(This post is part of a series. See Entering the Most Holy Place: a Study on the Day of Atonement for an introduction and list of posts.)
(By the way, I’ve quoted all the verses in NASB, but the popups are set to display NIV so you can compare the two translations.)
I want to warn you from the outset: this is going to sound like bad news. But hang in there with me, because the bad news tells us why we need the good news, and seeing how horrible the bad news is will enable us to see just how incredibly amazing the good news is. Ready? Here we go…
Who is this God who manifested His presence in the midst of the Israelite camp, and who “tabernacled” among us in the person of Jesus, and who lives in our church and our very bodies? How should His character affect ours?
Leviticus has a definitive answer. According to Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; and 20:26, God’s character is holy. In these verses He repeatedly says to His people, “Be holy, for I am holy.” Peter applies this to us as Christians:
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” (1 Peter 1:14–16)
We are to be holy because our God is holy.
Holy. Sacred. Set apart. Pure.
And more than a little frightening.
When our holy God manifested His presence to Israel at Mount Sinai, He warned Moses to keep the people away from the mountain, lest He “break out against them” (Exodus 19:20–25). In fact, the instructions for the Day of Atonement were given in the context of just such a terrifying judgment.
“For the LORD your God is a consuming fire…” (Deuteronomy 4:24) 1
“Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died.” (Leviticus 16:1) This refers to a story in Leviticus 10:1-7, but we will focus on the first section:
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. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
Like I said before, frightening.
The instructions God gave Moses on the construction and use of the Tabernacle’s incense altar sheds light on the punishment of Nadab and Abihu. Interestingly, it is also first mention of the Day of Atonement in scripture.
“You shall not offer any strange incense on this altar, or burnt offering or meal offering; and you shall not pour out a drink offering on it. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year; he shall make atonement on it with the blood of the sin offering of atonement once a year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.” (Exodus 30:9–10)
When Nadab and Abihu did something “which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1), it was not a simple mistake made out of ignorance.
The instructions had been clear. The altar of incense was declared by God to be “most holy.” When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire on it, they were acting in clear defiance of God. Theirs was an act of blatant rebellion, an inexcusable profaning of the Holy Place. They committed a sin of arrogance, an act of treason against God: They profaned a most holy place. (R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 102-103.)
Whether they acted out of premeditation or out of carelessness, it was still the sin of arrogance. They did not take God’s holiness seriously enough, and they died because of it.
This rather frightening incident at the beginning of the Mosaic covenant reminds me of a similar one at the beginning of the new covenant. In Acts 5, Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied about money they were giving to the church, presumably to make themselves look better, and God struck them both dead. God did not change from a God of judgment in the Old Testament to a God of grace in the New Testament; He is one and the same throughout the Bible. He is holy, and He will be treated as holy.
This is the God who makes His dwelling within us. No wonder He says “Be holy, for I am holy.”
Now for the good news (finally!)
Remember that what God did for Israel as a nation often pictures what He does spiritually for those who trust Christ for salvation. Let’s look again at those verses where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.”
- Leviticus 11:44-45. We can be holy because this holy God brought us out of the Egypt of slavery to sin. And we can be holy because this holy God is our God.
- Leviticus 20:26. We can be holy because this holy God sets us apart to be His.
- Look at an additional verse – Leviticus 20:7-8. We can be holy because this holy God makes us holy.
God has always been a God of grace. You will see His grace everywhere in the Old Testament if you take the time to look for it. It is no coincidence that in the book where God repeatedly commands Israel to be holy, He also provides the sacrificial system to cleanse them from sin. And it is no coincidence that the instructions for the Day of Atonement follow the judgment of Nadab and Abihu. As Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” (Mark 2:17) We will never truly seek or appreciate grace until we first see our sin in the light of God’s frightening holiness.
What is your honest reaction to all of this? Does it change how you feel about God and about yourself? How can knowing these truths make a practical difference in the way you live?
- My thinking in the following section is influenced by insights from chapter 6 in R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 2nd ed (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998). ↩