Sermons and Articles | Ken Puls
God's Holiness in Worship
Series: Thoughts on Worship
Call to Worship — Psalm 99
Open your Bibles to Leviticus chapter 10. This morning I want to look in the book of Leviticus and consider one of the accounts recorded by Moses as it relates to worship. This is the account of two of Aaron's sons as they came into the tabernacle and offered strange fire before the LORD. It takes place soon after Aaron and his sons are consecrated at the beginning of the priestly ministry of the Old Testament.
For those of you who are taking notes, we will consider first the event, in 5 brief points:
Then I will conclude with 3 not-so brief applications.
But let's begin by reading the text together:
First consider the offense. What did Nadab and Abihu do?
1) The Offense (10:1)
Back in chapter 8 of Leviticus Aaron and his 4 sons were consecrated as priests to serve in the tabernacle. In an elaborate ceremony they were set apart unto the LORD. Verse 34 concludes—
Chapter 9 records the beginning of their ministry in the tabernacle. Aaron, as the high priest, begins to offer sacrifices, assisted by his sons. We see God displaying His power and His presence in their midst.
The blessing of God is on the people and on the priests as they worship God in obedience to all God had commanded them through Moses.
But then, as chapter 10 begins, we read of two of Aaron's sons, who seem to have their own ideas about how God should be worshipped. Verse 1 tells us they each took a censer and put fire on it. Now this in itself was not unusual. God instructed the priests to use the censer to carry burning coals of fire from the altar and go into the Holy Place to burn incense unto the LORD. Numbers 16:17 indicates that each priest has his own censer to serve before the LORD.
But here Aaron's sons use their censers to do something God had not commanded.
It says they offered profane fire before the LORD. Some translations say "strange" fire or "unauthorized" fire. In other words, they offered fire that did not belong, fire that was foreign to the worship of God, fire that God did not command as part of worship in the Old Testament covenant.
So what then was the result?
2) God's Judgment (10:2)
We see in verse 2, God's judgment was swift. Fire went out from the LORD and devoured them—and they died before the LORD. They brought strange fire into God's presence and the result was their immediate death.
Now, we have to ask the question here: Why was God's judgment so severe?
Try to imagine for a moment. Put yourself in Aaron's shoes. You have just gone through a wonderful time of worship inaugurating the priesthood. Your sons are serving by your side. God powerfully displays His presence accepting your first offerings upon the altar. But then the news comes. Hurry to the tabernacle. Nadab and Abihu are dead. They have been struck down. What must Aaron have been thinking? WHY? Why LORD? How could this be? After all, they are new at this. They are enthusiastic. They are young. They want to try their new censers. They still have a lot to learn. Why not give them a chance? Why not show mercy? Why death?
At first it may seem that this is too severe a judgment for these two young men—until we see what is at stake. And God gives an answer in the next verse. He explains in verse 3 what is at stake.
3) God's Purpose (10:3)
He gives 2 answers here:
To be holy is to be set apart and separate. Holiness is God's very nature. He is thrice holy—holy in a perfect degree.
God is separate from His creation, transcendent, above and beyond all. He is separate from sin—apart from all that is evil and corrupt—He is perfectly righteous, pure, just and good. And because He is holy, He is unapproachable by sinful people apart from the way of salvation in Christ that He Himself has provided.
He is holy in that: "Salvation is of the LORD"—and only of the LORD! He alone can provide a way to Himself, a way for sinful men and women and children to be forgiven, cleansed, reconciled and brought near. And He is holy in that He alone determines how His people are to approach Him and worship and serve Him.
God is holy and those who serve Him must regard Him as holy.
It was the privilege of the priests to teach the people to worship God in holiness that He might be glorified before all.
Holiness was to be the fabric of their worship:
God emphasized this, even in the clothing worn by the priests as the served Him. Aaron was to wear a robe as the high priest. It had a breastplate with precious stones that represented the tribes of Israel. It had golden bells around its hem so the priests would hear him as served and went into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement. And according to God's instructions in Exodus 28:36—"You shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD."
Those who would serve before the LORD were set apart and marked out as holiness to the LORD. Aaron's sons had disregarded God's Word and treated God with contempt before the people, and God's judgment was swift and severe.
So what was the aftermath? Look in verses 4-5.
4) The Aftermath (10:4-5)
Moses called for two sons of Uzziel to come and carry the bodies of Nadab and Abidu outside the camp. They were considered defiled, bearing the guilt of their sin, and so they were taken outside the camp. Moses follows this with a warning in verses 6-7.
5) Warnings and Admonitions (10:6-11)
Aaron and his two remaining sons were not to tear their clothes or uncover their heads—acts of mourning for the dead. They were set apart to serve the LORD in His presence in the tabernacle. The nation could mourn, but not the priests who were set apart as holy to the LORD. The priests had been cleansed and fit for service in the tabernacle. They were not even to leave the door of the tabernacle, lest they die.
Aaron held his peace and did according to God's Word, but he did not yet understand the seriousness of his sons' sin. He did not yet grasp the gravity of what it meant to serve as priest and show the people how to distinguish between what is holy and what is not holy.
And so God, in mercy, speaks to him in verses 8-11.
Some have suggested from these verses that Nadab and Abihu may have been drunk when went into the tabernacle. Whether or not that is true is not made clear in the text. But the two sons did sin in not regarding God and His worship as holy. They did not glorify God as God. They did not demonstrate by conduct or obedience that God and God alone is LORD and sovereign.
This is not the last time that God will bring judgment upon his priests in the Old Testament. A similar warning is given in Ezekiel 22:26—
The judgment is just as severe—
How then should we respond to this terrifying account? What is God showing us here in His Word? In conclusion I have three applications.
God's holiness has not changed. If we are to seek God and serve God, we still need to regard Him as holy and seek His holiness. We are commanded in Hebrews 12:14 "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" In the New Covenant, we are called to walk in holiness and serve as kings and priests before God.
Peter speaks of this in the book of 1 Peter:
We must pursue holiness and not regard the things of God as common or trivial. Hebrews 10:26-31 gives us a stern warning.
Our worship must be according to Scripture, not according to our own preferences or prescriptions.
Leviticus 10 is an example of worshipping God in vain. False worship is giving worship to anything or anyone other than the One true God. But vain worship is worshipping the one true God, but in a way that He has not commanded or prescribed.
What things are we to include or do when we come together for corporate worship? This is an important issue to discuss. Some churches in our day are incorporating everything from weightlifting exhibitions to puppet shows and calling it worship. How do we know what to include or exclude from times of corporate worship?
We are not free to include anything that is possible or even anything that we think might be useful. If we are to worship God in Spirit and in Truth, we must look to His Word for guidance and direction as to how we are to worship. We must know the Scriptures and submit to the Scriptures.
The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 provides a good explanation of this. The first chapter of the confession is about the Scriptures and it begins by saying we must look to God's Word to know how to be saved from sin and walk in a way pleasing to God. The first sentence of chapter 1 reads: "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience."
Chapter 22 speaks specifically on worship. It says:
This is what has been called the Regulative Principle of worship. It simply means that our worship is to be regulated by the Word of God. The Bible sets the boundaries and defines the way in which we are to seek God in worship. Worship is not something we invent in our imaginations. Worship is something God commands and regulates in His Word.
And so in our worship, when we come together, we engage in certain activities that are prescribed for our worship as New Covenant believers. We won't have time this morning to look at the Bible's instructions on these elements, but they include—
We don't do these simply because we think they are good ideas. We do them because God gives direction in His Word, by command or precedent, that this is how we are to worship Him in the New Covenant in Christ.
Though God has given us much freedom in how we organize these elements into a worship service, our freedom must always operate within the boundary of God's Word.
Now, why is this so important? Why is it so essential that we go to God's Word and stay within the boundaries of God's Word as we determine what we are to do together in times of gathered worship? Our God is a creative God—why not just through open the doors of imagination and creativity? Why not explore new and innovative ways of bringing Him glory?
Going back to our passage in Leviticus—why do we see such severity and strictness regarding the unauthorized fire brought before the Lord?
I have already given two answers:
Aaron and his sons were given a momentous task—a glorious privilege. They were given a ministry that was purposed and designed by God to prepare for and point toward the glorious work of Christ Jesus, the coming Savior and Messiah. All the festivals, all the sacrifices, all the furnishings and activities in the Tabernacle and Temple were types and shadows in God's progressive revelation of His provision of salvation through the person and work of His Son.
Turn for a minute to Leviticus 1. Look at how the book of Leviticus begins—
It begins immediately with instructions on the sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering and the sin and trespass offerings. Leviticus 1–6:7 gives specific instructions for the people as to how to bring their sacrifices. We read in—
These instructions for the people continue until the beginning of chapter 6.
Leviticus 6:8 through chapter 7 gives instructions directed to the priests concerning their responsibilities and provisions in the sacrificial system.
The daily sacrifices were a prominent part of the duty of the priests of the Old Testament. This prominence is underscored by the inclusion of this teaching on the sacrifices at the outset of Leviticus.
But what was so important about the sacrifices and the care needed to perform the sacrifices according to God's prescribed order? Why was it so important that the people be taught this proper use and understanding of the sacrifices?
Think for a moment about the New Testament. What stands out as the primary emphasis in the New Testament? What is at the center of Gospel message?
When you look to the New Testament, you see at the center of the Gospel, the cross of Christ.
Paul often emphasized this in his letters:
Paul focused on the cross. The cross stands at the center.
You can see the centrality of the cross in the Gospels as well. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote down the significant events in the life of Christ, often weeks or months go by in between passages in the early portions of the Gospels. But as the accounts draw closer to the crucifixion, you can see a noticeable slowing down in the description of the events: from months and weeks to days and finally to hours as Christ is on the cross.
Even the literary design of the Gospels undergirds the significance and centrality of the cross. So when you turn to Leviticus—to a foreshadow and foretaste of the Gospel that God revealed to His people in the Old Testament: What is its obvious emphasis?
You begin reading in these instructions for worship and find in
What is God saying to His people and the priesthood here in Leviticus?
He is driving home a truth that the priests and the Levites, as they ministered and taught, would not know anything among God's people except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
This was the sacred task of the priesthood, as they were consecrated and set apart to serve before God and the people. Now, granted, they could only teach with types and shadows. They did not have the full revelation of God that we have now in the New Testament. They did not enjoy the full light of the Gospel as it is now revealed in Christ. They were looking forward, through the sacrifices, to an event yet in the future. But that said: The emphasis is the same in both the Old and New Testaments.
The message of the cross is the power of God unto salvation; and that message of Christ and Him crucified was foreshadowed in the Old Testament as well as preached boldly and clearly in the New. Christ in the gospel is vividly at the center.
Worship in the Old Testament pointed toward and prepared for the coming of Christ. It was all about Him. The Old Testament festivals all pointed to Christ—Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of First Fruits, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles—all served to foreshadow, prepare for and point Old Testament Israel to Christ and what He would one day accomplish in His work of redemption—dying on the cross and rising again from the dead—and ascending to sit at His Father's right hand as our Mediator and Intercessor.
But in God's design in the Old Testament, all of worship—the Temple, the sacrifices, the festivals, the psalms—all of worship did not just point to Christ, it pointed ONLY to Christ. He is God's only provision for our salvation.
Why was this seemingly small act of Nadab and Abidu such a major sin? Why such severity in its judgment? Judgment was severe and swift, because their sin robbed Christ of glory.
There could be no strange fire added to the worship of God, because nothing can be added to Christ. We are not saved by our own efforts, by our own creativity, by what we think or bring or add. We are saved by Christ alone—His person, His death, His life, His all-sufficient work on our behalf. We must humbly and obediently bow and receive God's provision in Christ.
God's judgment was severe because God's way is narrow.
Jesus said in John 14:6 "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." In Acts 4:12 Peter declares: "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." We must worship and proclaim God in Christ alone. Aaron and his sons were weak. Nadab and Abihu failed to serve God in holiness. But we have Savior who is without sin serving as our Great High Priest.
The writer of Hebrews points us to Christ—
This morning as we close, I encourage you, look to Christ. He alone is the way of salvation. He alone has the words of life. Don't believe that you can fill your censers with your own ideas and ways to get to God. God has sent His own Son and we must flee to Him and stand in His righteousness alone, if we are to find hope and forgiveness and eternal life.
Let us pray.
©2007 Ken Puls