Sermon 10-22-2023: “Playing with Fire”

Scripture: Leviticus 10:1-11

Today’s scripture is shocking. It’s disturbing. It troubles our consciences. For some of us, if we’re not careful, it may even call into question God’s very character: Why would a loving God do something like this?

Dear friends, I understand that today’s scripture—along with the Book of Leviticus in general—is no one’s favorite scripture and no one’s favorite book of the Bible. In fact, I’m guessing that you’ve never heard a sermon on this book. And it’s not like I’ve ever preached one, either!

But I make no apologies: If we fail to understand why Nadab and Abihu were consumed by God’s holy and justified wrath, then I’m afraid we may fail to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ—because we’ll fail to appreciate what God has done to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. Indeed, even though many of us can sing the words of Amazing Grace without a hymnal, we may fail to understand what exactly makes grace so amazing in the first place!

When sinful human beings—at apart from God’s grace, which comes through faith in Christ—when we come into contact with a holy God, we risk playing with fire. That’s what today’s scripture teaches. So, first, Point Number One, I want to talk about the problem of God’s holiness. Point Number Two: What God has done to solve this problem. And Point Number Three: I want to talk about one important way that God’s solution to the problem should change our lives.

Point Number One… the problem of God’s holiness… Nadab and Abihu were the two oldest sons of Aaron. They were ordained as priests—along with their father, Aaron—just two chapters earlier. And then a chapter later they successfully offered their first sacrifice to God; and the people saw God’s glory and they were filled with both praise and fear.

And then a chapter after that, in today’s scripture, they are literally struck down by the fire of God’s wrath!

We can’t be sure of the exact nature of their sin, except twelve times in chapters 8 and 9, we’re told that Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu—in following the carefully prescribed liturgies and rituals that God gave them to follow—we’re told—twelve times—that they did exactly as the Lord commanded. 

In today’s scripture, it’s clear that they failed to do what God commanded. Verse 1 says they offered “unauthorized fire before the Lord.” They performed some liturgy that God had not commanded them to perform. They may also have been drunk, which would explain why God tells Aaron in verse 9 not to drink wine or strong drink before serving in the temple. And they may also have crossed from the sanctuary—known as the Holy Place—into the Holy of Holies, where they Ark of the Covenant was located, where they were not permitted to go. We can’t be sure. But whatever they did, and however they did it, they disobeyed God and God’s Word. And God killed them instantly.

And as shocking as today’s scripture is, it’s hardly an isolated incident. Let’s look, for instance, at 2 Samuel 6. You may recall that years earlier, Israel’s enemy, the Philistines, had captured the Ark of the Covenant. They returned it to Israel but in 2 Samuel chapter 6, David is eager and in a hurry to bring it into Jerusalem, the new capital city, where it belonged. 

Only… David was in such a hurry that he had some men attempt to transport it there in a careless way—on a cart, pulled by oxen. This went against God’s careful instructions. The Ark itself, please note, had gold rings on each corner. Gold-covered wooden poles fit inside the rings, and certain priests, the Kohathites, were commanded to carry the Ark on foot—never touching the  Ark itself, but carrying it by these poles, which were inserted through the rings.

David’s men were careless; they weren’t doing it that way: Instead, the Ark was on a cart carried by oxen. And listen to what happens in verses 5 through 7:

But when they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand and steadied the Ark of God. Then the Lord’s anger was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him dead because of this. So Uzzah died right there beside the Ark of God.

We read this story and naturally think, “Poor Uzzah!” The oxen stumbled and the Ark of the Covenant—the most sacred object in all of Israel, the very place where heaven and earth met, the place above which the Spirit of God resided in a special way—the Ark of the Covenant was about to tip or slide or fall off of this cart and fall into the mud, and all Uzzah did was reach out his hand to prevent it from falling off the cart—a completely understandable action. And we’re told that God’s wrath is kindled and God strikes him down.

What kind of God are we dealing with here? 

And the answer is, we are dealing with a perfectly holy God. 

One preacher said that Uzzah’s sin was this: He mistakenly believed that the mud onto which the Ark was about to fall was somehow dirtier than the hands of the sinful man who reached out to steady it. And that’s not true! The mud onto which the Ark was going to fall was not sinful: the mud was being exactly what God created mud to be; the mud was doing exactly what God created these elements to do.

Mud isn’t a problem! We are the problem… especially as we get close and come into contact with a holy God!

Every time we sin, after all, we are refusing to submit to God’s will, we are rejecting God’s rule over our lives. Every time we sin—through thought, word, or deed—it’s as if we are saying, “No” to God. “No! I know better than you, God, what’s good for me. So I’m not going to do what you commanded.” In our sinful condition—apart from God’s grace—we are nothing more than rebels against an infinitely powerful, perfectly holy, perfectly good, perfectly wise King—the very One who gives us our breath and heartbeat at every moment, the very One who graciously gives us every moment of this good life that we enjoy, in spite of the fact that so many of those moments are in spent in open rebellion against him, our sovereign King!

So you tell me… Exactly how comfortable should we sinful humans be, apart from God’s grace, when we approach God our King… the One against whom we have done nothing but commit one treasonous action after another?

And make no mistake: sin is treason… To this day, under our Constitution, very few crimes merit the death penalty. Various crimes involving murder do, of course… But one of few other crimes that is punishable by death is treason

Every sin is treason against God our King. Every sin, therefore, deserves the death penalty. The apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin”—in other words, the payment that our sins deserve—“is death.” Romans 6:23.

And lest you think—as too many Christians do—that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God revealed through Jesus Christ in the New Testament, I invite you to readon your own time about a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts chapter 5, verses 1 to 11. They lied to the apostles, and they lied to God. They took very lightly God’s holiness, and God strikes them down… which, like today’s scripture, is shocking and unsettling.

But I get it: We read about Nadab and Abihu, we read about Uzzah and the Ark, we read about Ananias and Sapphira, and we are tempted to wonder, “Is God being fair?” 

Is God being fair in striking down Nadab and Abihu? It’s a question worth considering. 

I like the way the late pastor and theology professor R.C. Sproul talks about “fairness” in his sermon on this text. 1 He describes the time he was a Bible professor at a Christian college teaching an “introduction to the Old Testament” class to 250 students. The first day of class he gave out the syllabus. He said, “We have three short papers, just five pages each, that you have to do during the course of the semester. And the first one is due September 30 unless you’re confined to the infirmary, the hospital, or there’s a death in your immediate family. The second one is due October 30. And the third one is due November 30.”

He warned his students that if they don’t get these papers in, “You’ll get an F. Is that understood?” “Oh yes,” his students said.

On September 30—the first deadline—225 students came to turn in their first term paper. “Twenty-five of them didn’t have their papers. They were terrified.” They all had their excuses. So Dr. Sproul said, “Okay. I’m going to give you a break this time. But don’t do it again!’”

Everything was fine, Sproul said, until October 30, when the next paper was due. Two hundred students turned their papers in on the deadline. Fifty students didn’t. Once again, excuses… Midterm exams, homecoming festivities, assignments in other classes. “We’re sorry. But give us one more shot.” He agreed: “But this is the last time.”

He said that for the first and only time in his teaching career, his students spontaneously burst into song: “We love you Prof. Sproul/ Oh yes we do…” He said, “I was Mr. Popularity on that campus. My popularity reached its zenith that day, and it wasn’t diminished at all until November 30, when the final paper was due… This time, a hundred-and-fifty people turned their papers in on deadline.” And a hundred students didn’t.

Dr. Sproul asked a student: “Where’s your paper?” “Don’t worry, Prof. I’ll have it in a couple of days.” So Sproul took out his black grade book. “You don’t have your paper.” “No, sir.” “F.” He started to go down the roll of the other one hundred students who failed to turn their papers in: “Mr. So-and-so, where’s your paper?” “I don’t have it.” “F.” He marked it in his black book.

Before long, one of the students objected. “That’s not fair!” he said. So Dr. Sproul checked his black book on the student who said this. “Mr. Johnson, weren’t you late with your paper last month?” “Yes, sir.” “And you’re late this morning?” “Yes, sir.” “So when you complain that it’s not fair, you’re saying you want justice. Okay, then, I’m going to give you justice. I’m going to change your grade for the last paper—the one you turned in late—and I’m going to give you an ‘F’ for that one, too. You know, in order to be fair… in order to be just.”

Then Sproul asked the class, “Now, who else wants justice?” Seeing no hands and hearing no further objections, the professor said, “Be careful about asking for justice. You just might get it!”

So what had happened? The problem wasn’t that Dr. Sproul was treating his students unfairly or unjustly. The problem was, these students had grown accustomed to his grace. And they were presuming upon his grace. They were thinking, “Of course, Prof Sproul is going to be gracious to us. So it doesn’t really matter what we do.”

Are we like that in our relationship with God? Are we also presuming upon God’s grace? Do we know longer have any fear of God?

Scripture warns, time and again—and Jesus warns, time and again—that we are currently living in a season of mercy.But this season has an expiration date… And that date is either our own appointment with death, which God has made for us, or the Second Coming of Christ, if that happens before we die. Regardless, either of these events may happen at any moment. And after they happen, the Bible warns that there’s nothing any of us can do to make ourselves right with God!

At that point it will be too late. And we will face God’s wrath. God’s Word doesn’t sugarcoat it, so I’m not either. Peter says,

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. 2

Or as John, prophesying about this future event, writes in Revelation 20:15:

And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

So all preachers like me can do in the meantime is to warn everyone we can: Just as God’s righteous and holy wrath was poured out on sinners like Nadab and Abihu—and it cost them their lives—there will come a day when God’s righteous and holy wrath will be poured out on sinners everywhere—except in this case they will lose not only their lives, but their very souls… And they will be eternally separated from God… in hell… 

Unless… 

And this brings us to Point Number Two: The solution… 

Here’s the good news: God’s nature is defined not by holiness alone but also by love. And God has done something for us, out of love, in and through his Son Jesus to solve our problem with sin and bring us into a right relationship with God. “For us and for our salvation,” God took on flesh; he lived the life of perfect obedience to our Father that we ourselves were unable to live; he died the God-forsaken death that we deserved to die. 

Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” 3 1 Peter 3:18. “For our sake,” Paul writes, “God made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. Or Paul again in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’ ” Galatians 3:13

This is substitutionary atonement. In other words, this is what Christ did for us on the cross. And I love the way one scholar, Allan Moseley, illustrates it in his commentary on Leviticus. He writes:

I once read a story about a nineteenth-century wagon train winding its way west across America. The pioneers in the wagon train were going to find a place to homestead. They traveled in covered wagons drawn by oxen, so progress was slow. One day they were horrified to see a long line of smoke in the west, stretching for miles across the prairie. In a few minutes it was clear that the prairie fire was heading toward them rapidly. They had crossed a river the day before, but they couldn’t make it back that far before the flames arrived. Then somebody had an idea. He told the people to set fire to the grass behind them.

They did so, and when a large area was burned over, the whole group moved back into the burned area and waited there. As the flames roared to them from the west and grew close, the little children were afraid and asked, “Are you sure we won’t be burned?” The adults assured them, “The flames can’t reach us here, because we’re standing where the fire has already burned!”

The fire of God’s righteous wrath does not have to consume us. God has already poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross. Jesus is God the Son who took our sin on Himself and accepted the penalty for our sin.

When we put our faith in Jesus, God takes our sin and its penalty away, and gives us new and eternal life. All we have to do is take our stand where the fire has already burned, where God’s wrath has already been expressed, on Jesus…

The fires of God’s judgment burned themselves out on Jesus, and all who are in Him are safe forever; they’re standing where the fire has been.

And that’s Point Number Two, the solution

Point Number Three: How should God’s solution to our problem change the way we Christians live? 

In about a thousand different ways, of course. I spend week after week, sermon after sermon, Bible study after Bible study, talking about the difference our relationship with Christ ought to make in our lives. But for now, in light of today’s scripture, I only want to talk about one important difference:

Many of you were understandably bothered last week when you followed our year-long Bible reading plan and came across this story of Nadab and Abihu. As I’ve tried to explain in this sermon, what God did was perfectly fair, perfectly just.

But we read this story last week and it bothered us… it unsettled us… it disturbed us… it seared our consciences.

And it was supposed to!God inspired Moses to preserve this story for posterity because God wanted us, at least in part, to be bothered by what happens when sinners come face to face with a holy God.

Remember the movie Schindler’s List. Remember the end of the movie. Just as the war was ending and the concentration camp was being liberated, Jewish workers from the camp express gratitude to Oskar Schindler for all the lives that he saved. They present him with a list of the hundreds of people he saved from destruction under the Nazis.

Yet, is Schindler happy or satisfied about it? No! He breaks down in tears… he sobs uncontrollably… as he thinks of the hundreds of more lives he could have saved, if he had only done this… or that.

Brothers and sisters, is that going to be us on Judgment Day, when God calls us and our church to account for our failure to be witnesses for his Son Jesus and to make disciples? 

So my invitation is this: If we’re bothered by what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they faced God’s wrath on account of their sins, shouldn’t we also be bothered by what may happen to people we know and love right now—family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, employees, classmates—when they stand before a holy God in Final Judgment?

Will they face God’s wrath… or will they be saved? 

In giving us his Great Commission and empowering us with his Holy Spirit, our Lord Jesus has given us a role to play in the answer to that question.

So… Shouldn’t that thought change the way we live?

  1.  R.C. Sproul, “The Wrath of God in Preaching,” 28 September 2010, sermonaudio.com. Accessed 20 November 2023.
  2.  2 Peter 3:9-10 NLT
  3. 1 Peter 3:18

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