Friday, June 10, 2011

Leviticus 10 and the New Covenant church

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" And Aaron held his peace. (Lev 10:1-3)
The account of the sons of Aaron and the unauthorized fire gets a lot of air time in certain parts of the church. I have used it before to argue for a specific and narrow view of how the church should gather, a view that oddly enough looks just like a peculiarly Reformed understanding of the church worship service. Is that a proper understanding and application of this event?

Nadab and Elihu, the sons of Aaron, came before the Lord in a manner not prescribed by Him. For their disobedience, God struck them down with fire and likewise commanded Aaron to hold his peace about the sudden death of his sons. The gist of the argument is that God takes worship very seriously. The Sunday morning gathering is a worship service aimed at God. Ergo how we worship on Sunday morning is important to God. The message is that we need to be awfully careful about how we conduct the Sunday morning “worship service” because God takes worship of Himself quite seriously.

That is the argument. The argument however raises as many questions as it answers.

Here is the big question I have. Is the account of Nadab and Abihu applicable to the Sunday morning gathering of the church, or any gathering of the church for that matter?

That it turn raises other questions.

Is the gathering of the New Covenant church of Christ a considered a “worship service"? In other words, is "worship" the primary purpose of the gathering?

Does God command specific actions when the church gathers in the same very specific and rigidly defined way that He did when the Israelites performed the worship rituals in the Tabernacle/Temple?

Did the manner and purpose of worship change with the transition from the Old Covenant to the New?

Another question. Is the “worship service” as we traditionally understand it a faithful reflection of New Covenant worship and is it a faithful representation of the purpose and form of the gathered church we see in Scriptures?

Here is my take but I am interested in your thoughts on this as well as other Old Covenant worship rituals.

We must, as God’s covenant people, view everything through the filter of the New Covenant in Christ. We are on dangerous ground when we look back on this side of the cross and try to interpret Scripture, especially in the New Testament, through the filter or lens of the Old Covenant. If the New Testament is clear on anything it is that Christ has instituted a new and better covenant and that the old covenant is obsolete and fading away. The Anabaptists focused on the New Testament, not to the exclusion of the Old but in recognition that the Old Testament is full of types and shadows that point to Christ but in the New Testament Christ is revealed in His glory. This focus on the New Testament was the source of much of the criticism and persecution that was directed at them by Magisterial Reformers and Roman Catholics alike and also the reason for many of their counter-cultural views of the church and doctrines like baptism. As followers of Christ our central focus necessarily is on the New Testament where we see the unfolding of God’s promise in Jeremiah 31: 31-34 of a new and better covenant, not like the old. We see it instituted at the cross and remembered in the Supper. We cannot and should not desire to go back to the Old Covenant but rather should focus on the glory of God revealed in the New Covenant and read the Old in light of our position as recipients and beneficiaries of God’s grace in the New.

Furthermore, the purpose of the gathered New Covenant church is not to engage in worship rituals but to be edified, equipped and encouraged to do the work of ministry out in the world. In many ways worship is as much (or even more) what we do “out there” than it is what we do “in here”. The concept of worship under the New Covenant is less a specific set of rituals done in a time, place and manner than it is a continual life of worship. This corresponds with the idea that God doesn’t dwell in a physical place but rather His spirit makes His dwelling place among His people.

I absolutely think that Leviticus 10 and the account of the sons of Aaron are pertinent today because they show us just how serious God is about His holiness and about worship of Himself. I just don’t see that we can make a direct or even indirect correlation between the worship of God in Leviticus 10 and the gathering of the New Covenant people of God today.



Alan Knox said...


Could we (the church in general) be guilty of the same sin as Nadab and Abihu when we proscribe our "worship services" as the way to worship God today? In other words, if the "worship service" is not found in the NT (and I agree with you that it's not), then could that understanding of worship be considered a form of "unauthorized fire"?


Arthur Sido said...


That is a sobering and frankly scary thought. We ought to tread very lightly when we choose to speak on God's behalf without warrant and many dogmatic pronouncements about the worship service might just fall into that category.