Strange Fire

When we read about the establishment of the Jewish religion, it is striking how jealously God walled Himself off from the approach of man. On Mount Sinai, Moses was warned “Go down, testify to the people that they break not through to Jehovah to gaze, and many of them perish” (Exod. 19: 21). The children of Israel were not to go up onto the mountain, or even touch it’s border. Later, when the Mosaic ritual had been formulated in the tabernacle system, this divine barrier was incorporated in it. The people could approach, but only in the way that God had prescribed, and a definite distance was still maintained. The children of Israel were His people, but there was always the recognition that God was God and that man was man.

   Does any of this have a relevance to us as Christians? The Christian portion is certainly far more blessed than that of Moses and his people for, unlike them, we can approach God having “no longer any conscience of sins” and with “boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10: 2, 19). Indeed, perfect love has cast out fear (see 1 John 4: 18)—but this fact, wonderful as it is, carries with it the danger of admitting into our minds an element of unholy fami­liarity when thinking of God. We are always to remember that while we invoke God “as Father”, we are also to pass our “time of sojourn in fear” (1 Pet. 1: 17). The two thoughts are not contradictory: God is our Father, but He is also our God (see John 20: 17). We are His children, but we are also His creatures.

   Now it is a fundamental principle that in proportion as God is exalted and reverenced in our thoughts so will our walk through life be shaped according to the divine will. In other words, there is a definite link between our estimate of God and our moral conduct. If our thoughts of God are low, then the standard of our Chris­tian walk will also be low. Thus when Israel made a calf in Horeb to represent Jehovah, and “changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass” (Ps. 106: 20), they also began to act corruptly (see Exod. 32: 7) and stripped themselves to their shame (see v25). Their low morality flowed from their low concept of God. The epistle to the Romans teaches the same truth. There Paul shows that the reason for the abominations of the Gentile nations could be found in the fact that despite “knowing God, they glorified [him] not as God” and so they corrupted themselves with “vile lusts (Rom. 1: 21, 26). If we attempt to lower God to our level (or beneath), then we must necessarily lower ourselves. Those who profess Christianity are in no way immune from this—there is, for example, a common but false conception of God as a benevolent figure who winks at sin. What is the effect? Immorality or unrighteousness is tolerated on the grounds of ‘divine love’. Thus, the very nearness to God which is such a blessed feature of Christianity is perverted in such a way as to lower Him down from “the throne of his holiness” (Ps. 47: 8). 

   The fact is, there is an inseparable link between the character of the god of any religion and the character of its adherents. In the OT God constantly reminded His people that their conduct was to be the consequence of what He was: “For I am Jehovah who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11: 45). The Holy Spirit’s word to Christians is similar: “every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3: 3). This principle carries us far beyond outward conformity to the truth. It has to do with the deep recesses of the soul, and the estimate which we, as beneath the piercing, jea­lous eye of a holy God, are daily forming of Him. “All things [are] naked and laid bare to his eyes, with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4: 13). Nor can we afford to neglect this vital matter, for in it will be found the secret of our low walk and spiritual deadness. Is God exalted in our thoughts, and does He have the supreme place in our affections? The facts speak for themselves. Self, the world, and our earthly interests, have robbed the One who gave His only Son to die for us of the homage of our hearts. This being the case, can we expect to flourish? The farmer who gives his time and thoughts to things other than his crop during the spring will look in vain for a bountiful harvest in the autumn. Why are we perplexed when our families drift off into the world, our marriages collapse, and our churches close their doors forever? Is not the answer found in our own hearts? God is not God to us in the real practical sense that He ought to be. Enoch “walked with God” (Gen. 5: 22); by contrast, many of us hardly know Him in that living, practical way. This explains a good deal of the lack of interest in the gospel from the men and women around us, for while they may not read our tracts, they are certainly reading our lives (see 2 Cor. 3: 2). Would they be so apathetic if they saw in us, as Zebah and Zalmunna saw in Gideon’s brethren, that “each one resembled the sons of a king” (Judges 8: 18)? It is vain calling Jesus our Lord and calling God our Father while all the time living life as if it were our own. This low concept of God inevitably finds expression in the way worship is conducted—namely, man becomes the arbiter of what God shall receive.

   The place of the Christian is one of unspeakable privilege. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, we have “access by faith into this favour in which we stand” (Rom. 5: 2) and are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1: 3). However, we must never forget that divine privilege does not alter divine majesty. Nadab and Abihu, the two older sons of Aaron, provide a sobering illustration of this fact, and the account of their fall is surely “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4). Like you and I, they knew a great deal of divine favour: “Go up to Jehovah, thou and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and worship afar off … And Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up; and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were work of transparent sapphire, and as it were the form of heaven for clearness. And on the nobles of the children of Israel he laid not his hand: they saw God, and ate and drank” (Exod. 24: 1, 9­–11). Shortly afterwards we find this privilege further magnified when they are taken out from among the children of Israel and hallowed and clothed in priestly costumes in order that they might serve God in a place of special nearness (see Exod. 28: 1–4, 40–43). And yet we need turn over only a few pages of Scripture to find the scene dramatically changed. The opening verses of Leviticus 10 provide a terrifying illustration of the holy jealousy of God for His own glory. Nadab and Abihu forgot who God was, and came before Him in a careless way, and so “there went out fire from before Jehovah, and devoured them, and they died before Jehovah” (Lev. 10: 2). What an object lesson are their charred corpses of the principle that the greater the privilege the greater the responsibility—and the greater the judgment if that responsibility is not fully met! Oh, you say, but that is the OT! Certainly, but has God changed? It is very curious that some Christians appear to believe that the God of the OT is not the same as the God of the NT! God Himself says “I Jehovah change not” (Mal. 3: 6)—and hence divine favour has not in any way diminished divine holiness. Who put to death these two sons of Aaron? The very One whom we call our God and Father!
   So, what was the sin of Nahab and Abihu? Was it murder? Did they stain the curtains of the tabernacle with human blood? Or was it some other abominable sin, from which the moral sense shrinks? Let us see what the Scripture says: “And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and presented strange fire before Jehovah, which He had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1, my emphasis). We see men apparently engaged in preparation for the worship of God: there is the fire, the incense, and the censer. Furthermore, they were true sons of Aaron, separated to God and clothed in the divinely appointed priestly robes. Yet despite all this, they are struck down dead. Why? Because they offered “strange fire”. This was what a holy God took exception to. There was such a thing as strange incense (see Exod. 30: 9)—typifying the offering of something other than the fragrance of Christ to God—but there is no indication that that was the case here. Nor were Nadab and Abihu strange priests come before God with their censers as Korah and his company would later do (see Num. 16: 17, 18)—which would speak to us of unregenerate persons presuming to worship God. No, the sin of Aaron’s older sons lay in the fact that they “presented strange fire before Jehovah, which he had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1, my emphasis). Despite their privileges, their concept of God was so low that they thought that what they had decided was more important than what God had commanded.

   So, what was this “strange fire” which brought down such terrifying judgment upon those priests? Many have the misconception that strange fire was fire that was weird or unusual.  This is not at all the sense. The Hebrew word translated strange in Lev. 10: 1 is frequently used elsewhere to refer to persons who were strangers or foreigners—that is, they did not belong to the group of persons in question (for example, Num. 16: 40: “that no stranger who is not of the seed of Aaron come near to burn incense before Jehovah”). The true sense of “strange fire” therefore is the wrong sort of fire. It was wrong because it was foreign—foreign to God—it originated with man and not God. So, where did they get it? Some have thought that because the instruction of Lev. 8: 33, 35 prohibited Aaron and his sons from leaving the tent of meeting for seven days, it follows that Nadab and Abihu must have broken this command and gone outside, bringing coals of strange fire with them on their return. However, this idea seems disproved by v36 which says that “Aaron and his sons did all things that Jehovah had commanded by the hand of Moses” (my emphasis). There is certainly a danger in bringing things in from outside when we know that the only fire which is acceptable to God must come “from off the altar before Jehovah” (Lev. 16: 12). However, if Nadab and Abihu were obedient and stayed at the entrance of the tent of meeting day and night for seven days, then it would appear that they kindled fire for themselves in the holy place. If they did kindle their own fire, then that serves to remind us that evil can arise within ourselves and cannot always be blamed on outside influences.

   Now to understand “strange fire” we need to consider the genuine thing—the right sort of fire. Thus, Aaron was to “take the censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before Jehovah, and both his hands full of fragrant incense beaten small, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before Jehovah, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy–seat which is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Lev. 16: 12, 13). The context of this instruction is “after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near before Jehovah and died” (v1). We see then that the fire must be obtained “from off the altar before Jehovah” (v12, my emphasis) and it follows that fire obtained from any another source must therefore be classed as strange fire. It did not matter that Nadab and Abihu complied with the divine instructions for the most part; what mattered was that they did what God “had not commanded them” (Lev. 10: 1). They introduced their own thoughts and wills into the realm where only God’s thoughts and will should have sway. The sin is not said to have been in doing what God had forbidden, but (and it bears repeating) in doing what He had not commanded. There has been much speculation as to the typical meaning of the strange fire, but this much is clear, it was innovation in the worship of God. This ought to be a serious consideration for any who who come before God using forms of address which He has not commanded or offering praise and worship in a framework that He has not ordained. It may appear holy, but it is fundamentally and intrinsically unholy!

   Nor was there any excuse for the two sons of Aaron offering strange fire before Jehovah because the fire on the brazen altar was to be always available: “A continual fire shall be kept burning on the altar: it shall never go out” (Lev. 6: 13). Indeed, to reach the altar of incense, Nadab and Abihu would have had to pass right by the altar of burnt offering! On this account, some have even wondered if they were intoxicated with alcohol, so blatant was their disobedience—hence the prohibition on strong drink that immediately follows the record of the incident in the text (see Lev. 10: 8–11). However, this is a detail of relative unimportance. The fundamental point is that Nadab and Abihu presumed to approach God in their own way. In so doing they rejected God’s way. To bring this sharply into focus, the first few verses of chapter 10 must be read in conjunction with the end of chapter nine. There we find that Aaron offered the burnt offering before Jehovah and as consequence “there went out fire from before Jehovah, and consumed on the altar the burnt–offering, and the pieces of fat; and all the people saw it, and they shouted, and fell on their face” (Lev. 9: 24). Thus, when Nadab and Abihu offered their strange fire it was a case of deliberately ignoring the divinely–lit coals that they had so recently seen enveloped with Jehovah’s fire. It is the natural outflowing of man’s heart to prefer his way to God’s way, even in matters as high and holy as how the creature is to approach his Creator.

   Now some have taught that the application of the “strange fire” in our day is to be found in the incense, music, oratory, ceremony and candles of Christendom, but this is simply a case of picking a ‘convenient target’. Of course there is no denying that ritualism in the era of worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4: 24) may include both strange fire and strange incense, and even be offered by strange priests, but that is hardly the message conveyed from Leviticus 10. That passage speaks of a religion that was deeply ritualistic but divinely ordained to be so—hence, in itself, a gorgeous ritual was not the issue here. The real problem lay in fire that was indistinguishable from the real thing—fire that pretended to be a substitute for the coals from off the brazen altar. How many that fateful day were aware that the fire brought by Nadab and Abihu had an origin other than that which God had commanded? Very few, if any, at all! Fire is fire, and there is no indication that there was anything that would strike anyone as odd about the fire used, but it was disqualified all the same. And so the ritual appeared to be perfectly observed—as do many human arrangements that are mostly Scriptural. Anyone can see that Christendom is not lacking in obvious examples of false or erroneous systems of worship but what is typified here is clearly far more subtle. To the superficial observer, all may seem to be “worship by [the] Spirit of God” (Phil. 3: 3)—and yet there is a fatal flaw, for the coals are not from the altar! But if man is easily misled, the same is not true of God: He is not deceived. The fire from off the brazen altar had come out from Himself; the fire brought by the two sons of Aaron had been kindled by themselves. They offered what could not ever be acceptable, and therefore God did not accept them. Solemn lesson! A thing may well be dressed up as spiritual ‘intelligence’ (see Col. 2: 23) and have the appearance of what is pious and right, but the critical question is one of origin.  If the origin is in the pages of God’s own Word then the course will be right; if the origin is in the reasoning of man’s mind (however gifted or pious), then the course will not only be wrong, but positively disastrous.

  What we see on God’s altar, day and night, is a fire blazing, expressing to faith the inflexible holiness of the divine nature feeding upon the perfect sacrifice of Christ. By contrast, strange fire speaks of that which man’s mind feeds upon—what provides satisfaction to mere human reasoning. It is the antithesis of true worship, even though it may be offered as worship. God, however, will not be mocked for He “will be hallowed in them that come near me, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev. 10: 3). Thus the same fire that demonstrated God’s acceptance of the sacrifice of the burnt offering (see Lev. 9: 24), came out in judgment upon those who would presume to come before Him in their own way: “there went out fire from before Jehovah, and devoured them, and they died before Jehovah” (Lev. 10: 2). The only way to serve God acceptably is “with reverence and fear”. Why? Because “also our God [is] a consuming fire” (Heb. 12: 28, 29).

   How imperative it is then that we be kept sober and watchful, for we know but little of our fearful capabilities for evil until we are brought into circumstances to develop them. It is possible to be so blinded as to even think that our own thoughts are really God’s thoughts, and in time reduce ourselves to such a spiritual condition that there will remain nothing but the mere outward form. Hence though the bodies of Nadab and Abihu were burned by the fire, their clothes were seemingly untouched, for they were carried “in their vests out of the camp” (Lev. 10: 5). The substance, the reality, was gone—nothing remained but the external covering. Such is “a form of piety” (2 Tim. 3: 5) without the power, and “a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev. 3: 1). We may well retain the outward appearance of priests and the phraseology of worship, and yet be utterly devoid of godly reality and power in our souls. What a solemn lesson! Writer and reader alike, let our worship be pure, our hearts simple as to their object, and may we never forget that “God is greatly to be feared in the council of the saints, and terrible for all that are round about Him” (Ps. 89: 7).