by Mike Ratliff
Bvt Nadab and Abihu, the sonnes of Aaron, tooke either of them his censor, and put fire therein, and put incense thereupon, and offred strange fire before the Lorde, which hee had not commaunded them. Therefore a fire went out from the Lord, & deuoured them: so they dyed before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2 Geneva)
But yee are a chosen generation, a royall Priesthoode, an holy nation, a people set at libertie, that yee shoulde shewe foorth the vertues of him that hath called you out of darkenesse into his marueilous light, Which in time past were not a people, yet are nowe the people of God: which in time past were not vnder mercie, but nowe haue obteined mercie. (1 Peter 2:9-10 Geneva)
Until 2004 I could not stand to read some Old Testament books such as Leviticus and Job. I would read them only to find my mind wandering off in all directions. It was frustrating. However, something wonderful happened after God changed me over a period of about 8 months from January through August. I don’t know exactly what He did, but I interpret it as a severe and necessary heart transplant. He may have simply circumcised my heart. I don’t know. However, I do know that until that time I was very religious, but very self-focused. I loved the Lord, and served in many capacities in church. I was a Bible teacher. However, the rest of the time was all mine. I was fleshly. I was focused on my own desires. However, I was very frustrated with my lack of self-control. I desperately wanted victory over these things.
Over that 8 month period God drew me closer to Him. About halfway through the summer I quit watching TV. I quit listening to secular music. Instead of those things, I worshiped, I prayed, I studied my Bible. I began to write about what God was doing in my heart. By the end of August I realized that my value system had been completely altered. I valued nothing but God Himself. I simply wanted to please Him. I cared nothing about material things. My focus was on God and eternity. My brethren, it was at this time that God brought me back to reality by taking me deeper into sanctification. Cleansing is by fire and I find that I am continually in it. Until the day God takes me home I am sure I will be going through this cleansing.
It was through this great work of God in my heart that I came to understand what Peter was talking about in his second epistle in which he described Christians as a royal Priesthood. Since the elect is this Priesthood then each one of us who are in Christ are priests in Him. It would be safe to say that we are witnessing in our day the culmination of a period in which this truth has become distorted within the visible Church. The necessity of personal holiness for each believer has been neglected and discounted by antinomians whose cry is “Free Grace!” On the other hand, legalistic Christians have made the acts of obedience to God’s commands into idols unto themselves. My brethren, both of these extremes are Strange Fire unto the Lord.
The Bible clearly teaches us that every believer in Jesus Christ is a priest and has a ministry. The whole purpose of existence of Christians is to fulfill their priesthood. Examples of periods in History when this truth was recovered would be the Protestant Reformation, the era of the Puritans, and the First and Second Great Awakenings. I am sure there have been others, but the Church has a tendency to lose sight of this then over a period of time find it again. When it is recovered it always has the fantastic power to change a whole civilization. When God’s people take their priesthood seriously, no matter in what nation, it has always resulted in a tremendous awakening.
As a result of God’s people becoming dedicated to personal holiness their role as salt and light in their culture becomes compounded beyond all understanding with the resultant reforms which benefit all citizens. Again, we are in a time in which the Church has let the truth of the priesthood of believers slip through its fingers. As a result, it has little impact as salt and light.
In the book of Leviticus we find that God gives us what it means to be a priest, to be a member of the royal priesthood. (1 Peter 2:9) God has given this world this priesthood through which He intends to reach it. In Chapter 9 we read where the Tabernacle along with the ways and means of the priesthood were completed as the Lord commanded. As a result, the presence of God was manifest as a remarkable shining forth of His glory. Then Aaron, picturing Jesus Christ as the great hight priest is joined by his sons in the priesthood. Aaron pictures Christ while his sons picture all believers in relationship with Him.
They had done all that God had commanded and fulfilled their priesthood. Then the glory of the Lord broke out in their midst. The glory of the Lord is the character of Jesus Christ in His incarnation, which is present in the believer’s daily lives. Chapter 9 of Leviticus concludes with The Shekinah glory appearing in the midst of the people of Israel. It consumed the rest of the sacrifice in fire. The Israelites were awed and amazed. They fell on their faces crying out in triumph. Sadly, on the very same day, we find a scene of tragedy as a sudden and shocking manifestation of judgement occurs. We find this account in Leviticus 10.
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. (Leviticus 10:1-2 ESV)
This was swift judgement in which these two priests are destroyed as they ministered. Why did God do this? These men simply put glowing coals in their censors, put incense upon them then went into the presence of the Lord. What a sad and sobering sight this must have been as Aaron watched God kill his sons with fire. What was so wrong with what these men did? The passage tells us that the incense was unauthorized. The authorized incense was frankincense, which God had specified. The unauthorized incense could have been any other sweet smelling substance. The problem was that it was not what God had authorized to be proper worship of Him.
Other instances of God judging like this are found in the Old Testament. For instance, Moses’ sister, Miriam, criticized Moses and God judged her with leprosy. During the time of David ( 2 Samuel 6:3-8 ) Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant to keep it from falling off an oxcart. In the New Testament we have the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:9-11) who lied about the amount of money they had received from the sale of some property. They were judged for pretending to have more devotion to Christ and the Church than they really had.
Some may recoil as they read of these things from God’s Word. Isn’t God Love? Why would He judge these people like this? What we must do is dig into the truth from the Bible instead of making assumptions. From this will to show us how we are to live as priests to our Lord. Let’s start with the instructions God had given to Moses, Aaron and his sons.
And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. (Exodus 30:7-9 ESV)
This was not secret. Nadab and Abihu knew that God had commanded that no unauthorized incense would be allowed to be burned as an offering before Him. However, these men did this very thing in violation of the direct command of God. They did something against which God had forewarned them. We must never forget that our Lord Jesus tells us, quoting Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” God understands our hearts. He is merciful to those who try to obey Him, but are ignorant of what is right and what is not. God does not discourage them. Instead, they are encouraged as He is patient, long suffering, tender, compassionate, and understanding. However, willful presumption on the part of His priests is a very different matter.
Willful presumption in Christians is expressed as taking God’s mercy and grace for granted. Those doing this give no weight to God’s words, but insist on their own way. God judged these men because what they were doing distorted God’s revelation of Himself. This revelation was God’s act of teaching His people what kind of God He is. However, Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire to God in disobedience and in this they were teaching wrong concepts about God. This brought His swift judgement.
Incense in Sacred Scripture is always a picture of prayer. When authorized incense was burned before God as worship in the priests’ censors, the clouds of smoke arose before the sanctuary. This was a picture to the people of how the prayers and thanksgiving of our hearts ascend before God. Incense pictures the prayer and commitment arising from our obedient and thankful hearts. The frankincense pictures the believers thankful heart for both blessings and the hardships and difficulties which are the fiery trials through which we all must pass.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13 ESV)
God is showing us through the incense that our prayers and thanksgiving is a sweet, fragrant odor, a delight to Him. When He sees the heart of a faithful priest that is filled this way, especially in the midst of trials, a heart that has learned to rejoice in the fire and sees the tests and trials as opportunity to manifest His very character, then His heart is delighted. This is why the prescribed ritual of offering frankincense each evening and morning was so important and why God’s judgment was so severe.
Strange fire would be, therefore, a form of prayer that is based on a false view of God and His ways. The incense used that was not authorized symbolized prayer that is based on God existing only for our happiness and to make us feel good. Those with this view of God come to Him to have their felt needs met. This philosophy says that whatever makes us temporarily happy is from God. This is hedonism. It sees anything which makes one happy as the reason for life. Anything which produces any sort of temporary, passing pleasure must be right. Why? Isn’t that why God exists? We know that this is a lie about God, don’t we? Our Lord gave us a graphic picture of what it means to offer strange fire before the Lord.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)
The prayer of the Pharisee is the offering of strange fire before the Lord because it is reckoned upon his own self-righteousness and forgets that life is given to us as a gift. He committed the sin of ingratitude in seeing his life as a blessing to God, that God is lucky to have one such as him. However, the prayer of the publican, the tax collector, was the model for us in approaching God in gratitude for the gift of life in total recognition of our unworthiness to even hold our heads up in our Lord’s presence. This is the offering of authorized incense before the Lord.
We must remember in our trials and tests that our Lord has mercy on the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. God gives grace to the humble, but shuns the proud. Are you guilty of offering strange fire unto the Lord? Are you being resentful about your fiery trials or are you seeing them as the opportunity to suffer shame for His name? We offer strange fire unto God when we worship for our own sakes and pray as if God is letting us down if He doesn’t give us only ease and comfort. To those of you who are focused on the here and now as where your fulfillment is I pray that you will draw near unto God in prayer and repentance. He will draw near unto you. It is time to get your eyes off of self onto your Lord and eternity. It is time to take on the mantle of priest because all in Christ are of the Royal Priesthood. Lastly, never forget that the Holy Spirit does guide us and lead us into the Lord’s will. That will is for our personal holiness in our obedience to Him as His priests.