When I was pastoring in Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal came to our church one Sunday to share his testimony. It was a big day; we had one combined service, and every seat was filled, with standing room only. There were special directions we had to follow, and precautions we had to take, because the governor was with us that day. Bobby Jindal has a legitimate personal testimony of salvation; and it was neat to hear how a high school classmate led him to the Lord. It was a special Sunday when Governor Jindal came to our church.
The thing is, we have to remember that we have a far greater guest every Sunday we gather to worship. As my old seminary professor called it, “The presence unseen, yet more real than any other.” The presence of God Himself is with us each time we meet. And because He is with us, just like with the Governor, there special precautions we need to take, and guidelines we need to observe. We find some of these here in the passage we read this week in Leviticus 10:1-3:
I. WORSHIP MUST BE BIBLICAL
:1 “strange fire … which He had not commanded them”
What happened here in this story? The Bible says that when Israel came together to worship God, Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu “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.”
Those of you who have been reading through the Bible with us will remember that all through Exodus and Leviticus we have read this phrase over and over, that Moses and Aaron and Israel were doing “just as the Lord had commanded Moses”:
— God told them to make the tabernacle with certain dimensions, and it says they made it “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
— God told them to build the table for the bread of the presence so tall, and they made it so tall “just as the Lord commanded Moses.”
— He told them the exact sacrifices they were to bring, and they brought those sacrifices “just as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Over and over we read this: “just as the Lord had commanded Moses … just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Their worship was to be just as God had prescribed for it to be, with no variations. They weren’t free to just do whatever they imagined. God had a certain plan He wanted them to follow.
Then we read in Leviticus 10 that here come Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, and they just decide they are going to put “something” in their pans the Bible says “which He had not commanded them” and offer it to the Lord.
Someone might say, “Well what wrong with that? They were offering it to the LORD (Yahweh); it wasn’t like they were offering it to Baal or some false god; it was just what their hearts had led them to offer to God. What was wrong with that?” What was wrong with it, is that God had given them specific instructions on what they were supposed to bring to Him, and it was not up to them to change that, and just bring whatever they wanted to. And God struck them down for their disobedience and presumption.
There are places and times in life when we can make choices and be creative to our heart’s content. For example, you can go wherever you want to go for your vacation; whatever you dream up, and can afford to do, you can do: you can go to the lake, or to the beach, or to Australia, or even downtown Morganton — whatever you want — it’s up to you! But you cannot do just whatever you want to do to worship the one true God. The God of the Bible is a holy God, and He has commanded us to worship Him in certain, prescribed ways.
As pastors and worship leaders, we don’t have to sit around every week and wonder: “What kinds of things should do in church this week?” Sure, there are some specific details we need to fill in regarding the sermons, songs, and order of worship, but we know generally what we are going to do, because God has already commanded in His word the elements He wants us to include in our worship. We don’t have to “make this up”:
— We know are going to read God’s word, because God commanded us to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” in I Timothy 4:13
— we know we are going to have songs, because God commanded us to sing with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” and make melody in our hearts to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19)
— we know we are going to preach, because God commanded us to “preach the word” in II Timothy 4:2
— we know we are going to pray, because Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Matthew 21:13)
— we know we are going to give, because God said “bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10) and “on the first day of the week, let each of you is to put aside as he may prosper.” (I Corinthians 16:2)
— we know we are going to share testimonies, because God said in Psalm 35:18, “I will give You thanks in the great congregation.”
— and we know from time to time we will observe the Lord’s Supper, because Jesus commanded us “do this in remembrance of Me.” (I Corinthians11:24)
See, just like with Israel, God has revealed to us in His word the things He wants us to include in His services. We don’t need to sit around and dream up “new things” to do in church; in fact, we need to be careful NOT to just “dream up” new things to do in church; we do not want to be found guilty before God of offering “strange fire” that He never commanded us to offer Him. Our worship must be Biblical; God does not want “strange fire” offered in His worship.
The problem, especially in the age in which we live, comes where we compare church to entertainment. Entertainment is varied; it is exciting. And we have more entertainment options available to us today than ever before in history. Years ago, when I was growing up, we had 3 channels: ABC, NBC, and CBS. And on Saturday night there was “A movie” you could watch. You hoped it would be something good, because it was the only one on!
Now we have an explosion of entertainment options: hundreds of channels, many totally dedicated to movies; you can get all kinds of movies and tv shows “on demand” at the press of a button. You don’t even have to stay home to watch them; you can carry around your smartphone or tablet and watch them anywhere. Games, movies, entertainment, 24/7, wherever you want — keeping us excited, keeping us amused, keeping us entertained —
And then after all this entertainment … we come to church! And what are we going to do in church? How are we going to “compete” with all that entertainment, and the attention span and the adrenaline level this ever-present entertainment has led us to expect? The response of many pastors and music ministers has been: Hey, we’ve got to “compete” with the entertainment industry; we’ve got to make our services more “interesting;” more “entertaining”! But we make a grave mistake if we give way to that mindset — church is not “entertainment;” we are about the worship of Holy God. And we’ve got to realize that there is a big difference between worship and entertainment. In :10 here God commands: “make a distinction between the holy and the profane.” Worship is not “entertainment.” If you want to be entertained, go to Dollywood. If you want to be entertained, click on Netflix. This isn’t that. This isn’t the entertainment business. This is worship. And God has shown us in His word what He wants in worship.
As pastors we have the responsibility to remember that as we put our services together; we aren’t here to entertain people, and we need to resist the pressure to do so. We are here to be faithful to do in worship what God has commanded us to do in His word. The ultimate measure of our success in worship is not how many people we draw into these seats, and how much we keep them entertained. The ultimate measure of our success is how faithful we are to do what God commanded us to do in His worship.
And as a PEOPLE, YOU have a responsibility here too. You need to remember that if you don’t always feel “entertained,” that’s for a reason: we are not here to be entertained; we are here to worship God and to hear His word! And that will not always be “entertaining.” Don’t judge what we do here, by whether it’s entertaining; that’s not what this is. There is a big difference between worship and entertainment, and we need to maintain the difference. We need to beware lest in trying to offer “entertainment” we end up offering “strange fire” on God’s altar, that He never asked us for! “No strange fire:” worship must be Biblical.
II. WORSHIP MUST BE REVERENT
:3 “by those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy”
Verse 3 was a strong word from the Lord for Aaron, and for all of us:
Moses said, “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.’”
This is a word of warning for our worship today, too: do not be too familiar; too casual; too flippant as you worship God. He insists that will be treated as holy! Our worship must be reverent and respectful of the holiness of God.
Now let me say that there is a difficult balance to keep here. In fact, SO much in Christianity depends upon us keeping a good, Biblical balance, in what we believe and practice. And there is an important balance to keep here:
See, God made us originally to walk with Him, just like Adam & Eve walked with God in the cool of the day in the Garden of Eden. But when Adam & Eve sinned, they were cast away from God’s presence, and all of us have followed in their footsteps. We have all separated ourselves from God by our sin.
But when Jesus came and died on the cross for our sins, Ephesians 2 says “Now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” And when we repent of our sins and trust Jesus as our Lord & Savior, Ephesians 3 goes on to say the result of that is that now in Him, “we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him.” Now in Christ you are NOT separated from God; now in Christ you have “boldness and confident access” to God; now in Christ, Romans 8 says God is your “Abba, Father,” your “Daddy.” And if He’s not, He CAN be today: confess your sin to Him, turn to Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and you too can draw near to God and have that confident access to Him as your loving Father.
But here’s where the balance come in: we mustn’t take this too far. Its like, you may have a loving “Daddy,” but you’d still better obey him, and you had better not show him disrespect, or you will know the hand of his discipline! In the same way we have to balance the “confident access” we now have to God with the reverence for His holiness that we must still have whenever we draw near to Him.
God says here “by those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy.”
Nowhere in the New Testament does He reverse this. Nowhere in the New Testament are we encouraged to come before God even as our Father, with anything less than the reverence and awe that is due Him. Nowhere in the New Testament is there anything that resembles a “casual, flippant” attitude as we come to God — even under the New Covenant in Christ.
— In the NEW Testament, Hebrews 13:28-29 says, “offer to God an acceptable sacrifice with reverence and awe; for our God is consuming fire.”
— One of my favorite passages in that regard is in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation, where the Apostle John sees the resurrected Jesus. Now, to set this up, remember who this is: this is the John who walked with Jesus for 3 years; this is the one who called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is John who spent the Last Supper using Jesus’ chest for a backrest! John was as familiar and intimate with Jesus as anyone who ever lived. And yet Revelation 1:13+ says when he saw the risen Jesus, here’s what he said:
“I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.” And in :17 John says, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man.”
Even the Apostle John, who was more familiar with Jesus than anyone who ever walked this earth, fell at His feet like a dead man when he beheld Him. There was only reverence and awe when he came before the Lord.
So the word of the Lord in Leviticus is still applicable to us today: “By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy.” That verse should guide those of us today who would draw near to God to worship: we must treat God with reverence whenever we come to worship:
— One of the closest parallels in the New Testament to Leviticus’ story of Nadab and Abihu is what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. It says that a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira, saw people like Barnabas selling their property and giving all the money to the church (4:36-37). So they too sold a piece of property, but they kept back some of it for themselves. But they brought it to the church and presented it as if it was the whole price they’d gotten for the property. Verse 3 tells us that when they did that, Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?” And :5 says “And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it.”
See, Ananias and Sapphira came to church, trying to “put one over” on God. They tried to make themselves look better than they really were, and they didn’t come to the church with respect for God’s holiness. And God made an example out of them. This episode ought to shake us to the core!
We need to be very careful how we come before God — especially if you are trying to live a double life. God sees through that. Listen, you can “pull one over” on me — you can fool me into thinking you’re one of the holiest person on earth when you’re here at church — but you can’t pull one over on God. DO NOT sin blatantly all week, live in violation of God’s word, then come in here like you’re some kind of saint when you’re not. Now I’m not saying don’t come to church if you’re a sinner — church is for sinners; we are ALL sinners! But we sinners come to church with humility and repentance and remorse for our sins, and we lay them down before Jesus and thank Him for the forgiveness he bought for us with His blood. But DO NOT come here and disrespect God by putting on a hypocritical self-righteousness; it may cost you your life!
— This also speaks to just the attitude with which we come before God in worship. Are we really coming with an attitude of respect and awe when we come to worship? Or do we just “drag in” lackadaisically like we’re filing into a lecture at school or some boring meeting at work? Do you get enough rest on Saturday night so you can give God the full attention and worship He deserves? Are you treating the worship of God as holy, or are you just treating it like any other meeting?
— And I don’t want us to get off track on this, but I do think that even what we wear to worship can say something about our reverence for God. Now, those of you who attend Pleasant Ridge regularly know, we don’t focus on clothes here; we don’t have some legalistic “dress code,” and I think that’s good. Christianity is not about externals, like the things you wear. But again we probably need to balance that just a little bit, and remember that what we wear to something does reflect our attitude for what we are doing, doesn’t it? When you think something is important, you dress appropriately. Again, let’s don’t get too sidetracked with this, but just consider that everything you do in worship either reflects your respect for God, or your lack of it. Let’s be sure that the way we attend, the way we pay attention, the way we dress, the way we participate, the way we act — everything we do here — reflects respect for the holiness of God, and the seriousness of what we are doing here. Anything less is an insult to Him.
The story is told that Caesar was once invited to a banquet in his honor, but when he arrived, he saw that the attendance was so poor, and the food and entertainment so mediocre, that at one point he rose and said “Ah, you deceived me! I thought I was coming here in order to be honored, when in fact it appears I was invited to be shamed.”
How many times might the God of the Universe say that same thing about what are supposed to be our “services of worship” for Him? Do we show, by our attendance, by our participation, by our attitude, by every aspect of our being, that we are really here to WORSHIP Him? Or like Caesar might He look at how careless we are and ask if we’ve invited Him in order to shame Him? God says “By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy.” Now “holy” doesn’t mean “dead” or “somber;” Biblical worship can be exuberant — but it must always be truly reverent. We must always treat God as holy, in whatever we do here.
III. WORSHIP MUST BE GOD-FOCUSED.
Then the last part of :3 says: “So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” That’s just a little sentence, but it’s amazing if you remember that Nadab and Abihu, the two men who offered the “strange fire” in :1, were two of Aaron’s own sons. He had just watched fire come from the presence of YHWH and “consume” them, and they died, right there before his eyes! Can you imagine, your two children struck down by God right there in front of you? But Moses immediately told Aaron in :3, that God had said, “By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy.” And it’s then that that last little sentence in :3 says “So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” Moses was telling Aaron that he needed to keep in mind the seriousness of what he was doing in worship, and not dishonor God in any way — even when he watched his own sons die before his eyes. In other words, his respect for the Lord was to be greater than anything he showed towards men — ANY men, even his own sons! This shows us that our worship is to be God-focused, respecting God, more than anyone or anything else.
We need to hear that, because too often we focus on what other people think about our worship: what does the community think about it; or how does the media perceive it; or how does this or that person feel about it— but we have to realize that there is greater Guest with Whom we are to be concerned. Our focus is to be on GOD, not anyone else, when we worship.
— our most important focus in worship is not to be on our guests
— our most important focus is not to be on whoever has the most money
— our most important focus is not to be on the power structure of the church
— our most important focus in worship is not to be “what do people think”
Our most important focus in worship is to be GOD! What does GOD think? What does GOD see? How does GOD feel about what is going on here?
See, we can make a lot of people happy and fill a lot of seats by focusing on entertainment more than worship, like we talked about. But we have to ask ourselves: who are we here to please? The Bible says we are here to please GOD!
No one else besides God is to take center stage in our hearts and minds in worship. This is the danger in some of the churches that promote “celebrity” pastors, or worship leaders, or soloists. The purpose of worship is not to make celebrities out of pastors or worship leaders or soloists. The only “celebrity” at the center of Biblical Worship is GOD!
We need to be careful that nothing we do in worship takes away from the attention we give to God. We mentioned clothing a minute ago: we don’t need to wear anything that calls attention to ourselves — for better or for worse. People don’t need to walk away from our services talking about the pastor’s tie, or so-and-so’s dress, or whatever. That’s why in the old days choirs wore robes; so people’s attention would not be distracted by what people were wearing, so their attention would remain focused on God.
In every way, worship services should not be about calling attention to ourselves; they should always call our attention to GOD! Anything else is “strange fire” that God will not accept on His altar of worship.
I once interviewed a minister of music about coming to our church, and he told me that the goal of his leadership was to glorify God. He said, “If people walk away from our services saying ‘What a great music program’ then I consider that I have failed.” He said, “I want them to walk away from our worship saying, ‘What a great GOD!’” We called that guy! THAT is what worship is about: making it all about God.
I had a friend in seminary who went to pastor a church south of Ft. Worth, just off of I-35 there. He said that one Sunday the service had begun, and everyone was just kind of sleepy and matter-of-fact. But all of the sudden, someone opened the back door, and a stray cat ran in, ran down the aisle and up to the front of the church, looked frantically around — then went tearing back down the aisle and back outside. He said for some reason that really “pepped everyone up.” He said now everyone had a smile on their face; now there was more energy in the room. The appearance of that cat, made such a difference in that service.
But what we’ve got to understand is that there is Something more than a cat here in our worship! If the Resurrection of Jesus that we celebrated last week means anything, it means that the Living Lord Jesus Christ is here among us today, through His Holy Spirit. He said “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, there am I in their midst.” And if He is here — and He IS! — then this passage says we must take His presence seriously: our worship must be Biblical; our worship must be reverent; and our worship must respect the Living GOD more than anyone or anything else.
Let’s bow our heads, and ask God to help us, not to offer “strange fire” on His holy altar of worship!