March 2, 2005
“A Little Thick? Aaron's Sons Sin Again” ”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Leviticus, chapter ten. And I want to go right back to the verses that we read the last time we were together in Leviticus, which was a couple of weeks ago. In February we looked at the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu, which covers the first eleven verses, and it would be good for us to go back and read those verses again, though our focus is going to be especially on verses 12-20 in this chapter. In a sense, this story is all of a piece, but there's so much to be said in both halves of the chapter that we've broken it in part for your consideration.
But let me just remind you of the setting again. The Book of Leviticus in the first seven chapters focuses on the five great personal offerings which are to be brought by the people of God–willingly, individually, voluntarily–on different occasions in the life of faith. And in the first seven chapters those offerings are described both from the standpoint of the requirements of those who are bringing those offerings and from the standpoints of the requirements on the ones who are administering, or making, those offerings on behalf of God's people. And so it comes from the standpoint of both the people's responsibility and privilege and obligation, and the priests’ responsibility and privilege and obligation.
Then, in Leviticus 8-10, Moses is showing you the events surrounding the ordination of the Aaronic priesthood in Israel and the initial service of the priests. And that's important for us to remember. It is important for us to remember that the events of Leviticus, chapter 10, occur in the midst of the very first administration of the priestly sacrificial system in the history of Israel. It puts it in perspective, doesn't it? Why God's response to the sin of Nadab and Abihu is so decisive, and so seemingly severe. This is the very first day of the administration of the Levitical priesthood, which will point to Christ, and already sin has crept into its administration. And so, bearing those things in mind, let's hear God's word here in Leviticus, chapter 10.
Let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing.
O Lord, this is Your word, and it is a sober passage. But it is also a passage which highlights Your holiness, our sin, and Your marvelous grace. And we pray that You would exalt these very things in our eyes as we read Your word and hear it proclaimed together. This thing we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear God's word:
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘It is what the Lord spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’’
“So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. Moses called also to Mischael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron's uncle Uzziel, and said to them, ‘Come forward, carry your relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp.’ So they came forward and carried them still in their tunics to the outside of the camp, as Moses had said. Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, so that you may not die, and that He may not become wrathful against all the congregation. But your kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, shall bewail the burning which the Lord has brought about. You shall not even go out from the doorway of the tent of meeting, lest you die; for the Lord's anointing oil is upon you.’ So they did according to the word of Moses.
“The Lord then spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die–it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations–and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the clean and the unclean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.”
“Then Moses spoke to Aaron, and to his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Take the grain offering that is left over from the Lord's offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. You shall eat it, moreover, in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due out of the Lord's offerings by fire, for thus I have been commanded. The breast of wave offering, however, and the thigh of the offering you may eat in a clean place, you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they have been given as your due and your sons’ due out of the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the sons of Israel. The thigh offered by lifting up and the breast offered by waving, they shall bring along with the offerings by fire of the portions of fat, to present as a wave offering before the Lord; so it shall be a thing perpetually due you and your sons with you, just as the Lord has commanded.’
“But Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron's surviving sons Eleazar and Ithamar, saying, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For it is most holy, and He gave it to you to bear away the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord. Behold, since its blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded.’ But Aaron spoke to Moses, ‘Behold, this very day they presented their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord. When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the Lord?’ And when Moses heard that, it seemed good in his sight.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It's a hard passage, isn't it? I think all of us instinctively are sympathetic with the grief that Aaron was experiencing. Maybe you heard, like I did in the airport today on the way back to Jackson, of the tragic, tragic drowning of Jack Nicholas’ grandson. His nanny had been watching the boys, and she took them inside, and she was just getting one of them changed and the little 17-month-old–she turned around and he was gone, and the next thing she knew, she found him in the hot tub outside. He was drowned. And you can imagine the grief of that family, and it's easy, isn't it, to imagine the grief of Aaron.
He's lost his boys…two boys, Nadab and Abihu, on the very first day of the administration of the priestly ritual in Israel his boys have died. It's not just a tragedy, you understand. They have been judged by God; for their disobedience, they have died before the Lord, and it is the Lord who has struck the blow. And not only that, but the Lord has come to Aaron and He has said, “Aaron, you are not to mourn the death of your sons.” Can you imagine that? ‘Aaron, you are not to engage in public mourning. The rest of your family–they’ll mourn; Israel as a congregation–they’ll mourn. But Aaron, if you mourn it will call into question the righteousness of God in His judgment against your sons, and it will call into question your acceptance of the righteous judgment of God. Aaron, you are not to mourn.’
We’re told so poignantly, aren't we, in the very first verses, that Aaron kept silent. We’re instinctively sympathetic with this man.
But you understand that in this passage there are great issues at stake. There are more issues than we can do justice to tonight, but in this passage I want to suggest to you that we see God's holiness and His grace displayed in bold relief. And let me just describe to you for a few moments how those things are displayed for us.
I. God's holiness.
Let's take God's holiness first. God's holiness is clearly made known in the judgment that is brought against Nadab and Abihu. They failed to obey God's commands. They come before the Lord by their own devices. They, of their own division, come up with a plan whereby they will offer uncommanded fire to the Lord, and the Lord brings judgment against them. You see, the priests of Israel were to be representatives of God's holiness to the people; and one of the ways they were to reflect His holiness was by their strict attention to the commandments that God had given to them and to the people about how He was to be approached. And in the very first day that they were enacting those rituals in Israel, they ignored the expressed commands of the Lord and His holiness brought judgment. That's the first way we see God's holiness.
The second way, though, is in the way that the Lord and Moses respond to this incident. Moses (and we see this especially in verses 12-15) reiterates to Eleazar and to Ithamar, the other sons of Aaron, the specific things that they are to do. Now, these are things that you have already seen two or three times in the Book of Leviticus by now. You've seen them twice in Leviticus 1-7; you've seen them again in Leviticus 9. In other words, Moses has given at least three times these commandments for what the priests are to do.
Now, you can see the logic of Moses’ having to say it again! He's given these commands, and Nadab and Abihu have just gone on their merry way and they’re done what they wanted to do! But God's holiness, you see, is displayed as God through Moses again comes to this grieving family and says, ‘Now just one more time, let me rehearse for you what God's commands are for you as priests to do.’ It's a stunning display of God's holiness. You’re going to see in a few moments, God is far from uncaring and unkind to His servants in this day of grief. You will see many evidences of His grace in this passage, but don't we see God's holiness in the midst of this tragic family situation? He comes to remind that family of the commandments of the word of God.
And God's holiness is seen in verse 16 to the end of the chapter, isn't it? Because after repeating these commands, Moses starts nosing around a bit in the sanctuary to make sure that things are being done correctly. He has every reason to be doing some nosing around. And he can't find the goat! There are no bones, there's no evidence that the priests have come together to eat that goat. You understand, because we've studied this passage before, that the priests sitting down in the holy precincts and eating the goat of that peace offering was designed to show the people of God that the guilt of their sins had been taken away, and their fellowship had been restored to the Lord because their offering was accepted as holy and could be eaten by priests who were consecrated; so by not doing this, the priests were robbing the people of God of an assurance which God had intended for the people.
And so Moses starts looking around, and he can't find the goat. And he comes to Eleazar and Ithamar and he says, ‘Where's the goat?’ And then Aaron speaks up. It's the first time he's spoken in the chapter. And he says, ‘Moses, my sons have just died. How can I do this?’ And you see the demands of God's holiness: He says to Aaron, and to Eleazar and to Ithamar, ‘Not even your family trauma is more important that your service of the word and your service of God's people.’ It's an awesome thing, isn't it? Just like when we studied it the last time, we're reminded of Jesus’ words to that disciple: “Come, follow Me.”
‘First, Lord, I need to bury my dad.’ You remember the response? “Let the dead bury the dead. Come, follow me.”
The holiness of God is seen in the demands that He places upon Aaron and his sons. The precedence of their priestly service is to overrule even their personal grief, because the disciples’ allegiance to Jesus Christ takes precedence over the dearest of earthly relations, and the priests themselves are to be a living, walking, talking, breathing example of that truth. The holiness of God is everywhere in this passage.
II. The grace of God.
But the grace of God is everywhere in this passage, as well. Now let me just show it to you in a few ways. The first thing you’ll see is this: in these four verses of command, from verses 12-15, when Moses is reiterating to the priests their particular obligations and prerogatives with regard to the various sacrifices that are being brought…Moses, in verse 12: “Take the grain offering…”; verse 13: “You shall eat it…because it is your due and your sons’ due out of the Lord's offerings….”; and ‘take the breast and the thigh of the wave offering–it's for you and your sons and your daughters…’ (verse 14) …‘they have been given as your due and your sons’ due….’ and then again, ‘…the thigh and the breast of the wave offering…this is to be yours…’ (verse 15)… ‘…it is perpetually due you and your sons.’
Do you see what Moses is saying? He's saying that even though Nadab and Abihu have grievously sinned against the Lord, the Lord is still promising these blessings and provisions to the sons of Aaron forever. That's a word of grace, my friends. The sons of Aaron took part in the guilt of Nadab and Abihu. This is why Moses says to Aaron, ‘Don't mourn, lest the Lord strike out against you and the whole congregation.’
There was a dark cloud hanging over all of the priesthood of Israel, and Israel could well have looked at them and said, ‘Because of the sin of Nadab and Abihu they have lost the right to serve as priests in the house of God. They have lost the privileges that God granted them’ [in chapters 1-7]. But God says, ‘No, in the wake of Nadab and Abihu's failure, all of the things that God promised to you and your children are still true.
God is reminding His faithful servants that our perfection is not the condition of His grace; that our sinlessness is not the condition of His grace; that our complete performance of His commands is not the condition of His grace. His grace is not conditioned by us. It's a message of grace. ‘Even though your brothers have grievously sinned, all the promises which God made to you are still true.’
But it doesn't stop there, does it? Notice secondly that Moses does not speak these words of command and instruction to Aaron. He calls his sons aside: ‘Eleazar, Ithamar, listen to me.’ Now surely his sons, Aaron's sons, would have been grieved at the loss of their brothers, but their grief could not have been the same grief of their father.
And then God's kindness, through Moses. His words of instruction and later His words of rebuke are not to Aaron, but to Aaron's living sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. Even that is a manifestation of the kindness and the grace of God in a day of sore testing for Aaron. But the final thing, of course, is this: Eleazar and Ithamar, immediately after Nadab and Abihu have broken God's commandments about the administration of the sacrament, they break the commandment of God regarding the administration of the sacrifice! They do the very same thing that Nadab and Abihu had just done and have gotten killed!
But there is no fire proceeding from the altar to consume them, only a conversation. And Moses says, ‘Sons, boys! What have you done?’ and then Aaron breaks his silence. And Aaron explains to Moses that they did not think that they could possibly perform the duty of pure priests representing God to the people, and God's forgiveness to the people, in light of what had happened to Nadab and Abihu that day. Aaron's saying, ‘Lord, it's not only that my heart wasn't in it, it didn't seem right that we would play the role of being the visible evidence of the forgiveness of Israel–even though we’d offered the sacrifice for ourselves–because this cloud of sin was over us.’
It's an interesting parallel, isn't it? Nadab and Abihu did something that God had not told them to do, and, in doing something that God had not told them to do, they did not thereby show a proper reverence to God in His word, and in consequence they die. But Eleazar and Ithamar did something different. They did not do what God had told them to do.
You see, the sin of Nadab and Abihu was neither an explicit transgression of a positive command of God, nor an omission of a positive command of God. It was a presumptuous addition to what God had said. They presumed to add to God's word.
Eleazar and Ithamar, on the other hand, committed the sin of omission. But they did so, Aaron tells us, out of reverence for God. And they’re spared. And indeed, in the final words of this chapter, Moses gives them approval despite the fact that they had failed to obey God fully.
What's going on here? Grace.
And there's something else going on here, too, friends. These priests, even in their failure, have pointed out a tremendous truth: that in that ceremonial ritual, the heart matters. Why you’re doing that ceremonial ritual matters. And, you see, the state of their hearts didn't want to do that part of God's commands not out of presumption, not out of defiance, but precisely because they did not feel worthy to perform that function. And immediately God in His kindness says, ‘You should have done it, you were wrong not to do it; it would have been a blessing to you had you done it; it would have been a blessing to Israel if you’d obeyed My word, but I forgive you. Your heart perceived the inward significance of that rite, and you questioned whether you would be offending Me, and therefore I forgive you.’
You see, they are teaching us that even in the old covenant ceremonial law the heart was the prime thing. Now, this is vitally important for us to understand, because one day a priest and a Levite are going to pass a man on the way down to Israel, and they’re going to leave him on the side of the road. And we're going to stand over there like the good Gentiles that we are, and we're going to wag our fingers at them: ‘Yeah, if we’d been there, we’d have done differently….’
Had they helped that man, they would have been made ceremonially unclean, in violation of the ceremonial law of God. They were on their way down to serve, and had they had anything to do with that man, they would have been made ceremonially unclean.
But who's the hero of that story? The Samaritan who helped. Why? Because of this principle: There are some things that are more important than the outward ceremonial ritual, even of that which is commanded by God under the old covenant. That's why David can go into the house of the Lord and take the showbread from the priest of Nob: because there are weightier matters of the law than simply the ceremonial ritual.
As vital as obedience to that ritual was (as we've seen demonstrated in the old covenant), that reminds us, my friends, that the matter of our hearts’ rightness before God is a matter of supreme importance. Our God is holy, and He is a discerner of the hearts. And if we know His holiness and His grace, then we will make it our business to respond in accordance with the principles of His word. And in this case, the great moral principles of His word are displayed even in this passage which deals with the ceremonial law.
God's holiness, God's grace, in the midst of great human tragedy; may the Lord teach us from it. Let's pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your work, and we pray that You would show us in Jesus Christ above all else, Your holiness and Your grace. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing?
Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.