Leviticus 9 and 10, Tragic Worship Fails

There is a section in our closet of things I would consider to be Christmas fails. Hanging neatly in a row were numerous articles of clothing that I bought for my wife that she won’t wear.

Shannon would ask for a nightgown for Christmas. She would then go into intricate detail about its length, thickness, fabric, color, texture. She was particular that she wanted it like this, but not like that. 

Despite all the detail, all I heard her say was, “I want a nightgown.” I didn’t pay attention to the rest of it. So I would buy her a nightgown that I thought she should like, but she didn’t.

So after several Christmases like that, she now gives me a list of EXACTLY what she wants. And when I say EXACTLY, I mean that she finds it online and gives me a link. So Christmas shopping for Shannon is a point and click, dummy-proof experience. 

Even I can do it. 

But what about the joy of the unexpected Christmas gift? What about the fun of surprises?


I’m surprised I bought so many gifts she didn’t want before I got a clue. I’m surprised I wasted so much money. I’m surprised by how easy it is and how much better it goes when I listen.

Knowing what you’re getting for Christmas may not work for everyone, but Shannon Branam LIKES IT LIKE THAT! She likes it when her Christmas gifts don’t go from beneath the tree to the back of the closet. Instead, she’s really happy to get what she wants; no surprises!

Do you know who else doesn’t like surprises? Do you know who else is really into you giving them EXACTLY what they want? 


But there is a HUGE difference between God and Shannon. Shannon will hang a Christmas fail in the back of the closet and never wear it.

God can burn your face off. 

We worship a dangerous God.

Did you know that there are several places in the Bible where God strikes someone dead because they ignored the details about how to approach The Almighty?

  • Let’s start in the New Testament with the Lord’s Supper. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” 1 Cor. 11:27-30
  • In Acts 5, a couple lies about an offering, and they fall dead.
  • In 2 Samuel 6, there is a story of David transporting the ark on a cart. You don’t haul the ark of the covenant on a cart like you do a lawnmower in the back of your truck. God gave them detailed instructions for priests to carry the ark on poles by hand. So one of the oxen stumbles. The ark is about to fall off the cart, and a guy named Uzzah reaches up to steady it. He falls dead. It should have been NO surprise. God made it very clear. No one should touch the ark! 

Another tragic worship fail is recorded in Leviticus 10. It happens in what is otherwise a very exciting moment. To better understand the shock of this moment, let’s take a moment and setup the story.

Leviticus is God’s answer to Moses’ impassioned plea for God’s presence to remain with His people despite their idolatrous error in Exodus 32 and 33. 

Leviticus is how people prone to make golden calves are to stop their foolishness and approach the Almighty.

Leviticus is God’s list with links. Just do what He says, and He loves it. There shall be no surprises.

So Leviticus begins with eight chapters of detailed instructions about offerings and priests. The stage is set. Moses tells the people in the opening of 9 to start bringing certain offerings because “TODAY THE LORD WILL APPEAR TO YOU (9:4).”

And chapter 9 couldn’t end any better. It goes exactly the way Moses said it would go.

Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he came down from offering the sin offering and the burnt offering and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.

Leviticus 9:22-24

So we turn the page to chapter 10. Finally, we are back before the Lord.

And this is the place that the human soul enjoys best—connected to the Creator, worshiping in the presence of God. 

So we are in a good place when something bad happens.

The next scene is a tragic worship fail.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ ” And Aaron held his peace.

Leviticus 10:1-3

Think about potential distractions in a worship service. Feedback in the sound system is one thing, but how about two dead bodies? That would certainly put a chill on the meeting.

Can you imagine the pastor’s tweet after that one? 

“Blessed to baptize 4 today. Thankful that we only lost 2 this week.”

Dead bodies would definitely be distracting.

Understandably everything stops. Moses instructs the cousins of the dead men, to come out and haul the bodies away (Lev. 10:4-5). 

And notice Aaron. This brokenhearted father just lost two sons, but he says nothing. He’s not even allowed to mourn. As a father of two of my own, this is a hard chapter to read. 

And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. 7 And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.

Leviticus 10:6–7 (ESV)

And at the end of the ritual, Aaron and the rest of the priests are supposed to eat part of the sacrifice. But they neglect to do so. Moses responds by scolding Aaron.

Pay attention to Aaron’s reply. It is instructive for much of what we mistakingly call worship. 

“Why have you not eaten the sin offering in the place of the sanctuary, since it is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord? Behold, its blood was not brought into the inner part of the sanctuary. You certainly ought to have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.” And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” And when Moses heard that, he approved.

Lev. 10:17-20

Aaron’s response is important because it brings to light the elephant in the room. We have a worship problem.

Our Worship Problem

The problem with worship is the problem I have with my wife’s Christmas gifts. We just hear “worship,” but we don’t pay attention to what pleases a dangerous God.

The most important thing we can do as humans is to worship God. It is our highest calling. But are we connecting?

Liking worship music? Yes.

Connecting with God? No.

How often do we leave a Sunday morning with the same feeling I get when I look in our closet and see ten robes my wife won’t wear?

Perhaps we need to become more desperate seekers and start asking why we are not finding what we are searching for. Better yet. Maybe we should start asking why God isn’t responding.

The answer to our question may come from considering this tragic mistake we see Nadab and Abihu make. They offered what the Bible calls “strange fire.”

The fires were “strange” because they didn’t come about the way they were supposed to come about. Yes, the censures carry fire. The incense is a part of worshipping God. But the problem is that the fire came from the wrong place. It didn’t have the proper, authorized source. They didn’t follow God’s instructions to take the fire from the altar.

It happens in worship all the time. We are bringing the common elements of worship such as songs, service, prayer, preaching. But perhaps the problem is that we are bringing them from the wrong place.

Leviticus 10 is sobering but helpful. We can glean some truths from this worship tragedy that may help us do what our souls crave most – to connect with our Creator.

First, consider this thing of “strange fire” and make sure that we are not bringing something in worship from the wrong place. Let’s then dissect the broken heart of a father who’s just lost two sons in a worship tragedy. Finally, let’s hear his reply to Moses and glean a corrective measure in worship that will help us bring fire from the proper place.

Talking Worship at the Well

In John 4, Jesus makes a profound statement to a woman about worship.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is nowhere, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:21-25

Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman. Her people are a prime example of getting it wrong in worship. Because of the tension they had with Jews in the past, they just went ahead and made their own way of worship. And Jesus tells the woman that for decades you’ve been doing it all wrong, you don’t even know what you’re worshipping anymore. 

The “TRUE WORSHIPERS” worship the Lord in “spirit and truth.”

Because God is Spirit, those who worship Him “must worship Him in spirit and truth.” Everything else is strange fire. This is especially true when you have one without the other.

Truth without Spirit. 

Truth is important for worship. Our God is the TRUE God. Jesus is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. The Word of God is THE truth. 

But the problem with worship that has truth without spirit is at some point, you begin to just worship truth, and you’re not worshipping God at all.

People who worship with truth without spirit get very possessive and demanding about the way one worships. They want to make it about styles and traditions.

For some, it has to be hymns. For others, it must be Southern Gospel.

Others hate that old dusty stuff.

Some must be seated, while others demand that you get excited.

Sit down. Raise your hands. 

Someone seems always to be telling us how to truly worship.

This is EXACTLY what the woman was trying to do when Jesus called her out on it. It’s about this mountain or that mountain – these traditions or those traditions. Jesus made it very clear that whatever it was they were worshipping, it wasn’t God.

And that’s the danger with truth without spirit. Eventually, you make a strange fire out of your preferences.

I would recommend that you go and listen to JD Greear’s sermon at this summer’s Southern Baptist Convention. He was expounding on Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.

Matthew 23:27 (ESV)

And then, JD made a powerful statement about things happening in the SBC, but I think the statement also applies well to worship in truth when there is no spirit. 

“It makes us smell like death even when our theology is squeaky clean.” (18:17)

J.D. Greear

The problem with truth without spirit is that it all becomes ritual and religion. You are just trying to be right instead of trying to bring something pleasing to God. 

Worship begins with awe. Truth without spirit is a strange fire that comes from the wrong place because it is no longer in love with God, it is no longer in need of mercy, it is no longer amazed by grace.

Spirit without Truth.

If we take Jesus’ statement and turn it another way, spirit without truth, we reveal another strange fire. This is one in which we don’t care what is right; we measure everything by how it feels. 

This person is all about the experience – what they get out of it. It’s all about the expression – what they put into it. 

But the problem is that they are paying ZERO attention to what is being said or what any of it means. They just like the song, the moment, the environment.

It’s the strange fire of your emotions. It felt so good to you, but was God pleased with it?

Question. Was there any brokenness? What changes? Was there any real seeking of God? Are you even listening? 

Notice in the midst of a conversation on worship, Jesus looks at the woman and says – go get your husband. She’s convicted. She is now broken.

He hits her with truth. It impacts her spirit. She comes to Christ. 

The problem with spirit without truth is that once the music is turned off, there is no relationship with God beyond it. There is no proper response to what God’s Word says.

Let’s not ignore the fact that Nadab and Abihu were probably feeling pretty good about what was going on, but it was tragically wrong.

Dissecting Aaron‘s Broken Heart

Now that we have dissected strange fire, let’s now dissect Aaron’s broken heart. He’s just lost two sons in an act of worship gone wrong.

He was heartbroken, but careful. And he acknowledged that he could have eaten the sacrifice. That was what the law required, but his heart wasn’t in it. 

He was careful that it was not just about ritual – truth without spirit.

And Aaron is overcome with emotion. In this case, certainly not the exuberance most are swept up in, in what they call worship. But if worship should not be driven by positive passion, neither should it be overtaken by sorrow. And Aaron needs some time to sort this out. 

He realizes that worship cannot be spirit without truth. 

And it is here that he makes such a profound statement about worship.

Aaron understands, much better in this moment than even Moses, that worship is about what God approves – not what we want.

And Aaron said to Moses, “Behold, today they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?” And when Moses heard that, he approved. Lev. 10:19

If we want to correct our worship problem and connect with our Creator in worship we have to begin with the question, “Does the Lord approve?”

  • We need to stand amazed at the grace that Jesus provides by His sacrifice. It is by His grace we stand in a Holy place, approved by the Almighty God. We will never be in the perfect place mentally, emotionally, or spiritually to worship God. We need to come before God, understanding that without Jesus’ blood and the help of the Holy Spirit that we would not be here. Never get over what it means to be saved. Never forget that He is holy and that we are sinful. Without grace, this is a dangerous place.
  • We need to be like a Levitical priest, careful to be prepared. We should never come in here with the expectation that the worship leader or a worship song or a preacher’s job is to produce something good enough for you to get to God. The band is not the Holy Spirit. You need to be careful to prepare your heart. How in the world can you connect with God on Sunday if you have ignored every other day of the week?
  • We need to bring Him an offering of our attention, our time, our service. He is the audience, not us. We are bringing something to him so that we can do what the definition of the word offering suggests. We want to come close.

In a tragic moment, Aaron brings us an important truth. Worship is not for us, but for God. Therefore, the foremost question on our minds should be does God approve? This question keeps us from offering strange fires and experiencing more tragic worship fails. Let’s pay attention to what He wants. We can’t just call it worship and assume that He approves. He reveals to us what He likes in His Word. He has given us His Spirit. He seeks such to worship Him. No surprises!


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