The 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.