From the beginning, God has determined how his people should worship him. The sacrificial system wasn’t a human idea, it was God’s idea. The priest’s clothing was meticulously detailed by God. Blueprints to the original place of worship were given from heaven with divine meaning and purpose. They were clear and concrete. They were binding and authoritative. And to ignore them was the pay a great price.
In other words, God established very early on that when it comes to worship, God makes the rules.
I wonder if some of the Israelites balked at the various customs God required of them. Confessing your sins to a goat, for example, may have seemed kind of silly. But of course, God had a great plan in mind when he instituted these things. They had a purpose beyond Israel’s limited understanding; something they could not see from their perspective. They didn’t know that the veil would be torn from top to bottom, indicating that the believer is now able to enter into the presence of God through Christ. They didn’t know that every time they slaughtered a lamb they were pointing to the greater reality of the ultimate Lamb of God, who would be slaughtered for the sins of many. God determined how they would worship, and it was Israel’s responsbility to obey scrupulously, even if they did not fully understand what it all meant.
When men take matters of worship into their own hands and attempt something to worship God in a way that God has not prescribed, they tread on precarious grounds. It seems to be the pattern throughout Scripture: the first thing sin affects is the attitude toward God in matters of worship.
After Genesis 3 comes Genesis 4. (Profound, right?). Genesis 3 records the Fall. And Genesis 4 gives us the account of the first humans born with original sin. Cain and Abel. And what was Cain’s sin (before the murder)? It was in he way he attempted to worship God.
That’s why when Israel becomes a nation and is freed from Egypt, the first thing that they get is law. Guidelines. Stipulations. Regulations. If they are to be the people of God, they must know how to worship him.
And right smack in the center of the law-giving is a very peculiar story. And I believe it’s there to slap you across the face and tell you, “Wake up, man. God is holy. Do things his way.”
And if you’ve read the title of this post, you probably know where I’m going. Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 10. Remember them?
In one of the ceremonies in which they were to worship God by their offering, they offered “strange fire.” ESV translates it, “unauthorized fire.” As they offered it, the fired jumped out from their censers and devoured them. God was not pleased, and at that moment he killed them for their sin. What was their sin? Other than the fact that they offered strange fire, we’re not sure. No specifics are given. We don’t even know what was strange about the fire, or what made it unauthorized. I think Moses purposely doesn’t tell us what exactly they did because he wants us to get the point: God is holy. Fear him. Follow his directions.
Isn’t the point here clear? When it comes to worship, God makes the rules. Human innovation isn’t allowed. This is not an Old Testament principle. This is a principle for human beings in a universe ruled by a holy God.
When we gather to church on Sunday mornings, remember that we’re coming toward Nadab and Abihu’s altar to serve Nadab and Abihu’s God. The method of our worship has changed (by God’s design), but the principle laid down for us in Leviticus 10 has not: don’t bring unauthorized fire into the worship of God. Human wisdom has no place in the house of God. He makes the rules.
Now, I understand the New Testament doesn’t give the same specific prescriptions for worship in the church. The pastor isn’t given a certain type suit to wear, like a priest’s ephod; sacrifices are no longer viable, seeing as how the final sacrifice has already been given; and though the tabernacle was designed by God, there is no blueprint for church buildings these days. Much of the worship in the New Testament is descriptive, not prescriptive. But I think the reason why it’s that way is because the Old Testament has already been written. And if you start in Genesis, and get to know this Yahweh, by the time you turn from Malachi to Matthew you’ll get a sense of his impeccable holiness, hatred for sin, and purposefulness in everything. You’ll already know that he takes worship seriously.
So when you’re sitting around the boardroom planning your Easter service, you’re not asking whether or not it’s appropriate to play “Highway to Hell” as an opening song.
Why? Because you’ve met Nadab and Abihu. And you’ve met their God. And you’ve seen his standards. And (hopefully) you’ve learned that when you approach the throne in worship you gotta take your sandals off– you’re on holy ground.
This Sunday, remember that.
And you might find yourself appreciating Jesus more.