If I had a dollar for every time those who promote patternism have resurrected Nadab and Abihu to bear witness to the deadly consequences of "innovations" in worship, I could have retired years ago. "Remember Nadab and Abihu!" has been the mantra of rigid religiosity for generations. Those who oppose eating a meal in the church building will quickly cry out, "Remember Nadab and Abihu!" If the teens clap during a song in the "worship assembly" they will need to be reminded of two sons of Aaron "on fire for the Lord." If we support an orphan out of the "treasury," or use more than one cup in the Lord's Supper, or employ four part harmony in our singing, or any one of a thousand other "insidious innovations," we are quickly warned that we tread the same path as Abihu and his brother Nadab (a name meaning "liberal" in Hebrew; a fact some have virtually taken as a "sign from God" in defense of conservatism over liberalism).
There is no question that these two sons of Aaron committed "sin unto death." For our God to punish them as He did (they even died without offspring -- Numbers 3:4; 1 Chronicles 24:2) indicates extreme displeasure on His part with regard to their attitudes and actions. Something was greatly amiss in the lives of Nadab and Abihu. But, what was it? Was it their use of a "worship innovation," as we often hear from those who so frequently appeal to their example? Did God incinerate them simply because they got the wrong fire, or because they got some elusive "order of worship" wrong, or because they violated some so-called Law of Silence? Or, was there something far greater, more evil, lurking in the hearts and lives of these two men? Before one presumes to appeal to Nadab and Abihu as an example, it would behoove one to first determine the exact nature of their fatal error. That we shall attempt to accomplish in this article.
Before one can truly come to appreciate the deadly sin of these two men, one needs to know something of their blessings and privileges. A study of Scripture clearly reveals these were two truly favored persons. They were, without question, the least likely of the sons of Israel one would expect to be executed so suddenly by their God. On the surface, all seemed so right and so bright for these two.
Nadab and Abihu were the sons of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel, and thus the nephews of Moses. As such, they were the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We can confidently declare, therefore, these men were of "good stock," from a fine, upstanding lineage, and had the blessing of godly examples of great men and women in their lives. This should have had a tremendous impact upon them for good.
They also had an exalted status among the people. Exodus 24:11 lists them as being among the "nobles of the sons of Israel." In Scripture, their names even appear before that of the Elders of Israel. Some have speculated one of them may well have been slated to be next in line for the High Priesthood after their father Aaron completed his service. They were being groomed for the highest positions of service unto God and His people at that time. Not something to be taken lightly.
In Exodus 24:1 we see God asking for them by name to come and commune with Him on Mt. Sinai. These two men were allowed to worship in the very presence of God Almighty! What a blessing! They ate and drank before Him, and they "saw the God of Israel" (Exodus 24:10). Nadab and Abihu beheld their God, and they were allowed to live!
Few people in the history of mankind can lay claim to such blessings! They were privileged and exalted above other men in many respects. Certainly we would expect such men to be holy, devout, and committed completely to their God. They were regarded highly by deity, thus we would naturally assume they would regard deity just as highly.
Their Fatal Failings
In light of the above, the events of Leviticus 10 come as quite a shock! How could God do this to these two brothers upon whom He had previously bestowed such enormous blessings? Further, how could two men who had been so richly blessed by their God sin so horribly as to cause Him to strike them dead? Just what was their fatal error? Did God overreact, as some claim? At first reading, many assume their sin to have been little more than a minor infraction; hardly worthy of an instant, fiery death.
There has been tremendous debate and speculation through the centuries as to the exact nature of their sin. My personal conviction, after much study of this account, is that there is far more involved than a single, small sin ... what some might term "a little sin." Their punishment, in my studied opinion, was for several highly significant affronts to deity. Thus, their fatal failing was multi-faceted. "The sin of Nadab and Abihu was of a complicated nature, and involved and consisted of several transgressions" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 371).
#1 --- Unauthorized Entry
There is evidence to suggest these two sons of Aaron entered, or attempted to enter, the Holy of Holies to offer their incense unto God. This was an action specifically forbidden by God. The Lord had made it abundantly clear that only certain persons could come into the Holy of Holies, and they could only do so at clearly specified times for clearly specified purposes. Nadab and Abihu would have been well aware of these provisions and restrictions. That they violated these direct commands of God is seen by strong implication in the following passage:
This passage leaves little doubt in the minds of most scholars that one aspect of the sin of these two brothers was that they dared to approach the presence of the Lord God uninvited and unauthorized. They presumed for themselves the authority to pass through the veil and into the most holy place itself before the ark of the covenant. This violated specific commands from the Lord. Nadab and Abihu thus rejected God's specified will with regard to who could enter, when they could enter, and for what purpose they could enter. Perhaps, some speculate, they believed themselves to be on such a familiar standing with their God that they could presume to come before Him whenever they pleased. In so doing, however, they elevated themselves above the position of their earthly father (the High Priest of Israel) and above the precepts of their heavenly Father (the God of Israel). They thus usurped the authority of both. This God would not tolerate!
#2 --- Lack of Reverence
The attitude underlying the above action was a lack of reverence. Nadab and Abihu failed to display reverence for their God and His sanctuary. "You shall revere My sanctuary; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:30). We are informed that "reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). A lack of reverence for Him and for that which He has declared holy, however, can prove fatal, as Nadab and Abihu tragically learned. This is clearly seen in the following passage where Moses is explaining to his brother Aaron how he perceives the tragic event which has just occurred:
Aaron's two sons had not shown proper reverence for the Lord God. This was something God would not tolerate, especially from individuals who had been so greatly blessed and who were in a position to influence so many of the people of Israel. Leaders are to be examples to those they lead, and, as such, must expect stricter judgment when they willfully shirk their responsibility. The lives of their people, for which they are accountable, are at stake. The apostle Peter informs shepherds of God's flock that they must "prove to be examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3). They must lead the way in holiness and faithfulness and in attitudes of reverence for the Lord. This, then, was a major failing of Nadab and Abihu.
#3 --- Offered Strange Fire
Leviticus 10:1 informs us that Nadab and Abihu "offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." It is this particular transgression that has traditionally been declared to constitute the fatal error of these two men. They "offered strange fire." However, as we have already seen, this was only part of their sin before God; merely a visible symptom of a deadlier disease spreading within their hearts and minds. One reason this incident is appealed to so frequently, however, is that the patternists perceive in the above statement an allusion to their cherished "Law of Silence." Nadab and Abihu had done something "in worship" that was "not commanded." In other words, according to the patternists, God was silent about that which they sought to offer up before Him. Thus, it is reasoned, their "worship innovation" violated God's "Law of Silence." They did what was not commanded. This, however, is "a figure of speech frequently used in Hebrew, where the negative form is used for the emphatic affirmative. This phrase is better rendered, 'which He had strongly forbidden them'" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 1, p. 371).
Countless times I have seen such men appeal to this story as proof positive of the validity of the so-called "Law of Silence." This is fallacious reasoning, however. God was not even remotely silent about this matter. Indeed, this is not a case of violating silence at all, but of disregarding divine specificity. Had God truly been "silent" on the issue of what He expected in this area of worship, He would have said NOTHING AT ALL. As it was, He was very specific in His commands. He conveyed to His priests and people EXACTLY what He wanted. If they then chose to do something different which He had not commanded, making a substitution, this was not a violation of His "silence," it was a rejection of His "specificity." HUGE difference!
What exactly was this "strange fire" that Nadab and Abihu offered up to God? Simply stated, it was fire (or, more accurately, burning coals) not taken from the brazen altar. Thus, the "strange fire" was burning coals taken from a source other than the one specified by God. What was the source specified? Notice the following:
Nadab and Abihu, in a flagrant act of irreverence, presented an offering before God that only the High Priest was allowed to make, in a location where they were clearly forbidden to be, using coals of fire taken from a source other than the one clearly commanded by the Lord God. Saxe & Jensen (Studies In Leviticus) cite this as "no light offense," but rather constituting "flagrant disobedience and presumption." Whether they thought one source of fire was as good as another, or whether they just didn't care, the reality is that these two brothers were in direct violation of a specific command of God. He had specified the source of the coals of fire; they had chosen another. That is NOT a transgression of silence, it is a transgression of specificity. Again, God would not tolerate such visible and blatant disobedience, especially not from a pair of men as influential as Nadab and Abihu. It would set a precedent before the people that could not be allowed.
#4 --- Intoxication
The question that cries out for a rational response here is --- WHY?! Nadab and Abihu knew better! These were not novices! So, why did they commit such flagrant transgression? They were not ignorant of God's will. They knew who could and could not enter the presence of the Lord, and when, and for what purpose. They knew what source was specified for the coals of fire for the offering. This was all common knowledge to them. Why, then, such a horrendous display of irreverence and contempt by two men so richly blessed and privileged by their God?
It is my firm conviction, based on my study of the context of the account, that the answer lies in the fact that their senses had become dulled and their judgment impaired by excessive consumption of alcohol. Simply stated --- They were drunk!
Immediately after the bodies of Nadab and Abihu had been dragged outside the camp, the Lord God made this statement to Aaron, the father of these two men: "Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die --- it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations --- so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean" (Leviticus 10:9-10). There is simply no question, in light of the context, that the Lord is here issuing a dire warning to Aaron and his other sons, with the sins of Nadab and Abihu freshly in mind, that such behavior and irreverence will not be tolerated.
Nadab and Abihu had failed to distinguish between that which was holy and that which was profane, between the clean and the unclean. They certainly knew the difference, but on this occasion failed to make the distinction. Why? They were intoxicated; their senses were dulled and their judgment impaired; the lines of distinction between holy and profane became blurred .... and it cost them their lives. The High Priest was commanded by God to take steps to assure that such a thing never happened again among those men providing spiritual leadership to His people. When performing their service to God and His people, they were to abstain from strong drink so that their judgment might not be impaired.
We have a tendency to read the account of Nadab and Abihu with a sense of either disbelief or righteous indignation. How could two such privileged men become so careless as to forfeit their very lives? However, before we rush too quickly to judgment, before we become too self-righteous in our condemnation, perhaps we should pause for a moment of self examination! We, like they, are blessed by our God beyond measure. We, like they, are priests of God most high (Revelation 1:6). To each of us is given a sacred trust: we serve before our God in matters of eternal import.
How are we presenting ourselves before our God? Have we set aside what He prescribes in order to elevate our own traditional preferences? If so, we invalidate His Word (Matthew 15:6). Are our spiritual senses dulled, and our judgments impaired, by the wine of worldliness? Have we consorted with the Great Harlot and "drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality" (Revelation 18:3), thus failing to distinguish between the holy and the profane? Are we walking about in a spiritual stupor, unable to discern God's true will for our lives, both individually and as the universal One Body? Yes, Nadab and Abihu committed sin unto death. Let us determine not to do the same!
From a Reader in Texas:
Thanks, Al. Another great article. Even with my Christian heritage, I have never had much of a grasp on Revelation or its meanings, and seldom have I heard teachers expound on the teachings in that book (I think because there are very few individuals who truly understand the symbolism). Since I did not understand the symbolism, I usually disregarded the book and the important messages contained therein. Thank you for explaining the passage in Rev. 6:9-11. I would appreciate learning more regarding the symbolism in Revelation.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Al, a short note of warning: I believe it is dangerous in the extreme to not take every word of Revelations literally. For instance, one should not take the locusts of Revelations as being anything other than real locusts, especially in light of the fact God has used actual locusts as plagues in the OT. Do many millions of Christians, including this writer, believe there is a literal Altar in Heaven, and that the living, conscious souls of the martyrs are under that Altar? Absolutely. So, while you have every right to your peculiar beliefs, if you think you can bring brothers and sisters together as they accept your heterodox beliefs, I think you are seriously misled.
From a Reader in Montana:
Brother Al, As I read your article Souls Under The Great Altar, I wanted to say HOORAAY ... not so much for the article, but for the explanation of the language used.
From a Reader in Texas:
Great article! As I am now studying the "end times," I can't help but wonder, "I definitely think, based on this article, that my brother Al is not a classical premillennialist, but is he amillennial in his view of interpreting John's Revelation, or is he perhaps more of a preterist in his understanding?" Bless you and your well-written biblical articles! Would it be possible to get a couple of your taped sermons?
From a Preacher in Texas:
I agree with some of your observations (and disagree with some) in your Reflections article entitled One Flock, Many Folds. We are too divided, and we divide too easily over many things that have nothing to do with true doctrinal issues. Most of our division is not over what God says, but what He does not say. However, these days, it seems, we divide over most anything.
We are heading back to Africa soon. There is so much work to do there. I suppose one of the reasons I like working there so much is that the African people are looking for the Truth ... and want the Truth. Thus, there is less division when they find the Truth. They are also very loving people and truly appreciate everything, even the little things.
From a Reader in Germany:
Please add me to your distribution for Reflections. Thanks.
From a Reader in Montreal, Canada:
I do not know you, but a brother from Nova Scotia, Canada made me aware of your work. Your writings (which I only very recently became aware of) have touched me, along with making a whole lot of sense.
From a Reader in New South Wales, Australia:
Dear Al, Please add me to your mailing list for Reflections. I came across your website more than a year ago. I've been spending a lot of time in studying the nature of the ekklesia and the development of the modern-day understanding of the local church, etc. During this journey full of new thoughts (new for me, anyway!), I've enjoyed following the thoughts of brothers like Ketcherside, Garrett, Burdette, etc. ... and, once again, found myself at your website. I want to thank you for challenging my thinking, and for ignoring the charge of heresy in what many view as iconoclastic teaching when you adhere to what you see in God's Word. You are a great example. Would you mind if I emailed you some questions I'd like your perspective on?
From a Minister/Elder in Missouri:
Keep the good Reflections articles coming. You have always made me think, even when I don't agree with your conclusions (I do, however, usually agree). Hang in there, brother!
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