I’ve never felt as close to God in good times as I have in bad. It’s during hard times when I need him that his words have grit and feel most real. I’m learning how to enjoy the fire and storm, because I don’t go through them alone.

Leviticus 9-10

Since the Israelites left Egypt, the sacrifices for God have been offered by Moses on behalf of the people. But when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, he also gave him instructions for building the tabernacle, setting up a priesthood, and teaching his people how to worship him.

Moses’ brother, Aaron, and his four sons have been chosen by God as priests, and they’re ready to begin work on the eighth day of their dedication. The week before, they’d been anointed by Moses and made sacrifices. And they’d lived in the tabernacle for seven days since, sacred and set apart from the rest of the people Le 8:35-36.

On this, their first official day on the job, Moses brings the elders and the people together with their newly ordained priests to worship in this cherubim-covered place. When they’re ready to make sacrifices, Moses tells them they’ve got something special to look forward to afterwards, because “…today the Lord will appear to you,” Le 9:1-6.

It’s happened before. When they first got the tabernacle set up, the glory of God filled it so thick that Moses couldn’t go inside to minister, Ex 40:34-35. God’s glory was regularly seen in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night they’d been following since leaving Egypt, but when it moved to the tabernacle and filled it, there was a special sense of God’s presence among them. By inhabiting the tent, he was giving his stamp of approval on the place of worship they’d made for him, but even more he was saying, “This is where I live.”

So it wouldn’t be the first time they’d seen God’s glory at the tabernacle. And it was something they longed to see again, because it told them God was still present with them and pleased. Who doesn’t want tangible, visible evidence that God is really with me, and he delights in me?

Aaron makes the required sacrifices and offerings for himself and his sons first, and then he makes them for the people, “just as God commanded.” Doing things the way God’s commanded seems to be a theme. These four words are repeated in one way or another at least eight times in these two chapters beginning with 9:7.

Moses and Aaron go inside the tabernacle, and when they come out where the people are, they bless them, and that’s when God’s glory appears. Fire comes out from God’s presence and consumes the burnt offering and its fat on the altar, and “when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown,” Ex 9:1-7; 23-24.

They’ve come a long way. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai and experienced God’s glory, they shook in fear. The second time, they begged Moses to talk to God for them; they couldn’t bear to have him speaking directly again, Ex 19:16; 20:18-21. But this time, seeing God’s glory prompts spontaneous, joyful, humble worship. When they see it, they fall. When they see it they shout for joy. When they see it they fall facedown. It was a jubilant experience of intimacy between God and his community, just what worship is intended to be.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

God had given instructions about the order of the offerings. After the priests sacrificed animals for their own sins, they sacrificed them for the sins of the people. The basic order was sin offering, burnt offering, and fellowship offering, Le 9:7-22.

The offerings showed them the way God was to be approached. First, sin is confessed and forgiven in the sin offering. Moved by his forgiveness from God, a person then expresses his wholehearted, burning devotion to God in the burnt offering. And last, because relationship is restored, fellowship between God and man is enjoyed in the fellowship offering, symbolized by the piece of meat the priest would eat in God’s presence, (Ligon Duncan, http://fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermons/aaron-and-his-sons-complete-the-ceremonies/).

This is still the way we approach God. We no longer offer sacrifices marking these steps, but we still come to God like this–we repent and receive forgiveness (sin offering); we offer him renewed hearts (burnt offering); we enjoy his presence in worship (fellowship offering). Because Jesus is the once-and-for-all sacrifice–our very own sin offering on the cross–we have immediate access to the Father. We never have to go through a human priest to connect with God, because Jesus is our eternal high priest, whose offering never expires, Ep 2:14-18; He 4:14-16 (Ligon Duncan).

Back at the tabernacle, everything had been going smoothly as planned. But just after God’s fire consumes the offering, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, get a wild hair and take censer pots of burning incense and offer them to God, unauthorized and on their own initiative, “contrary to his command,” and they’re killed on the spot, Le 10:1-2.

Moses calls relatives to come in and carry the bodies out, and he instructs Aaron and his two remaining sons not to noticeably grieve as was customary, “or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community,” Le 10:4-7.

What got into Nadab and Abihu? They knew who God was. They’d seen plenty of God’s power thus far–the Red Sea crossing, daily manna, water from the rock, Mount Sinai smoking and shaking. They were two of the 70 special men who saw God and ate with him and lived to tell the tale. And they were two of only 6 who were priests of the Almighty, an enviable position among the people of Israel. But experiences with God aren’t enough. It’s doing what he says that matters most, Ex 24:9-11, 28:1; Lk 6:46-49.

Maybe they’re feeling the desire to worship God their own way–you know, originally and authentically, millennial-style. Or maybe their privileged position has gone to their heads, and they think they’re free to do exactly as they please. Regardless of why, God judged their worship as defiled. Though they’re coming to God, they’re not coming the way he’s said, and his fire breaks out against them. It’s a sad story that on this day of joy and glory for everyone else, they make it about themselves.

Moses’ said it was because of God’s holiness that it happened. He quoted God, who another time had said, “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Holiness is as much a part of who God is as is his love. He can’t stop being holy, just as he can’t stop being loving. Those who approach him cannot ignore his holiness, either, Le 10:3. This is why repentance is where we begin when we come to him.

Was God too harsh with Aaron’s sons?

Mount Sinai

Before God meets with Moses on Mount Sinai, he’d instructed him to tell the people not to touch or come up the mountain while he was there, or they’d die. He even sends Moses back to double check their compliance before he’ll get down to business with Moses, Ex 19:20-25. God wasn’t exaggerating the danger of coming to him the wrong way. His holiness is that fierce, and when people aren’t careful with it, they die. It’s not just poetic imagery that “Our God is a consuming fire.” It’s a literal reality. God is consumed with burning holiness, because he can’t stop being who he is, Deu 4:24; He 12:29.

All the fuss about washing and anointing and sacrificing were all necessary parts of approaching a holy God by unholy people. God made a way to connect with them by having priests who were meticulously clean, anointed, consecrated, wore sacred clothing, and followed his protocol for what to do where and when. There were a lot of tedious rules to learn and obey in order that the way to God would be safe, and even then, only the high priest could actually approach him once a year, offering animal blood, Ex 30:10.

So when Nadab and Abihu approach him in their own way (and some commentators think they actually went into the Holy of Holies with their incense, http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/leviticus-10/), they approach God outside of his pre-approved, safe-for-humans zone.

It’s not that they didn’t know the rules. Just about everything the priests did had to do with how to handle themselves in relation to God’s holiness. It’s that they didn’t take God’s rules to heart. Believing in God means more than just knowing in my head that he exists and how he wants me to live. Believing in God means hearing his words and taking them to heart by doing what he says. In the same way, simply knowing the rules of aerodynamics won’t get me to Houston. If I truly believe in them, I must do them. I must get on an airplane to go there.

Nadab and Abihu tried to jump right into intimate fellowship with God without going through the first two steps he’d made clear–coming to him with a sin offering and burnt offering first. They tried to skip over their need to repent and be forgiven. They despised God’s provision for their sin and believed they didn’t need saving or the Savior. By their action, they claimed they were God’s equals, free agents without any need of his forgiveness, and qualified to move directly into fellowship with him. Their deaths were on them.

Was God too harsh with Aaron, the devastated father who wasn’t allowed to express his grief?

Aaron learns that God’s holiness and his worship matter more than how he feels in the moment, even when what he feels is as devastating as the loss of two sons. God cares about feelings, but when God’s righteous judgment comes, as it does to his sons, the more important thing to do is to pay attention to what God wants and to do what he says.

Aaron finds a way to express his feelings through fasting from the portion of meat he was allowed, but it wasn’t a public grieving. He felt what he felt in silence. God hadn’t commanded him not to feel, after all. Had he expressed his grief visibly–tearing his clothing, failing to groom himself–he’d have called attention to his own emotional state of being rather than called attention to the people’s need of God for their eternal well being. The loss of God is what cannot be endured, Le 10:3, 16-20.

God is still particular about how we come to him. Having a relationship with God has always been on his terms. Just like at the tabernacle, there’s only one way to have fellowship with him, and it’s through the sin offering of his Son. Jesus’ blood covers us so we can be forgiven and taken in. All roads and religions don’t lead to God, unless they go through Jesus first.

The night Jesus was arrested, he prayed that if there was a way he could do God’s will without having to “drink the cup,” he’d just as soon take that route. The reason I know without a doubt that Jesus is the only way to God is because if there had been any other way, God would have let him take it and come down off the cross, Lk 22:42-44.

But there wasn’t any other way, and Jesus drank from his Father’s cup. Unlike Aaron’s sons, Jesus was all about obeying what God commands, Jn 8:28-29.

God wasn’t unsympathetic with Aaron. He was actually quite the opposite. He was empathetic. He knows exactly what it feels like to lose a beloved Son. Nadab and Abihu died because God’s holiness demanded it, just as it demands that we die, too.

But God let his Son die in our place. He knew that Jesus’ sacrifice was the only way our sin could be paid, and he suffered it to gain many more sons and daughters in us.

This is what his holy love has done.

This is how much we’re loved.

[Some translations of the Bible use “guilt offering” for “burnt offering,” and “peace offering” for “fellowship offering.”]

Mark 4:26-5:20

“That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side,’” Mk 4:35.

Jesus has been teaching a large crowd all day from a boat pushed out into the lake, Mk 4:1. He’s no doubt very tired, because he falls asleep on the way to the other side, despite the “furious squall” that comes up. He’s so soundly asleep, that he doesn’t wake up, even when the waves break over the boat “so that it was nearly swamped,” Mk 4:37.

This is a storm so fierce that his disciples, some of whom are seasoned fishermen, are afraid of drowning. They wake Jesus up, not to ask for his help, but to accuse him of not caring for them, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Mk 4:38.

Jesus gets up and rebukes the wind and tells the waves to be still, and it was completely calm. And he asks his men why they’re so afraid, “Do you still have no faith?” Mk 4:39-40.

They had been afraid when they thought they were drowning, but now that Jesus has calmed the storm, they’re actually “terrified,” and they ask each other, “‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!'” Mk 4:41.

They’ve just seen Jesus’ humanity in his sleeping. And they’ve seen his deity in rebuking the storm. While they were afraid of the storm before and annoyed with Jesus then, now they’re terrified of this Jesus who calmed it down.

Why does seeing Jesus’ deity terrify them even more than his sleeping through the storm? Jesus-as-man means he needs to sleep, and they wonder if he cares about them. But Jesus-as-God means he has a claim on them. They wake him with “Teacher…” because they’ve had a teacher-student relationship with him. But they’re realizing that Jesus is more than just their teacher.

Jesus is God, and as God, he deserves their worship and service. Naturally, they’re now thinking… “What will he ask of me? What is this relationship going to cost? Can I step up? And do I want to?” These are terrifying questions to ponder when Jesus-as-God gets hold of your life.

Jesus’ questions, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” resonate. After all he’s done for them (and for me), why do they still not believe? What else do they need?

The problem in the Christian life is not that Jesus is asleep. It’s that we think he is, so we’re afraid to trust. We’re in awe of the storm instead of in awe of him, because we don’t really know who he is. We don’t ask for his help but accuse him with, “You don’t care enough!”

And like the disciples, we don’t believe what he tells us.

Jesus said from the beginning, “Let us go over to the other side.” If they’d believed those words, they’d have known he didn’t say them to predict what wouldn’t happen. He was telling them what would. All of God’s words are true and trustworthy, even when it’s only to say, “Let’s go!” Mk 4:35; Ps 33:4; 119:138.

My take away today is the safe place of trusting God and his word vs the chaos of trusting myself or my circumstances.

I see it in Nadab and Abihu who disbelieved God’s words and were removed from his service. Aaron did as God commanded and brought glory to God and blessing to himself and God’s people.

I see it in the disciples failing to believe what Jesus said about getting across the lake and getting strung out by his sleeping. No wonder they’re terrified when they realize who he is. Once God makes himself known, you can never go back to ignorance of him. He starts working in you and asking for things.

I see it in Jesus’ authority over the “furious squall,” the one both outside and inside his men, “Quiet! Be still!” Rather than allow himself to be sidetracked by their emotionally charged question, Jesus gives them what they need instead—he commands the storm to be calm, even before they ask him. Despite their fear and lack of faith, Jesus gives.

Jesus is my safe place, my refuge.

“The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him,”
Psalm 37:39-40.

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