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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God Upholds His Perfect Holiness at All Costs
Text:Leviticus 10:1-20 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 93:1,2,3,4                                                                                  

Ps 26:4,5,6,7                                                                                                  

Reading – Isaiah 6:1-7

Ps 99:1,2,3,4,5,6

Sermon – Leviticus 10:1-20

Ps 85:1,2,3

Hy 5:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, one of the first songs that our children learn to sing is “Holy, Holy.” It’s a beautiful melody, and the words are easy to remember. It’s also a song of praise—a doxology—so we can sing it on many different occasions: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” Though we love the song, and cherish the words, it does reveal something about God that’s hard for us. This God is too much to bear. He can be scary to approach. He is completely unlike us, separate from all sin, exceptional in his ability and power, overwhelmingly majestic. He is holy. And God’s holiness is never something to toy with.

We see this in the text on which that hymn is based. It’s in Isaiah 6, where the prophet describes his vision of God. He says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (v 1). There is God in his position as ruler of the universe, on his throne surrounded by angels. The angels are crying out and saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (v 3). This is their constant refrain, for God’s splendour is so great that it requires continuous worship from all who know Him.

But for Isaiah, hearing this song about God’s holiness was not a comfortable experience. As he stands there, the doorposts of the temple are shaken, and it’s filled with smoke. When Almighty God draws near, the earth itself trembles. And listen to what Isaiah says, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (v 5). This revelation of God’s glory troubles him, and makes him intensely aware of his own sinfulness. If the LORD is so holy, so majestic and mighty, how can the unclean Isaiah dare to stand in his presence? “I am undone,” Isaiah says, or “I am ruined.” But that’s not the end of Isaiah, of course. He isn’t engulfed by God’s holiness, he is preserved by God’s grace.

This event gives us an insight into Leviticus 10. From what happens to Nadab and Abihu, we learn the LORD’s holiness can be a terrifying thing, even unbearable. God’s great majesty should make anyone pause before they take one step further, and be sure that the way into his presence is open. In Christ the way has been opened, which is one of the things we see in our text, on this theme,

God upholds his perfect holiness at all costs:

  1. the shocking offense of Aaron’s sons
  2. the consuming fire from the LORD
  3. the ongoing need for Israel’s holiness


1) the shocking offense of Nadab and Abihu: The title of our chapter could be “From Triumph to Tragedy.” For in the Israelite camp there’s such a quick change, from something beautiful to something terrible. To appreciate how stark it is, let’s read the last two verses of chapter 9: “Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of meeting, and came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people, and fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces” (vv 23-24).

This was the wonderful beginning of the priestly ministry. God approves of the newly appointed Levites, and He accepts their offerings by sending fire down from heaven. The people shout with joy: God can dwell among them. Heaven and earth meet, God and sinners are joined, and there is peace!

Now read the very next verses in the story of Leviticus, “Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD” (10:1-2). It’s on the same day, the very first day of Aaron’s high priestly ministry—and two of his sons are struck down dead. Like Isaiah later feared, God’s holiness has overwhelmed them.

Let’s try to understand this event. It involves Nadab and Abihu, who are “the sons of Aaron” (v 1). Aaron had four sons, and these were the oldest two. This means that they were in places of leadership just behind Moses, and behind Aaron as high priest. Remember that they’d just been ordained, clothed with the priestly garments and anointed with oil.

If anyone had reason to revere the Lord, it was these two. Not long ago Nadab and Abihu had witnessed God’s glory on Mount Sinai. For they, together with Moses and Aaron and seventy elders of Israel, had been invited to go up the mountain and approach the LORD. We can read this in Exodus 24, when it even says that “they saw the God of Israel” (v 10). God had given these leaders of Israel an awe-inspiring glimpse of his glory. This was an encouragement for them to lead the people faithfully in the ways of the LORD.

So in chapter 10, the sons of Aaron begin their ministry. “Each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it” (v 1). A censer is a vessel for burning incense, probably a covered bowl and held by chains so it can be waved back and forth. God had given directions for making the incense, a mixture of aromatic spices. Glowing coals were put into the censer, and then the incense was burned, and it would give off a fine smell inside the tabernacle.

In verse 1 it sounds like everything is going as it should, but then it continues, “and [they] offered profane fire before the LORD.” Now, there’s not much detail about what Nadab and Abihu actually did wrong here. We want to know! What was their offense?

Bible commentators have made suggestions, of course. Maybe the two priests weren’t ready to enter the sanctuary, or this was the improper time in the ceremony. Maybe the incense hadn’t been made according to God’s direction. Some think that they were drunk, because in verse 9 there’s suddenly a rule against drinking wine. The problem might also have been the burning coals in the censers, that Nadab and Abihu have used fire from somewhere other than the altar of burnt offering—where they were supposed to take the coals from.

We don’t know exactly, but this is the bottom line: in coming near to God, they haven’t followed God’s instructions. It was something “which He had not commanded them” (v 1). Leviticus teaches us that God expects meticulous obedience on all points—for example, there’s that refrain in chapter 8, about ordaining the priests, “So Moses did just as the LORD commanded him.” Those who serve the holy God must obey what He says, promptly and fully. But Nadab and Abihu have not.

Again, we don’t know why. They might even have had a “good” reason to do what they did. Compare it to the man named Uzzah in 2 Samuel. Do you remember what happened to him? As the ark of the covenant was being brought to Jerusalem, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it when the cart suddenly lurched. He had good reason to do this, but the LORD struck him dead, for no one was allowed to touch the ark. This was a holy thing to the LORD, and it could not be treated carelessly. So the critical question for Nadab and Abihu, and for Uzzah, is whether they have acted according to God’s command. For the LORD wants all worship to be done rightly, in a way that reveres Him as God.

Now, as with everything that people bring to God, the LORD doesn’t need this. In his glory God exists in himself, perfectly self-sufficient and infinite in resources. He doesn’t need nice-smelling incense, or premium offerings, or an ornate ark as his throne. God doesn’t depend on our fine prayers, our beautiful hymns or costly gifts. But through faithful obedience to God, through sincere worship and our giving, we show God what we really think of Him. By our life we make a statement about Him. Is God holy? Is He majestic? Is He worthy of our devotion and reverence? Is God good enough for me to obey Him in all things, even hard things?

The offense of Nadab and Abihu was to think little of the God they were approaching. They were going to draw near according to their own thoughts and notions. And God won’t accept it—He reasserts his holiness in a startling way.

Nadab and Abihu are an example of a sad pattern we see throughout the Bible. Someone is given great privilege by God, they are guided by his clear commands, but then they fail, doing whatever seems right to them. It’s the story of Adam and Eve. It’s the story of Israel, and even of Moses. Later on, it’s the story of Judas and Peter. Even if someone has witnessed incredible things, participated in the Lord’s great work, a person might stumble into sin and bring dishonour to God.

And what about us? Each of us is prepared to dismiss what God says, to put his words to one side. Not at every moment of a day, but if it came down to it and we really wanted something, or we thought it was right, then we’d do what pleased ourselves. Today I have good reasons to skip prayer. To be angry. To give in to my lust. I’ve got good reasons not to forgive my brother. Not to contribute. When we don’t do as God commanded, we offend his holiness, and scorn his glory. We’re thinking little of the LORD’s glory, because if we thought more of Him, then we’d listen to Him, and trust Him, and love Him.

This is something that afflicts even our good works. Even our Sunday worship is clouded by our wrong motives and impure thoughts. Or the most heartfelt prayers aren’t acceptable on their own. Like Isaiah said, we’re an unclean people, trembling before a holy God. On your own, that’s a dangerous place to be—it’s fatal. If we sin, and we’re not cleansed, we will die.


2) the consuming fire of the LORD: “So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died” (v 2). The same divine fire that engulfed the sacrifices now consumes the priests. And earlier everyone had shouted with joy, but now Aaron “holds his peace” (v 3), or he is silent. God is rejecting the ministry of Nadab and Abihu. Because they have violated their sacred trust, God fires them—literally.

And God doesn’t owe them an explanation. He had told the people that there were boundaries that could not be crossed. They knew it. Even so, God will turn this tragedy into a teachable moment, to serve as a lesson for every age. It’s powerfully expressed in God’s words in verse 3, “By those who come near me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.” This is what it’s all about: God’s holiness. God demands that He be honoured as God, insists that He be treated as the matchless One, who is worthy of true worship.

So who would want to “come near,” as verse 3 says? The Hebrew word for “come near” is one used especially in Leviticus to describe the work of the priests. If they approach God at his tabernacle, they need to tread lightly, to walk a fine line, to bring right sacrifices.

But it’s not a lesson only for the priests. Everyone in Israel was interested in coming near to God: He was their life, their salvation, their Lord. They were a nation of priests, so this is why God says, “Before all the people I must be glorified.” If you’ll come near to the LORD, you need to bow before his majesty. His holiness means you have to be holy.

And as God says, He will always glorify Himself. If we don’t, He will, in one way or another. He glorifies Himself by showing grace and mercy to sinners. He also glorifies Himself by executing his wrath and punishing sin.

After witnessing God’s judgment, we said, “Aaron held his peace” (v 3). Think about what that means. He’s just seen two of his sons killed in action. It’s a terribly difficult thing, but God helps him understand what’s at stake. It wasn’t the individual fates of Nadab and Abihu, but it was about the entire nation. If God didn’t let his people come near with their incense and sacrifice, there could be no fellowship with Him, no God dwelling in their midst. That’s a prospect that is worse than death! So if these two deaths mean that tabernacle service can continue, Aaron will accept it.

The death of Aaron’s sons taught him and all Israel an essential truth about God. The LORD hates everything that detracts from his holiness and glory, so He will always show his anger against it. That’s a truth for us too, even if it’s uncomfortable. Many people consider the picture of divine judgment in Leviticus 10 to be outdated and offensive. Isn’t God a God of love? Isn’t this kind of wrath supposed to have ended with Christ?

I read once about a famous writer who was dying. He was asked how he felt about facing God, whether or not he was worried. And the writer answered, “God will forgive me. That’s his job.” This is how many people view God. If there is a God, then He’s a good God, and when the time for judgment comes, He’ll surely overlook whatever I’ve done wrong.

Beloved, God is good. God does forgive. And He is also perfectly holy. Like Habakkuk says to Him, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (1:3). So God consumes it with his fire. With the death of Nadab and Abihu, the people witness something of this terrible holiness of God. They were looking into a mirror dimly—and on that day at the tabernacle, they saw it only vaguely. But we actually see it more clearly, in high definition. For we see how God upholds his holiness at all costs—a cost that has been carried by Jesus Christ.

We deserve death for our sin, we said. We’ve done terrible things. We deserve to be consumed with fire for our disobedience, shut out from God’s presence, and cursed forever. If God will remain God, He cannot put aside this penalty. If God will be just, if He will be righteous and true to his Word, then our sin must be punished.

And out of his amazing love, God does this through his Son Jesus Christ. He sent his Son to this earth, and Jesus led a perfectly holy life. Then, with Jesus’ full agreement, He was nailed to the cross as our substitute. The sinless one became sin, in order to make his unholy people now holy and blameless. The cross is the holiness of God on full display—in all its terror and beauty—as God brings his justice against everything that is wicked and impure. The Son is cursed and consumed, that we can be forgiven. He was struck down, that we might be lifted up.

So let us never think that forgiveness is easy or automatic. If we’ll treasure God’s grace, then we have to realize what it took to make it possible. If you will come near to God, it can only be through true faith in Christ. Believe that He stood up for you, that He went into the fire for you, that He died for you, so that you might be live and be holy.


3) the ongoing need for Israel’s holiness: The rest of the chapter is how Moses and Aaron deal with the fallout of this event. What shouldn’t be overlooked is how God shows his mercy throughout: with this catastrophic failure of the priesthood, He could’ve shut the whole thing down. But God wants Israel to dwell with him, so He’ll help them be holy.

The first thing that has to happen is that the bodies of Nadab and Abihu are removed from the tabernacle grounds. Their corpses will make God’s house unholy, so God commands that two non-priestly Levites come forward and take them away.

Next, Aaron and his two remaining sons are told not to grieve, “Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the people” (v 6). This can seem a bit heartless, but this too was about upholding the LORD’s holiness. Total consecration to the God of life means full separation from death. Even the family’s deep grief has to be held in check so that the sacrifices can keep being offered.

Then comes further precaution for the priests, when God says to Aaron: “Do not drink wine or intoxicating drink, you, nor your sons with you, when you go into the tabernacle of meeting, lest you die” (v 9). This doesn’t mean that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they were killed, but it emphasizes that a priest has to serve with a clear mind. If a person will serve God rightly, there should be nothing that impairs their judgment.

It’s all too easy to cloud our minds and compromise our judgment. The brain is a sensitive thing, and we can affect it dangerously with our use of alcohol, or with drugs, or even with media like non-stop music and video games. Instead of having minds that are ready for God’s service, we can be muddled and distracted. So as holy priests we need this direction, “Do not get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless action, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18).

There’s a final piece to the fall-out after Nadab and Abihu are killed, and for a moment it looks like disaster is going to strike once more. There’s a question about what has happened to the sin offering. Moses is angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the remaining sons of Aaron, and he asks, “Why have you not eaten the sin offering in a holy place, since it is most holy?” (v 17).

Remember that Aaron and Sons were busy at this time with the first sacrifices. And normally they should’ve eaten the meat of the people’s sin offering (see Lev 6). Out of God’s goodness they were allowed to eat this portion, for it was God’s way to reward their labours. But Aaron’s sons have chosen not to eat it, but to burn it on the altar.

You can almost hear Moses and the people cringe: What now?! Two more corpses? Will this be the end of Aaron’s house, and his priesthood? Aaron is given a chance to explain, “Look, this day they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been accepted in the sight of the LORD?” (v 19). You can understand it, can’t you? After the display of God’s wrath, Aaron’s sons don’t have much of an appetite for the sacrificial meat. This food was holy to the LORD—dare they take it into their mouth? Was it appropriate?

Moses can accept this—and more importantly, God can. This wasn’t a disregard for God’s holiness, so Aaron’s sons can live, and their ministry can continue. They can come near to God, and they can glorify Him among the people.

So the chapter ends at a very different place from where it began. From triumph, to tragedy, to something like cautious optimism for the future. But it’s going to require continued effort and attention. After this chapter, God will begin explaining how holiness must be guarded, that the people will need to distinguish constantly between what is unclean and clean, unholy and holy. As God tells them in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” This was something that touched every part of life. It wasn’t going to be easy, and they were going to fail many times. Holiness will be an elusive thing.

And so it is for us: In ourselves, we cannot attain the perfection that God requires. We can try and try, and never reach it. We need to know that true holiness doesn’t come through us trying harder, or praying more. Think again of Isaiah, who needed to be purified with a coal from the altar—the point is, God had to do it. God had to make Isaiah able to stand and serve.

We too can only be made holy by God’s gracious intervention, when we are made holy through faith alone in Christ Jesus. His life is the flawless portrait of someone who lived according to all of God’s commands, and then by his death He paid the full price for our sins. Now ascended into heaven He sanctifies us by his Spirit, renewing us in his image, in true righteousness and holiness. Now we want to become more like Christ, and we want to serve Him as a kingdom of priests.

This means that the pursuit of holiness is not an optional activity for us. Listen to what Hebrews says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (12:14). We serve a holy God, who wants a holy people, those set apart for his glory. In all parts of your life, demonstrate that you are holy, distinguished by your devotion to God. How do you conduct your business? What is the spirit of your home and marriage? Do the songs that you listen to, and the movies that you watch, show that your God is a holy God? Are your words holy, and your thoughts pure? Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.

In his strength and by his Spirit, aim to put away all filth and uncleanness from your life, because you know that God hates it. Strive to present God with worship that is joyous and wholehearted, because you know that God takes great delight in it. Praise Him, for our God is holy, and through Christ we may draw near to Him!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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