The record of the impious failure of Nadab and Abihu, and of the swift judgment that fell upon them, as recorded in Leviticus 10, has been written for our admonition, and, indeed, the lessons taught us in it are as plain as they are solemn and important. Moses at once seeks to impress upon Aaron, what was so distinctly expressed thereby - Jehovah will be sanctified in those that draw nigh to Him, and will be glorified before all the people. His holiness and His glory must be maintained before all.
The near and privileged place had just been granted to Aaron and his sons. The privilege and honour of the priesthood had just been conferred upon them, and it was the day of their inauguration into that new and holy position, by virtue of which they might draw near to God, and present offerings and sacrifices to Him, and burn sweet incense before Him. All had been of divine appointment, and that which alone could be suitable to Him by those who drew nigh to Him had also been plainly declared. No place had been left for man's thoughts, ideas, or judgments. All things (according to the character and order of that dispensation) were of God.
God was thereby setting forth (in type) the great and marvellous truth that His purpose was to have man near and acceptable to Him. But He was also plainly declaring that there was only one divinely provided, and divinely ordered, way whereby this could be realized. As to their persons, they must first have been the subjects (figuratively) of the renewing and cleansing action of the word and Spirit of God; and as to their standing and place, it must be on the ground of blood-shedding, and of all the value and sweet savour of the offerings. Thus, nothing of themselves - of what was characteristic of them in a natural way - was owned or allowed in the least; for God has always maintained this important truth, that man in the flesh could never have any place or footing before Him. Nor, moreover (and this is where failure so often comes in, as indeed it was in the case we are considering), can anything of man - that is man in nature, or according to nature and the flesh - be accepted or owned if presented to Him, or introduced into His presence by those whom He has privileged and fitted personally to draw nigh to Him.
Nadab and Abihu were indifferent as to this, - they presumed to come into His presence and to burn incense before Him (that which typified the fragrance of Christ before God), with "strange fire" (not taken from off the altar, see Isaiah 6:6.) which He commanded them not. If we are to be before God in the acceptance and preciousness of Jesus, it is because He has suffered the judgment of God on the cross, of which the altar was a type, and all true communion with God, and enjoyment of, and worship in, His presence, can only be on this basis, and as our souls are in the true and real sense of this.
The fire had just descended from heaven and fed (so to speak) upon the sacrifice laid upon the altar, thus expressing, typically, God's full acceptance of the work of Christ, as perfectly meeting His holy judgment against sin, and glorifying Him about it. All approach to God and worship before Him, must be in the recognition of the truth and reality of this. The application of this truth to us is expressed in Phil. 3, "We are the circumcision, who worship in (or "by") the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh." Our praise and worship must not be the fruit of natural excitement, nor religious sentimentality, nor yet in virtue of any service in which we may be engaged, but as "the circumcision" - as those who have learned the unfitness for God of all that we were in ourselves, and the judgment and setting aside of it all in the death of Christ, but who are now "complete in Him." (See Colossians 2:10.)
All this we have set forth in type in the case of Aaron's sons, as we have already briefly noticed. But, alas! that bright day in Israel's history was soon clouded over through the rashness and folly of Nadab and Abihu, who failed to order their approach to Him according to the holiness and sanctity due to His presence, and ignored the altar, which was the basis of all their blessing and fitness for His presence. It might seem a little thing in human judgment, but Jehovah marked it as a most serious and solemn neglect of what was due and suitable to Him.
In its application to us it is a warning against forgetting, or ignoring, that judgment of all that we are naturally, as expressed by the sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross. It is true we have boldness to enter into the holiest, but it is "by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His flesh," and it is "by Him," that we are exhorted to "offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually," and again it is in "Christ Jesus" that we, who were sometime afar off, are "made nigh by the blood of Christ."
It is well that we should know and appreciate our privileges, and the place of nearness into which we have been brought, but it is also of the utmost importance that we should ever bear in mind the way all this has been secured for us, and what is due to Him who has "reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ," through making Him who knew no sin to be sin for us. Therefore, in drawing nigh to Him, nothing of nature or of the flesh, religious or otherwise, can be allowed.
Nadab and Abihu paid dearly for their rashness, and though we are living in a day of grace, yet it is not that God is any less jealous of His glory, or more tolerant of what is unsuitable to Himself. Far from it. What enters the Holiest must be suitable for the Holiest. We may fail to discern what is suitable, if under the influence of nature or the flesh, and as a result, instead of presenting a sweet savour of Christ to God, there is that which practically puts us at a moral distance from Him, as savouring of that to which Christ died.
Indeed, we do well to bear in mind that what Christ died to, as well as what He died for, can never be allowed in the presence of God. We are considering now the position of believers as priests - as a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. We have to do with natural things and relationships in our life here, but in our capacity as priests and worshippers we must not introduce what savours of man, nor the fruit that grows in nature's garden, so to speak. The fire used by Aaron's sons would be all right outside the tabernacle, but it must not be applied to the sweet incense in the presence of God. In His presence there must only be what suits Him, and that is what is of Christ - not of ourselves.
Aaron and his two remaining sons are admonished, subsequent to the death of Nadab and Abihu, to be careful to avoid all that would hinder their proper discernment of what suited God. They too, indeed, had failed, but it was more through human weakness - they plead incompetency as to their not having eaten the sin offering. They were not practically up to their new and honoured position, and they own it. But their case was different from that of Nadab and Abihu. These had no excuse - the forwardness of the flesh was sadly manifest with them, and met its deserts - "they died before the Lord." He distinguishes between their case and that of Aaron and the others. He bears with the latter, though He seeks their profit by what had happened, instructing and admonishing them, that they may be exercised as to what was due and suitable to Himself. He has, moreover, written these things for our profit. He would have us exercised as to what suits and glorifies Him. He has called us with a holy calling, and given us a wondrous place of nearness and privilege to Himself, and He would have us enjoying it, but this can only truly be in the practical refusal of all that to which Christ died, and in the appreciation by our souls of all that Christ is, and has done for God's glory. The Spirit of God has been given to us as the power for this. Our worship is to be "by the Spirit of God." (Phil. 3:3.) Our sacrifices are to be "spiritual sacrifices." (1 Peter 2:5.) Our prayers are to be "in the Holy Ghost." (Jude 20.) This allows no place for natural excitement, or human wisdom, or fleshly piety, in our approach to God, whether in the assembly or privately.
We are before God only in virtue of the death of Christ, and in His acceptance, and it is as our souls are in the sense of this by the Spirit of God that we eschew what is of self in our approach to Him, conscious that we are complete in Christ, accepted in Him; in short, that we are on new creation ground, where "all things are of God," and where "Christ is everything and in all." S. M. Anglin.