Fire is fire, right? Apparently not when it comes to the fire in the temple of God. The story of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 might seem remote to us, but we have more in common with them than you might think. Like today’s Christians, God knew them by name, called them into His service, and made them witnesses to the powerful work of God in their time. They were priests in the temple of God just like we are in the temple that is our body (1 Peter 2:9, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). But they offered “strange fire” on the altar, and God struck them dead because of it. It’s a cautionary tale to us today to always do things God’s way.
“Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So, fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.’ So, Aaron held his peace.”Leviticus 10:1-3
The Story in a Nutshell
Aaron and his sons had an important role. So God had given them very specific instructions when it came to ministering before the Lord. They were to take burning coals from the altar to ignite the incense before bringing it inside the veil (Leviticus 16:12). But Nadab and Abihu didn’t listen to God’s instructions. Instead of using the fire that God had kindled and preserved for Himself, they had lit their own flames. They had offered “strange fire.” The Strong’s Concordance gives the definition of “strange” as “to turn aside, hence, to be a foreigner.” It was like they commited adultery.
In immediate judgement, God had sent his own fire to “devour them.” Their bodies were not consumed, though. Their cousins carried them out, and the people of Israel mourned for them. As for Aaron and his other two sons, Moses told them not to do so. They weren’t to uncover their heads, tear their clothes, or even to leave the temple. The anointing of God was still upon them, and they needed to stay right where they were, ministering to the Lord. Moses gave God’s two-fold reason for the whole incident. God must be regarded as Holy by those who come near. And, before all the other people, He must be glorified.
God Chose His Own Metaphor
“For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”Deuteronomy 4:24
To appreciate the story a little better, it might help to understand how closely God relates Himself with fire. For one thing, God appeared to Moses out of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Later when the people of Israel left Egypt, God led them by a pillar of fire by night and was the sole light in the wilderness for His people (Exodus 13:21). When the first tabernacle offering was made, God consumed it by fire (Leviticus 9:24). Likewise, when Solomon dedicated the first temple, God also sent fire from Heaven. It hit the offering just before the presence of God filled the temple (2 Chronicles 7:1). Finally, on Pentecost after a sound like a mighty wind, tongues of fire came to rest on the followers of Jesus who had gathered in one accord. They were then filled with the Holy Spirit of God (Acts 2:3).
God took the fire very seriously because it was representative of Him. To treat it disrespectfully was the equivalent of treating Him with contempt. It wasn’t something He could allow for those who came near to Him, and He made sure that all the people knew that. God’s respect and glory were paramount.
Why Did They Do It?
The Bible doesn’t give a motive for Nadab and Abihu’s behavior that day, but we might look at three possible reasons. As we do, let’s consider our own responsibility as those who, by the blood of Jesus, have access to the very presence of God.
Reason #1: Inattention/distraction
Leviticus 6:13: “A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out.”
Why didn’t the brothers use the fire from God? Could it be because they had been distracted and allowed the fire of God to go out? Maybe they needed a substitute and had thought that fire was fire, so it didn’t matter where it came from.
Think about our own walk with God. Have we maintained our relationship with Him? Do we live a life marked by Spirit-led Bible study, continuous prayer and hearing God’s voice, and fervent worship? Or are we just going through the motions in mere compliance to a religion or system? Or worse, have we replaced true worship with the truly profane? There are those who mix Christianity with mysticism and practices like contemplative prayer or so-called “Christian yoga” or “angel cards” God’s instruction is for us to worship “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). To do otherwise is to offer “strange fire.”
Reason #2: drunkenness/surfeiting
Leviticus 10:9: “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.”
Why didn’t the brothers keep the standard given by God? Could it be that they were incapacitated by wine? Some would see Leviticus 10:9, the new rule God instituted shortly after the incident, as evidence that this might have been the case.
While drunkenness may not be a problem for all Christians, every one of us must guard against being impaired by worldliness. Are we so consumed with the things of the world that we offer only “leftovers” to God? Have we bowed to society’s definitions of important concepts like love, tolerance/acceptance, and justice, or are we keeping a firmly biblical worldview? When we allow the world’s standards to color our priorities and values in relation to God, we are offering “strange fire.”
Reason #3: Pride
Exodus 24:9-10: “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity.”
Why weren’t the brothers afraid to do this thing before a Holy God? Could it be that they had gotten prideful? After all, the Jews were a chosen people. The brothers themselves were specifically called by God into service as His priests (Exodus 28:1), and they had stood in the very presence of God Himself on the mountain.
As Christians who have the Holy Spirit of God inside us, each one of us hears His voice. We have been called into a position, and maybe He has even used us mightily. Certainly, He has answered our prayers, shown Himself strong on our behalf, and has been with us and helped us when we needed Him. We have been privileged to have witnessed His glory again and again. But our past experiences with God can never be something to be prideful about. We can’t get sloppy because “God needs us.” And we certainly can’t start getting the idea that our way is an acceptable alternative to God’s way. Worshipping from any other place than humility is offering “strange fire” before the Lord.
The Lesson of “Strange Fire”
Let Nadab and Abihu’s sad story be a caution to us. God deserves our respect, and we must worship Him His way for His glory. We can’t get so distracted by life that we fail to worship in Spirit and in truth. We can’t allow the world to incapacitate our thinking, and we can’t allow pride to replace humility in worship. As Christians, we have been chosen and called by God into service for Him. We have a responsibility to both God and to those who are watching our lives. God will be respected. He will be glorified. He may not go around striking people dead these days, but there will be consequences just the same. God is still very much a consuming fire. We will either allow Him to burn away the impurities in our lives, or we will be the ones who are burned.
Want more good questions? Try Does God Really Mean What He Says in the Bible? Or, try Where Do You Labor in the Harvest of Souls? Please sign up to receive my blog in your email inbox. You can find that at the upper right of your screen (or at the bottom on a phone). Also, check out my YouTube Channel where I read the blogs out loud. I also have a playlist of hymns from my church.