January 28, 2008

Leaders are Held to a Higher Standard

Near the end of high school, I felt God calling me into full-time ministry. After a lot of wrestling with God, with myself, with how that would all play out; I followed. I spent five years in college learning some of the ins and outs of ministry, studying the Bible, Greek, Hebrew, theology...just gaining a foundation, and by the end of that time...I still felt inadequate. I felt like I needed more.

So I enrolled in a Master's program. I assumed, like most people do, that college and advanced academic study enhances your knowledge about the topic and answers the questions you have. I expected all this study to answer my toughest questions about God and the Bible, and, in a way, it did answer those questions. What I didn't expect was that it would give me more and harder questions and fewer and fewer answers. You have a lot more questions, but at least they are better questions, tougher questions.

The more I learned about God and the Bible, the more I realized the Sunday School answers, given by well-meaning Sunday School teachers, didn't cut it. They were inadequate, and sometimes created more problems than they answered.

These are shortcut answers. They get the person to stop asking the hard question, but do not really answer the question. Sunday School answers are necessary and important in one way...they give us some kind of answer when we aren't ready intellectually, spiritually, emotionally for the deeper answers. But we can't get stuck in those simplistic answers.

Many people who grow up in the church leave the church because they want more than the simplistic Sunday School answers they have received. The simplistic answers aren't cutting it any more, and no one seems to be talking about the deeper ones. They can't talk about the deeper answers because they don't know how to deal with the harder questions and deeper answers. They have stopped growing, and sometimes view the questioning as doubt.

I have a ton of questions. Some day I will sit down with God and ask Him all of them. As for right now God answers many of my questions with "trust me and follow me." So that is what I do. I trust and follow.

This has forced me to hold on to some things about God even when it isn't crystal clear that what I believe about Him is true. For example, I believe that God is loving, merciful, cares for sinners, and is gracious and forgiving. But when I look at the Old Testament and some of the things that happened, I have to struggle to believe it is the same God.

I think many of us do.

The story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus is one of those stories.

Nadab and Abihu

Leviticus 10:1-2, "Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

A little later in Leviticus 16:1 it says, "The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD."

In order to deal with this passage effectively, we have to stop and remind ourselves that God is loving, forgiving, and merciful. But we also have to remember that God is Holy and Just. We have to start by believing that God is not going to arbitrarily murder someone.

These two passages say that Nadab and Abihu were put to death because they "offered unauthorized fire" and "approached the Lord."

They offered "unauthorized fire."
This means they took fire from a place they weren't supposed to, and used it to burn the incense before the altar of God. Priests were to burn the incense using coals from the altar of God. These coals were holy because God lit the fire of the altar himself. The priests were commanded to never let this fire go out so that the fire would not be the common place fire used to cook food and keep a person warm.

They approached the Lord
This indicates they may have tried to enter the Holy of Holies when it was not their right or responsibility to do so. One time per year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies. He would be wearing the garments that symbolized his penitence and sorrow for sin. Smoke from burning incense would conceal him, and he would bring the blood of the sacrifice. In later times, the high priest would tie a rope around his waist, just in case he died while in the Holy of Holies, so that other priests could pull him out.

At first glance these seemed like such small infractions; not something that deserved death, but I think the answer lies in the fact that their sin is about more than just the actions they took.

Leviticus 10:3 hints at this deeper meaning. Immediately after Nadab and Abihu are struck dead Moses says to Aaron, "
This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: 'Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.' "

A better wording might be, "All who approach me are to regard me as Holy. I will be respected in the sight of all people."

These young men were not "bad" men. They were privileged to be part of the Elders of Israel and to eat and drink in the presence of God. Exodus 24:9-11 says, "Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank."

They were part of the preparation of the tabernacle.

God chose and ordained them as His priests. And, being a priest is where I believe our clue to the severity of this action lies.

Being a priest carried with it a tremendous responsibility.
As priests they:
represented the people to God (sacrifices, feasts, celebrations, prayer and intercession)
represented God to the people (administration of Torah, spoke His word to them)

But here we have two priests (men who represent God to the people and the people to God) who take God and his commands lightly, and treat God as common place. By using unauthorized fire, they treated God as common place and willfully disobeying Him in front of His people! By approaching the Lord they took a responsibility that was not theirs. It was the responsibility of the high priest, and only the high priest, to enter the Holy of Holies.
They did things their own way, and expected God to accept it rather than follow the ways He prescribed.

This is more than just a sin...this is an irreverent disregard for God and His commands and a treating of God as common place...by His own priests in front of the people. If God's priests were going to treat Him in such ways, how were the people going to treat Him?

God recognizes the fallibility and sinfulness of people; even those who are to serve Him. He had no false expectations that His priests would live a sinless life. He knew they would sin. He knew they wouldn't always get it right, and they too would need atonement. In Leviticus 16, Aaron is commanded to sacrifice a bull every year on the Day of Atonement for his sin and his family's sin before entering the Holy of Holies. Hebrews 5:1-3 says, "Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people."

There was no expectation of perfection, but He did expect respect. He did expected His priests to regard Him as Holy. To be holy means to be set apart, reverenced, awed, respected. We can replace the Holy with any of those words. "I will be awed by those who approach me." "I will be reverenced by those who approach me." "I will be respected by those who approach me."

I think their punishment was harsh because they were God's priests, His leaders, and they treated Him as common place and without the proper honor due Him. The ultimate God of the universe, by nature of being God, deserves respect and obedience, and those who claim to be leading the people in His name should never treat God as common or presume on His behalf.

A couple of years into my college experience, one of my religion professor was upset at the class because so many were skipping class. Finally, after he couldn't take it any more, he stepped around the podium and said, "You wouldn't go to a doctor to have your appendix operated on if you knew he had skipped class the day they taught how to operate on appendices. You owe it to your future congregation to be present in this class. You are getting grades for a better report card or even a better church. You are working as a workman for God."

That day I realized what it meant to do my best to bring honor and glory to God in my academic life. This passage reminds me that in my role as a leader, as follower of Jesus in my everyday life, I am a representative of God before the people. I must ask myself, Am I bringing the proper honor and glory to God? Or, am I treating Him as common place?

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