Here the sons of Aaron, they're young priests. They violate obviously some detail of the prescription that God had set forth for the offering of incense in the holy place. And for this misdeed, this prank or mischievous innovation that they introduced to the altar was not simply admonished by God or rebuked by God, but God instantly killed them. The worship wars, Christians disagreeing over what we should sing and how we should sing it, how long a sermon should be and in what style. With all this disagreement, have you ever experienced someone being struck down by God in judgment because they worshipped him in a way that he had not authorized? Hi, I'm Nathan W Bingham and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. Just because we're not seeing God strike down people for worshipping him in a way that he hasn't authorized doesn't mean that God would be wrong to do so.
Today, as we come to the final hard saying this week, R.C. Sproul looks at an incident concerning two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were struck down for offering strange fire unto the Lord. When we first began our series Renewing Your Mind on radio, we introduced our program with a study of the holiness of God. And on that occasion, we looked at a particular narrative in the Old Testament in light of the broader concept of the holiness of God. And I have been asked in the context of this series on the hard sayings of the Bible to review that particular narrative once again.
I guess it's because this particular incident is of abiding consternation for many of God's people, and so we shall do that. We will look again at the story of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, who were slain rapidly and decisively by God in the Old Testament. The record is found in the book of Leviticus at the beginning of chapter 10. Leviticus, chapter 10, verse 1.
Now we read this account. Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And so fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. And Moses said to Aaron, this is what the Lord spoke.
Now, before I get to the rest of that passage, let's recapitulate the small information that is given here. Here we have two of the sons of Aaron, and we remember that Aaron was the first high priest of the Jewish nation, that God had consecrated to a holy vocation. And as the high priest and the head of the Levitical, or the so-called Aaronic priesthood of the Old Testament, it was significant that his sons would follow in his footsteps. We remember that God had consecrated an entire tribe of the sons of Jacob to be consecrated to the work of the priesthood, the tribe of Levi.
And in the family of Aaron, his sons were likewise ordained or set apart for the priesthood. And then we read here in chapter 10 of Leviticus that two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, and the censer was a kind of vessel that was used in antiquity to contain the incense that was burned as an offering before the Lord. And so, they took their censer and they put fire in it and put the incense on it and offered what the book of Leviticus calls profane fire, profane fire. Now, what is profane fire? Not propane fire, but profane fire was offered on the altar before God.
Some translations simply read strange fire or alien fire. The word profane is used in our vocabulary to refer to that which is less than sacred, less than holy. We speak of profanity, which is a way of using words that is unacceptable to God. I'm also fascinated with the historic use of the term profane where Martin Luther, you recall in the sixteenth century, called the church to be profane. He called the ministry to be profane, and he called the priesthood to be profane. And when people hear Luther saying that, or of course, read Luther writing that, their eyebrows usually are raised and they say, why in the world would a reformer advocate a profane ministry for the church? Well, Luther was using the term profane in a way that was much closer to its original meaning than it is today. Profano simply means literally outside of the temple. And what Luther meant when he said that the church has a profane ministry, he means that the church is called to come out of the temple and into the world, that the world is the arena of ministry for the Christian community.
That's what he meant. He didn't mean that the church should be pagan or ungodly or irreligious or unholy. But now when we read the term profane fire, we're reading it in light of the current significance of this term, which means unholy. Now, in a literal sense, what the author is saying here is that the fire that was introduced to the altar on this occasion was a fire that had not been purified or consecrated.
Now, on the surface, it seems like what is going on here is cruel and unusual punishment. Here the sons of Aaron, their young priests, they violate obviously some detail of the prescription that God had set forth for the offering of incense in the holy place, and for this misdeed, this prank or mischievous innovation that they introduced to the altar was not simply admonished by God or rebuked by God, but God instantly killed them. Now, we have two questions that immediately arise about this incident.
The first is, is that really what happened? Is this an accurate, inspired account of divine judgment upon the sons of Aaron? Or, again, as the critics have suggested, is this part of the primitive, naïve, ancient Hebrew explanations for natural events that they interpreted mystically or theologically? Immanuel Velikovsky, who was somewhat of a maverick in the scientific world, who was a close friend of Albert Einstein at Princeton University decades ago, wrote two best-selling books in which he challenged some of the pet theories of modern geology, one being called Worlds in Collision and the other Earth in Upheaval, where Velikovsky came against some of these pet theories from two different perspectives.
One was by giving a detailed, critical analysis of the anomalies that are unresolved in uniformitarian geology, and we'll leave that aside for the moment. And the other book was based on speculative hypothesis drawn from Velikovsky's careful study of the folklore, the mythology, and the traditions of many nations around the world, nations of antiquity, where he discovered that in their ancient writings there were certain common themes that recurred about astronomical phenomena. Now, the working assumption that Velikovsky used in his theorizing, for better or worse, was this, that ancient myth was something that people used in a primitive attempt to explain phenomena in the world around them that they didn't understand scientifically. And so that there was, in Velikovsky's judgment, some real historical event that was hiding behind these primitive and crude mythological attempts to explain their world. Hence, you have all these different stories about deluges or floods that are accounted for in several ancient mythological strains that led Velikovsky to the point where he said, well, you know, Velikovsky to the conclusion there must have been some kind of dramatic deluge that took place in the ancient world, since we keep finding allusions to it in so many different nations' literature. But this concern was about an astronomical perturbation that must have been catastrophic in scope, where many people in their ancient mythology talked about the sight of this heavenly body coming close to the earth with a large tail looking something like a huge comet.
He noticed that allusions to Venus, the morning star, the planet is absent in a certain period in ancient astrology and then suddenly occurs in the literature of antiquity. And he concocts this theory about what would happen if a huge planet or comet or some kind of thing would come close enough to the earth to enter into our atmospheric field and what kind of catastrophic upheaval there would be. For example, he sees the pillar of smoke or the pillar of fire in the wilderness experience of the Israelites as the Jews wandering all around chasing after the tail of this comet that had entered in close to the earth. And so anyway, he talks about all of the physical things, the reversal of the pole of the earth and so on, and I'm not going to get into that. But one of the things that he speculates about is that this heavenly or astronomical mass that would come close to the earth with all this smoke and fire would have dropped a kind of naphtha onto the planet, and that naphtha would seep into the layers of the earth.
And this is his explanation for why the Mideast is so rich in petroleum. And he appeals to this text in the Old Testament to support his theory. He said that this particular form of natural gas that was being dumped on the planet was discovered by a couple of young priests, and they decided to experiment with it on the altar, and when they did, it blew up on their faces and killed them. It had nothing to do with divine judgment. It was simply a natural event caused by a drastic mistake of experimentation, much as the mad scientist does when he mixes things together in his basement that he shouldn't, and we see in the cartoons where he blows his house up and so on. Now, it's an interesting theory that Velikovsky gives, but right now our concern is how does the Bible itself understand this event? And I would have to say even if this did happen as a result of offering on the altar petroleum that was not supposed to be used, even at that we still have the judgment of God in this because under God's providence these men were doing something they were not supposed to be doing. And so they were offering this strange fire, whatever it was. Now obviously when the fire consumes Nadab and Abihu and they are killed on the spot, Aaron is greatly displeased.
You can imagine it. He's given his life in devotion to God, and now his sons who have come into the priesthood make one little mistake at the altar, and God wipes them out. You can hear Aaron in his distress coming to Moses and saying, what's going on here?
What kind of repayment is that? I serve the Lord day and night, and He kills my sons for a peccadillo, for a small thing. I'm reading between the lines here of course, but all the Scripture says is that Moses spoke to Aaron. I'm assuming that Aaron went to Moses very distressed. This is what the Lord spoke saying, by those who come near me, I must be regarded as holy, and before all the people I must be glorified. Moses is speaking to Aaron, and he said, Aaron, do you remember what God said when He consecrated you in the first place?
Do you remember the law He delivered regarding the behavior of the priesthood? That one non-negotiable with Almighty God is that He insists that He will be regarded as holy by anyone who draws near to Him. Sometimes the Old Testament Scripture, particularly in terms of historical narrative, is the master of understatement, where profoundly deep and moving experiences are recorded for us in the barest of terms, in the briefest of accounts. And though it's dangerous to speculate, and we need to be careful about the speculation that we bring to Scripture, it's an almost impossible temptation to resist because these accounts are so abbreviated, and we try to reconstruct them in our own mind, have an existential, as it were, approach to these texts.
And we will begin to see the vast understatement that is so characteristic of the Scriptures. We see it in the next verse, and Aaron held his peace. It's the end of the story. You better believe Aaron held his peace. The fact that he held his peace suggests that before Moses reminded him of the terms of the priesthood, that Aaron was not at all in an ironic frame of mind. His peace was something that was escaping him until Moses reminds him, and then Aaron holds his peace because that means he shuts up. The argument's over.
There's nothing left to debate. Moses reminds Aaron, hey, this is what God said. This should not be a surprise to you. It should not be a shock to you that God would visit His judgment on any priest, even if they're your sons, Aaron, who disobeyed the sacred commandments of ministering before His presence. Now again, to understand that a little bit more fully, let's go back to the book of Exodus. We remember that the most famous chapter in the book of Exodus is Exodus 20 because in Exodus 20 we have the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. We also remember that in chapter 19 of the book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses and tells Moses to command the people to prepare a fast and to spend some time consecrating themselves before the day comes where God will come to the top of the mountain and will meet with Moses personally there.
And we remember the narrative that describes that event where there was lightning and thunder and this deep cloud on the mountain, and God had made the law that nobody apart from Moses was allowed to approach the mountain or set foot upon the mountain, and if they touched the mountain, they were to die. Well, it's in that context in Exodus 19 that we read these words. Verse 21 of Exodus 19, the Scripture says, and the Lord said to Moses, go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the Lord and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them. Again, verse 24, the Lord said to him, away, get down and then come up, you and Aaron with you, but do not let the priests and the people break through to come out to the Lord, lest he break out against them. So at the very beginning of the formation of the nation of Israel, the giving of the law, God applies the initial laws of consecration, which are then repeated when He establishes the priesthood, and He is warning them that if they are not consecrated and if they violate this consecration, this sanctification, God will break out against them.
Nadab and Abihu violated the holy law of the priesthood, and when they did it, God killed them, reminding Israel of the sanctity of the presence of God. I was recently given the assignment to write an article for our magazine, Table Talk, on the fear of the Lord, and I struggled with that article because I realized that in our day, in the life of the church, we are no longer encouraged to have a healthy fear of God. We seem to assume that the fear of the Lord is something that belongs specifically and exclusively to the Old Testament and is not to be a part of the life of the Christian. And yet, fear in the Old Testament involves not simply a trembling before God's wrath and vengeance, but a sense of reverence, a sense of awe before His holiness. And even though the wall of partition has been removed, and though we are living on this side of the cross, the fear of the Lord is still the beginning of wisdom. And the mark of the unbeliever is that that person has no fear of God before his eyes. God hasn't changed.
He is still an all-consuming fire. And when we come into His presence, we are to come as children. We are to come as children. We are to come as those who have been reconciled. But there is to be a godly fear that still respects who it is we are dealing with.
That was R.C. Sproul, and thank you for joining us for this Friday edition of Renewing Your Mind. For the past two weeks, Dr. Sproul has looked at 10 hard sayings from the Bible, but the complete series is 27 messages, and we'll give you digital access to that series, as well as send you the hardcover edition of the new companion book, Hard Sayings, Understanding Difficult Passages of Scripture, for your donation of any amount. You can give your gift by visiting renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800 435 4343. If you have considered responding this week, perhaps to add this book to your library or to give it away to a friend or to your local church, today is the final day that we're making this digital series and this hardcover book available to you for your gift of any amount. So I encourage you to visit renewingyourmind.org. Next week, we'll consider the glorious truth that God is the God who actually saves sinners.
Here's a preview. God does not merely make salvation possible. It's not a hypothetical salvation that now depends upon man to accept or reject at the cross Jesus actually saved sinners. He did not merely put the world into a savable position. He didn't make us merely reconcilable. He actually reconciled us through the blood of his cross. He did not merely potentially propitiate the wrath of God. He actually placated the holy vengeance of God upon hell deserving sinners. That's Monday, so join us next week here on Renewing Your Mind.
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