Featured image from Biblical Illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. ©1984. Wikimedia Commons.
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorised fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.Leviticus 10:1-3
Someone reading this account might think, “Why would God do this? That’s unfair!” This is why context is necessary. They died because of God’s restriction in Exodus 30:9, “‘You shall not offer unauthorised incense on [the altar of incense], or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it.'” So, there was some sort of incense that the priests were not authorised to burn on the altar of incense, and they were also not authorised to burn a burnt offering, grain offering, or pour a drink offering on it.
Nadab and Abihu “laid incense on it” and thus “offered unauthorised fire before the LORD” (v. 1). This was no accident. As priests, they would’ve known what was and was not authorised to be burnt on the altar of incense. Therefore, their purposeful negligence is shown when they put some sort of unauthorised incense on it, and as a result, they were burnt to death.
Naturally, this likely made Aaron upset, because they were his sons, so God told Moses to tell him, “Among those who are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (v. 3). And Aaron was content with this explanation. God’s holiness is both a wonderful and terrifying thing for humans. It is wonderful in that He does holy things for our deliverance and salvation, and it is terrifying in that the mere presence of His holiness destroys sin and evil, which is what happened to Nadab and Abihu. Therefore, this is not a matter of fairness but a matter of what one can expect before the holy God when sin and wickedness stand in His presence.
The Old Testament sacrificial system prefigures the Sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper, as we have seen in recent articles in this blog series. It is accounts like this one that leads me me to always be filled with the fear of God whenever I’m administering the Sacraments as a called and ordained pastor, not that I think the Lord’s fire is going to burst out from the altar and consume me when I make a mistake (for He would’ve done so already!), but that the elements I am handling are holy things. When I am administering the Lord’s Supper, I am handling the true body and blood of Christ! I would do well to handle these with the utmost reverence and fear of God. When I administer Baptism, I am not merely handling simple water but the Word of God in, with, and under the water. I would do well to administer Baptism faithfully.
After pastors have gained a lot of experience administering the Sacraments (which doesn’t take long), it’s easy to develop an ex opere operato mindset—just falling into autopilot mode and going through the motions. I know; I’ve been there. Pastors, you need to always remember to approach the holy things to which you were called to handle and provide with the utmost reverence, fear of God, and faithfulness. I say this not to stress you out but to remember what you truly have in your meagre human hands: the very body and blood of Christ in the Supper and the Word of God in Baptism, as well as the very Word of God from your mouth when you speak Absolution over the congregation and proclaim His Law and Gospel in the sermon. I’m also not saying you should be absolutely terrified each time you perform these duties, but I think some amount of the fear of God is appropriate as you do them, lest we grow lax and lazy, and the Lord judge us in some other way (cf. James 3:1).
Theology Terms Used
- ex opere operato: “from the work done,” that is, “the mere performance of the act.” The ancient teaching of the Catholic Church that just by the mere performance of a sacrament, God’s grace is delivered whether faith is present or not. (By this logic, even unbelievers can receive God’s grace and be forgiven even though they do not believe.) Lutherans, on the other hand, believe that faith needs to be present in order to receive God’s grace in the sacrament.
- Sacrament: from the Latin word sacro that means “hallow, holy” and from the Greek word μυστήριον (mustērion) that means “mystery.” What makes something a sacrament depends on the definition. As Lutherans, we define a sacrament as the following: (1) is commanded by Christ, (2) has a visible element, and (3) delivers God’s grace (forgiveness of sins). This is why we have three Sacraments: Absolution, the Lord’s Supper, and Baptism. All of these have Christ’s command (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Matthew 28:18-20 respectively), they have a visible element (Christ’s words through the pastor, the bread and wine, and water respectively), and they all deliver God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins (John 20:21-23; Matthew 26:26-28; Acts 2:38-39).