What we bring before the Lord matters. We read about it early on with Cain and Abel. It’s the pleasing sacrifice that brings atonement. Genesis 8:20 tells us the first thing Noah does after the flood; He “built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” The story doesn’t stop there. Verse 21 says, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans.'”
What Is Strange Fire & What Does The Bible Say About It?
The countryside where God’s people roam becomes littered with altars. Incense, prayers, animals, rocks, fire, smoke… and the people. And the people–represented by a leader like Abraham and Moses, and priests and prophets like Eli and Samuel later on–is where the intention rests. All the other components might be in place, but without a broken and contrite heart, God refuses the offering. That’s exactly what the psalmist prays: “Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (51:15-17).
Every Sunday, we corporately build an altar. In our language of today, we might have a talented worship band, an inviting building, all the latest technology, but without the simple trust in Jesus to burn a fire in us, we will never really know Him. What we’re doing instead is producing a strange fire that is more about self-image than a relationship that molds us into His image-bearers.
As we approach Pentecost and the fire of the Holy Spirit, let’s trace some of the stories of fire and altars in Scripture. I hope it edifies us as leaders and opens up ideas for preaching and Bible study.
In Exodus 30:34-38, we see instructions to Moses about preparing incense particularly for use in sacrifices to the Lord. The Lord says, “Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer.” We might decide to skim in our reading at about this point, but hesitate a moment longer. God goes on and says,”It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.” I can imagine Moses recalling the burning bush and hearing God’s voice declaring the ground holy afresh again as he learns about exclusive incense for God.
In Leviticus 10:1-2, the Lord’s warning about being cut from the people comes true: “Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered strange fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.”
Numbers 16 tells another, more fearful story of Korah, who, along with 250 men, challenge the leadership of Moses because he assigns the Levites to the special role of priests. Moses falls face down as he seeks the best response. Then he says that God will show us who is holy. “Take censers and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the Lord,” Moses instructs. “The man the Lord chooses will be the one who is holy.” As the story continues, we see Moses in a corner, with many people questioning his authority. When morning comes, Korah (and team) meet Moses and Aaron with censors and altars ready. This is serious worship and Moses knows it. He and Aaron fall on their faces and mercifully pray, “O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins?” God already has a plan. His fire consumes all the 250 priests and the earth swallows them up.
That’s not the end of the story, however. In the latter part of Numbers 16, many people complain which provokes the Lord to consider acting again. Moses knows it, so he quickly says to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” Aaron runs, but the plague spreads. Before Aaron returns and stands, “between the living and the dead,” to stop its spread, 14,700 die.
2 Chronicles 26:16-21 has Uzziah, king of Judah, going into the Temple to burn incense before the Lord. More than 70 priests try to tell him that it’s not right for him to enter the Temple, but Uzziah’s power, ego and anger spur him onward. Immediately, with his arm stretched out with the incense, he is struck with leprosy. He lives the rest of his life isolated and leprous.
As we enter the Gospel of Luke, we see Zechariah struck mute because he (finally) saw an angel of the Lord in the most holy place while burning incense. He’s waited his whole career for a message from God, but he doesn’t believe what the angel says. He starts asking questions and dodging the truth.
The New Testament also delivers the conclusion of how these censers, incense, and fire from God will ultimately be used. Revelations 8: 3-5 says,
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.
The psalmist cries to God, “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice” (141:2). Is that our heart’s cry? Are we on the altar like Paul tells us in Romans 12:1-2, as “living sacrifices wholly acceptable to God”? Our approach into his presence is cleared by way of Jesus’ sacrifice. The torn temple curtain and nearly all of Hebrews tells us this, but our posture and intentions still matter. I don’t know how to reconcile all of God’s actions as people walked into his presence and burned strange fire. However, I can see the application for our churches.
Are we burning strange fire? Is our worship about us or about God? Have we created a cult of personality or a body of disciples? All of these questions and more like them may help us circle around what God is trying to tell us through the censers and incense and actions and posture we see in these stories. We know too that our God doesn’t change, but we need to, and we can with his help.
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.