“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)
God had just demonstrated his glory and power before Israel, miraculously sending fire to burn the sacrifices on the altar. Instead of taking readily available coals from that fire to burn the incense on the altar of incense, Nadab and Abihu used another source of coals to burn the incense. In doing so, they implied that human effort was just as good as God’s. It resulted in their deaths.
This incident has serious ramifications for Christians today. One is what it taeks to be saved. Ephesians 2:8-9 states, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
In Romans 9:30-32, Paul says the Jews were missing out on salvation because they were trying to substitute their own efforts for what God has done. “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone;”
Others try to produce faith by carefully crafted sermons and psychological appeals. Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The faith can’t be produced by such human efforts, and in I Corinthians 2:4-5 Paul said he avoided such efforts. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” He didn’t want to replace God’s actions with some human substitute even though it might appear to be the same.
“Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:3)
God doesn’t want man taking the glory, either for their own goodness, or for their ability to reach others. He executed Nadab and Abihu for focusing attention away from him. In I Corinthians, 1:27-31, Paul says God has deliberately tried to prevent this by using insignificant things to accomplish his purpose. “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”
“And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them, Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp. So they went near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp; as Moses had said.
And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. And ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you. And they did according to the word of Moses.” (Leviticus 10:4-7)
Aaron and his sons were not to allow the death of Nadab and Abihu interfere with their ministry. Their relationship with God had to take precedence over anything else. If other things took precedence, God might well execute them as well. They were setting an example before the others about the importance of obeying God.
“And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying, Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: And that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; And that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the LORD hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.” (Leviticus 10:8-11)
The Lord himself spoke to Aaron, stressing the responsibility for setting the example showing the importance of our relationship with God. To step away from their ministry, even to attend the funeral, would imply that those human relationships were more important than obedience to God.
“And Moses spake unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons that were left, Take the meat offering that remaineth of the offerings of the LORD made by fire, and eat it without leaven beside the altar: for it is most holy: And ye shall eat it in the holy place, because it is thy due, and thy sons' due, of the sacrifices of the LORD made by fire: for so I am commanded.
And the wave breast and heave shoulder shall ye eat in a clean place; thou, and thy sons, and thy daughters with thee: for they be thy due, and thy sons' due, which are given out of the sacrifices of peace offerings of the children of Israel. The heave shoulder and the wave breast shall they bring with the offerings made by fire of the fat, to wave it for a wave offering before the LORD; and it shall be thine, and thy sons' with thee, by a statute for ever; as the LORD hath commanded.
And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin offering, and, behold, it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron which were left alive, saying, Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? Behold, the blood of it was not brought in within the holy place: ye should indeed have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded. “ (Leviticus 10:12-18)
Moses reminded Aaron and his sons of the guidelines as to what they were to receive of each offering. When he started to give them sin offering. He got upset that the entire body had been burned because it was supposed to be for their food.
“And Aaron said unto Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the LORD; and such things have befallen me: and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?” (Leviticus 10:19)
Aaron acknowledged that God had designated that part for them, but because of the circumstances of his son’s death, he didn’t feel they could conscientiously eat of it at that time.
“And when Moses heard that, he was content.” (Leviticus 10:20)
Moses acknowledged that while God had given permission to eat the designated parts, he had not required that they do so. In I Corinthians 9, Paul stresses this principle that while he had the right to be married or to be supported by the church, he was free to not exercise the right in order to minister more effectively.