Mike Cope's blog

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Many kids raised in a Christian family grow up with a defining biblical story. For some, it's Daniel and the lion's den. For others, David and Goliath. Or perhaps for others it's the courage of Esther. My defining story was Nadab and Abihu. I remember more sermons mentioning it than any other narrative from the Bible. (I'm sure my memory is a bit skewed here. But we did, nevertheless, hear about them alot.) You know the story: these are the sons of Aaron who, in Leviticus 10, offered strange fire and got toasted to a crisp. It always got paired with another story, depending on the point being made. If the point was that instrumental music will condemn you, then it was paired with Noah and the gopher wood. (When God specified gopher wood, he excluded all other kind of wood. When he said sing, he thereby excluded anything else.) If the point was that baptism has to be by immersion, then it was teamed up with the story of Naaman. Go to the river, even if it doesn't make sense to you. If the point was that it's really, really easy to hack God off and that the road to hell is really, really wide, and most of you are probably on that wide road (including most so-called Christians), then it was paired with the story of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:3-8). Overall, my impression from this text was that you'd better make sure you don't make mistakes. This led to a kind of revulsion toward this narrative tucked in the middle of Leviticus. And I have to confess, I went a really long time in my preaching career without preaching on it. I want to live under the guiding authority of that text, but it holds so many memories of fearing the flames of hell. My stereotype of the way the story was used represents a religion I have little interest in because it doesn't fit the way of Jesus. But now I notice that it comes right after two chapters where the priests are prepared for leading the rituals of worship and sacrifice. We might yawn at all the information, but at the end the people were filled with joy (9:22-24). The rhythm of all this reminded them that God--the one who had chosen them and delivered them from Egypt--was in their midst. Then comes the strange fire and the sudden deaths of the sons of Aaron. But what if the story's central message isn't, "You'd better be careful to get things right"? I've tried sitting it next to a different text: 1 Samuel 15:22f. There King Saul, once again disobedient, heard these words from the prophet Samuel: "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." Worship and ritual can be life-affirming. But they don't substitute for obedience and pure hearts (Matthew 15:3-9). Rather, they should flow out of hearts devoted to God. Whatever Nadab and Abihu did was apparently an egregious offense--something maybe even idolatrous. God had spelled out what he wanted (Exodus 30:9), and they had decided that they knew a better way. It wasn't an honest mistake. It was an in-your-face test of God. That never goes very well. This story calls on us to live lives that reflect God's holiness. It's not primarily about getting worship right; it's about having hearts that are right. Note that at the end of the chapter, Aaron also fails to follow the letter of the law when he doesn't carry out all his priestly responsibilities. But he explains to Moses that he just wasn't up to it because he was mourning for his sons. And apparently that was all right. Rituals are trying to root us in our foundational stories and to shape us. They matter greatly. But they aren't the ultimate goal. The goal is lives formed after a holy God. Now I think the authoritative word of this old text is just the opposite of what I imagined as a teen. Instead of saying that fine-tuning worship is the ultimate goal, perhaps it's pointing to a limitation of worship and ritual. They are the overflow of a well-formed heart--not a substitute for it.


  • No, no, instrumental music was paired with Nadab and Abihu. They offered strange fire in worship to God. They were struck dead.

    By Blogger Clarissa, at 9/13/2005 03:54:00 AM  

  • Whoops. Didn't read far enough. Was skimming. Caught me!!!!

    By Blogger Clarissa, at 9/13/2005 03:55:00 AM  

  • That's a very good observation. Thanks, enjoyed it.

    By Blogger Tommy, at 9/13/2005 03:58:00 AM  

  • Sadly, those "gotcha" sermons are still being preached today in many Churches of Christ. However, I don't think the congregates are getting as "fired up" as they once did.

    It is amazing that so many of those type of sermons ignored the context.

    By Blogger David Michael, at 9/13/2005 05:02:00 AM  

  • thanks, mike, for giving me a perspective on this passage other than "get it right or fry". i had a feeling it wasn't in the Bible for the express purpose of condemning instrumental music in worship. im sure there are other passages that have skewed perspectives from my past.

    By Blogger J Gregory, at 9/13/2005 05:20:00 AM  

  • So are you saying I now have to give up my best one liner sermons? Turn or burn! Try or fry! Obey or saute! Bummer!!!

    By Blogger Brad, at 9/13/2005 06:14:00 AM  

  • Reading through I Samuel I'm reminded that God gave the people what they wanted (a king) even though he knew it was the wrong answer for the wrong reasons and would certainly produce painful results.

    The Israelites never really believed that God was big enough. 2000+ years later do we believe Jesus is big enough and the answer - or is our "king" the cofC doctrine/agenda?

    By Blogger KentF, at 9/13/2005 06:25:00 AM  

  • The rub comes when we lay this filter over our situation today. It is easy to joke about its application to instrumental worship or a myriad of other cofc proclaimed issues. But, the real deal is application to our desire today. Form &/or Style still can not take presedence over a heart turned to God. Even if it is the preferred form and style of the day. This is hard for me.
    This is a good day to go back and read the song words for "Heart of Worship." I believe that Matt Redmon was having so many people attend their church simply because of the praise band that soon enough they noticed that congregants were not there because of Jesus. Thus, he sings...."Because a song in itself is not what you have required..."
    Hmm...easy to laugh at our old ways and issues, not so easy to apply it to the stuff I love and desire in worship.

    By Blogger Arlene Kasselman, at 9/13/2005 06:49:00 AM  

  • Mike,
    Been reading since the beginning of this blog, this may be the best post yet. Well... probably not, those posts after the accident still haunt me and inspire me! But this was great for you to lead us back into a story that many of us probably avoid.

    You said "Worship and ritual can be life-affirming. But they don't substitute for obedience and pure hearts (Matthew 15:3-9). Rather, they should flow out of hearts devoted to God." They also don't substitute for the other part of that 1 Samuel 15 verse - "obeying the voice of God".

    May we all hear him today!

    By Blogger TCS, at 9/13/2005 07:04:00 AM  

  • I want to amen Kent's last paragraph....so AMEN!! Mike, great post.....REALLY great post.
    Because we are the same age (even though I look SO much younger) this really resonated with me. I can remember ALL those sermons, and remember how they skewed my view of God. That view started changing as a student at Harding, and then REALLY changed when I began to search on my own. Sitting at your feet at the College church also played a huge role in that transformation. I praise the Father that my two boys do not have that view of God, therefore another link was NOT put in that terrible chain.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    By Blogger David U, at 9/13/2005 07:09:00 AM  

  • The speaker at the 2005/06 Commencment service for HUGSR made this same very point. The theme this year at HUGSR is the Holiness of God and the speaker said that Nadab and Abihu were not struck down just because they did not follow script but because the "strange fire" was probably something pagan in which they failed to take seriously the fact that they were making an offering to a Holy God. He too, went on to say tht this passage has been used way too much in an unhealthy manner.

    By Blogger K. Rex Butts, at 9/13/2005 07:12:00 AM  

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    By Blogger K. Rex Butts, at 9/13/2005 07:15:00 AM  

  • Having just finished reading "Come To the Table" and still reeling from perspectives shared in a class I taught last year on womens' roles, this post really hits home. The question that runs through my mind again and again is "What do they think is going to HAPPEN?" If we commune differently? If a woman teaches? If...if...if...? And I guess the answer in some cases is: God is going to strike them down. If not now, then later.

    I guess I just thought we were past the Nadab and Abihu, hellfire and brimstone, stricken by lightning way of thinking. But I DO believe we're getting there.

    Thank you for continuing to educate in a kind and loving way. I'll keep trying to emulate.

    By Blogger Thurman8er, at 9/13/2005 07:43:00 AM  

  • Blogging is an amazing way to see how God is working on the hearts of so many people at the same time...

    I've been struggling with the issue of "heart worship" and asking myself "What does True Worship look like?" for a few weeks now. I've talked to everyone that will listen, I've had lengthy debates with our Worship Team and I expounded on this topic at length in my recent post. So your thoughts came at just the right time. :-)

    As a very wise woman said to me last night (as we sat on the couch watching football), perhaps I need to just shut my mouth and let my heart do the talking. And maybe that's what we ALL need to do.

    God desires our hearts above all else. He probably doesn't care too much about how we express our love, or what it sounds like, whether we are standing or sitting or clapping or chanting or banging on a drum. So maybe we need to stop caring so much about all of these things and keep our focus where it truly belongs - on our hearts.

    By Blogger Dwiggy444, at 9/13/2005 09:08:00 AM  

  • Oh, man, those Nadab and Abihu sermons were enough to keep me up nights as a child! I remember being afraid to go to sleep, because, what if Jesus came back, and I didn't get a chance to hurriedly pray for forgiveness one last time for teensy infractions committed since my last "blanket" prayer or, Heaven forbid, what if I had done something awful that escaped my notice altogether!
    It's only been in recent years (and I'm in my late 40's) that I discovered Exodus 24, in which God invites a bunch of guys, INCLUDING Nadab and Abihu (of "burn, saute, and fry" fame!) to "come up", see Him in His glory, and dine in His presence. This passage gave me a completely different take on Nadab and Abihu -- and God. Here He is, wanting them to be in intimate communion with Him. These were guys who were allowed to know God in a way most of the Israelites could not, and THEN they blatantly thumbed their noses at Him.
    What a freeing concept: He's the God who bids us "come up" to Him -- He's approachable, He loves us, and He desires relationship with us. This is not a God who is just waiting to zap us at the first mistake or the tiniest omission. Praise be to Him, Who in His grace brought me to this place of peace -- He Who truly allowed my escape from the snare of legalism and terror!

    By Blogger Ruthie, at 9/13/2005 09:15:00 AM  

  • I wonder if part of the conclusion we can draw from Nadab and Abihu is that the reason their fire was "strange" or "unauthorized" was because they weren't the ones who were supposed to bring it. In Exodus 30:7, Aaron is specified as the one to take care of burning incense, every morning and evening, at the altar made for it. It doesn't really authorize him to delegate the task to his sons or anyone else or to use censers; there seems to be a delineation between what the high priest can do ("most holy" tasks) and what the priests can do ("holy" tasks).

    And I may be off-base for suggesting it, but I have to wonder if alcohol impaired their judgment about obeying in the specified way; otherwise, the Lord's warning to Aaron while he still grieves his sons in Leviticus 10:8 seems like a non-sequitur.

    So I guess I still think there is a strong theme in Nadab and Abihu's story having to do with obedience (yes, Mike; from the heart!) but also with the head fully engaged.

    What I can't see is applying this story to situations that are not parallel; where God has not clearly given instruction or command and has left a matter up to us ... yet someone decides that his/her interpretation is "the one and only" - and hellfire and brimstone from the presence of the Lord on anyone who disagrees!

    By Blogger Keith Brenton, at 9/13/2005 09:52:00 AM  

  • The sin of Nad & Ab was arrogance. Grace should produce a stronger sence of gratitude and responsibility, not arrogance. Free in Christ does not mean free to do as I see fit. It's still not a good idea to offer strange fire.
    So bring in the piano and break out the band, or not, I'm not particular there. But lets not be too self satisfied and accept just anything. Be equipt to identify a pagan nature.

    By Blogger c hand, at 9/13/2005 11:39:00 AM  

  • People seek comfort in masters.

    Whether it is the strange fire of rigid tradition or the strange fire of smoking pot, we yearn for something or someone to make things comfy for us.

    What feels most risky, but couldn't safer, is to strip naked of all that binds, to loose ourselves of all masters and seek the one master whose deepest desire is to set us free in his love.

    By Blogger Fajita, at 9/13/2005 11:47:00 AM  

  • "True worship", as someone referred to it, is almost never defined as something having to do with a church service in the Bible. Worship is what happens in our schools, places of work, grocery stores, and, yes, our Christian assemblies. I think that remembering this can heal a lot of our up-tightness about what happens during a 1-hour time slot in a 168-hour week.

    I wouldn't mind never again hearing a "church service" referred to as "worship". Yes, people do worship at assemblies of Christians, but not any more than when we're playing in the backyard with the kids.

    By Blogger Steve Jr., at 9/13/2005 01:12:00 PM  

  • Keith,

    I think you are right. I've always wondered why a warning about alcohol was thrown into that passage. If alchohol did to them what it does to people today, no wonder God struck them dead. It seems to me that they weren't struck dead because they were doing the wrong thing with the right heart. We have numerous examples of God overlooking folks not doing things according to the letter of the law, but their hearts were intent on serving God. Nadab and Abihu were doing either the wrong thing or maybe even the right thing according to law, but it was with the wrong heart. God will always reject that. (Isaiah 1)

    By Blogger Brad, at 9/13/2005 02:00:00 PM  

  • ' …You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean ...' (Lev 10.10, ESV)

    With the diversity of worship styles/forms we have in today's churches, how does one define, then, what is offered up as holy? What is holy to one population might be deemed as the lowest common denominator and irreverent to another. Some hearts might thrive on ‘JC-Lite’ while others thirst for a deeper learning and understanding. Regardless of the myriad of instrumental means (giant screens in triplicate; OHP’s; PowerPoint slides; bells and smells; wine/Welch's grape juice; shot glasses/one cups; matzos/wafers; expensive sound/light set-ups; worship teams and bands/choirs and traditional instruments; and the list goes on) used to convey or impart our ‘offerings’ today …

    … how does God intervene now to show us if He is pleased or not? A lot of us can point to those things that make ourselves feel pleased and fulfilled with our corporate worship offerings. ‘It’s not about me …’ Oh, really???

    I am so glad God in His mercy does not strike us down if we ‘experiment’ and get it wrong for trying to get it right. Guess I will just have to wait until I get to Heaven and can actually see what kind of worship makes His face light up with joy (I know, I know – His countenance is already pretty bright!).

    By Blogger Deb, at 9/13/2005 05:13:00 PM  

  • In spirit and in truth. Nuf said.

    By Blogger Brian, at 9/13/2005 08:35:00 PM  

  • I stumbled upon your blog and feel a little divine intervention is the culprit. A little reinforcement goes a long way!

    God blessed me just this past Sunday with the opportunity to teach a class of 5th graders from these same words from King Saul.

    I'm grateful to be able to teach this new generation a way of believing that is different from the message I learned as a child: Obedience isn't as much about action as it is about heart.

    How many sleepless nights could I have avoided if I'd grown up understanding my freedom in Christ like I do now!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9/13/2005 09:46:00 PM  

  • Right on. Worship becomes enjoyable and captivating when we focus on God with our hearts and not on the idea of "getting things right." Renewal is in the air and hearts of His people!

    By Blogger Matt Tibbles, at 9/13/2005 11:10:00 PM  

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