What is strange fire unto the Lord?

by Mike Ratliff

1 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. Leviticus 10:1-2 (NASB) 

9 But you are A chosen race, A royal priesthood, A holy nation, A people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10 (NASB) 

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 or how He did it, but 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 I was totally self-focused. I was fleshly. I was focused on my own desires. However, at the same time, 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 remain in 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. What we are witnessing in our day is 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 and the era of the Puritans. 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 and immorality seems to rule and reign all around us.

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.

1 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. Leviticus 10:1-2 (NASB) 

This was swift judgment 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.

7 Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it; he shall burn it every morning when he trims the lamps. 8 When Aaron trims the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense. There shall be perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. Exodus 30:7-9 (NASB) 

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.

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 1 Peter 4:12-13 (NASB) 

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.

9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14 (NASB) 

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.

On Tuesday this week I took my wife into a local hospital for some inpatient surgery on her neck. She was having a lot of pain in her arms and wrists. A couple of her disks in her neck had become compressed or deteriorated. In any case, the procedure was to do a fusion and insert a titanium plate in there. I am not a doctor and I don’t know the exact name of the procedure. We arrived Tuesday morning. They rolled my wife away, and my daughter and I went into the waiting area. A little while later they called and told us to drive over to the other side of the building, enter another door and go to a certain room in a certain corridor which would be my wife’s room when she came out of “observation.” We did that. A little while later they rolled my wife in on one of those hospital beds and she looked like death. She was pale. She did not look good. In any case, when she came to and the pain meds started wearing off she was in a very large amount of pain, which seemed to surprise some of the doctors, but not the nurses. They dealt with it all day. I spent the night with her in the room and she suffered all night long. I prayed for her continually.  I posted a prayer request on FB, which went all around the world.  We had people in our church praying for her.  On Wednesday she was still in a great deal of pain and was nauseated all day.  She was supposed to be discharged that afternoon, but it was obvious that that wasn’t going to happen. That evening one our elders from our church and his wife stopped by and prayed for Ina and her healing.  What a blessing! About an hour later one of our pastors at our church called me and asked if he could pray with me for her and of course he did. The prayers continued all around the world as well. My daughter spent the night with her and I went home so I could get some rest. I got there very early this morning and my wife looked very much like the woman I dropped off at the hospital on Tuesday.  What a difference! They discharged her right around noon today and I brought her home.  Those prayers offered up to God for her healing were not strange fire, just the opposite.

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.

Soli Deo Gloria!

7 thoughts on “What is strange fire unto the Lord?

  1. Sometimes I ponder God’s timing of things. In your examples from both old and new testaments, God’s judgement was immediate. With all the false teachers in the world today I’d think that we would see them dropping like flies considering what 2 Peter 2:1 tells us.

    Any thoughts on this Mike?

    And I praise our Lord for His caring hand on your wife.

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  2. The reason we aren’t judged when we sin is that our sins are already judged. At the cross all the sins of those who belong the Lord were paid for as they were imputed to Him. ALL SINS, past, present, and future. Now we operate as believers according to 1 John 9 to stay in fellowship with our Lord and with each other. Without that covering of Christ’s blood we could not come boldly to the throne of grace for instance. I hope that helps.

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  3. I guess my question was why God doesn’t stop the false teachers today like He says in 2 Peter 2:1. Does not this passage indicate physical destruction of the false teacher as God’s severe chastening?

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  4. Well, in a sense they are to those of us who have discernment. Within the visible church we have the True Church and then there is the false church. Those false techers are in the false church and God gives those of us who know Him the discernment to see that they are false and we expose them. On the other side, they are judged and they grow harder and harder towards the truth in their judgment and farther and farther away from the truth down that slipper slope into outright apostasy. I have had many of the “liberal” persuasian fight me on this and say the real church is not divided like that and the real church is huge and covers the whole earth and those of us who say the gate is narrow and hard to find while the true walk of a Christian is also narrow and striaght are nothing but a bunch a pharisees. These are also have nothing wrong with claiming that good Muslims, Buddists, or whatever are also “christians.” These are all being judged by God to fall further and further into the darkness of rejecting His truth as absolute… I hope I am making sense… I see those people as being judged and fallen into the judgment of unbeleif. How terrible!

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  5. Excellent teaching on this topic, Mike. Excellent. I’ve come to see more in the biblical concept of the priesthood of believers than the phrase in the hands of the SBC has ever meant. David HJ Gay’s book on that topic is wonderful.

    Strange fire – great insight on that!

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  6. Thanks Mike.

    The entrance is indeed narrow and the path is also narrow. Your explanation is clear. God in His wrath is withdrawing from these false teachers and letting their hearts harden. Sad indeed for these teachers and those that follow them.

    But it never ceases to amaze me how blind people are to the clear truth of the Word as they follow after obvious false teachings. I pray the Lord my eyes remain always on Him.

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