Leviticus 10:1-2 and Death in Ministry

nadabThe story of Nadab and Abihu and their death in ministry is probably my favorite section of Leviticus.  That may sound a bit morbid, but I have two reasons why I appreciate this story.  First, it is one of the only narrative portions of a book of the Bible that is almost exclusively what animals to offer for what sins and how.  This is a welcome diversion for me from where to sprinkle blood and how to rip apart birds.  Second, it is a warning to any and all people engaged in ministry:

Now Nadab and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, each took an incense pan. They put fire and incense on them and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them.  Then fire flew out from before the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.

This was on the very day that they were ordained, along with their father Aaron.  At the conclusion of the ordination, the presence of the Lord was manifest in a mighty way, consuming the offerings on the altar.  Then, immediately after this wonderful display of God’s power, Nadab and Abihu do this.

When I was in seminary almost twenty years ago, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas preached a sermon on this passage and warned everyone in the Chapel to be careful in ministry.  “People have died doing this,” he said.

A little further in the chapter there is an indication that these two priests may have been drunk when they took the unauthorized fire and went before God, but that does not explain the entire situation.  It would seem that, having seen the power of God as their father and uncle, Moses, walked out of the Tabernacle, Nadab and Abihu wanted to do something to show how connected to God they were as well.  After all, they were also priests who had just been ordained, so they ought to show the entire company of Israel that they, too, had a special position with respect to God among the people.

The problem with this action is that they not tried and show how important they were, which is pride, they took matters into their own hands and did not do “everything the Lord commanded through Moses,” as is the refrain throughout Leviticus.  Instead of obeying God, they decided to do something on their own, even though it was something that seemed to go along with what God was calling them to do.  As priests, they would offer incense before the Lord, but not now and not in the manner in which they went about doing it.

As Christians, all of us are priests–not just one special family.  And all of us are called to be holy.  Even if we do things that seem like it is something God would want us to do, if it is something of which he would not approve or it is in a manner in which he would not approve, it will not please him.  The ends do not justify the means with God.  Because we are called to be holy unto the Lord, our holiness comes from God and what he commands.  We cannot make up what our own holy lives ought to be.  The definition of holiness comes from God, and God alone.

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Leviticus 6:18 and Contagious Holiness

Altar2Throughout the Gospels there is a common underlying issue of sin and holiness, and the idea that sin is contagious.  People do not associate with lepers or the lame or blind because, as the conventional wisdom of the day held, they had these conditions because of sin, and that sin could be transferred to others by touch or association.  Jesus repeatedly defies this opinion by touching lepers and associating with known sinners.  Leviticus gives an insight into what Jesus does in these situations in 6:8 and again in 6:27.

Anything that touches these food gifts will become holy…Anything that touches the purification offering’s flesh will become holy.

Jesus, as God-in-the-flesh, and as the true sacrifice for the sin of the world, is holy.  Whenever anything touches him, it becomes holy.  Whenever anyone who is sinful touches Jesus, they become whole and participate in the holiness of God.  Even though the sacrificial system God gave at Sinai, humanity was being prepared for the coming of Christ and his holiness.

Today, whenever anyone touches Jesus Christ, they are made whole and participate in the holiness of God.  As we continue in our relationship with Jesus, we receive more and more of his holiness in our lives and are transformed from the inside out more fully into the image and likeness of Christ.

Thanks be to God that his holiness is contagious!

Exodus 32:1-4 and Striving for What God Gives Freely

GoldCalfThere are numerous times in life when we find ourselves striving for what God wants to freely give to us.  One of the best biblical examples of this is the story of the Golden Calf:

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

God had just given Moses the Covenant and the plans for how to make the Tabernacle so that his presence would be in the midst of Israel forever.  And here the people would rather try to make their own god than receive what God was going to freely do for them–dwell with them.  They schemed, planned, and worked giving personal resources (gold that was given to them by the Egyptians at God’s instigation no less) to do something that was going to happen for them by God’s initiative.

Many times within the life of the Church congregations do this same act.  They may not physically make idols and worship them, but they do take matters into their own hands to try and create something that may or may not be what God wants.  Rather than wait on the Lord and be guided by God into being and doing what God wants, they decide to take action and then ascribe that decision to the Lord.  It is the difference between praying for God’s leading and then taking action and making a decision and then praying for God to bless the decision.

Exodus 30:37-38 and Being Different From the World

AARON-WITH-INCENSE-ALTARThe Book of Exodus seems to slow down after it tells the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, as it then begins to detail how Israel will be different from the world.  There are regulations for how to build a unique sanctuary, how to decorate it, of what materials it should be made, how the priests should dress, how they should be ordained, how they should offer sacrifices–all of this to show Israel is different from the rest of the nations around them.  There are even regulations for specific formulas for anointing oil and incense to be used in worship.  Both are summed up with the same warning:

 When you make incense according to this formula, you shouldn’t make any of it for your own use. You should regard it as holy to the Lord.  Whoever makes incense with this same formula to enjoy its fragrance will be cut off from the people.

Everything in this section could be summarized with this statement.  The worship of the Lord is something that is not like the rest of the world.  God is holy, and the worship of God is holy in one of the truest senses of the word: set apart.  What we do in our devotion to the Lord is not like what we do in other aspects of our lives.

Aaron’s clothes, as high priest, are different from normal clothing because he is going before the Lord of heaven and earth, not the next door neighbor.  The oil and incense are unique because they are used in service of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, not lighting our own homes and for our own personal enjoyment.  The sense we are to get from all of this is that we are to intimately know that we are doing something out of the ordinary when we approach the Living God.  There ought to be a sense of something holy, something other, something grander and more intense than the rest of the world.

There is a strand within the Church today that takes the exact opposite approach to God and worship–everything should look and feel just like the rest of life.  The idea is that people need to feel welcome and familiar when approaching God through Church so they will be more likely to accept what is being presented.  There is some merit to this idea, but it does have some dangers to it.  After all, if approaching God is no different than approaching anyone else we know, then we may become complacent in our lives before God and (consciously or not) assume that all we do is acceptable in the sight of the Lord.

God is different and God is holy.  And God calls us to be the same as him–holy.  Perhaps there is a little more room for majesty in our worship, for the One we worship is Magnificent.

(As a complete side note: I know many people who consider things like using incense in worship as a man-made tradition that should be avoided at all costs.  Here God gives even the exact recipe for what incense he desires to be used in worship.  In Isaiah 6 we get a glimpse of heavenly worship and it includes the incense altar, and in Revelation we see heavenly worship complete with incense.  Could it be safe to say that incense in worship is a commandment of God and not using it is a tradition of men?)

Exodus 23:4-5 and the Odd Nature of the People of God

ox-in-ditch-2 (2)Jesus said some fairly odd things about the nature of the people of God.  He talked about loving enemies, praying for those who persecute you, turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile (to name just a few).  Because Jesus was fulfilling the Covenant given to the Israelites it should come as no wonder that much of what seems radical and new in Jesus’ teaching was really his perfect explanation and application of what was already supposed to be the odd nature of the people of God.  Look at this short portion of the Covenant:

When you happen to come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has wandered off, you should bring it back to them.  When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it’s lying down under its load and you are inclined not to help set it free, you must help set it free.

Here is what Jesus probably had in mind when he said to love your enemies.  The people of God are supposed to act differently than the rest of the world, including going out of their way to help those who hate us if it is within our power to help them.  This is a hard saying.  Even God knows that fact because he states right in the passage that when “you are inclined not to help,” you must overcome that initial reaction and act in a manner that shows you are one of the people of God.

Humanly speaking, this would be almost impossible to do in every situation we encounter in life.  Every time we see something go wrong for someone who hates us or someone who would like to do us harm, we are tempted to let our enemies get what they deserve.  We may not actively work to harm them further, but we do not intend to help alleviate their problems.

Yet God does not deal with us as we deserve.  Therefore if we are to demonstrate that we are children of God, we must not deal with others as they deserve, either.  If God shows compassion and deals with us in mercy despite what we deserve, then we must do the same for those who, in our eyes, deserve less as well.  Thanks be to God that having an attitude like this and being able to act like this is possible as we receive more and more of the grace of God in our lives and are transformed more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.  Humanly speaking this may be so difficult it is almost impossible, but when we are a part of the people of God we do not deal with situations from a purely human standpoint any longer.  If we allow God to grow us and transform us from grace to grace and glory to glory, we will be able to live out these commandments.

Once we can live in this manner, the objection many people in the West hear about Christianity–that Christians are all hypocrites–will no longer be valid.  Instead, people will be left wondering at the odd nature of the people of God–and they will be curious about it!

Exodus 19:3-6 and Conditional Covenant

mount-sinai-God-cloud-mosesGod’s love may be unconditional, but his covenant is conditional.  This is a hard concept.  On the one hand there are many people who want to believe that everything with God is unconditional–in other words because God is Love, then we can do anything we want and it does not matter because God will forgive us, being loving and gracious as he is.  On the other hand there are people who think of God in only conditional terms–in other words because God is so holy and different from us we continually are in danger of being smote from existence if we fail to live up to some standard.  The reality is both–unconditional love and a conditional covenant:

The Lord called to him [Moses] from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites:  You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.  So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.  You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation. These are the words you should say to the Israelites.”

Why did God deliver the Israelites?  Because he promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bless them.  Why did he make that promise to them?  Because he wanted to do it.  It is that simple.  God reached out to a person in grace in order to have a relationship with him, and promised to be with his offspring and bless them.  God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt not because they followed his Law, but because he had grace and compassion for them.  He loved them.

When they encamped around Mt. Sinai and God gave them the covenant, he stipulated a condition–obey the covenant and I will make you a blessing to the whole world.  If they did not obey the covenant, they would not be a blessing to the whole world.  Unconditional love got them out of Egypt and into a conditional covenant where blessings would follow obedience to God.

In the Christian life it is no different.  God unconditionally loves everyone, and when we respond to that love we enter into a covenant with him.  We have commandments we are to obey, commandments that revolve around loving God with all of our being and loving those around us as well.  If we are unfaithful to the covenant, God is still Love and will forgive us if we repent.  Then we will have another opportunity to fulfill our part of the covenant of salvation with God.  If, however, we assume that God’s love will forgive all wrongs we do and never repent of them, and repentance is not only feeling sorry for what we did but trying (with the help of the Holy Spirit) to turn our lives around so we do not sin in that manner again, then we will be just as the Israelites were throughout their history.  They repeatedly sinned and never truly repented.  That did not work out too well for them.

Remember, God loves us unconditionally, but salvation is a conditional covenant.

Exodus 17:3-4 and a Crisis of Faith

moses_water_rock_strikeI have always wondered why the Israelites had such a crisis of faith immediately after their deliverance from Egypt.  They saw the mighty acts of God in the ten plagues–systematically decimating the gods of Egypt.  They saw the Passover–where the firstborn of Egypt dropped dead and all of the Israelites were spared.  They walked through the Red Sea on dry ground–and saw the army of the superpower of the day destroyed.  They gave all the glory to the Lord for all of these actions (see Exodus 15).

And then they look around in their freedom and say, “We don’t have any food or water.”  They begin to grumble against Moses and Aaron for even taking them out of Egypt.  They see bitter water turned into fresh and experience a miraculous provision of quail.  Then they are introduced to manna.  All of this is God’s wonderful, grace-filled provision for them.  After all of this, they respond:

But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”

Amazing.  After all the wonders they saw God perform on their behalf, they still do not trust the Lord to provide for them.  It is as if they forgot everything that had just happened in their lives up to this point.

And yet, most of us do this as well.  We can look back on our lives and see how God has been there every step of the way (we may not have noticed it at the time, but in retrospect we can see it), and we can know that God has seen us through tough spots in our lives.  But when we are confronted with another tough situation, we cry out in despair as if we had no experience of God’s presence in our lives.

We can get so focused on our present distress that we forget the Lord is on our side.  We implore, beg, and plead with God as if he has never helped us in the past.  And we cannot find comfort in God’s deliverance in our own lives in the past because of what we face in the present.  That God he is gracious!

As Christians especially, it is important to not only remember that God had a plan for Israel, and thus would not let them perish (no matter what they thought in their immediate circumstances), but also that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, promised to never leave us or forsake us.  This is big.  The God of the universe and all therein has promised to constantly abide with us until the end of all things.  Wow.  He did not promise that it would all be easy, or that we would always prosper, but he did promise to always be with us no matter what happens in life.

Take heart.  God is with us.  Thanks be to God.