At the end of the first week of the institution of the priestly office for Aaron and his sons, a ceremony was completed to inaugurate the Lord dwelling with His people and mediating His presence at the tabernacle through the priests (Lev 9). This ceremony included "the entire assembly" of Israel standing before the Lord (Lev 9:5). A calf was slaughtered before their eyes, cut up, and its blood put on the altar and poured out; then a lamb was cut to pieces. Next, a goat was killed as a sin offering. Finally both an ox and a ram were killed. God had meticulously commanded these sacrifices to cover the people's sins and allow a Holy God to dwell with a sinful people. This was an incredibly bloody day that all of the people watched. Imagine the sounds and smells they saw as Aaron and his sons slowly worked to offer the sacrifices. After Aaron stepped down from the altar, he and Moses blessed the people. Then, the glory of the Lord appeared and "Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering," (Lev 9:24).
Can you imagine? I can associate with the peoples' reaction, "when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown," (Lev 9:24). God's glory manifested in this awesome display of holiness is both a cause for joy and fear. Moments later Moses sang this song:
"Among those who approach me
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored," (Lev 10:3).
However, something happened between the joy and the song. Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu "offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to His command," (Lev 10:1). These sons had just spent the past week learning about the commands and duties the Lord gave to them as priests. Yet, they disobeyed. God's response was quick justice: "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them," (Lev 10:2). When Moses sang this song it had a stereo meaning and "Aaron remained silent," (Lev 10:3).
To the people gathered to embrace God's gift of His presence with them, the fire coming out and consuming the burnt offering was a sign of God's gracious acceptance, so they were joyful. But, to Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, the fire coming out from God's presence was God's just judgment on them for their sins, so they died. For Aaron, the song of the Lord's holiness was a powerful reminder that God does not tolerate sin, especially in His priests. For the people, God's holiness dwelling with them was cause for reverent celebration.
How could one hope to be a successful priest, let alone the high priest? The author of Hebrews followed the natural conclusion, "every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God...he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins," (Heb 5:1,3). High priests had an impossible position because even if they were not destroyed for irreverence, they eventually died. So, even the best priests eventually passed away and turned their roles over to other priests. What a precarious arrangement. Praise God, He intervened and sent His Son to be the preeminent high priest who both did not sin and lives forever:
"because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood...such a high priest meets our need - one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people," (Heb 7:24-27).
Again, for us today as Christians, the author of Hebrew boldly concluded, "Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heaves, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess...Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need," (Heb 4:14,16). We have an unshakable hope in the priestly role of Christ Jesus as we place our faith in Him. Further, our attitude becomes one not of fear of condemnation and judgment, but "let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire,'" (Heb 12:28 quoting Deut 4:24).
So, the consuming fire from God fell in Israel to show His grace and warn about His holiness. For us, the consuming fire from God fell on His Son as He poured out His holy wrath against sin on Jesus when He died on the cross. We who have received His grace through faith need not fear His condemnation, but we worship Him reverently. I am so grateful that God revealed the costliness of His Son's sacrifice through passages like Leviticus 9-10. I pray that He would stir my heart to marvel at His holiness with both joy and reverence, and to earnestly tell others about the grace of the great high priest, Jesus Christ.