all things (even things that are yet to be), His holy patience is like no other with the stubborn Israelites, His holy mercy when He accepts them back after they repent of breaking the covenant in worshipping the golden calf, and His holy hatred of sin. God had them build a tabernacle in which He would symbolically dwell in the inner room, and this place was to be their worship center. What God commanded in regard to this place shows His holy revulsion toward sin. God was symbolically behind veils and distanced from sinful people. It was a place of a lot of blood and gore. In order for people to be accepted by God, sinless life had to be taken, sinless blood had to be shed in their place. God cannot accept someone with sin not atoned for. Even the tabernacle itself and its furniture had to be atoned for once a year, because that stuff was touched by impure people. God is so repulsed by sin He can’t even have stuff that’s been associated with impurity near Him, so even the stuff had to be atoned for with blood. God is so holy. He is different. He is transcendent.
The next book in the Bible, the book of Leviticus, emphasizes that God must be treated as the holy being that He is and what treating Him as holy involves. It’s a book that had much to say to the Israelites about what they were to do and how they were to be because of who their God is. While we are not under the same Law today as those ancient Israelites (they were under the Law of Moses, we are under the Law of Christ, and it’s a different law), Christ still calls us to treat God as holy. In fact He taught us to pray first and foremost that people would do that. In the model prayer He taught us to pray first of all, “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name”. In other words, “Father, may people revere You as holy. May people treat You as holy”. And Leviticus has some timeless principles about what that involves, and we’re going to look at a couple of them.
The lesson from the ‘Nadab and Abihu’ story.
From the shocking story in chapter 10, we learn a principle about treating God as holy. Most of Leviticus is laws that God gave for the priests and the Israelite people. But chapters 8, 9, and 10 are a narrative, a story section, in the midst of a bunch of laws. Those 3 chapters cover an eight day period of time. Seven of those days are covered in chapter 8. They are the 7 days in which Moses’ brother Aaron and his 4 sons, Eleazar, Ithamar, Nadab, and Abihu, were ordained as priests to serve at God’s tabernacle. Chapters 9 thru 10 describe their first day on the job after they were ordained as priests. It started off as a great first day on the job. Chapter 9 describes how God had Moses gather the people of Israel near the tabernacle and commanded Aaron and his sons to offer their first sin offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings on the bronze altar in the courtyard on behalf of themselves and the people. They offer the sacrifices in the exact manner that God commanded. The animal parts were still smoldering on the altar, and it says (Leviticus 9:23) that “Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting” meaning they went into the tabernacle. It was perhaps to demonstrate that Aaron is now welcome by God in the tabernacle and perhaps for Moses to introduce Aaron to the sanctuary and the tasks that he would need to lead his sons in doing in there. And then it says Moses and Aaron came back outside and they blessed the people. Maybe something like, “The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you” (cf. Numbers 6:24-25). And then it says, “the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people”. There had been, for days, this cloud representing God’s presence above the tabernacle. But all of the sudden there was something glorious in addition, maybe some bright light that came forth from the cloud. And then from this glorious manifestation of God’s presence, fire came out and consumed what remained of the sacrifices that were smoldering on the altar. This fire just licked up the sacrifices. It was, I think, an expression from God that He approves and accepts these new priests and these offerings. And it says when the people saw it they shouted and fell on their faces. So this far, the first day of their priestly ministry had been an awesome day with this miracle confirming God’s approval.
But then it suddenly became a very sad day. Let’s read 10:1-3, “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. 2 And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.’” So Aaron, therefore, kept silent”.
Wow! As fire had just come out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the sacrifices on the altar to show His approval of what had been done up to that point, fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed these two priests to show His disapproval of what they were doing. Notice Moses’ interpretation of what Nadab and Abihu did in verse 3. They did not treat God as holy. How so? How did they not treat God as holy here? Weren’t they just trying to worship Him with this incense? What did they do wrong?
Well, let’s think together about this. Let’s say you go to Q-doba for lunch, and you know at Q-doba you tell the employee behind the counter exactly want you want, nachos or burrito or taco, and exactly how you want it made. And suppose you say “I’d like a burrito on a wheat tortilla. I’d like a big scoop of brown rice, half a scoop of pinto beans, a scoop of chicken. And a little queso, that’s enough, perfect. I’d like some cilantro, a little more, that’s good. Thank you”. Let’s say you’re telling him exactly what you want and he’s making it all according to your instructions, and then all of the sudden he decides, without your instructions, to also throw on a big scoop of guacamole and some fajita veggies. What would you think about that? Well, you’d probably be a little upset, wouldn’t you, especially if you don’t like guacamole and fajita veggies. But even if you were going to ask him to put guacamole and fajita veggies on it, you’d probably still be a little irked that he decided to put those on without your instructions, because he’s acting as though he had an equal right to decide what goes on your burrito that you’re buying.
In the context, if you go back to Exodus 25 and forward, God had been specifying exactly what He wanted with His tabernacle and the worship that goes on there. Exodus 25-31, you have 7 chapters of detailed instructions about how they were to construct this tabernacle and its furniture and the garments for the priests and exactly how the priests were to be ordained. Then Exodus 32-34 you have the whole golden calf rebellion incident in which they break their covenant with God and it looks like it’s all over for them, but then they’re repentant and Moses intercedes for them and God renews the covenant with them. So then since the covenant is back in place, chapters 35-40 details the carrying out of all of God’s instructions regarding the making of the tabernacle and its furniture and the garments of the priests. They do everything exactly as God commanded. And God confirms His approval of their work by filling the tabernacle with a glorious manifestation of His presence. Then in the book of Leviticus, the first 7 chapters are detailed instructions about how the different kinds of offerings that use the bronze altar are to be offered. There’s a whole chapter about how burnt offerings are to be offered, which animals can be offered as burnt offerings, where each kind of animal is to be killed exactly and what you do with the blood and the skin and the different pieces of the animal. Then there’s a whole chapter of detailed instructions about grain offerings, and a whole chapter of detailed instructions about peace offerings, and so forth. So God has been very specific about how this tabernacle and its courtyard are to be and what’s to go on here. This is, if you will, God’s “entree” and He’s been telling them exactly how he wants it to be. And then, all of the sudden, Nadab and Abihu decide that they’re going to throw “guacamole” on it. The only instructions that God had given yet, regarding the offering of incense, was back in Exodus 30:7-9, where God was telling Moses how the altar of incense was to be made, and then He said, “Aaron [the high priest] shall burn fragrant incense on it [the altar of incense]; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar [the recipe for the holy incense is given at the end of the chapter], or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it”. But you see, God had not yet given instructions about how incense was to be offered, where you get the coals from to burn it, how much incense do you use (cf. Leviticus 16:12; Numbers 16:46), is it okay for two priests to do it at the same time or just one at a time, and is it okay to do it just any time you want or only at designated times. There were still a lot of unknowns about what God wanted with the offering of incense that He hadn’t gotten to yet. But Nadab and Abihu didn’t wait for God’s instructions.
We’re not told why they did this. Did they want to be in the spotlight like Aaron and Moses were? Did they want a more central role in the day’s activities? Or did they have good motives? Did they want to worship God more after seeing the miracle He just performed, incinerating the sacrifices on the bronze altar? Were they just so wowed by that, that they wanted to do something else for God? Some people think maybe they were drunk, because later in the chapter God will tell Aaron, “You and your sons had better not drink before you come to serve at this tabernacle”. But it doesn’t say they were drunk. We can only speculate about why they did this.
But whatever the reason, they decided not to wait for God’s instructions and instead just do it their way. I think probably there were multiple things wrong with what they did here. I think it was the wrong time for this offering. And I think they got the coals to burn the incense from the wrong source. Later it would be clarified that the coals for offering incense were to be taken from the bronze altar. But I suspect they got the coals from one of the fires built for boiling the sacrificial meat or from some other source, because it says they “offered strange fire before the Lord”. And I imagine they intended on taking this burning incense into the holy place of the tabernacle to offer it on the altar of incense. And yet as they presumptuously approached the entrance of the tabernacle, God consumed them with fire before they went in.
God made an example of these priests. God wanted to teach people something here about how crucial it is that He be treated as holy, especially by the priests who were to be examples to the people. He taught something here about what treating Him as holy involves. I take from this the principle that treating God as holy means that when God has something to say on a matter, we don’t act as though we know best or as though we have an equal say and just do it our way, we hear what the Lord has to say about it and we do it His way.
God has something to say about every area of our lives, doesn’t He? He has something to say about our marriage relationships. He has something to say about how we raise our kids. He has a lot to say about our finances; how we view and use our money is one of the most addressed subjects in Jesus’ teachings. He has something to say about our work life and about our relationships with our Christian brothers and sisters and responsibilities toward them, and about our relationship with that person who wronged us. He has something to say about what to do with our aged parents. He has a lot to say about our sexual life, our language, our attitude, our anger, and etc. And He has every right tell us how every area of our lives is to be, because we are His. Just like that burrito the guy on the other side of the counter makes for you at Q-doba; you’re buying that burrito and it’s your burrito, and so it is your place to say how you want it to be exactly. We are God’s and we are doubly His if we’re Christians, because not only did He create us but He also bought us at a high price. I Peter 1:18, “you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver and gold… but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ”. So it is His right to tell us how every area of our lives is to be. If we won’t listen to what God has to say about certain areas, if we won’t listen to what God has to say about our language or about our business practices or whatever, and we’re just doing it our way, we are not treating God as holy; as though He knows best and He’s worthy and it’s His place to rule in our lives.
I studied with a Christian lady one time that was having marriage troubles. Not because her husband cheated on her or was beating her or anything like that, but just that he’d gotten fat and his hygiene was lacking and the way he chewed his food grossed her out and he was kind of lazy and unromantic and not the brightest crayon in the box, things like that. She just did not like him anymore. And she was considering divorcing him. I tried to share what God has to say about marriage and that it looks like God would want her to keep her vows and stick it out with Him, and even though he may not deserve it, love and respect him as well; that perhaps she may be used to touch his heart and bring him to obey the Lord in his life. Then shortly after I shared God’s word with her, she went and saw some counselors who told her that since she and her husband weren’t really in love anymore and weren’t happy together, it’d probably be better that she divorces him. And she decided to listen to those counselors over the word of God, as though God was just like another counselor or adviser among many others and His word equal with theirs. That’s not treating God as holy. The same lady also told my wife that on Friday nights she just plain likes to get drunk and go dancing, though she knows the Bible says “don’t get drunk” and she admitted she probably wouldn’t take Jesus along with her to go dancing the way that she dances, but she said, “God has so much grace and mercy and the blood of Jesus is so powerful that He’ll still accept me”. Well, He is a God of amazing grace, I mean He will forgive the worst of sins, even a whole lifetime of sinful rebellion; He is willing to erase all of that with the blood of Christ. But He is also a God that says, “By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy”. He has a condition. We must come to repentance and respect Him as holy if He’s going to let the blood of Christ cover all our sin. And treating Him as holy means being committed to hearing out His instructions and trying to do things His way in all those areas where God tells us the way to do it.
Now, here’s a second principle we learn from Leviticus.
Treating God as holy means being holy ourselves.
It’s repeated in different words many times throughout the book.
- 11:44, “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy… 45 For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy”. Remember what holy means? It means separate. It means different. Their God who brought them up from the land of Egypt was very different from the gods that the nations around them worshiped and served, very different in power and wisdom and His morals and His demands. And since He’s so different, in order to worship and serve Him, they were going to have to be very different from the nations around them.
- 18:1, “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. [In other words “You shall be holy. Be different. Stand out in the world”. And be different, be unlike them, how so?] 4 You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God”. God’s judgments and His statutes are very different from the judgments and statutes of other gods and from the thinking of the world. And so it will make you very different if you live according to His judgments and statutes.
- 18:24, “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things [meaning in the context things like incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality, and bestiality]; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled”. In other words, be different, be holy.
- 19:1, “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’“
- Then it’s repeated a few more times in Leviticus (20:7; 20:23; 20:26…).
The ancient world was not treating God as holy. They were not doing things God’s way. And so treating God as holy for them meant being holy, being different from the world.
And it means the same thing for us today. As God told those Israelites “You shall not do as they do in Egypt where you lived. And you shall not do as they do in Canaan where I am bringing you”, we shall not do as they do in the Flathead Valley, and we shall not do according to the norms of the people of the United States. I Peter 1:14-15, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY”. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it”. He was saying you have to be holy. You have to be different. You have to walk the path that most people are not walking. It’s a path marked out by God’s instructions; it’s a path of hearing His word and doing things His way.
The gods of the majority, people around us, are not like our God. Whether they worship and serve money or pleasure or power or recreation or a permissive indulgent god that they have made in the image they want who doesn’t really demand obedience, the true and living God is very different. He calls us to different priorities, to different treatment of other people, to different use of our money, to different use of our tongues, to different thinking about sex and marriage, to different standards of honesty and integrity. And so, if we’re going to worship and serve the one true and living God today, we’re going to have to be different.
Well, it can be scary to be different. The fellas at the office may sneer at you if you refuse to engage in the sort of unclean talk and joking that they do at the office, if you stand your ground that drunkenness and pornography and these things they’re into are not things you will participate in, if you won’t do as they do and be dishonest with a customer or slack off when the boss isn’t around, if they see you bow your head to give thanks before you eat in the break room and maybe reading a Bible sometime. They may talk about you, about how you’re a religious nutcase. They may call you names. They may not want you around. So it’s not easy to be different. We struggle with this.
So let’s end with a passage that gives us strength to be different, to treat God as holy in a world that does not. I Peter 3:13-15, “Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?”. In other words, I think he’s saying that generally speaking people will actually respect you if you’re zealous for what is good and obey God in your life. Generally people don’t want to harm a kind, honest, unselfish person… but not always. Verse 14, “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed”. He got that from Jesus who said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”. The creator of heaven and earth is smiling when He looks at you, and when your short little life here is over your reward in heaven is great. So Peter says, “DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts [meaning resolve in your heart that Christ is Lord and you’re going to do things His way in all areas of your life no matter what anybody else thinks about it], always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…” Because if you live a holy, different life that shows your faith, sometimes people are probably going to ask you, “Why are you so different? Why do you not take revenge on people? Why do you always have such a peace about you? Why are you so honest?”. So you’ll need to be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you. Being different, being holy, doing things God’s way, is likely going to create more opportunities for you to share the gospel and help save the souls of people around you.
– James Williams