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  • « Book Review: Recovering the Reformed Confession, by R. Scott Clark | Main | mp3 | Not What My Hands Have Done »

    Images of the Savior (29 - The Strange Fire of Nadab and Abihu)

    And there came out fire from Yahweh, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; and all the people saw it, and shouted, and fell on their faces. And the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, took each one his censer, and put fire in it, and placed incense upon it, and offered before Yahweh strange fire, which he had not commanded them. And there came out fire from Yahweh, and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh. – Leviticus 9:24-10:2

    Although the book of Leviticus is largely full of very detailed instructions for the priestly class, teaching them how to approach God with acceptable sacrifices, how to make a distinction between clean and unclean, and between holy and unholy, at what time and in what ways the solemn festivals are to be observed, and so on, it contains as well a historical prelude immediately following the first series of regulations concerning the offering up of sacrifices, in which Aaron, having been consecrated for his work, offers up the first acceptable sacrifice to the Lord, for his people Israel; and then his two sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer up unacceptable incense, and are put to death. This account serves to underscore the seriousness of the instructions which are detailed everywhere else throughout the book, emphasizing both the vastly salutary and effective nature of the true sacrifices, and the vastly devastating consequences attendant upon approaching Yahweh in any other way. As we have already observed how particularly the priestly class, ministrations, and vestments speak of Jesus Christ the High Priest; and how the various sacrifices speak most clearly of Christ the spotless Lamb of God; we may learn most importantly, from this historical account, of what immeasurable importance those christological types are: for those priests and sacrifices that are in accordance with God's commands, which everywhere foreshadow Christ, are effective to reconcile his people to himself, and to facilitate his presence and good pleasure among them; but those that do not come from himself he is very displeased with, and instead of being propitiated by them, he responds only in great wrath and fury. So true religion ever begins with God, and comes down by his own initiative, and in his own way, and through his own Christ; every other religious work, which originates in the heart of man, is utterly abominable to him.

    Let us observe just how solemnly the priests were dedicated to their ministry, and what we may learn thereby of the seriousness of their discharging their mediatorial duties in accordance with God's word, and also of the ways in which they were marked thereby as forerunners of the coming Christ, our great and final High Priest.

    We see first that Aaron and his sons were ceremonially washed by Moses, and then clothed with their sacred vestments (Leviticus 8:6-9), which were eminently instructive of Christ, and of which we have spoken elsewhere, before they were permitted to begin their sacrificial ministries. Now, as regards the work of Christ in their behalf, this teaches us that, before they could offer acceptable service to God, they had to be washed and purified, which is something that Christ alone can accomplish, whose side poured forth water for our washing and blood for our atonement (John 19:34-35); but as regards their typological function as predecessors of Christ, it hints of his baptism, through which he had first to pass, to fulfill all righteousness, before taking up his priestly vestments, as it were, and so offering himself up as a sacrifice for his people (see Matthew 3:13-17).

    Then, we see that the priests were immediately thereafter anointed with oil (Leviticus 8:10-12), which is a type of the Holy Spirit, and which teaches both of their need to perform their own ministry through the power of the Spirit of God, and likewise teaches typologically of the fact that Christ would be anointed with the Holy Spirit (as even that title, the Christ, signifies), and so would accomplish his anti-typical ministry in the Spirit's power (see Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:1, 14). We may see the seriousness and necessity for the actual realization of this symbolic ceremony in the daily ministrations of the priests, in that most solemn command with which Moses charges the priests, just after the death of Nadab and Abihu, that they are in no account to partake of any alcoholic drinks in the course of their ministry, that they might rather be filled with the Spirit, and taught of him how to make distinction between holy and unholy, and clean and unclean. So also, we today are to be filled with the Spirit, and not drunk with wine (Ephesians 5:18). Now, this prohibition contains as well a typological implication, which was fulfilled in the culminative priestly work of Christ; and that is, that when he engaged as our High Priest to offer himself up as a sacrifice, when he had tasted of the dulling narcotic of wine and myrrh, he would not drink of it, so that what he did for us, he might do entirely by the power of the Spirit, and so be acceptable to God (Matthew 27:34). So in this circumstance, as well, we see both a typological pointing to Christ, and an instruction for all of us who belong to Christ, to follow in his footsteps, in a manner, by doing all our Christian duties by the power of the selfsame Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

    Then, in the next place, Moses offered up a sacrifice for Aaron and his sons, and placed some of its blood upon their right ear, their right thumb, and their right great toe (Leviticus 8:22-24). This also has both a typological and a practical implication: typologically, it hints at Christ's giving up of his entire body as a bloody sacrifice, well-pleasing to the Father, the extremities of the body standing in for the whole. So it is that, when Christ came into the world, he confessed that God did not ultimately delight in the blood of all the sacrifices that came before him, but, as he said in Psalm 40:6, “My ears you have dug out,” that is, “You have sanctified me to my work,” in an expression reminiscent of the lifelong servant who would give his ear to be bored as a symbol of his total and unending service (see Exodus 21:6). Now, what he meant by this saying, “You have dug out my ears,” that is, “You have set me apart for a total lifetime of sacrificial service,” is ultimately only this: “You have given me a physical body, sent me to be incarnated among men, that I might offer myself up as a bloody sacrifice for them”; and so, to make this meaning clear, when the author of Hebrews quotes Jesus, as he speaks to the Father in the psalm, he substitutes for the phrase, “You have dug out my ear,” that clearer phrase, “You have prepared for me a body” (Hebrews 10:5). Now, in this way, the psalm and the quotation in Hebrews work together to show that Christ is the fulfillment of this type in Leviticus, where the ear of the priest was daubed with blood, to signify the giving up of his entire self for his priestly work. In this way, we are taught both to look to Christ as to him who gave up his whole body as an acceptable sacrifice for our sins, and we are instructed that we must be covered wholly with his blood, before any service of our own may be accepted with God.

    Then again, we observe in the solemn instructions given to the priests, that they were not to leave the Holy Place in the course of their duties, and that they were not even to show any signs of mourning while they served in the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:6-7), a hint of the utter seriousness and all-encompassing greatness of the priestly task. Typologically, this reminds us that Jesus our Great High Priest did not permit any mourning or any other consideration, no matter how weighty and tempting, to distract him from his priestly work in our behalf, as he trod the thorny path to the Most Holy Place of the cross. Although his pain in Gethsemane was unspeakable and cruel beyond description, he did not allow any sorrow or mourning to prevent him from entering into his priestly duties, and offering up in our behalf a most pleasing sacrifice to God the Father. And also, we are taught hereby that, if we would follow in Jesus' example, we must give ourselves entirely up to God's service. If we love father or mother or son or daughter or even our own lives more than Christ, and are willing rather to turn aside from the Holy Place of God's calling because our losses are too great and our mourning prevents us from the narrow path, then we will not be counted worthy to be the disciples of Jesus our Savior (Matthew 10:37-39).

    The sum of what we have been examining is this: the priests were offering up sacrifices instructive of Christ, as they ministered in a manner that foreshadowed his own ministry; and because of this, their service and actions, down to the smallest detail, were characterized by a very fearful solemnity, and had to be carried out with the most rigorous precision. It is only Christ that can make us acceptable to God; any other sacrifice, that arises from the impulse of our own hearts, is entirely filthy and loathsome in his sight, as Cain found out many years before (Genesis 4:3-5), and as Uzzah found out some time afterward (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Let us lay this lesson well to heart: for the principle is the same today. If we would be acceptable to God, we must only deny every thought and impulse of our heart, and lean always and at all times upon the perfect work of Jesus. If we would serve him, we must always serve according to the strength that he gives (1 Peter 4:11), and likewise in keeping with the pattern that he has left. This is the vital principle of true religion: anything that originates with God, comes down through Christ, and by the power of the Spirit is offered back again to the Father, is well-pleasing to him. Any other work, no matter how mighty and well-intentioned, is a filthy rag, and will call down only wrath and judgment.

    And we learn this lesson most poignantly from the account of Nadab and Abihu's terrible end. The history is very carefully worded so as to bring out this one point: when the sacrifice came from God, it was accepted by him and accomplished a peace and reconciliation with his people; but when it came from somewhere else, it brought down his wrath and destruction. Notice very carefully the features of this account: the first sacrifice was commanded by God and offered up in accordance with his instruction; and then the fire of his wrath came down and consumed the sacrifice, and let the people live. The second sacrifice originated in the heart of Nadab and Abihu; and the fire of God's wrath came down and consumed themselves, while leaving the sacrifice alone. In this way we are taught this most basic lesson of the entire priesthood and sacrificial system: if we would be accepted by God, it can only be because, of his own merciful initiative, he has exhausted his fiery wrath on a substitute of his own provision; and anyone who trusts for acceptance with God in any other sacrifice which he sees fit to make, will not be accepted; but the wrath of God that consumed his own Sacrifice, in the place of those who trust in him, will consume him as well, because he did not trust in the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:18). Ah, dear believer, these truths and lessons we are learning are not just old curiosities! They are utterly solemn, as much today as they were when God's fire consumed Nadab and Abihu. If we trust in any other sacrifice than the Lamb of God, which was sent for the remission of our sins, ah, how hot will the fire of God's anger burn against us for all eternity? But there is one place where that fire has been exhausted, because it burned itself out upon the one true Sacrifice. Let us fly thither, for rest and peace for our souls, and for the only certain hope of God's eternal reward and favor.

    Posted by Nathan on October 24, 2008 11:13 AM

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