Leviticus: A Little Thick? Aaron’s Sons Sin Again

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on March 2, 2005

Leviticus 10:12-20

Wednesday Evening

March 2, 2005

Leviticus 10:12-20

“A Little Thick? Aaron’s Sons Sin Again” ”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to
turn with me to Leviticus, chapter ten. And I want to go right back to the
verses that we read the last time we were together in Leviticus, which was a
couple of weeks ago. In February we looked at the tragic story of Nadab and
Abihu, which covers the first eleven verses, and it would be good for us to go
back and read those verses again, though our focus is going to be especially on
verses 12-20 in this chapter. In a sense, this story is all of a piece, but
there’s so much to be said in both halves of the chapter that we’ve broken it in
part for your consideration.

But let me just remind you of the setting again. The
Book of Leviticus in the first seven chapters focuses on the five great personal
offerings which are to be brought by the people of God–willingly, individually,
voluntarily–on different occasions in the life of faith. And in the first seven
chapters those offerings are described both from the standpoint of the
requirements of those who are bringing those offerings and from the standpoints
of the requirements on the ones who are administering, or making, those
offerings on behalf of God’s people. And so it comes from the standpoint of both
the people’s responsibility and privilege and obligation, and the priests’
responsibility and privilege and obligation.

Then, in Leviticus 8-10, Moses is showing you the
events surrounding the ordination of the Aaronic priesthood in Israel and the
initial service of the priests. And that’s important for us to remember. It is
important for us to remember that the events of Leviticus, chapter 10, occur in
the midst of the very first administration of the priestly sacrificial system in
the history of Israel. It puts it in perspective, doesn’t it? Why God’s
response to the sin of Nadab and Abihu is so decisive, and so seemingly severe.
This is the very first day of the administration of the Levitical
priesthood, which will point to Christ, and already sin has crept into its
administration. And so, bearing those things in mind, let’s hear God’s word here
in Leviticus, chapter 10.

Let’s look to Him in prayer and ask for His blessing.

O Lord, this is Your word, and it is a sober
passage. But it is also a passage which highlights Your holiness, our sin, and
Your marvelous grace. And we pray that You would exalt these very things in our
eyes as we read Your word and hear it proclaimed together. This thing we ask in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God’s word:

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, 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. And fire came out from the presence
of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said
to Aaron, ‘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.’’

“So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. Moses called also to Mischael and Elzaphan,
the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, ‘Come forward, carry your
relatives away from the front of the sanctuary to the outside of the camp.’ So
they came forward and carried them still in their tunics to the outside of the
camp, as Moses had said. Then Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and
Ithamar, ‘Do not uncover your heads nor tear your clothes, so that you may not
die, and that He may not become wrathful against all the congregation. But your
kinsmen, the whole house of Israel, shall bewail the burning which the Lord has
brought about. You shall not even go out from the doorway of the tent of
meeting, lest you die; for the Lord’s anointing oil is upon you.’ So they did
according to the word of Moses.

“The Lord then spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not drink wine or strong drink,
neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so
that you may not die–it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations–and
so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the
clean and the unclean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes
which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.”

“Then Moses spoke to Aaron, and to his surviving sons, Eleazar and Ithamar,
‘Take the grain offering that is left over from the Lord’s offerings by fire and
eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. You shall eat it,
moreover, in a holy place, because it is your due and your sons’ due out of the
Lord’s offerings by fire, for thus I have been commanded. The breast of wave
offering, however, and the thigh of the offering you may eat in a clean place,
you and your sons and your daughters with you; for they have been given as your
due and your sons’ due out of the sacrifices of the peace offerings of the sons
of Israel. The thigh offered by lifting up and the breast offered by waving,
they shall bring along with the offerings by fire of the portions of fat, to
present as a wave offering before the Lord; so it shall be a thing perpetually
due you and your sons with you, just as the Lord has commanded.’

“But Moses searched carefully for the goat of the sin offering, and behold, it
had been burned up! So he was angry with Aaron’s surviving sons Eleazar and
Ithamar, saying, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering at the holy place? For
it is most holy, and He gave it to you to bear away the guilt of the
congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord. Behold, since its
blood had not been brought inside, into the sanctuary, you should certainly have
eaten it in the sanctuary, just as I commanded.’ But Aaron spoke to Moses,
‘Behold, this very day they presented their sin offering and their burnt
offering before the Lord. When things like these happened to me, if I had eaten
a sin offering today, would it have been good in the sight of the Lord?’ And
when Moses heard that, it seemed good in his sight.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

It’s a hard passage, isn’t it? I think all of us
instinctively are sympathetic with the grief that Aaron was experiencing. Maybe
you heard, like I did in the airport today on the way back to Jackson, of the
tragic, tragic drowning of Jack Nicholas’ grandson. His nanny had been watching
the boys, and she took them inside, and she was just getting one of them changed
and the little 17-month-old–she turned around and he was gone, and the next
thing she knew, she found him in the hot tub outside. He was drowned. And you
can imagine the grief of that family, and it’s easy, isn’t it, to imagine the
grief of Aaron.

He’s lost his boys…two boys, Nadab and Abihu, on
the very first day of the administration of the priestly ritual in Israel his
boys have died. It’s not just a tragedy, you understand. They have been judged
by God; for their disobedience, they have died before the Lord, and it is the
Lord who has struck the blow. And not only that, but the Lord has come to Aaron
and He has said, “Aaron, you are not to mourn the death of your sons.” Can you
imagine that? ‘Aaron, you are not to engage in public mourning. The rest of
your family–they’ll mourn; Israel as a congregation–they’ll mourn. But Aaron, if
you mourn it will call into question the righteousness of God in His judgment
against your sons, and it will call into question your acceptance of the
righteous judgment of God. Aaron, you are not to mourn.’

We’re told so poignantly, aren’t we, in the very
first verses, that Aaron kept silent. We’re instinctively sympathetic with this

But you understand that in this passage there are
great issues at stake. There are more issues than we can do justice to tonight,
but in this passage I want to suggest to you that we see God’s holiness and
His grace displayed in bold relief.
And let me just describe to you for a
few moments how those things are displayed for us.

I. God’s holiness.

Let’s take God’s holiness first. God’s
holiness is clearly made known in the judgment that is brought against Nadab and
Abihu. They failed to obey God’s commands. They come before the Lord by their
own devices. They, of their own division, come up with a plan whereby they will
offer uncommanded fire to the Lord, and the Lord brings judgment against them.
You see, the priests of Israel were to be representatives of God’s holiness to
the people; and one of the ways they were to reflect His holiness was by their
strict attention to the commandments that God had given to them and to the
people about how He was to be approached. And in the very first day that they
were enacting those rituals in Israel, they ignored the expressed commands of
the Lord and His holiness brought judgment. That’s the first way we see God’s

The second way, though, is in the way that the Lord
and Moses respond to this incident. Moses (and we see this especially in verses
12-15) reiterates to Eleazar and to Ithamar, the other sons of Aaron, the
specific things that they are to do. Now, these are things that you have already
seen two or three times in the Book of Leviticus by now. You’ve seen them twice
in Leviticus 1-7; you’ve seen them again in Leviticus 9. In other words, Moses
has given at least three times these commandments for what the priests are to

Now, you can see the logic of Moses’ having to say
it again! He’s given these commands, and Nadab and Abihu have just gone on
their merry way and they’re done what they wanted to do! But God’s holiness,
you see, is displayed as God through Moses again comes to this grieving family
and says, ‘Now just one more time, let me rehearse for you what God’s commands
are for you as priests to do.’ It’s a stunning display of God’s holiness.
You’re going to see in a few moments, God is far from uncaring and unkind to
His servants in this day of grief
. You will see many evidences of His grace
in this passage, but don’t we see God’s holiness in the midst of this tragic
family situation? He comes to remind that family of the commandments of the
word of God.

And God’s holiness is seen in verse 16 to the end of
the chapter, isn’t it? Because after repeating these commands, Moses
starts nosing around a bit in the sanctuary to make sure that things are being
done correctly. He has every reason to be doing some nosing around. And he
can’t find the goat! There are no bones, there’s no evidence that the priests
have come together to eat that goat. You understand, because we’ve studied this
passage before, that the priests sitting down in the holy precincts and eating
the goat of that peace offering was designed to show the people of God that the
guilt of their sins had been taken away, and their fellowship had been restored
to the Lord because their offering was accepted as holy and could be eaten by
priests who were consecrated; so by not doing this, the priests were robbing the
people of God of an assurance which God had intended for the people.

And so Moses starts looking around, and he can’t
find the goat. And he comes to Eleazar and Ithamar and he says, ‘Where’s the
goat?’ And then Aaron speaks up. It’s the first time he’s spoken in the
chapter. And he says, ‘Moses, my sons have just died. How can I do this?’ And
you see the demands of God’s holiness: He says to Aaron, and to Eleazar and to
Ithamar, ‘Not even your family trauma is more important that your service of
the word and your service of God’s people.
’ It’s an awesome thing, isn’t
it? Just like when we studied it the last time, we’re reminded of Jesus’ words
to that disciple: “Come, follow Me.”

‘First, Lord, I need to bury my dad.’ You remember
the response? “Let the dead bury the dead. Come, follow me.”

The holiness of God is seen in the demands
that He places upon Aaron and his sons.
The precedence of their priestly
service is to overrule even their personal grief, because the disciples’
allegiance to Jesus Christ takes precedence over the dearest of earthly
relations, and the priests themselves are to be a living, walking, talking,
breathing example of that truth. The holiness of God is everywhere in this

II. The grace of God.

But the grace of God is everywhere in this
passage, as well. Now let me just show it to you in a few ways. The first
thing you’ll see is this: in these four verses of command, from verses 12-15,
when Moses is reiterating to the priests their particular obligations and
prerogatives with regard to the various sacrifices that are being
brought…Moses, in verse 12: “Take the grain offering…”; verse 13: “You
shall eat it…because it is your due and your sons’ due out of the Lord’s
offerings….”; and ‘take the breast and the thigh of the wave offering–it’s for
you and your sons and your daughters…’ (verse 14) …‘they have been given as
your due and your sons’ due….’ and then again, ‘…the thigh and the breast of
the wave offering…this is to be yours…’ (verse 15)… ‘…it is perpetually
due you and your sons.’

Do you see what Moses is saying? He’s saying
that even though Nadab and Abihu have grievously sinned against the Lord, the
Lord is still promising these blessings and provisions to the sons of Aaron
forever. That’s a word of grace, my friends. The sons of Aaron took part in the
guilt of Nadab and Abihu. This is why Moses says to Aaron, ‘Don’t mourn, lest
the Lord strike out against you and the whole congregation.’

There was a dark cloud hanging over all of the
priesthood of Israel, and Israel could well have looked at them and said,
‘Because of the sin of Nadab and Abihu they have lost the right to serve as
priests in the house of God. They have lost the privileges that God granted
them’ [in chapters 1-7]. But God says, ‘No, in the wake of Nadab and Abihu’s
failure, all of the things that God promised to you and your children are still

God is reminding His faithful servants that our
perfection is not the condition of His grace;
that our sinlessness is not
the condition of His grace; that our complete performance of His commands is not
the condition of His grace. His grace is not conditioned by us. It’s a message
of grace. ‘Even though your brothers have grievously sinned, all the promises
which God made to you are still true.’

But it doesn’t stop there, does it? Notice secondly
that Moses does not speak these words of command and instruction to Aaron. He
calls his sons aside: ‘Eleazar, Ithamar, listen to me.’ Now surely his sons,
Aaron’s sons, would have been grieved at the loss of their brothers, but their
grief could not have been the same grief of their father.

And then God’s kindness, through Moses.
His words of instruction and later His words of rebuke are not to Aaron,
but to Aaron’s living sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. Even that is a manifestation of
the kindness and the grace of God in a day of sore testing for Aaron. But the
final thing, of course, is this: Eleazar and Ithamar, immediately after Nadab
and Abihu have broken God’s commandments about the administration of the
, they break the commandment of God regarding the administration
of the sacrifice!
They do the very same thing that Nadab and Abihu had just
done and have gotten killed!

But there is no fire proceeding from the altar to
consume them, only a conversation
. And Moses says, ‘Sons, boys! What have
you done?’ and then Aaron breaks his silence. And Aaron explains to Moses that
they did not think that they could possibly perform the duty of pure priests
representing God to the people, and God’s forgiveness to the people, in light of
what had happened to Nadab and Abihu that day. Aaron’s saying, ‘Lord, it’s not
only that my heart wasn’t in it, it didn’t seem right that we would play
the role of being the visible evidence of the forgiveness of Israel–even though
we’d offered the sacrifice for ourselves–because this cloud of sin was over us.’

It’s an interesting parallel, isn’t it? Nadab and
Abihu did something that God had not told them to do, and, in doing something
that God had not told them to do, they did not thereby show a proper reverence
to God in His word, and in consequence they die. But Eleazar and Ithamar did
something different. They did not do what God had told them to do.

You see, the sin of Nadab and Abihu was
neither an explicit transgression of a positive command of God, nor an omission
of a positive command of God. It was a presumptuous addition to what God
had said
. They presumed to add to God’s word.

Eleazar and Ithamar, on the other hand,
committed the sin of omission. But they did so, Aaron tells us, out of
reverence for God.
And they’re spared. And indeed, in the final words
of this chapter, Moses gives them approval despite the fact that they had failed
to obey God fully.

What’s going on here? Grace.

And there’s something else going on here, too,
friends. These priests, even in their failure, have pointed out a tremendous
truth: that in that ceremonial ritual, the heart matters.
you’re doing that ceremonial ritual matters. And, you see, the state of their
hearts didn’t want to do that part of God’s commands not out of presumption, not
out of defiance, but precisely because they did not feel worthy to perform
that function
. And immediately God in His kindness says, ‘You should
have done it, you were wrong not to do it; it would have been a blessing to you
had you done it; it would have been a blessing to Israel if you’d obeyed My
word, but I forgive you.
Your heart perceived the inward significance
of that rite, and you questioned whether you would be offending Me, and
therefore I forgive you.’

You see, they are teaching us that even in
the old covenant ceremonial law the heart was the prime thing
Now, this is vitally important for us to understand, because one day a
priest and a Levite are going to pass a man on the way down to Israel, and
they’re going to leave him on the side of the road. And we’re going to stand
over there like the good Gentiles that we are, and we’re going to wag our
fingers at them: ‘Yeah, if we’d been there, we’d have done differently….’

Had they helped that man, they would have been made
ceremonially unclean, in violation of the ceremonial law of God. They were on
their way down to serve, and had they had anything to do with that man, they
would have been made ceremonially unclean.

But who’s the hero of that story? The Samaritan who
helped. Why? Because of this principle: There are some things that are more
important than the outward ceremonial ritual, even of that which is commanded by
God under the old covenant.
That’s why David can go into the house of the
Lord and take the showbread from the priest of Nob: because there are weightier
matters of the law than simply the ceremonial ritual.

As vital as obedience to that ritual was (as
we’ve seen demonstrated in the old covenant), that reminds us, my friends, that
the matter of our hearts’ rightness before God is a matter of supreme
Our God is holy, and He is a discerner of the hearts. And if
we know His holiness and His grace, then we will make it our business to respond
in accordance with the principles of His word. And in this case, the great moral
principles of His word are displayed even in this passage which deals with the
ceremonial law.

God’s holiness, God’s grace, in the midst of great
human tragedy; may the Lord teach us from it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your work,
and we pray that You would show us in Jesus Christ above all else, Your holiness
and Your grace. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would you stand for God’s blessing?

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and
our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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