There are three thoughts for today.
1. God takes disobedience seriously. In our age of cheap-grace we often forget that the God who incinerated Aaron’s boys is the same God that we worship today. He has not become less holy or more tolerant of sin and disobedience. Fortunately, as Paul says in Romans 5:9, “God has poured out this all-consuming wrath onto His son Jesus in our place.” Never lose sight of the enormity of God’s Grace and the severity of God’s holiness.
2. It’s God’s way or the Highway. What did the boys do wrong anyway? So they used the wrong fire, what’s the big deal? The New Bible Commentary has a good slant on this issue.
Unauthorised fire (1) is unexplained. The Hebrew (zara) means ‘strange’, ‘from outside’. Perhaps they took fire from outside the sanctuary instead of from the altar (cf. 16:12), as if to say, ‘Any fire will do’. Such fire would be unholy, unclean, ‘illicit’ (neb), and therefore, in the context of all that had gone on so meticulously up to this point, wantonly offensive. Their action with it was also usurping the role of the high priest, and therefore included presumption, or perhaps jealous impatience. Their behaviour was not just an accidental slip in a minor detail of ritual, but a cavalier disregard for the most serious meaning of the events they were part of. It is as if a Christian minister in the middle of celebrating the Holy Communion were to inject rites or objects associated with the occult.1
We must remember that we don’t get to make up the rules. In our culture we have a sort of “Spirituality Smorgasbord” idea about approaching God. We walk up to the kaleidoscope of religions that sprinkle our cultural scene and choose a little of this and a little of that. “Oh, I really like the loving and kind God, I’ll take two of those. Ooh, I need to stay away from the wrath bar, I’m allergic. Ah, over here is tolerance, I’ll take three, please.” Zap! Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t get to make God up, rather, our job is to figure out what God has revealed to us through scripture, what He expects from us, and then line up our lives with that. It’s HIS highway, not ours.
3. The leader’s job is to honor God. There is a profound and startling leadership lesson in this story. The priest’s job was to represent God to the people. He was the go-between. Notice what God’s indictment against the boys was all about. They did not honor God. The word translated “honor” is a rich Hebrew word, kabod, which means “to be heavy, be weighty, be grievous, be hard, be rich, be honourable, be glorious, be burdensome, be honoured.”2 When you are the representative of someone you carry an important responsibility to present an accurate picture of that person to others. When you represent the heavy weight of the glory of the Almighty God, you had better have your ducks in a row. God will not be mocked by flippancy or sloppy work on the part of the leaders of His church who feel that it is “no big deal” and want to just “let it slide”. Being a minister of the gospel is a job that requires a sober mind. This doesn’t mean it has to be boring and like a funeral dirge. It does mean that the minister should think seriously before teaching people about God before he has done his homework. The minister needs to be sure that his cup is being filled with the authentic flame of God’s Spirit before he tries to light fires in other’s hearts.
Therein lays the real sin. The boys brought another fire. The original fire on the altar was started by God Himself, not by some guy in the back of the tabernacle with a bic lighter. Aaron’s boys thought they could fake it, and it would be OK. Not so. We, as ministers of the good news (all of us are ministers at some level, so you’re not off the hook) need to make sure that we are lighting our fires from the true flame of God’s Spirit, not from some humanly constructed spirituality that looks good, but has a faulty foundation.