Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.
– Leviticus 10:1-3
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:28-29
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. – 1Corinthians 14:26
When it comes to church, most of us understand the concepts of “respect”, “reverence”, and even “awe”. However, most of us throw up our hands in confusion when it comes to the concept of “holiness” in worship. Most of us have a sense that our worship should be pleasing to God but without a good idea of what it means to have holiness in worship, we all too often fight over details like: seating, appropriate dress, music styles, and who is allowed to participate and/or lead in the worship service. While these things may be important because most people have strong opinions about many of them, I am not sure that any of them adequately address the issue of holiness.
The first worship service struggled with holiness as well, although there was no seating, the clothes to be worn were given to the leaders, there was little music mentioned (and it would have been played and sung in the popular style if any at all) and the leaders were hand-picked by God and all from the same family. However it ended with two of Aaron’s sons, newly ordained priests, being utterly consumed by the fiery presence of God. What was the reason for that? They used their own coals to burn incense rather than the prescribed coals and incense holders from the Tabernacle.
Why should it matter what coals were used or which incense pan held the perfumed offering to God? Well, the utensils from the Tabernacle had just been consecrated – that is, spiritually purified and set aside for worship. Why didn’t Nadab and Abihu use the Tabernacle items? We don’t know. Perhaps they liked their own better. Maybe their brothers took all of them and did not leave them any to use. These are not likely since their would have been plenty of coals to use after burning two rams and a bull. Instead we may find a clue in pagan worship practices.
In almost every pagan religion, you as the common worshipper have the sole responsibility of persuading the god you worship to pay attention and bless you. Therefore you bring your own stuff to the shrine or temple and the pagan priests tell you whether or not the offering was acceptable and what else you can do to earn your blessing. In other words: it’s all about you and what you can do. Worship of YHWH, the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was always worshipped in community with specific directions because true worship is all about God, not us.
Paul reminds us that Christian worship may contain a number of different things: singing, teaching, special revelations, speaking in tongues, and interpretations (and this is not the exhaustive list) but that whatever we do is to help us all worship God together, not just some of us. While many churches point out that praise bands with fog machines in the sanctuary do not typically help people over 60 worship, especially if they are required to stand for 30 minutes at a time, fewer churches actively consider the needs and gifts if their infants, toddlers, and grade schoolers in worship. God never set an age limit for worshipping Him – either at a low or high end.
More importantly though, holy worship is done in a community of Christians not by yourself in your own comfort. Certainly we can praise God and pray to Him in private, but Holy worship is done showing love both to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ in community. In other words, our Heavenly Father appreciates our little trinkets we give Him, but rather than us competing for His affections as individuals, what really warms God’s heart is when all His children come together to offer one big gift of worship. Nadab and Abihu tried to get God to bless them on their own terms and were consumed because God wanted them to take their place in the bigger picture He was painting. Don’t be left out because things are not perfect or convenient or always comfortable for you, but rather join together with the body with all your gifts, needs, scars, and imperfections, as we are all together washed in the redeeming blood of the Lamb and our worship is made acceptable and pleasing to God.