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The priesthood looked promising for Nadab and Abihu. The holy God of Israel had personally set them apart to serve as priests (Ex. 28:1). Their family pedigree was rich and their preparation extensive (Lev. 8–10).

They were dressed in fresh robes and sashes (Lev. 8:7). The turban on their heads held a golden plate boasting “Holy to the LORD” (Lev. 8:9; cf. Ex. 28:36). Blood from their ordination offering was crusted on their ears, thumbs, and toes (Lev. 8:24). Their hearts were still awestruck from seeing the “fire [that] came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering” (Lev. 9:24).

They were set apart to serve God, but not for long. The opening verses of Leviticus 10 read:

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized 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. (Lev. 10:1–2)

Their ordination processes likely lasted longer than their ministries. Their unauthorized fire was met with an unquenchable one. God killed them on the spot in dramatic fashion.

Nadab and Abihu’s sudden death raises a host of questions: What exactly was this strange fire? Did they use the wrong incense? Did they come at the wrong time? Did they enter the Holy of Holies? Were they drunk (Lev. 10:9)? Did they offer incense to a false god?

We can’t be certain.

We can be certain, however, that they knew the clear command concerning the altar: “You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it” (Ex. 30:9). Yet for some reason, they shrugged off the warning and paid for it dearly.

Stories like this are included in Scripture to instruct us (Rom. 15:4). God wants us to pause, to ponder, What should we learn from their fiery death? Here are three lessons.

1. There Are No Small Sins

God raining fire on Sodom and Gomorrah makes sense, but roasting rookie priests for offering some “strange fire”? Being incinerated for such a “small” sin startles us. Evidently Nadab and Abihu’s deceitful hearts tricked them into thinking their disobedience was trivial.

Stories like this one are included in Scripture to instruct us (Rom. 15:4).

The Bible’s pages are marked by small sins that cost people greatly. Eating a forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6). Looking back at a city (Gen. 19:26). Hitting a rock (Num. 20:11). Touching the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:7). Lying about real-estate withholdings (Acts 5:1–11).

Scenes like these teach an important lesson: there are no small sins against a holy God.

Sin only seems trivial to us when God’s holiness seems trite. God is an all-consuming fire who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16; Heb. 12:29). There is no impurity in him whose eyes are too pure to look on evil (Ps. 92:15; Hab. 1:13). Sinless angels who unceasingly cry “Holy! Holy! Holy!”—while covering their eyes and feet—do so because God’s unfiltered holiness is unbearable to endure (Isa. 6:4; Rev. 4:8). When righteous Isaiah stood before God, he impulsively exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). When we see God as holy, we see that no sin is small.

To say there are no sins are small doesn’t mean all sins are the same. Some sins are worse than others and carry greater consequences (Matt. 10:15; 2 Pet. 2:21). But this distinction shouldn’t “shrink” any sin. It isn’t our sins that are small, but our estimation of God. A high view of his holiness plainly shows that even the seemingly tiniest sin is eternal treason. Nadab and Abihu’s death is but a foreshadowing of the fierce fire that awaits even the “slightest” sinners. God is that holy, and our sin is that serious.

Sin only seems trivial to us when God’s holiness seems trite.

Are there “small sins” you’ve grown comfortable with? Don’t interpret God withholding his consuming fire as him not caring about your sin. His kindness shouldn’t lead you to be comfortable with sin; rather, it should “lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4).

2. How We Worship Matters

The Bible is clear that God cares how we approach him in worship. In Leviticus 8–9 the priests did everything “as the LORD commanded” (Lev. 8:4, 5, 6, 9, 13, and so on). But Nadab and Abihu went rogue and did what “he had not commanded them.” Overlooking God’s commands may have been well-intended like Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6–7) or devious like Saul (1 Sam. 15:1–23). Either way, God showed everyone it matters how we worship him.

Innovative worship, creativity, and cultural relevance are trademarks of modern trendsetters. While truth-serving creativity has importance, truth-distorting creativity is a satanic instrument. As Paul told the easily enamored Corinthians, “I feel a divine jealousy for you. . . . I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2–3). I have the same fear for the church in our day.

The stunning lack of theological discernment and biblical illiteracy in the modern church sets entire congregations up to dishonor God by offering “strange fire” as worship. I fear many well-intended worshipers may be more influenced by the spirit of the age than the Spirit of God. We’re quick to cite “cultural context” as we edit clear biblical prohibitions. Doing this follows the way of Nadab and Abihu, who worshiped God according to their will and wisdom rather than according to his.

The stunning lack of theological discernment and biblical illiteracy in the modern church sets entire congregations up to dishonor God by offering ‘strange fire’ as worship.

We should also notice that Nadab and Abihu were leaders. Being a leader doesn’t exempt one from judgment; it enhances the judgment. Leaders will be judged more strictly (James 3:1; cf. Luke 12:48), and ministering to God’s people according to worldly wisdom brings fiery discipline (1 Cor. 3:10–15). This is exceptionally important for leaders to know.

3. We Need a Better Priest

Nadab and Abihu were everything you don’t want in a priest. They minimized sin and made up their own rules for worship. Their fault and frailty are intended to remind us of our countless sins (both small and great) as well as our propensity to reshape God’s requirements to our own liking. Their judgment shows us our great need for a priest who perfectly keeps God’s law and always lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25). We need a better priest than Nadab or Abihu. We need Jesus.

Jesus resisted even the smallest sin because he trusted the Father’s Word (Matt. 4:3–4, 10). He did not alter God’s Word but led people into rightly worshiping God (Matt. 5:1–7:29). Jesus, the one who knew no sin, went outside the camp to be consumed for others’ sins (Lev. 10:4; Heb. 13:12; 2 Cor. 5:21). And he was raised to serve as the everlasting priest for all who trust him (Heb. 4:14–16; 7:25).

Jesus, the one who knew no sin, went outside the camp to be consumed for others’ sins.

In many ways, we, like Nadab and Abihu, have ignored God’s commands. But Jesus died so we might live. As we consider Nadab and Abihu, let us find comfort in knowing that though we too deserve to be consumed for our sins, Jesus faced the flame of God’s holy wrath so we could be forgiven and rejoice in the hope of one day seeing his face (Rev. 22:4).

Come, Lord Jesus, come!