Sunday, June 26, 2016

Strange Fire and Holy Fire, Part 1

There is a provision in the legislation of God’s Torah regarding proper worship that I think is very instructive. That is, the instructions for making incense (see Exodus 30:34-38). This brief list of ingredients and instructions for preparing it ends with the following warning: “When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.” (30:37-38, NRSV)

The priests were to utilize this incense as part of the daily worship in their work of representing the people before God. This task was gravely serious and God proved it by taking the lives of two of Aaron’s sons. For Aaron’s sons, taking up censers,

“after putting fire in them, placed incense in it and offered strange fire before the LORD which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (Leviticus 10:1-2, NASBU)

This appears to be a harsh response until we begin to realize the context. These were the sons of the high priest, Aaron. Their vocation was defined by understanding and obeying God’s commands as they related to the worship of God in his holiness—in his sanctuary (“Tent of Meeting”). God stated clearly what was required in order to approach him in worship and the priests, above all others among the Israelites, were to insure that they obeyed these directives explicitly because they were assigned the task of leading and teaching the people (see Leviticus 10:8-11) in worship of the holy God who had delivered them.

Why had they not followed God’s explicit instructions regarding making and preparing the incense? We are not given any indications in the text—the text simply states that they had offered before Yahweh, the Holy One, “strange” or “unholy” fire. But what is clear from the Torah is that God expected his priests to fear him and thus to obey him. Did they not think that God was serious about maintaining the distinctiveness of the worship of the Holy One? Apparently they thought that they could improvise or alter the way they prepared the designated instruments used for worship. This incident demonstrated how serious God was about distinguishing what God had set apart as holy and what was common to everyday human life.  

Now I know that through the Lord Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection God’s people are made holy and righteous. Indeed, because of this act of grace to activate the power of the blood of Christ into our believing persons we can now make all things holy (set apart for God’s worship and usefulness). This is just one aspect of the blessing of God’s eternal covenant enacted and ratified through the Lord Jesus (see Hebrews 10:1-14; 13:13-16). Is not God just as serious about making us holy today as he was for the ancient Israelites? Dare we think that God’s purpose of holiness for his people has been relaxed simply because the fullness of grace has been revealed, demonstrated and sealed in the Lord Jesus? 

The human heart has not changed over thousands of years. We are still just as prone to set aside God’s explicit commands when we decide that doing what God said does not match up with our desires. One of the Proverbs states this well: “Those who walk uprightly fear the LORD, but one who is devious in conduct despises him.” (14:2, NRSV) The sons of Aaron despised God. This is what their conduct demonstrated. (Another example of priests who were bent on doing evil while supposedly serving God is Eli’s sons [see 1 Samuel 2:12-17].) 

Our unfaithfulness has no remedy outside of Christ himself and our choice to place our faith (trust) in him. God’s ways are good—for the Torah was given to instruct the people in what was good, healthful and just for their common life together. This revelation was for their good and a guide for how to practice their faith in the God of heaven and earth who had delivered them as a people from Egypt. But it required faith on their part.

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