The Disqualified Priest
A Sermon on Leviticus 10 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 10/11/98
For several weeks we have been studying the priesthood of all believers -- how God has ordained that every Christian has a priestly ministry. God calls each of us to glorify him in our lives so that we might show his character and his love to this hurting world in which we live. We do this, in part, through exercising our spiritual gifts, whatever those may be -- teaching, helps, prayer, giving, encouragement, and all the others. But we also do this by displaying the fruit of the Spirit, the godly character that results from our maturing in Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, goodness, self-control. We saw last week how a young girl, Amy Ezzo, did just that -- her father Gary came in yelling and screaming, completely unreasonable -- yet she responded with kindness and love. Amy served as a priest to her father, sacrificing her right to annoyance, choosing instead to display God's love.
We've noted that God is the one who chooses priests, not men; that their position before God is secure, as denoted by the tunic or coat of righteousness God gives them to wear. Priests are called to a ministry to men, as symbolized by the breastpiece, which was inlaid with twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. And priests are called to be practically holy, as symbolized by the turban and its gold plate, which was inscribed with these words: "Holy to the Lord." Last week, we saw how God prepared the priests for ministry by having Moses put the blood of the ordination sacrifice on their ears, thumbs, and big toes. The priests were to hear the word of God as those who are redeemed, to work always conscious of their need for dependence on God, and to walk, to live their lives dying to self and confident that they are righteous before God because of the blood shed for them.
All these symbols display the calling and qualifications of the priests; they all are rich in symbolism for us as priests. But we have also seen that some of those called to be priests were disqualified, as related in Leviticus 21, by depending on the flesh, being blind to the truths of God's word, or failing to grow in their love and knowledge of God.
This morning we come to Leviticus chapter 10. Moses has just followed God's instructions to ordain five men as priests, Aaron and his four sons. Two of those five now disqualify themselves from ministry -- and God responds dramatically. This morning, we will shed light on the reasons for God's response, then draw lessons for our own priestly ministry from this event.
Remember how chapter 9 ends. Aaron and his sons were isolated for seven days in the tabernacle, then they come out and present offerings for the people of Israel. We'll pick up the story in verse 22:
22 Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. 23 And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. 24 Then fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
God shows these people that he is pleased with the offering, he accepts the sacrifice. The fire of the Lord blazes forth and consumes the offering. God's character, his redemption, and his holiness are displayed by the priests careful adherence to God's instructions.
Let's keep reading in chapter 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.
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. 4 Moses called also to Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron's uncle Uzziel, and said to them, "Come forward, carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp." 5 So they came forward and carried them still in their tunics to the outside of the camp, as Moses had said.
The same fire that displayed God's acceptance of the offering now kills the very priests God had chosen. God showed that he was pleased with the previous offering; now he shows through the same type of action that these priests were violating his commands, they were not giving an accurate picture of his plan for a kingdom of priests.
How do you react to this story?
Are you uncomfortable? Do you wish this story wasn't in the Scriptures? Does it violate your sense of the character of God? Would you like to go on to chapter 11, forget about it, and read something else?
When the Scriptures challenge our view of God, we must respond by searching the rest of the Bible and thinking seriously about the issue. We must not ignore the challenge! God here is teaching us something important about himself and about ourselves. We must wrestle with the issue, praying for God's insight -- and God will honor that prayer.
We will consider why God acts this way -- but first, it is helpful to consider the image of the fire of God. What does the fire of the Lord signify? How is the image of God's fire used in Scripture?
The Fire of the God
The Scriptures use the image of fire to display God's holiness (see selected relevant Scriptures). Recall that "holiness" literally means "set apart," and connotes God's purity. This central attribute of God's character is displayed in two different ways: God's essential holiness, and God's active holiness.
God reveals himself as a blazing fire on several occasions, showing his essential holiness. In Exodus 3, Moses sees a bush burning with fire, but not consumed. He begins to approach, but God says, "Do not come near." The fire is hot, burning, unapproachable. Similarly, in Exodus 19 God descends on Mt Sinai in smoke and fire. He calls Moses to himself, but warns the Israelites not to approach the mountain. Once again, God is displayed as unapproachable -- except on his terms, by his invitation. Consider also Ezekiel's vision of God in the first chapter of his prophetic writings. Fire and lightning are all around, and God himself appears to be dressed in fire.
These and similar images throughout the Bible portray God as holy, set apart, pure. Just as we cannot walk into fire, we cannot approach God without his invitation. We are impure, He is pure; we would be destroyed if we attempted to draw near to his holy fire on our own. God is essentially holy.
These images portray the holiness of God's nature, his essence. But God's essential holiness shines forth and affects the world at times -- his holiness becomes active. Scripture uses fire to portray this activity, God's work in the world.
Fire is a particularly appropriate image, because of the way that it interacts with other substances. If the substance is inflammable, fire consumes it. But if the substance is a valuable mineral like gold, fire consumes the impurities that are mixed with the gold, thereby purifying the base metal.
Just so, God's fire serves the purpose of exhibiting the worth of all items it touches. God's fire consumes everything that is worthless, and purifies those things that have worth. God's fire, then, shows his acceptance or his displeasure, depending upon the impact of the fire on the object in question.
We've already considered a case of God's fire denoting acceptance -- when the holy flame bursts from the tabernacle and consumes the offering, at the end of Leviticus 9. Similar events occur several times in the Old Testament; note especially the dedication of Solomon's temple, when God once again sends his own fire to consume the initial sacrifice. Remember also Elijah's great contest with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. Elijah proposes a contest: altars are built to Baal and the Lord -- and the people will acknowledge the one who answers by fire as the true God. Elijah even pours buckets of water over his altar to ensure that it can not spontaneously light from some hidden spark. But after Elijah prays that God would turn the hearts of the people, fire descends from heaven and consumes Elijah's offering.
These are all cases of God showing his acceptance through the sending of fire. Fire is also used to show his purification his people or destruction of his enemies. In Malachi 3, for example, the prophet writes:
2 For He is like a refiner's fire. . . . 3 And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness.
God here is said to use fire to purify his priests so that they may, in turn, present acceptable offerings by fire to him. There is a close connection between God's acceptance of the offering and God's purification of the one presenting the offering.
But fire both purifies and consumes, and God's fire is no different. God is said to be "a consuming fire" in both the Old Testament and the New. In Numbers 11, for example, when the Israelites begin to grumble and complain about God's treatment, "fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp." In 2 Kings 1, the king sends a contingent of soldiers to order Elijah to come before him. Elijah twice calls down fire from heaven to destroy the soldiers. God's fire therefore is a symbol of his judgment.
But this consuming fire is not arbitrary. God's fire is a symbol of protection for His people. God displayed himself as a pillar of fire, remember, when Israel was caught between the Red Sea and the army of Egypt. These two ideas -- fire as protection and threat -- come together in a striking manner in Isaiah 30:
27 Behold, the name of the LORD comes from a remote place; Burning is His anger, and dense is His smoke; His lips are filled with indignation, And His tongue is like a consuming fire; 28 And His breath is like an overflowing torrent, Which reaches to the neck, To shake the nations back and forth in a sieve, And to put in the jaws of the peoples the bridle which leads to ruin. 29 You will have songs as in the night when you keep the festival; And gladness of heart as when one marches to the sound of the flute, To go to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel. 30 And the LORD will cause His voice of authority to be heard. And the descending of His arm to be seen in fierce anger, And in the flame of a consuming fire, In cloudburst, downpour, and hailstones.
Israel's enemies face this consuming, overwhelming fire; they are shaken back and forth. But God's people rejoice; they are protected from the ravaging of their enemies, and come to God's mountain, to God's presence with joyful music.
So fire in Scripture is used to portray God's holiness. He is set apart. He is pure. And he is purifying and protecting his people through fire, even as he consumes his adversaries.
The Judgment of God
Let us now return to Leviticus 10. Why did God choose this moment to send his fire in judgment? These priests were not God's adversaries; they were chosen specifically by him. Why did God take their lives?
First, note that there are similar cases elsewhere in the Bible: God kills Uzzah when he reaches out and touches the ark (2 Samuel 6). God kills Ananias and Sapphira when they lie about having given to the Lord all the proceeds from the sale of their land (Acts 5).
On the other hand, there are many other times in the Bible when priests violate the Law, or Christians lie, cheat or steal, and they are not killed immediately. God uses Nadab, Abihu, Uzzah, Ananias, and Sapphira as examples: through their deaths, he teaches that he is holy, that he is serious, that we can only approach God according to his instructions, with an honest and clear conscience before him. By giving these dramatic, earthly consequences to a few humans, God shows that there will be dramatic, eternal consequences for all of his enemies, for all who foolishly try to approach him by any means other than the shed blood of Jesus.
God gives us an interesting detail in Leviticus 10:5: Nadab and Abihu were taken outside the camp still dressed in their tunics. Recall that their tunics represent their righteous position before God. Through this detail, I believe God is saying that these two young men were not eternally condemned -- indeed, if all of us who have violated God's holiness were to be eternally condemned, most of us here this morning -- including myself -- would have no hope for eternal life. I believe we will join Nadab and Abihu at the marriage supper of the Lamb. But God punished them temporally to warn us about the eternal punishment that awaits those who spurn his offer of salvation.
Second, note that Nadab and Abihu violated God's holiness by approaching him in a manner different from what He had prescribed. God gave explicit instructions for the behavior of the priests. These two violated those instructions, knowingly. They tried to come before a holy God in their own way instead of God's way.
Remember that God ordained specific ways for the priests to approach him in order to project a particular image, to give a picture of the truths of his plan of redemption through Jesus Christ. When Nadab and Abihu approached in another way, they painted an incorrect picture, distorting God's image. They thus disqualified themselves from the priesthood -- and God ended their lives.
What exactly did Nadab and Abihu do wrong? We don't know exactly. Verse 1 simply states that they offered "strange fire" before the Lord. Some believe that they started the fire in the wrong place. While this is not clear, I believe their error was in using for incense something other than God's prescribed substance. In Exodus 30:34-38 God gives explicit instructions for the mixing of his incense; this incense was not to be made by anyone else for any other purpose. In Exodus 30:9, God proscribes the offering of any "strange incense" on his altar.
The proper incense has a very interesting quality: it has virtually no smell until it is burned. By itself it offers no pleasing fragrance, but when combined with fire, a rich, deep aroma fills the air.
What image is God projecting through this incense? Remember that incense represents our prayers (Psalm 141:2). I believe God is telling us here that it is only through the fire that we are purified; it is in the trials of life, when we become weak, that his power shows itself most fully.
You glorify God when you face trials in dependence on him and show by your reaction that you are different, that you have resurrection power, that the Holy Spirit lives in you. That's the central image that these two foolish priests distort.
If the incense has fragrance without the fire, the image could be interpreted as meaning that God wants us to have easy, happy lives. God wants to solve our problems, to give us even momentary pleasures. But God's central purpose is not to solve our problems. God's central purpose is to glorify himself through his people, to create for himself a people for his own dear possession, holy, blameless, spotless. And because of our innate sinfulness, because of our stubbornness, because of our hard hearts, we all need God's fire to purify us and cleanse us so that we can become more like Him.
James puts it this way:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1)
Pure joy! Consider trials to be pure joy! Not because we enjoy the trial itself, but because we know that the trials give us the opportunity to grow, they give us the opportunity to display God's character in our lives.
Do you realize that when you complain about your circumstances you are not only violating God's specific command -- you are calling God a liar? God shows us through his choice of incense that we must embrace the burning, we must embrace the trials, for it is in the burning that the fragrant aroma is given off!
Think one more time about Amy and Gary Ezzo. When her Dad began to yell, Amy could have felt, "Oh, why is my Dad doing this! Poor me! I don't deserve this rampage! God, why, oh, why do you allow my Dad to yell like this?" But she didn't. She turned the problem into an opportunity. His yelling provided her with a unique opportunity to show God's love to her father -- an opportunity she would never have had if he had not yelled at her.
You have that same opportunity. In every painful situation you face, in every clash of wills, in every unfair situation, in every discouragement, you can display God's character, showing how his life within you makes a difference -- or you can cop out. You can be the priest that God intends you to be, sacrificing your right to hit back, yielding your rights -- or you can act just like any unredeemed person would act.
Let the fire burn so that you may give off God's pleasing aroma! For God did not choose you to give you a happy, easy life. He loves you too much to give you that. He chose you as his priest to know his love and to show it to those around you. And you cannot discover the depth of his love until you come to the end of your own resources; you will never know the power of his upholding arm until you have no power to hold yourself upright.
Enduring to the End
Look again at Leviticus 10. In verses 6 and 7, God gives specific instructions to Aaron and his two remaining sons which seem harsh to us. But through these instructions, God encourages us to endure to the end.
6 Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, "Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, so that you may not die, and that He may not become wrathful against all the congregation. But your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, shall bewail the burning which the LORD has brought about. 7 You shall not even go out from the doorway of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the LORD'S anointing oil is upon you." So they did according to the word of Moses.
Imagine the pain of Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar! Aaron's sons have just died right before him. The very day that should have been Aaron's finest, the day he finally assumed the role as high priest, he witnesses the death of his two dear sons. And now he has to offer incense before the Lord -- the same act that, improperly done, led to the death of Nadab and Abihu!
We can understand Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar if at this point they are thinking, "If this is what it means to serve God, I want out!"
But Moses comes to them and says, in effect, "You're the only priests we've got -- the Lord's anointing oil is upon you. You are his chosen priests -- you have a sacred service. Don't quit. God uses you and equips you through the pain!"
Later in this chapter, God emphasizes once again their need to feed on the sacred bread, symbolizing their need to rest on God's power, God's sustenance, God's strength.
Are you, like Aaron and his sons, about ready to quit?
I am here to tell you this morning: The anointing oil is upon you. If you are a Christian, you have a sacred task. God has called you to be part of his army, his team. You have a vital role to play on that team. You may never see the results of your ministry. But God's word to you is, "Be faithful! Lean on me, feed on me, draw strength from me, for my power is made perfect in your weakness."
In this regard, consider Adoniram and Ann Judson. Adoniram was born in 1788; he learned to read at the ripe old age of 3, knew Latin and Greek at 10, and graduated as valedictorian from what became Brown University. He surely could have pursued a successful career in business or politics in the young Republic. But God called Adoniram to himself in a dramatic way, and he answered. With the help of the missionary society founded after the Haystack prayer meeting at Williams College, Adoniram investigated the prospects for overseas missionary service. He traveled to London to discuss the possibility of a joint venture with the London Missionary Society. While traveling, his ship was attacked and he was imprisoned. He could have quit then. But he didn't.
He came back to the US, met Ann, and was sure she was God's choice for his mate. He could have settled down to life in the US at that time. But he didn't.
Instead, God moved in Ann's heart to see her call to the mission field. She wrote:
"I have about come to the determination to give up all my comforts and enjoyments here, sacrifice my affection to relatives and friends, and go where God, in his providence, shall see fit to place me." She later wrote: "no female has, to my knowledge, ever left the shores of America to spend her life among the heathen; nor do I yet know, that I shall have a single female companion. But God is my witness, that I have not dared to decline the offer that has been made to me, though so many are ready to call it a 'wild and romantic undertaking.'"
The day after Adoniram and Ann married, they sailed for the mission field.
After their arrival in Burma, the Judsons labored for six years -- without having a single convert. They could have quit then. But they didn't.
Even after nine years, there were only eighteen converts. They could have become discouraged and quit then. But they didn't.
Their first child was stillborn; their second died in infancy. Adoniram and Ann could have quit then; but they didn't.
Burma and Britain fought each other in a war; since Adoniram spoke English he was suspected of working with the British, and was imprisoned for almost two years in horrible conditions. When he was finally freed, Ann and his third child were sick from the hardships they had endured; they both died a short while later. Adoniram could have quit then; but he didn't. He stayed 20 more years.
And look at the fruit of that labor! After a quarter of a century of work in Burma, Adoniram finished his translation of the entire Bible into Burmese -- and this translation is still used today, 160 years hence. Late in his Burmese ministry, God provided the occasion to witness to one member of the Karen tribe, fulfilling an ancient prophecy given to this tribe. This man accepted the Lord -- and 25 years later, there were 12,000 Christians among the Karen. Today, about 30% of the Karen are Christians -- the highest proportion of any people groups in the region.
Adoniram Judson stayed the course. Late in his life he saw some of the fruit of his ministry, but God reserved most of the impact until after his death.
Was this a great sacrifice for God? Adoniram Judson wouldn't have said so. He would have agreed with David Livingstone, who wrote:
People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paying back a small part of the great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind and a bright hope of glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege.
Livingstone also wrote:
Forbid that we should ever consider the holding of a commission from the King of Kings a sacrifice, so long as other men esteem the service of an earthly government as an honor. I am a missionary, heart and soul. God Himself had an only Son, and He was a missionary and a physician. A poor, poor imitation I am, or wish to be, but in this service I hope to live. In it I wish to die. I still prefer poverty and missions service to riches and ease. This is my choice.
Adoniram Judson provides a wonderful example of the importance of accepting the trials in our life as serving God's purposes, knowing that he will take those trials and use them for his glory. The danger in this example is that we might think this lesson only holds for those few who are called to foreign missions, or those called to full-time Christian service. But throughout our series on Leviticus we have emphasized that the priesthood is for all believers, that every one of us has a ministry -- and every one of us is called to embrace our trials, and to see God's character made complete in us. All of us need to be able to say with John Donne:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to'another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Or as Amy Carmichael puts it, less elegantly but just as profoundly:
If monotony tries me and I cannot stand drudgery,
if stupid people fret me and little ruffles set me on edge,
If I make much of the trifles of life,
then I know nothing of Calvary love.
Don't disqualify yourself as a priest. Let that fire of God burn all the impurities of your life. Accept the trials God sends into your life as opportunities to show God's character, and as opportunities to grow in your faith. Then endure to the end. That same fire that burns, that same fire that purifies, will protect you and, when necessary, avenge you. God has chosen you for the priesthood. What a calling! What a calling!
Let us pray:
Try us, Lord. Batter us, break us, knock us down. May we see you for what you are, and may you do to us whatever is necessary to get us to see you in your glory. May we, your priests, depend on your power to transform us into your likeness. May we serve you faithfully, enduring to the end, and may we then see you face to face in all your glory, together with all your saints. To Jesus be the glory forever and ever, Amen.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 10/11/98. I decided to preach a series of sermons on Leviticus after reading Ray Stedman's series, which is available at thePBC web site. I am heavily indebted to him both for his insights into Leviticus, and for all I learned about expository preaching from him. In particular, I follow Ray in interpreting the sin of Nadab and Abihu as offering improper incense. The Ann Judson and David Livingstone quotes come from some sermon notes of David Wallace.
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