July 8: Strange Fire

Offerings can be rather dangerous things. Perhaps it would be better stated: where our hearts are when we bring offerings can be rather dangerous.

God instituted offerings to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ, which would cover our sin once and for all. They were to be our expressions of confession, of sorrow for sin, of desire for fellowship, of appreciation for blessing — all brought to fulfillment in Christ.

God set offerings up with great detail and structure so that we would know what was an acceptable way to approach Him. But almost from the beginning, as individuals and as a people, we have tried to mold the offerings to fit what seemed right in our own eyes.

The first case is Cain. Later Levitical law does allow for the offering of produce, so what was so wrong with Cain’s offering? In Genesis 4 it says that Cain offered “some” of the fruit of his labor. The test does not indicate it was First Fruit, nor that it was abundant. Whereas when it describes Abel’s offering it gives clear indication that he gave choice portions of the firstborn of his flock. The description shows there were some heart issues involved before the individual offerings were accepted or rejected.

Indeed, God confronts Cain about his attitude and cautions him that sin was ready to spring upon him, but Cain did not listen. Cain’s sin can become ours if we offer our worship, our service, our monetary gifts out of a sense of servile duty, when we give God leftovers of time or tangibles, when we are thoughtless, half-hearted, or grudging when we offer our lives or talents or money.

Imagine how you would feel if for your birthday your spouse flopped a wrinkled fast food bag into your lap, which contained a half-eaten hamburger, a few limp French Fries, and an empty drink cup, then said, “Hey, at least I thought about you.” You’d probably feel less than appreciated; in fact you’d probably have preferred they ignored the day rather than insult you with such a presentation.

God cautioned Cain to examine his heart and warned him disaster was coming, but poor Nadab and Abihu didn’t get any such warning, nor did Ananias and Saphira. In the case of Nadab and Abihu, they took matters into their own hands and offered what the KJV calls “strange fire” and the NIV calls “unauthorized fire.” God had been very plain about what was permitted, where and when things were to be offered, because He was trying to teach a people who had forgotten the God of their fathers how to be a people set apart for a Holy God. He did not want them to mix a little of the religion they had learned in Egypt or the practices of the Nations into whose land they were going with their worship of Him. He was and is a Holy God, and this side of the Cross, we have become a little too lax in our understanding of how Holy, Holy, Holy He is. We would be well-served to ask Him to teach us more about the meaning of the fear of the Lord.

The early church learned that lesson quickly after witnessing the case of Ananias and Saphira. Acts 5:11 says, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” In our day of situational ethics and Truth vs. truth, there could be a lot of people dropping dead around churches if we were all judged by the Acts 5 standard. Besides deceit, their sin was that they were more interested in how they looked in the eyes of men than how they looked in the eyes of God. How many of us can claim to have never fallen into that category?

King Saul suffered mightily from that failing, and it led to the downfall of his dynasty. In his own words he confesses, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your (Samuel’s) instructions. I was afraid of the people so I gave into them” (1 Samuel 15:24). This was when he had disobeyed God’s order to annihilate all the Amalekites and their property. He followed that up by offering sacrifices, which was not lawful for him to do. He has kept the best sheep and livestock, which God had ordered him to destroy, all to be pleasing in the sight of men.

Samuel summed it up this way, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”

Can we bribe God? Many people seem to try. They figure if they pile up enough good deeds, or charitable contributions, or trips to church onto one side of the scale, they can offset those few little pet sins or rebellions on the other. God will just wink and say, “Boys will be boys, and girls just want to have fun.”

But God is HOLY, HOLY, HOLY. He looks at our hearts when we bring an offering, whether it is our life service, our tithe of even the herbs and mints (Matthew 23:23), or our spiritual gifts. Think of that. He looks at our hearts. Are we thoughtless and careless or grudging like Cain? Are we proud, doing things our own way like Nadab and Abihu? Are we cowardly people-pleasers like Saul, or deceitful people-pleasers like Ananias and Saphira? Are we offering strange fire? Considering how seriously God seems to treat the subject, it would be wise to give it some careful thought ourselves.

by Sheri Cook, Director of Special Ministries