Sunday, January 13, 2008

Leviticus 9:22-10:11 - Strange Fire

Contextual Notes:

At the foot of Mount Sinai, it has been a glorious few weeks for Israel. The Tabernacle has been completed. The Cloud of God’s Presence has moved into the Tent of Meeting. God had come to dwell with His people. That’s how the book of Exodus ends. Now God speaks not from the Mount, but from the Tent.

Leviticus 1-7 is what the Lord had to say about the proper and holy way to approach Him. In Leviticus 8, Aaron and his four sons were ordained as priests to carry out the work of the Tabernacle, and chapter 9 is their first day on the job.

Aaron took the lead, first sacrificing a sin offering for himself, then one for the people. Notice from the text that he did everything the way it was commanded. The Lord then honors the sacrifice with fire, bringing great joy to the people. God has set Israel apart for Himself once again.

Then in an instant, horror strikes. Aaron’s sons make a fatal error, and Nadab and Abihu don’t finish their first day on the job.

Read and Pray: Leviticus 9:22-10:11

Key Truth: Moses wrote Leviticus 9:22-10:11 to exhort the Israelites that all who approach God must honor Him with obedience.

Key Application: Today I want to share with you a sobering story that reminds us that God is not to be taken or treated lightly.

Sermon Points:

1. The Fire of Consecration (Leviticus 9:22-24)

2. The Fire of Judgment (Leviticus 10:1-11)

Exposition: Note well,


a. This is not the last time fire came out and burned up an offering. It happened with Gideon in Judges 6:21, with Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38); with David when he offered a sin offering to end the plague for having a census without obeying the Word (1 Chronicles 21:26; Exodus 30:11ff), with Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:1), and at the birth of the church at Pentecost when tongues of fire came to rest on every person, a living sacrifice (Acts 2).

b. What this passage really teaches us is about the priesthood of the believer. What is the priesthood of the believer? It is the Biblical doctrine that every Christian has direct access to God through the agency of Jesus Christ without needing any other person (1 Tim 2:5). Each person is his own priest and is responsible to God through Jesus Christ for the holiness in his or her life. Because of the priesthood of the believer, we believe in justification by faith, believer’s baptism, regenerate church membership, congregational church government, private interpretation of the Scriptures, freedom of thought, religious liberty, separation of church and state, divine calling for every Christian’s career, and the responsibility of every Christian to work toward the extension of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. The priesthood of the believer causes Baptists to oppose infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, forms of church government which violate people’s rights (like Presbyterian and Episcopal), distinctions between laity and clergy, an established or state church, persecution of Christians, and totalitarianism of any form.[1]

c. ILLUSTRATION: We sing a hymn called “Take my Life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee.” Like the Israelites, we must first offer our lives, and then he consecrates it with fire from the altar.

d. APPLICATION: I want to encourage you to offer yourself to Him every day as a living sacrifice as Romans 12:1-2 urges us. Then the fire and power of God will go with you into the board meeting, the conference call, the doctor’s appointment, with the salesman, the misbehaving child. You will walk in the power of God in a new way when you offer yourself to Him, not passively, but actively. Then Fire will fall on the altar and the Lord will get the glory for your dedication to Him.


a. The incense symbolized prayer offered on the ground of the accepted sacrifice. The Lord Himself gave His reasoning for the punishment: “(1) I will sanctify Myself in those who stand near to Me, (2) and before all people I will glorify Myself.”

b. ILLUSTRATION: The fire that just brought divine approval now brings judgment (9:24). We might think God’s way of dealing with them was strange itself, but think of the sun for a moment. You plant a tree in the ground, and the sun will nourish and grow that tree strong and tall. But if you pull up that tree and expose the roots to the sun, and the sun will kill it. It is similar to God, whom Hebrews calls a consuming fire. Planted in the word of God, the fire of God consecrates and brings us joy. When we are not planted in the nourishing soul and obedience to the Word, the fire of God becomes a frightening thing.

c. Nadab and Abihu were the two elder brothers of Aaron (Exodus 6:23; 28:1). They have no print apart from their father Aaron. This is their one scene in the Bible apart from going onto the mountain with Aaron in Exodus 24.

d. The bodies were carried outside the camp like the carcasses of the sin offerings (same expression as 4:12). Note the strange detail that they were carried out in their priestly robes. Did the tunics not burn?

e. Their story parallels the one of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Compare v. 3 with Acts 5:11 and v. 4 with Acts 5:6, 9f. There are similarities with Korah’s rebellion as well (Numbers 16). Like Eli later (1 Samuel 3:18), Aaron could do nothing but keep his mouth shut about God’s sentence against his sons. There was another pair of brothers several centuries later when Israel and Judah split, named Nadab and Abijah, who die young because of their sinful lives. Their father King Jeroboam I, just like Aaron, had set up golden calves for the people to worship (1 Kings 13-15). In fact, Jeroboam I himself offered incense at the altar of the calf in Bethel, the same kind that brought death in our passage.

f. Were they drunk? Verses 8-11 seem to suggest that they had been hitting the bottle while ministering before the Lord. The intoxicating drinks of the day included dates, honey wine, and barley beer. While wine was forbidden while serving in the Tent because it impaired their judgment, the Bible does not completely condemn drinking of wine. However, it warns of its excess and condemns drunkenness often. This has implications for us as Christians. We need our faculties clear at all times so that we can distinguish right from wrong. If we are to influence others, it is best not to drink at all.

g. What was it that made it strange fire? It’s unclear. The words, ‘esh zarah literally mean, “fire strange, foreign, even akin to adulterous. The description “unauthorized,” or “profane” in some translations are more interpretations than translations. And the translator’s interpretation is up for debate. It could have been wrongly compounded incense, i.e, not made as is commanded in Exodus 30:34-38. The similar expression in Exodus 30:9 “other incense” may help. It could have been burned at the wrong time or perhaps the fire was taken from a common fire and not from the bronze altar as it was supposed to be (16:12) or perhaps they did not wash their hands and feet with water before entering the Tent (see Exodus 30:19-21), or some other breach, perhaps they came to work drunk (10:9).

h. In Exodus 30, the Lord graciously gave instructions about how to handle the incense and the holy altar and how to respect it. The instructions are clear; they are concise; they are firm. Some of them, include the incentive to “do it this way so that you will not die.” For the priests, God’s character is involved, and that means high responsibility, so high that you could get killed if you don’t do it right.

i. ILLUSTRATION: In a greatly inferior example, it is like working with electricity. You have to respect that current, or that current will kill you. If you follow the rules of how electricity works, you will be able to do great work and make a good living at it. If you don’t respect that current, they’ll be carrying you out in less than a heartbeat, fried.

j. So what is strange fire? Strange fire is knowing what the Scripture says, knowing what the Lord wants and requires, and going on and doing it the way you want to do anyway. Strange fire is doing what you want to do because nobody, Nobody at all is going to tell you what to do.

k. APPLICATION: You know what the Bible says about stealing, but you take home those tools from work anyway because you want to. You know how the Lord feels about cheating, but you go ahead and get the answers from someone else’s test anyway. You know what the game limit is, but you go ahead and kill as many as you jolly well please. You know what’s right about taking illegal drugs, but you go ahead and take them anyway. You know that the Lord has lovingly set a boundary on sex outside of marriage, but you don’t really care. You’re going to go ahead and do what you want to anyway because nobody is going to tell you what to do. That is strange fire. The Lord calls that rebellion. And 1 Samuel 15:22 says “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

l. The point is that Nadab and Abihu did not pay attention to the Word of God. They knew the way it was supposed to be done. They were fully educated on what to do and how to do it. They simply had no intention of doing it God’s way. They wanted to do it their own way. They were standing and ministering their first day in the Tabernacle, a great honor. They looked great. They looked holy. But their hearts were far from him. They were rebels in the House of the Lord. They wanted to do it their way and they did not care what anyone thought about it. They were interested in looking good, doing their religious duties. They cared about image but not about reality.

m. APPLICATION: Is that you? Are you one of those Christians who has learned to play the game, learned to “be a Christian,” uses the religious jargon, has on the right church clothes, can pray those beautiful prayers, looks so holy, but your heart is black with envy, with jealousy, with a desire for power, a desire to be first, to be in charge, to put somebody in their place, to run things? There are too many people like that in our churches, men and women who stand against God’s work no matter what comes up. They are miserable, and they make everyone else miserable, too. My friend, if that is you, you are in a most dangerous position. Oh, you look like the most wonderful Christian, but you are determined to do what you want to do no matter what it costs anyone else including the Lord Jesus and His Kingdom. Dear friend, your highest priority today is to get on your knees and repent of your sin and get right with God.

n. These kinds of people are the reasons people walk away from church and never come back. If being a Christian, they say, is playing politics, defending territory, hiding sin, and holding power, and hoarding money, then they want no part of it, and I don’t blame them.

o. The Hebrew word for Holy means to be set apart or dedicated. It can apply to persons, places, or things, meaning they are set apart for the service of God. Each of us as believers, when we ask the Lord Jesus to save us and be Lord of our lives, we give up ourselves and dedicate or set apart ourselves for Christ and His work and will in our lives. That’s what salvation is all about. Since everything associated with worship of God in the OT is set apart this way, it is sacred and no longer ordinary. Therefore, it must be treated with the utmost respect and care. Nadab and Abihu showed contempt for God by failing to follow His instructions on how to burn incense. God could not overlook such contempt.

p. RAY STEDMAN was a great pastor of the mid-20th Century. He mentored Charles Swindoll. About this passage he offers a word of encouragement for those who wonder if God hates them: “God had precisely said, "Be careful; do not offer the wrong kind of incense." So when these priests did so it was a violation of the direct command of God. They were doing something against which God himself had forewarned them. God never visits with judgment anybody who is struggling in ignorance to try to find him, even though they do it the wrong way. The New Testament, in speaking about the Lord Jesus, quotes from Isaiah 42 a beautiful verse which says, "A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench," {Isa 42:3 RSV}. That is, God understands the heart of someone who is trying to find him, who is trying to do what is right, but doesn't know much about it. And he never, never, in any way, discourages him. He encourages him. He is patient, longsuffering, tender, compassionate, and understanding. I don't think there is any more graphic picture in the whole Bible of what it means to offer strange fire before the Lord than that prayer which Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament -- the prayer of the proud Pharisee. Remember how he stood and prayed: "Lord, I thank you that I'm not like other people, like all these unwashed publicans. I tithe every day, and I fast twice a week..." {cf, Luke 18:9-14}. His prayer is a recital of all that he has done for God and suggests how lucky God ought to feel to have him on his side. That is what is meant by offering strange fire before the Lord -- anything which reckons upon our own self-righteousness and forgets that life is given to us as a gift.

q. APPLICATION: Do you pay no attention to the Word of God, doing whatever you jolly well please, or are you planted in the Word of God, desiring to live in obedience to it? Do you order your life by God’s Word? Do you take its principles and precepts to heart and put them into practice? Are you walking closely with the Lord? What’s your prayer time like? Is it filled with intimacy with Him? What’s your daily time in the Bible like? Non-existent? Or are you feeding daily on His Word for the benefit of your own soul, of your spouse, of your children and grandchildren? Nadab and Abihu paid a heavy price for neglecting the Word.


God has opened a door for us to have eternal life in Jesus Christ. If we decide to take that lightly, then we must endure the fire ourselves for eternity. The reality is that horrifying. If you decide to offer strange fire out of rebellion or simply because you take this thing lightly, the punishment will be severe – not because the Lord is a mean Person, but because He has a character and standard that can never change. That is why the good news of Jesus Christ is so good. His sin offering of Himself draws the fire of consecration, the approving fire, the fire of eternal life, the transformation that John the Baptizer promoted as a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Let me urge you today to give yourself over to the One who sends the fire. Do not stand rebelliously in His way. Your eternal end will be worse than Nadab and Abihu’s. After they died, the fire was over for them. For you, the fire will go on forever. I set before you today death and life. I plead with you, choose Life, life everlasting. Life to the full.


F.F. Bruce, International Bible Commentary, 198.

David Damrosch, “Leviticus,” in Alter, Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible, 70-2.

Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: OT, 225-6.

W. Barry Garrett, Priesthood of Believers,” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 2:1113-4.

Larry Richards, Bible Readers Companion, 81.

A.B. Simpson, Christ in the Bible Commentary, 1:180-1.

John Walton, et. al, eds., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: OT, 127.

[1] W. Barry Garrett, Priesthood of Believers,” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 2:1113-4.