The Second Commandment: Fire from the LORD!


We see this pattern of worship throughout the Old Testament: the people offer their sacrifices for sin, God sends fire from heaven, and the people worship with joy and reverence.

Leviticus 9:22-10:11 (text); Hebrews 12:28-29; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 35
August 5, 2012 • Download PDF sermon

In 1994, an American teenager living in Singapore made big headlines in the States after he was arrested and convicted of vandalizing several cars and stealing street signs. His punishment? Four months in jail, a $2,000 fine, and six strokes of caning. Caning is done by hitting with full strength the convicted criminal’s bare buttocks with a rattan rod, leaving the skin scarred. Because of an appeal by President Clinton, the number of strokes was reduced from six to four, but it was still a most painful punishment. Some have called it cruel, inhumane, and humiliating punishment.

"Nadab and Abihu Consumed with Fire from the Lord" by Gerard Hoet (1728)
"Nadab and Abihu Consumed with Fire from the Lord" by Gerard Hoet, 1728 (click to enlarge)

The story of Nadab and Abihu’s death by fire from the Lord is not very well-known in most Christian circles. It may be that it is intentionally ignored because it is hard to understand the severity of the punishment when measured against such a “minor” offense. By our modern standards, the analogy is like the harsh punishment meted out against the American teenager’s minor vandalism, or even death penalty for jaywalking. Most people who hear of this story will ask, “What kind of God would kill his two priests for using a different kind of fire for the sacrifice? Were they not just diligently performing their duties?” One blogger wrote that God killed the two priests because of a mere technicality!

But is this really a technicality?

We go back to Leviticus 8 where Aaron was ordained as the high priest and his sons as priests to serve in the Tabernacle. The ordination service was concluded after seven days of offerings and sacrifices, with Moses warning Aaron and his sons to “[perform] what the Lord has charged, so that you do not die, for so I have been commanded” (v 35). They were to do all that the Lord has commanded them, so Moses concludes with this summary of the proceedings, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord commanded by Moses” (v 36).

In Chapter 9, God describes the ceremonies that Aaron and his sons must perform in the first Tabernacle service. Because of their sins, the service must consist of various sin offerings, burnt offerings and peace offerings to the Lord. Moses says that the offerings were “to make atonement for yourself and for the people” (v 7). The service moves from atoning for their sins by the sin offering, then to sending their petitions, praises and thanks to God by the burnt offering. The final offering, the peace offering, is to be eaten by the priests before God as a symbol of their communion and fellowship with him (Lev 8:31; 9:21).

When Aaron was finished with the sacrificial offerings on the altar, he “lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them” (v 22). Then Chapter 9 concludes, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar” (v 24a). This was the Lord’s miraculous sign that he has accepted the priests, the people and their sacrifices, and that they were pleasing to him.

Last Lord’s Day, we studied the First Commandment’s law against idolatry, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3). The Heidelberg Catechism explains that idolatry is trusting in any other creature or thing instead of trusting in the Lord of heaven. In worshipping ourselves, we become images of the gods of narcissism and hedonism, and we make the Almighty God into our own image so that He will do what we want Him to do.

The Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything” in heaven and earth in order to worship them (Exod 20:4-5), is an expansion of the law against idolatry. Worshipping images, pictures, or any likeness of the true God or of any idol-god is prohibited. Question 96 of the catechism explains that this commandment requires, “That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.” Our text is only one of many Scripture passages illustrating this truth that the true worship of God must only be according to God’s Word.

As the Lord had promised to Moses, on that same day of the first Tabernacle worship service, “the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people” (v 23). Fire came down from heaven and consumed the offerings on the altar. The irony of it all is in the first few verses of Chapter 10, when the Lord again sends fire to consume, not sacrificial offerings, but two disobedient priests. But this is not the end of the story of the Lord’s fire from heaven, because even in the New Testament, he sends his fire again for two contrasting reasons.

Today as we meditate on the biblical teachings of Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism, our theme is “Fire from the Lord!” in three points:

(1) Consumes False Worshippers
(2) Consumes Pleasing Sacrifices
(3) A Fire That Does not Consume

Consumes False Worshippers
Our text says that two of Aaron’s four sons who were ordained as priests on the preceding seven days, “each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord” (v 1). We do not know what kind of fire is “unauthorized,” “strange,” or “foreign,” but it is clear that the fire they used did not come from the coals from the altar. Also, only Aaron the high priest is authorized to offer the incense inside the Most Holy Place (Lev 16:11-12). And this is done only once a year on the Day of Atonement. So the whole ceremony they performed were not “commanded them” by God. Death awaits anyone who violates these regulations (Lev 16:2).

The Lord also prescribed in great detail the making of the incense, which must be regarded as “holy to the Lord” (Exod 30:7-9, 34-38). So the regulations for worship sacrifices in the Tabernacle were very clear to Nadab and Abihu, and they had ample warning. And so it was that “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them” when they violated the regulations (Lev 10:1-2).

Was such a sudden death too harsh a sentence for such a “minor” offense? After all, they were doing their duties sincerely and with good intentions. To clarify this issue, let us look at a few related examples in the Old Testament.

Cain sincerely worshipped God with his offerings of the harvest of the field, but God was not pleased with his “strange” offering. We know this through Hebrews 11:4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.” This led to his murder of his brother Abel. The Israelites at Mount Sinai worshipped a golden calf, sincerely calling it the god “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4).

Two of Israel’s kings insisted on doing what God prohibited. In his impatience, King Saul offered burnt offerings before his battle against the Philistines in Gilgal. But he was condemned by Samuel, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you” (1 Sam 13:8-14). So God tore the kingdom away from him and gave it to David. In a similar story, proud King Uzziah “entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chr 26:16). But he was instantly smitten with leprosy and was leprous until he died as a sign of God’s judgment.

When David was king, the Ark of the Covenant was being brought back to Jerusalem in a cart. The oxen stumbled, and Uzzah, one of King David’s men, put out his hand to keep the ark from falling. But the Bible says “God struck him down there because of his error [or “irreverence”]” (2 Sam 6:7). How could God be so cruel to kill him for his effort to protect God’s own holy ark? David would later realize his error, saying that only Levites should carry the ark of God and it was to be borne on their shoulders with poles and not on a cart, “[T]he Lord our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule… as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord” (I Chr 15:13-15).

Were these petty actions by a capricious God? No, these violators were judged because they did what the Lord had not commanded. These regulations were not man-made innovations for the worship of God, but are holy instructions. Only the Lord has prescribed how he is to be worshipped by his people so we are not to presume that God is pleased with our creative worship.

When we were members of a Presbyterian megachurch in our city, there was a Palm Sunday service when a rider on a donkey made a dramatic entrance before the end of the service. During the last Super Bowl Sunday, a relgion writer described parts of the worship service at Lutheran Church in Anchorage, Alaska:

The service commenced on time with the ‘opening rally song’ led by athletically-attired youth waving pom-poms. In each “quarter” of the service there was a period of a ‘Word from Our Sponsors’, which were announcements of coming activities.. The church choir… was quite good with their upbeat musical selection… Bobby Bare’s old chestnut, “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life.”[ref]”Interesting Super Bowl Service: Christ Our Savior Lutheran,” Anchorage Daily News, February 16, 2012,[/ref]

Super Bowl posters in church
Super Bowl posters in church

But God warns against these innovative corruptions, “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (see also Deut 4:2). And Jesus, in his Great Commission, instructed the apostles to “[teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). He accused the Pharisees of adding man-made traditions to God’s Word, when he quotes Isaiah 29:13, saying, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). The authority and sufficiency of God’s Word alone in all of doctrine, worship and practice must be purely maintained.

If Christian worshippers today realize that the earthly worship that God has prescribed in Scripture is patterned after heavenly worship, they would tremble with fear if they were involved in unbiblical worship innovations. As the Israelites were involved in worship that was all “according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain” (Heb 8:5), so today we are to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28). We are to be awestruck at this pattern, that even the use of censers and incense is described in heavenly worship in Revelation 8:3, “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne.”

Alas! Nadab and Abihu could not wait for God to honor them by making one of them the high priest when Aaron dies. They wanted their own glory before their time, so Aaron himself “held his peace” after Moses told him that his sons’ death was to show the people that God must be honored and glorified. How? By his people’s obedience to his commandments. So Aaron and his two other sons remained silent. Also, the Lord commanded them not to mourn and not to stop the worship service on the pain of death. They are to continue with their three main priestly duties, because they are holy to the Lord: first, to distinguish between the holy and the common; second, to separate the clean from the unclean; and third, to teach the people all the laws of God (v 4-11).

Again, the summary words are, “And they did according to the word of Moses” (v 7). God was making sure that the priests and the people understood God’s holiness and justice cannot be violated, not even by members of the high priest’s family. God’s wrath against worship that is not according to his Word is according to his holiness and justice.

Consumes Pleasing Sacrifices
After all the animal offerings had been laid on the altar, the Lord showed his glory to the people by sending fire from heaven that consumed all the offerings on the altar. When the people saw God’s glory and the fire, “they shouted and fell on their faces” (vv 23-24). They shouted for joy because God had accepted their sacrifices and their sins have been forgiven them (Psa 20:5). At the same time, we read that they also reverently “fell on their faces” even as they rejoiced.

What a contrast! In worship, we can both rejoice and reverence God. The psalmist worships in the same attitude:

Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling (Psa 2:11).


Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Psa 95:1, 2, 6)

We see this pattern of worship throughout the Old Testament: the people offer their sacrifices for sin, God sends fire from heaven, and the people worship with joy and reverence.

Right after the great flood subsided and Noah’s ark settled on the mountains, Noah offered animal sacrifices to thank God for saving him and his family. As he burned these offerings, “the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma” that went up to heaven (Gen 8:21).

When the parents of Samson, Manoah and his wife were told by the Angel of the Lord that they will have a son, they offered sacrifices, “And when the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord went up in the flame of the altar.” As they saw this amazing thing, “they fell on their faces to the ground” (Judg 13:19, 20). When Elijah battled against the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, the pagan prophets offered their sacrifices and prayed to Baal for hours, but their god had no response. When it was Elijah’s turn, he offered sacrifices on the altar, prayed to the Lord, and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering” and the whole altar (1 Kgs 18:38).

Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem, c. 1896-1902, by James Tissot
Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem, c. 1896-1902, by James Tissot (click to enlarge)

King David planned to build a Temple for the Lord, so he purchased a site to build it. After he bought the land, he built an altar there and presented sacrificial offerings, “and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering” (1 Chr 21:26). Later, David’s son Solomon built the Temple at that site, and at the dedication ceremony, Solomon offered a great sacrifice on the altar. Then God responded: “As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (2 Chr 7:1).

All of these events point to a pattern: When the people’s sacrifices were pleasing to God, he showed his approval by sending consuming fire from heaven and showing “the glory of the Lord.” Then the people would worship even more, shouting for joy and singing songs of praise, but at the same time, falling on their faces and bowing down in reverence before God.

When Christ came, he was our Great High Priest. He did not offer animal sacrifices to God, but offered his own body and blood as a sacrifice, “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). And his sacrifice was pleasing and acceptable to God, because he “offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14). Just as Noah’s sacrifice was a pleasing aroma to God, so was Christ’s sacrifice: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

So as he hung on the cross, the wrath of God fell on him because he was a sacrifice for our sins, our Substitute. When he died, terrifying darkness and gloom fell on the land, not God’s radiant glory and fire. He endured God’s consuming hell-fire for us, as Q&A 44 explains, “by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.”

We know that his sacrifice was pleasing to God because God resurrected him from the grave: He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). At his resurrection and ascension, he began his reign from heaven as the Son of God.

And from his heavenly throne, he sends fire that does not consume.

A Fire That Does Not Consume
A “fire” that does not consume was prophesied by Isaiah who foretold that that the Lord will wash away the sins of his people “by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isa 4:4). This Spirit will do its double duty: judgment and burning.

Malachi also prophesied the same event. On the day of the appearing of the “messenger of the covenant” will be “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Mal 3:2-3). As Christians, we are all priests—“sons of Levi”—who offer our own sacrifices of thanksgiving and obedient lives to God. And Malachi says we will be purified from our sins like gold and silver, and our offerings will be righteous lives pleasing to the Lord.

When John the Baptizer came, he also prophesied about the same Messiah who was coming, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). This baptism has double meaning. Those who truly repent, symbolized by John’s ceremonial purification rite, will receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s regeneration. The Spirit’s fire will also purify them like a refiner’s fire that burns out the dross of sinful impurities.

What about those who reject Christ? With his winnowing fork, Christ will also do his work of separating the chaff from the wheat, the goats from the sheep. He will gather the believing sheep into the barn, but the unbelieving goats “he will burn with unquenchable fire,” the hell-fire from the Spirit (Matt 3:12).

For God’s people, the Spirit’s fire is not a consuming fire, but the presence of God with them. Moses saw “the burning bush” that was not consumed (Exod 3:2-5). The Lord spoke through the fire at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:18). The pillar of fire in the Tabernacle led Israel through the desert at night (Exod 13:21-22; 40:36-38).

So we read in Acts 2 about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s people. It was “tongues as of fire” that rested on each one of them, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:3, 4). God appeared to them as fire, in burning holiness and purity. And the Spirit that they received empowered them to preach the pure gospel in various foreign tongues.

As the Lord prophesied through Joel, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28), so the Holy Spirit filled all the disciples and the 3,000 who repented and believed in Christ as Lord and Savior.

Today, God still pours out his Spirit on his people. Those of you who have not yet repented and believed will be washed clean of your sins by the purifying Spirit. Those of you who have already repented and believed are indwelt by this same Spirit, giving you the power and strength to fight against Satan, sin and the wicked world. He enables you to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). In worship, you are “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).

And when you worship, believe that everything you must do is according to the Word of God. Do not presume to add or subtract anything from it, even if you think that what you are adding or subtracting is pleasing and acceptable to the Lord. For he alone knows how he is to be worshipped. Do not look to the world and to those churches who imitate the world in their worship, for you are to be holy, separate and distinct from the world.

This is the “fire” that does not consume: the Holy Spirit who indwells you, who purifies you daily in your walk with Christ, who “refines you like silver and tests you like gold” (Zech 13:9).

But for those who do not repent and believe in him, the fire of the Holy Spirit will one day be an eternal fire of judgment. On Judgment Day, Christ will return, “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8).

Remember the angel who carries the censer in heavenly worship? This censer is full of the prayers of the saints and the smoke of it goes up to God. Then we read, “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake” (Rev 8:5). What are the saints in heaven praying for? “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10) These prayers will be mixed with God’s consuming fire to fill the angel’s censer, and the angel will throw it on the earth to exact vengeance on the unrepentant world. Your prayers will one day be used by God to judge the world!

So instead of worshipping the gods of selfish pride, passions and desires, or even literal images of Jesus and the saints, worship Christ our God in heaven! Because he is the only true God, “the image of the invisible God… in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:15, 19).