One of the blessed places in which we are set, as children of God, is that of being made “priests “unto Him. But whilst we are apt, and justly so, to consider this a position of highest privilege, we too often forget, practically, that it is one of constant service. Set in blessed nearness unto God, yet (and by that very nearness) the priests in Israel became mere servants of all the people. Jesus, though “made an High Priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec” (a priest and king), is now a “minister of the sanctuary,” after the pattern of the priestly service of Aaron; and we, “priests and kings unto God,” etc., are set in the place of service, as the “sons of Aaron.”7
We trace all through the Scriptures the record of the failure of man. In every circumstance wherein he has been set, man has failed. And yet (as we have often heard) all this failure is seen but in the end to redound to the glory of God— to the praise of His grace. How full of blessing and goodness is this! It meets the pride of our hearts, and their natural tendency (that which is in every one of us) to self-dependence. Adam, Noah, Israel in every form, teaches this lesson—the giving of the law, priesthood, prophets, kings, the whole history of the wilderness and of the land, the same. Failure is ever the character of the ways of man; and the chapter before us presents it in most striking as well as touching circumstances. The “sons of Aaron” were set in the place of grace, and there in the place of grace they failed.
The law had in itself no aspect of grace—this of course. Let me take law in its highest sense, as that which even concerns angels—unfallen, perfect beings—what does it teach? What God requires—what ought to be. “They do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.” And thus also the ten words were the distinct demand, on the part of God, of righteousness from man, of what man ought to be towards Him and before Him— “Thou shalt love Jehovah thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself.” Nay, more; the law supposed sin—was adapted to those who had a tendency to sin; but the foundation and centre of all our blessings, what God is towards man in love and grace, was never brought out at all. Thus law (properly so) utterly fails in bringing us to God.
But there were accompaniments to the law—sacrifices, which had the character of grace, because they were on behalf of transgressors. And here, properly speaking, priesthood found its place. See Hebrews 5. The priest was “ordained for men to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sin.” That is grace—God not requiring goodness, but providing for sinners.
Here then we find the failure of the “sons of Aaron” in this practical development of grace, and man’s services in grace.
But first let us look a little at another part of priestly service —I mean worship. All that is properly worship, while there is sacrifice for sin, yet, strictly speaking, is not founded upon the presentation of the “sin-offering.” As redeemed, we cannot draw nigh to worship without it; it is the door of entrance, indeed, but not the proper character of our worship. This assumes the “sweet savour” of the “burnt-offering”— the coming up to God not only in the value of the blood, but in our acceptance in Jesus, as having all the positive savour of what He was and did unto God—blessed thought!
There is this great principle in all worship: death must come in between us and God. See the case of Cain and Abel. Cain brought of the fruit of the ground upon which the curse rested—that which every natural man brings to God. His worship cost more of the “sweat of his brow,” the judicial toil of the curse consequent on sin, than that of Abel; but there was no faith in it, no recognition of the ground of his own standing before God, or of God’s judgment, mercy, and patience. The offering of Cain (as of every natural man) is the witness of the most perfect insensibility of heart as to what he was before God. All that we can offer of our natural hearts is “the sacrifice of fools.” The contrary was the case with Abel: his “more excellent sacrifice” consisted in this—it confessed that death must come in between the soul and God. And so it ever must; there can be no worship without it: in all circumstances death must come in between us and God.
Still there are two very distinct characters in death, as the wages of sin, and for God. While it is the witness of man’s sin, yet because of the death of the Lord Jesus death is now one of our servants. All things are ours, whether life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are ours. Death is for us now as it was against us before, because Christ has tasted death. “Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage,” Heb. 2:14, 15. It was “by the grace of God” Christ tasted death. In His death we see the grace of God, though it was on account of sin. All that was against us is gone. The Lord Jesus Christ turns everything He touches into blessing. “Out of the eater cometh forth meat, and out of the strong sweetness.” If I am able to contemplate death in its mightiest power, the death of Jesus, I see in it the power of grace.
And here it is that I find the proper character of the savour of worship, in the “burnt-offering.” The blessedness of the offering of Jesus was in the perfectness of His will, but the entireness of self-sacrifice to God— “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father,” John 10:17, 18. He was not only the spotless victim, but one able to give Himself to God. “Being in the form of God, he thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” Phil. 2:6-8. Again, “Lo I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O God; yea, thy law is within my heart,” Ps. 40:7, 8; Heb. 10:7. So we get not only the grace of God in the gift of Jesus, but that Jesus, “through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God,” Heb. 9:14.
Will, which in us is sin, becomes in the offering up of Himself, obedience—in every phase was perfectness. Perfect in all His ways, in all His life, in self-consecration to God; but this perfect thing itself He offered up to God in perfect obedience: “not my will, but thine, be done.” There was the perfection of glorifying God in it. Just as the purpose of self-will in the first Adam, who sought to glorify himself, brought in death, so that of the will to glorify God in the Lord Jesus Christ, through death brought in life to us. The divine glory was gone, so far as man was concerned; he had insulted the character and majesty of God, had listened to the lie of Satan against God (for he denied that truth and goodness were in God), he had taken Satan for his friend: but the Lord Jesus Christ, in thus offering up Himself, glorified God in all. And so when Judas had gone out, He says, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him,” John 13:34. God found rest there.
God was glorified. Was He true in saying that the “wages of sin is death? “Satan had said “ye shall not surely die”: see Jesus. Was He true in His love for man? This Satan had questioned: Jesus died for him. Did Satan tempt man, and say, “then shall ye be as gods?” God gave His Son, and conformity to His image. God was vindicated thus against man, though for man.
When the Lord Jesus Christ “through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God,” God found His rest there. It is no matter where I find my rest, if I am not seeking rest where God has found His. God has found it in Jesus (He can look for or to nothing else, in one sense); and we can rest there also. Here we have the ground of worship, and worship itself: it assumes the proper savour of all that Christ was and did for us, and thus has the character of the “burnt-offering.”
In another character—as the “sin-offering”—sin was laid upon Him, “He was made sin for us,” 2 Cor. 5:21. This was not” an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Jehovah,” but was burnt without the camp as an unclean thing; Lev. 4. When the offerings themselves are brought out in Leviticus, the burnt-offering, meat-offering, and peace-offering are mentioned first, and then the sin-offering; but in application, when the individual worshipper is treated of, he presented his sin-offering first, then his burnt-offering, etc., because he could not worship whilst sin was against him, but had to approach by the efficacy of that which took it away. Though God meets us in our sins by the blood of Christ, yet when we speak of worship we speak of Him in His own savour before God. We come in all the savour of Christ’s sacrifice. Sin is gone out of the place, and we stand in the value, the intrinsic value, of Christ.
The burnt offering was a “sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Jehovah,” Lev. i:9. The more it was searched by the fire, the more its sweetness came out before God. So was it in Christ. The coming down of the fire of the holiness of God, trying and searching all the inwards of everything in Him, only brought out a “sweet savour “unto God. This too is our acceptance; it is in this value that we ascend up to God; and being there, we have communion of worship and fellowship before Him. In the sacrifices God had His food, the priest his share, and the rest ate of them also. All our feasting upon Christ is in this value.
It was from the “altar of burnt-offering” that coals were taken to kindle the incense that went up before God. “Strange fire” not arising from this source was inadmissible. All our worship, our singing a hymn together, for instance, must have this character—the savour of Christ; God accepts it as such, though full of failure. Everything must be “salted with fire”; if it does not go up through fire, it cannot stand; apart from it there is only condemnation and judgment—the character of the sin of Nadab and Abihu. The fire tries every man’s work; and if judgment has already done its work on Jesus, we have nothing but the savour of Jesus to be in before God. This is the real value of our place before the Lord. In this is our joy. It is the place of grace.
But then it was here that the “sons of Aaron” failed. “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire thereon, and put incense therein, and offered strange fire before Jehovah, which he commanded them not,” v. 1. There was the separation of service from the power of its acceptance, and thus failure in the place of grace; failure, not on God’s part, but on man’s. Man has failed under law, that might be expected; but, when brought near to God in grace, there also has he failed. The sin of Nadab and Abihu (in this the awful type of the professing church) was sin against the very grace of God, want of respect in the sense of their position, of reverence of God. Our place, though that of perfectness of joy, is ever that of reverence; Heb. 12:28, 29.
But how is the sin met? As must needs be, in judgment— judgment coming forth from the very place of grace: “there went out fire from before Jehovah, and they died before Jehovah,” v. 2. It is a terrible character the Lord puts on here! The “strange fire “met in result by holiness, the true fire of God’s judgment— “they died before Jehovah.” Awful thought! He was found to be a God of judgment, in the very place of blessing and of grace. And thus must it ever be with that which takes falsely a place “before Jehovah”; for after all, though it is a place of grace, it is still one of judgment; “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me.” We have ever to judge ourselves, that we be not judged of God; 1 Cor. 11:31.
We read, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy. And if ye call on the Father, who, without respect of persons, judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear,” 1 Pet. 1:15-17. The Lord always judges according to the place into which we are brought, according to the position in which we stand. And so do we of others, in some sort. For instance, I judge of those who are within my house differently from what I do of those without; I say, not to a stranger, but to one brought into my house, You must have clean habits to live here. God is dealing with us on the ground of grace, yet of holiness; for holiness is with us as much a part of grace as any other blessing. “Be ye holy, for I am holy” is the expression of intimacy, and comes not merely in the way of command. Grace must make us holy, “partakers of his holiness.” See Hebrews 12. It is not God requiring man’s holiness, but making us partakers of His. What could we wish more? Love does it, and we are made partakers of that which separates God from all that is inconsistent with Himself— holiness, not mere innocence. Innocence is the ignorance of good and evil; you would not say that God was innocent, but holy. He makes us “partakers of his holiness.” It is “his holiness” —the knowledge of evil as He knows it, and ability to rise above it. The holiness is as much a part of the grace, as the love that does it.
They died. “And Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that Jehovah spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace,” v. 3. There was silence as to the place of intercession. “There is a sin unto death”: the church has to be silent; 1 John 5:16. God has taken the cause into His own hands, He has acted in His holy place, and all that man can do is to hold his peace. But this is not all. The Lord takes occasion by this failure, to bring out what is our position “before him” day by day, and to shew forth yet other failure.
“And Jehovah spake unto Aaron”—to Aaron, because about that which became the priests, those who go in “before Jehovah.”8 We have instructions from Christ, as the Priest, as well as the Lawgiver. There are things which refer to the comeliness of the saints, and not to mere righteousness— things which are known by the Spirit to be comely to us as priests. We read in Hebrews 5 that those are priests who are “called of God, as was Aaron,” and that “Christ glorified not himself to be made an High Priest, but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.” So, though in an altogether inferior sense, we are priests as born of God, we become priests. That which is here brought before us is not merely precept; it is priestly instruction as to the manner of our approach to God; and that which understands and estimates it is the new nature in which we are born of God.
“And Jehovah spake unto Aaron, saying, Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die; it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations; and that ye may put difference between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean; and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Jehovah has spoken unto them by the hand of Moses,” v. 8-n. “Wine” and “strong drink”—all that excites the flesh, that does not belong to the cleanness of spiritual apprehension and judgment becoming those who go into the sanctuary, must be put away.
I believe we are often hindered going into God’s presence by this “drinking of wine.” The moment there is that which acts on the flesh and excites nature, the going to find pleasure and joy in things harmless even in themselves, no matter what (nature may take up anything), there is “wine” and “strong drink,” that which would put us out of the place of spiritual discernment; and it is inadmissible.
There are ten thousand things which may thus excite, eloquence for instance. If excited by eloquence, this would hinder the enjoyment of truth: the same truth, were it presented without it, and thus that which is of Christ, would pall on the taste. Eloquence is not in itself a wrong thing, and yet Paul says, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
There is a vast deal connected with the things of God that is not like this; a vast deal which after all is “wine” and “strong drink,” and it unfits for the sanctuary. Whatever has not the real, calm, spiritual joy fit for the presence of God is so. Look at it—we see it connected with all the forms of false worship. Again, thought as to the beauty and elegance of the edifice where we meet for worship, etc., has the same character; it acts on nature, and whatever does this cannot be fit for the presence of God—cannot be carried into His sanctuary. So of all things around which hinder the power of spiritual discernment, though not in themselves wrong. We might be in a lovely place and not think of it; then it is not “strong drink.”
The object of this instruction is not merely as to our acting rightly. The condition of mind which gives the capacity of judging “between unclean and clean,” depends on the absence of these things—the capacity of learning, through fellowship with God in the sanctuary, to “put difference between holy and unholy.” So the apostle prays for the saints at Colosse, that they might be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that they might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing,” etc. So, too, for the Philippians, that they might have such a knowledge of the will of God, “that ye may approve things that are excellent [try the things that differ]; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ”: without a single stumble all the way along until the coming of the Lord. He supposes there might be such intimacy of acquaintance with the mind of God, that they would not.
We can never give the least justification to sin and say, The flesh is in us, and we could not help it; for “there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way of escape that ye may be able to bear it.” The theory of the Christian is this—the flesh should never be discovered but in the presence of God, where it is always in the presence of grace and of holiness too. This is the true power of our walk. It is not any particular measure of attainment; it is simply a man walking according to his communion, who never gets into the weakness of the flesh, for the flesh is known only before God, and not before Satan. When I learn the flesh thus, I drink into the opposite of it, the grace of God, and so go forth in the strength of what is in God, and not in the shame and weakness of what is in myself.
Thus it is, that, in estrangement from all that acts upon the flesh, and near God, I learn in the sanctuary His mind, and am able to “put difference between holy and unholy, unclean and clean.” Then also I can teach others and say, That is the mind of the Lord about such and such a thing; as it is said here, “teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Jehovah hath spoken unto them by the hand of Moses.” But have we not often found an incapacity to judge according to the mind of God, where there was no failure in precept—a spiritual incompetency? Alas! my friends, we have been content to “drink wine, and strong drink,” and thus our spiritual faculties have become darkened.
There is another thing to notice. The “sons of Aaron” were to eat of the “meat-offering” and the “peace-offering,” v. 12-15. See the fellowship here. The inward parts were fed upon by God (of the “peace-offering,” it was “the food of the offering made by fire unto Jehovah”). Aaron and his sons had their part, and so also the particular worshipper. I cannot then separate myself from God herein, because I cannot separate myself from God’s delight in Christ, nor from the whole family of God who have all their portion. There is no proper worship that does not take in God, Christ, and the whole family of Aaron—the church: it is a common feast, if true. So in Ephesians 3, “that ye may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” How can I “comprehend with all saints” if I leave out any? I cannot separate from them without diminishing my own sense of the fulness of the love of Christ and of God. If I leave out one, he is Christ’s joy. And here we fail.
Again: there is, in a certain sense, a priestly way in which we have to bear the sins and sorrows of our brethren; not, of course, as to atonement (that was Christ’s alone; the blood carried inside was Christ’s alone), but still there is a true sense in which we have to bear them. And in this, I believe above everything else, we fail. It is not only that Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire: Eleazar and Ithamar were not like them, and yet their failure is recorded. “And Moses diligently sought the goat of the sin-offering, and behold it was burnt: and he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron, which were left alive, saying, Wherefore have ye not eaten of the sin-offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God has given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before Jehovah? Behold, the blood of it was not brought in within the holy place, ye should indeed have eaten it in the holy place, as I commanded,” v. 16-18. The rule as to the sin-offering was this: if the blood was carried inside, to be sprinkled before Jehovah, the body was carried without the camp to be burnt; but in the sin-offering for offences, the priest was to eat it; and in this the “sons of Aaron “had a share.
We get the pattern for the exercise of grace in the saints as to the failure and sins of their brethren, in John 13: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Where there is defilement seen in a brother, there should ever be this washing by us; but it is impossible that there can, unless in spirit we bear before the Lord all the burden of the fault and sin we desire to confess (washing the feet is not atonement); and here we all fail—in the use of this priestly service.
Suppose I were really walking in the power of the place in which I am set, if I see sin in my brother, and go to pray for him, I find him identified with Christ as represented to the world: the garment of Christ is soiled, the honour of Christ is affected, the joy of Christ is hindered, all is spoiled in that sense, communion with Christ is lost. It is a terrible thing to see the saints of God dishonour Christ thus! Well, now, it is to bear the misery and the sorrow of all this, as though I had been in the sin myself. Love gets into the place of the sinner, and his sin becomes the occasion of the outgoings of the heart in intercession to God—of the working of love.
Suppose a child in agony—the mother sees it thus distressed, convulsed by pain; and, though she herself has no pain of body, she suffers far more than it in pain of mind, in agony of heart. Thus should it be with us, in feeling with the saints, when writhing under false doctrine or unworthiness of walk. All is borne by Jesus, but then we should identify ourselves with Jesus in dealing about the sin—in feeding on the “sin-offering.” See Daniel, in his confession. Did he say Israel has sinned? No, but “we have sinned”; “to us belongeth confusion of faces”; “we have rebelled.” And this is our place.
When Moses charges Eleazar and Ithamar with the sin, Aaron comes in (v. 19) and answers for them; he lays it all upon himself. And so Christ for us: He makes Himself responsible for it all. It was, however, their privilege to have eaten of the “sin-offering,” as it is ours: we are given this portion. God, in the riches of His grace, not only blesses us, but uses us: we are fellow-workers under Him. Paul plants, Apollos waters, God gives the increase; whilst it is God who has done it all. If a man was converted, whose joy was it? “Ye are our joy.” It was Paul’s joy. Paul had not redeemed them, but he had the joy of love.
In giving us this service of love we have His Spirit in us, and so the joy of love is ours. But it is not merely that we should go out and preach the gospel to sinners (preaching the gospel answers to the ministry of apostleship, whilst teaching and admonishing the saints answers to that of priesthood); prayer for a brother is ministry of love in priesthood. If it be a matter of intercession, we ought to bear all the iniquity of it on our own hearts before the Lord. Thus the very sin itself becomes the occasion of the outflowing of love, and not of judgment.
But is it not true that we have failed? Whilst the outward professing church has offered strange fire “before the Lord,” have we known how to “eat the sin-offering” for our brethren? Have we not been charging them with the offence in righteousness, laying it down to them as under law, instead of eating the sin-offering in the holy place?
Grief should not hinder our acting thus in priestly service before the Lord; but let us take care also that the joy of nature does not, the “wine” and “strong drink.” Again, I say, have we not shrunk from bearing the iniquity of our brethren in intercession before the Lord, from eating the sin-offering in the holy place? How little do the faults of a dear brother pain us as our own! Have we really pleaded, as feeling the evil, in the intercession of grace? How seldom do we thus deal with it, standing as it were in the gap! There is a vast deal of failure in all of us as to this—abundant failure! There is not that sense among us of the identity of Christ with His saints, which would put us thus in the place of intercession.
But the voice of Aaron is lifted up (v. 19) and it prevails; Moses, the commander and requirer, is “content,” v. 20. So, in hearing the voice of our Aaron, when lifted up on our behalf, God is “content.” And here is our comfort under the sense of it all.
Peace is heard again. But if it be so, the sense of that should not make us think lightly about the sins of our brethren.
7 We find in this part of scripture the high priest and his sons, or “Aaron and his sons,” continually presented to us as a type of the church. Sometimes, however, they are very distinctly separated, as, for instance, in their consecration; Lev. 8. Aaron is anointed without blood having been sprinkled upon him—they with blood. This shews very definitely the perfectness of Christ in His own Person to receive the fulness of the Holy Ghost: we can only have it by virtue of His perfectness and blood-shedding for us. I look at Aaron as a type of Christ— “Aaron and his sons,” of the whole church.
8 This is of common concern to all saints, for as “sons of Aaron” all have an equality: though in another sense, when looked at as Levites, there may be distinction, and whilst all are equally servants, all near, one has to carry the ark, another the boards, etc. And it is in this our highest and proper character we are here spoken of. The Lord gives the instructions to Aaron the high priest as to how the “sons of Aaron” should draw nigh.