“By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified” (Lev. 10:3). This was the powerful admonition of the Lord after consuming Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, with fire for offering ‘profane fire’ before the Lord, which the Lord had not commanded them (Lev. 10:1-2).
Though there can be no doubt that God was just in punishing Nadab and Abihu and that they had indeed sinned, much debate exists as to what exactly was ‘profane’ about the fire.
Was it ‘profane” because the actual fire was not taken from the altar of burnt offering, a command not made clear until later in the text of Leviticus (cf. Lev. 16:1, 12)? There seems to be no specifically written mandate chronologically given before Nadab and Abihu’s sin, so while possible, this seems unlikely.
Was it ‘profane’ because the incense was not what God had commanded (cf. Ex. 39:7-10)? This is a reasonable possibility, as these instructions were clearly given before hand, and the instructions for the incense that was to be burned on the altar were incredibly specific (cf. Ex. 30:34-38).
Was it ‘profane” because it was not at a time God commanded for the incense to be offered (cf. Ex. 39:7-10)? Though the emphasis of the text seems to be on the “fire” itself, it is possible that ’profane fire’ is synecdoche for the offering as a whole (synecdoche is a figure of speech which puts a part for the whole). The Lord specifically refers to the idea that it was that “which the Lord had not commanded them” (v. 2). Therefore, as the context potentially reads, in the excitement of the moment, as the Lord had just given a visible sign of accepting all of their sacrifices by sending a fire to immediately consume the burnt offering, and all the people being greatly amazed and afraid at this (Lev. 9:23-24), Nadab and Abihu took it upon themselves to presumptuously offer the incense to the Lord. This is also a reasonable possibility.
Though we may never be able to dogmatically make a case for any of the above arguments, we can clearly determine this. God MUST be regarded as holy by those who come near Him and before all the people He must be glorified.
God chose to make examples of Nadab and Abihu (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11), as the role of the priesthood was incredibly important under the Mosaic Law. As we can see from prophesies like the book of Malachi, if the priests failed to honor God in their role, the people of God would surely follow. The cascading effect would be and inevitably proved disastrous to the people of Israel.
As a “holy priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices” in Christ Jesus, we would do well to heed the lesson God gave through Nadab and Abihu (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-5)! How easy it is to think we do well by offering up that “which the Lord has not commanded” us? How carelessly we sometimes tend to approach God in worship, not regarding Him as holy and worthy of glory. Thus, let us carefully examine our worship before God and ensure that what we ‘offer’ is indeed what God expects (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5). There is indeed a fire that awaits us if we choose not to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Thess. 1:8).