In attempting to understand and apply the scriptures, biblical scholars, like you and me, must look at the context under three different lenses.
1. Exegesis: What did this mean then and there? How did it apply to the people and times and social norms when it was written?
2. Hermeneutics: What does this mean here and now? How are we being called to apply this message to ourselves in our times?
3. Proclamation: What does this mean for the things to come? How is this a foreshadowing or revelation of things that have not yet occurred or places that are not yet open to mankind?
I think this is particularly helpful in looking at the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. We are not told much about these men or this event and it is important that we not over-postulate and either make assumptions or contrive explanations to make up for facts that we are not provided. I’m of the belief that if those facts were crucial, they would be in the bible.
So, let’s look at what we do know. For 7 days and 7 nights Aaron and his sons had sanctified themselves and this place for holy service. The best illustration I could think of to put it into current terms would be if for 7 days and 7 nights a team had worked to disinfect, sterilize and sanitize an operating room clean room. Then, after all of that was completed, 2 of the staff members brought in an infection from outside. Leviticus says that Nadab and Abihu brought in “unauthorized fire” contrary to God’s command. The NKJV translation calls it “profane fire”. Profane derives from the word profanus which means “from outside of the temple.” The response was immediate and severe. “Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
In another part of the bible, Isaiah 6, we learn that when Isaiah came into the presence of the Lord he fell to the ground saying, I am doomed because I am a man of unclean lips. One of the seraphim comes to Isaiah with a coal from the altar (in heaven) and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.” From this scripture we know there is an altar in heaven with burning coal.
We also know from Revelation 8 that after the 7th seal was broken, “Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth.”
Basically, from the various scriptures, we see the tabernacle was a real place in the wilderness with the priests of Aaron and the people of Israel. We also know the tabernacle was a representation and foreshadowing of a real place in heaven. We also know that all of this is a physical representation of the spiritual gift of God through Jesus of forgiveness of sin and removal of guilt.
This triplicate meaning carries a far heavier burden than if this was simply a building or a tent in the desert. Variance is not acceptable then and there, because it is so specifically tied to the things to come. The fact that this is a reflection of both a physical place in heaven and a spiritual reality of forgiveness also creates a requirement of exactness.
Not only had the tabernacle been devoted to God, but it also was an image or reflection of so much more. Think of it as a portrait or representation. We would not expect God to look favorably on this portrait of His redeeming love and His heavenly palace to be repainted with inexactness or callousness.
Does God’s response seem harsh? We need to think what steps we go to in protecting things which represent so much less: How do we protect the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of our nation? How do we protect the Mona Lisa?
The offered unauthorized fire (profane fire). Profane comes from profanus which means “outside the temple.” After 7 days of ordination and consecration – they brought in fire from “outside” – they were consumed by fire and died
God’s holiness consumes that which is brought before Him unconsecrated. Either our offering or we will be consumed (but Jesus paid this price)
He grieved, but did not have any worthy comments
You have work today (for which they were ordained). Do not mourn and slack in your responsibilities, however, find comfort that the whole community will mourn on your behalf