Obstacles to Worship | #9 – Strange Fire
The term “strange fire” comes from Leviticus 10:1, where two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, offered unauthorized fire to God, and we killed by the Lord for their offence. While there were many other priests in the future who did shameful things in their office without such dire consequences, God used this incident, at the outset of Israel’s codified worship of Him, to drive home some points which apply to us today, and can help us avoid the obstacle of Strange Fire.
These lessons are applicable to us because, as 1 Peter 2:9 tells us, we are now a kingdom of priests. Through Christ, our great High Priest, we have become priests and mediators between God and man. We fulfill this role through intercessory prayer, proclamation of the gospel, and serving through administering the spiritual gifts God has given to the church through each of us. Therefore, anything we do by our example and conduct which dilutes, distracts, or diverts people from true worship of God has the effect of offering strange fire. It is not only an obstacle to us, but to others, as well.
The first thing these priests did wrong is they were presumptuous in their worship. God had given clear guidelines about how things were to be done. About eight times in the few chapters preceding this, there was a refrain that stated everything was done “just as God instructed Moses.” But what Nadab and Abihu did was NOT as instructed. Like Eve, they didn’t take God at His word. They thought their way was better, or easier, or that His word was not worthy of regarding with reverence. God summed it up when He said, “Among those who approach me, I will be proved holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored” (Leviticus 10:3).
This is a verse we need to remember when we approach God for worship. He wants to be taken seriously by those He has created and especially those He has redeemed. He deserves to be honored and awed as the holy God He is. As much as He loves us, as much as He draws us to Himself, as high a price as He was willing to pay so we could draw near, we must increasingly learn that He is holy, holy, holy. I fear one of the great sins of our times is we have lost the holy hush, the deep reverential fear of an awesome, fearsome, untamable God. We treat Him like some cosmic buddy, a deity designed solely to bring His power to our wishes and whims. Yes, He intends for us to find Him to be our pleasure, delight, and treasure, but not a dalliance. We need to heed the Scripture’s call to rejoice with trembling (Psalm 2:11). When we take Him lightly we are stumbling over the obstacle of one of the sins of these men—presumptuousness.
A second aspect to this obstacle of Strange Fire is that these priests offered worship that was profane. Because they began this worship by not considering God as holy, the next step was to take worship down to their level. This, too, was presumption—thinking their way of doing things was just as acceptable as God’s way. Scholars have several ideas concerning what they did that was unauthorized. One opinion is that they lit their censers with a flame that did not come from the holy altar. The fire of the altar was never to go out, symbolizing the uninterrupted connection to the Lord, and unending worship. Fire kindled outside of that continuous flame broke the chain and inserted the ways of man.
Another theory is that the incense they used was not from the formula prescribed by God. Incense was the symbol of prayer ascending to the Lord, but not just any prayer—prayer from “obedient and thankful hearts” (Ray Stedman). If our hearts are truly obedient and thankful, God is as delighted with our prayers as He was with this sweet savor from the incense. Of course, this act of disobedience by the priests, this presumptuous profane offering was very displeasing to God. When we come to worship, but have persistent disobedience in our lives, or harbor an ungrateful spirit, all of our words of praise become just so much profanity. Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 when He said that some people worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. Their worship is in vain. It is at best meaningless, and in essence a mockery.
Saul was a good example of this kind of worship. God had told him to annihilate the wicked Amalekites, killing everything that breathed. But when Samuel showed up on the scene he found Saul had not killed the Amalekite king, and had spared the best of the livestock. When Samuel called Saul out about his disobedience, Saul argued that he had done all God said, he just had saved the best livestock to sacrifice in worship. Samuel’s reply was that God preferred obedience to sacrifice. In other words, if we aren’t obeying Him, our worship is vain, worthless, profane.
To avoid this obstacle in our lives we need to cultivate a sensitivity to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and obey His voice promptly. If we do that, our worship will be a sweet savor. And if we nurture a heart of gratitude for our salvation and all of the blessings He pours out on us, our worship will be a delight to the Lord.
At first blush this last element of the obstacle of Strange Fire may seem like it doesn’t apply to us. Aaron’s sons came to worship putrefied—they were evidently stinking drunk. Scholars surmise that by the injunction that followed the incident which instructed the priest not to drink before they went on duty, so they would not die. Now I’m not certain I’ve ever encountered anyone drunk or stoned at a worship service, perhaps you have. However, I think we can apply this warning to our lives by looking at Paul’s command to not be drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit. We can offer Strange Fire in our worship when our spirit is not in step with God’s Spirit. When we regularly attempt to worship on auto pilot, go through the motions, and do not come with the intention of seeking the presence of the Lord, we are in danger of deadness in our worship, and deadness leads to putrefaction—the deadness of our soul and spirit.
Ask the Lord to help you see if there is any way you have been presumptuous in your attitude toward Him. Ask Him to deepen you in your understanding and experience of His holiness.
Pray that the Lord will show you any ways you have profaned worship by having hearts that far from Him. Pray that He will show you if you are making worship more about pleasing yourself than in pleasing Him. Is your worship man-centered or God-centered. Is there persistent disobedience in your life that makes a mockery of your praises? Are you increasing in gratitude toward Him as you learn more about what His salvation means, or is your attitude, “been there, done that”?
Lastly, ask the Lord to show you if your worship is dead to the point of putrefaction. Is it a stench in His nostrils because you have quenched or grieved the Spirit of God? Are you worshipping in Spirit and Truth, seeking the presence of God, desiring to be filled with the Spirit, or, more often than not, just going through the motions?
by Sheri Cook, Director of Special Ministries