Nadab and Abihu, the eldest sons of Aaron and candidates to be high priests after their father’s passing, make a grave mistake.
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord.
Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘I will display my holiness through those who come near me. I will display my glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent.
Then Moses called for Mishael and Elzaphan, Aaron’s cousins, the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel. He said to them, “Come forward and carry away the bodies of your relatives from in front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.” So they came forward and picked them up by their garments and carried them out of the camp, just as Moses had commanded.
What was the unauthorized fire that Nadab and Abihu offered before the Lord? The fire on the altar of burnt offering was never to go out (Leviticus 6:12-13), implying that it was holy. Perhaps Nadab and Abihu brought coals of fire to the altar from another source, making the sacrifice unholy. Another possibility is that the two priests gave an offering at an unprescribed time. Whatever the case was, the point is that Nadab and Abihu abused their positions as priests in a flagrant act of disregard for God, who had just reviewed with them precisely how they were to conduct worship. As leaders, they had special responsibility to obey God. In their position, they could easily lead many people astray.
Aaron’s sons acted carelessly by not following the laws for sacrifices. In response, God destroyed them with a blast of fire. Performing the sacrifices was an act of obedience—doing them correctly showed respect for God. We can easily grow careless about obeying God and live our way instead of his. But if one way were just as good as another, God would not have commanded us to live his way. He always has good reasons for his commands, and we always place ourselves in danger when we consciously or carelessly disobey them.
If God has commissioned you to lead or teach others, be sure to stay close to him and follow his advice. And no matter what position you have, ask God to help you remain faithful in your obedience.