What Can We Learn from Nadab and Abihu?

by Bibles.net
| Time: 10 Minutes

Have you ever read the book of Leviticus? You may trip over the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 and wonder, “What did I just read?”

I want to help you learn from this passage in the Bible. I want you to discover how it is profitable to us (2 Timothy 3:16). As we look at Nadab and Abihu’s story, I hope you come to see God’s holiness in a way that deepens your relationship with him.

Where Does this Story Fit in the Overall Bible Story?

Spend just a few minutes in the book of Leviticus and you might wonder about the meaning of all the gory details in the sacrificial system that God created for the Israelites. Leviticus describes offerings required by God to atone for the sins of the people. The sacrificial system and ceremonial guidelines were a wonderful gift from God to provide a way for his people to enter his presence despite their sinfulness.

In the very beginning of the Bible, the first people, Adam and Eve, sinned, and the Lord banished them from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6; Genesis 3:23). Because of their sin, they were no longer able to be in the physical presence of the holy and perfect God.

At the end of Exodus, the second book of the Bible, God physically rejoins the Israelites by entering the tabernacle he instructed them to build, as a beautiful expression of his love. We read that, “The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35 NIV). Exodus describes the presence of the Lord as a “cloud” (Exodus 40:38 NIV). God dwelled with his people through the tabernacle in a way that nobody else had ever experienced.

Moving into the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, we hit details that most people quickly thumb through—burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and the list continues. God provided precise instructions for how his people could approach him as he lived among them. These details serve to help us understand the seriousness of our sin and what’s required to bring us into God’s presence and fellowship. The sacrificial system reminds us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV), and that death is the only way to atone for sin.

How Does This Story Fit into the Book of Leviticus?

In chapter eight of Leviticus, the Lord commands the leader of the Israelites, Moses, to bring his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons before all the people of Israel for their ordination. Aaron has four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. God chose these sons of Aaron to serve him as priests (Exodus 28:1). Priests were the spiritual leaders of Israel that God appointed to help the Israelites keep God’s law. These priests were mediators, meaning they stood between the people and God, ministering to the people on God’s behalf, and sacrificing for and praying to God on the people’s behalf.

As Aaron and his sons began their ministry as priests, they followed the Lord’s instructions precisely, sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offering (Leviticus 9:8-21).

Then we are told, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from before the Lord… and when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Leviticus 9:23-24 NIV).

What a scene that must have been! Can you imagine it? What a wonderful, exhilarating experience for God’s people to see his presence manifested in fire!

If you’re just scanning Leviticus, you could easily miss what happens next.

The Story of Nadab and Abihu

In the next sentence after this glorious moment—in what feels like an instant—everything comes crashing down. Two of Aaron’s sons, the freshly anointed priests, Nadab and Abihu, took the censers they were holding, put fire and incense in them, and “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1 ESV). For Moses and Aaron watching this, it must have felt like a slow-motion film. They were trying to process what they were seeing while silently pleading with Nadab and Abihu, “Don’t you do it…”

But they did.

“And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:2 ESV)

Whoa! What? God sent fire and killed them immediately. That seems extreme, doesn’t it? What was so bad about what they did?

The Severity of Nadab and Abihu’s Judgment

The story continues as Moses turns to Aaron and reminds him of the words of the Lord, “‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Leviticus 10:3 ESV). When God says “sanctified,” that means set apart as holy or regarded as pure. God is perfect, sinless, and unapproachable to sinful humanity without proper invitation. When he says “glorified,” he means exceptional, or regarded as great.

God isn’t human. He’s not on our same playing field—he’s high above us. God won’t be trifled with or presumed upon. God will be sanctified and glorified. He will be honored as God. He won’t let people haphazardly treat him however they please; they must remember he is God.

Nadab and Abihu, in this moment, disregarded God’s instructions about how to worship him and did what they saw fit instead. God called this out by their swift deaths. When Moses reminds Aaron of God’s words about his holiness and glory, Aaron “held his peace” (Leviticus 10:3 ESV).

Can you imagine Aaron’s shock? To watch his own sons, his fellow priests, burned to death on the spot?

Moses jumps to action and instructs some of Aaron’s cousins to carry the bodies outside of the camp (Leviticus 10:5). Then he speaks to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, and tells them that they are forbidden to mourn “lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation” (Leviticus 10:6 ESV).

First, Aaron and his sons watch their relatives get consumed by fire, then they aren’t allowed to mourn their deaths!

To some, God’s judgment might feel a little extreme. This is one of the stories in the Bible that prompts us to pause and ask, “What is this story intending to teach us?”

Let’s consider the answer to that question, and why this story is included in the Bible.

Why Was This Unauthorized Fire So Bad?

We’ve gone over this a bit already, but it helps to call to mind the identity of these two men, Nadab and Abihu. Nadab and Abihu were not only Israelites, God’s chosen people, they were also sons of Aaron, God’s chosen priests. God hand-picked them for this role. These men had a special calling from God.

These two men also saw God in a way that not many people ever have. In Exodus 24, God confirms the covenant with Moses, and he commands, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu…” (Exodus 24:1 ESV). Later in the same chapter, it says that this group of men “saw the God of Israel… they beheld God…” (Exodus 24:10, 11 ESV). God’s presence is described as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17 ESV), which certainly seems like foreshadowing, knowing how this story progresses.

Nadab and Abihu were thoroughly aware of who God was, and what he required of them. In short, they absolutely knew better than to act as they did.

With no lack of detail, nothing left to the imagination, God had made his instructions clear. These men knew they were offering an unauthorized fire. This unauthorized fire was deliberate disobedience and disrespect to the holy God of Israel.

So why did they do it? We don’t know. We do know that God punished them justly. The wages of sin has always been death (Romans 6:23), and as author R.C. Sproul once pointed out, anything less than death is mercy.

What Can I Learn from Nadab and Abihu?

This story in the Bible sticks out like a sore thumb as we read through the books of the law. As fearful as it is to read this story of Nadab and Abihu, it shocks us back into the reality that we, like Nadab and Abihu, deserve death. How many times do we also blatantly disregard God’s laws? We are sinners too, and we know that “the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23 NIV).

On our own, we will never be worthy of entering the eternal presence of our holy God, nor enjoying his presence now. We are destined for the same end as Nadab and Abihu (Mark 9:43-49). Their story reminds us that God is serious about sin, and shocks us back to the reality that our sins are deserving of his judgment.

But for those who know the rest of the Bible story, this story also reminds us of our hope. God has provided for us the greatest atoning sacrifice, better than anything the Levitical system could offer—his own Son, the Lamb of God, who willingly came to us, suffered, and died as our substitute on a cross (John 1:29). For “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NIV).

God’s Son Jesus is the only way into God’s presence (John 14:6). He bore the wrath we deserve in his own willing and sacrificial death on the cross and offers us forgiveness for all our sins if we believe in him (1 Peter 2:24; John 3:16). Accepting the gift of salvation through Christ is our only hope to be saved from God’s just judgment against our sin (Acts 4:12).

You’re A Priest Too

Anyone who trusts in Jesus for his or her salvation is called one of God’s chosen people (1 Peter 2:9). In the book of Ephesians, Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). God calls us priests as well—his representatives wherever he has planted us (1 Peter 2:9).

God desires to dwell among us and reign over our lives. In John 14:17, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit “dwells with you and will be in you” (ESV). Though it’s probably unlikely to experience the physical presence of God as a devouring fire or cloud before us, every one of us who has faith in Jesus experiences God’s indwelling presence through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

God Calls You to Obey Him

For whatever the reason, Nadab and Abihu laid aside their conviction that it was a privilege to serve the holy God. Despite having seen his magnificent glory firsthand, they casually offered a worthless flame, disregarding God’s explicit instructions about what they were to offer. What God required of them was obedience.

We serve the same God as Nadab and Abihu did. We are also called to obey him, honor him, and serve him. Let us never forget that we are privileged, called, and made holy only through “his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24 ESV).

Offer to God Acceptable Worship

The deaths of Nadab and Abihu were shocking—both then and now. In this story, we are reminded of God’s holiness. All sin deserves death. Yet in his mercy, he has provided a way for us to escape his wrath, and instead serve him as priests too.

“And thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV)

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