The various practices of personal piety that we examined last month are each designed to help us become more holy. It is right, therefore, that we take some time this week to look at what holiness means as we continue our study of how the old covenant is fulfilled in the new.
As Dr. R.C. Sproul has often shown us, the holiness of God is one of the divine attributes most emphasized in Scripture. Moreover, few stories show more clearly how the Lord’s holiness is non-negotiable than the account of what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they offered “unauthorized fire” in the burning of incense (Lev. 10:1–11). In recounting this story, Moses never tells us why the fire was unauthorized, and commentators’ attempts fill in this blank are numerous. It may be that they offered the incense at the wrong time, with the wrong coals, or it may be that they burned another kind of incense than that described in Exodus 30:34–38. Yet whether any of these reasons or others prompted God to judge Nadab and Abihu, the important thing to note is that it was basic disobedience to one of the Lord’s statutes that led to their deaths. It may even be that Moses did not explain which part of the Sinai code was broken in order to make the broader theological point that God takes all of His laws seriously and thus everyone else should as well (34:6–7).
Nadab and Abihu died at the very beginning of their priestly terms (Lev. 8–9). They had been among those who saw the Lord on Mount Sinai along with Moses and the elders of Israel (Ex. 24:9–11). This shows that a position of privilege does not obligate God to show mercy. Our Lord takes the obedience of all His people seriously, not least the obedience of those charged with leading the worship of God’s covenant community. Such a position and calling behooves one to watch what he is doing every step of the way, being especially aware of his own sin and need for repentance. From biblical times to the present, the testimony of the church in every generation shows us that those people we think were the most holy were also those who had the keenest sense of their sins and need to live lives of repentance. Apparently, Nadab and Abihu lacked this awareness, so may we ever be asking our Father to reveal to us our sins and to enable us to turn from them to Christ Jesus.
John Calvin, in his commentary on today’s passage, notes how many people might view the Lord’s treatment of Nadab and Abihu as overly harsh. Yet, he writes, “If we reflect how holy a thing God’s worship is, the enormity of the punishment will by no means offend us.” We ignore the prescriptions of God at our peril, so may we be ever aware of what He requires and quick to repent when we rebel against His holy Word.