In working with the teachers to prepare this lesson, I decided it would be helpful to spend less time on Uzzah and Simon Magus and more time on a few Old Testament stories that better help us understand the character of God. You see, you can’t know the meaning of the words until you know the author of the words.
The fundamental flaw with the way Nadab and Abihu have been used is how God is presented in the traditional Church of Christ (and Calvinist) version of the story. John Calvin and his disciples used the story to argue that acting without authority damns. Not only does this misread the story, it misreads God. God certainly expects to be obeyed, but God does not damn for innocent mistakes. In fact, God never, ever damns those who come to him with faith and a penitent heart.
2 Chronicles contains an account that does apply to worship today. The temple service and the other requirements of the Law had been ignored for many years in Judah when Hezekiah became king. He re-established the temple service and ordered the celebration of Passover, which had also been long neglected.
(2 Chron. 30:1-20) Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.
Notice, first, that the king decided to celebrate the Passover on the wrong day, because it
was too late to do otherwise.
They decided to send a proclamation throughout Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, calling the people to come to Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel. … The couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulon, but the people scorned and ridiculed them. Nevertheless, some men of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulon humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem. Also in Judah the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and his officials had ordered, following the word of the LORD. …
Many of the people decided to travel to Jerusalem to honor God through this celebration. Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate their lambs to the LORD. Although most of the many people who came from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulon had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.
The Law had been long forgotten and so mistakes were made as the practices commanded by God were reinstituted. The penalty for taking the Passover while unclean was death, and yet the people ate, anxious to honor God.
But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the LORD, who is good, pardon everyone who sets his heart on seeking God the LORD, the God of his fathers—even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary.” And the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
God pardoned their sin because they had “set their heart on seeking God” despite their clear violation of the Law. Moreover, despite their clear error, God’s hand was on the people to “give them unity of mind.”
If God was this forgiving of false worship under the Law, how forgiving will he be to his sons and daughters today? Why do we make doctrine and divisions based on Nadab and Abihu and fail to preach the lesson of Hezekiah’s Passover? The only defense the worshippers had to the death penalty was that they were trying their best to honor God and had sinned only out of ignorance. And that was good enough for God.
Saul and David
One of the most striking lessons in the Bible is the contrast between God’s attitudes toward Saul and David. Saul was appointed by God as Israel’s first king. As was later true of David and Solomon, God gave Saul the Holy Spirit (1 Sam. 10:10; 1 Sam. 11:6).
But his pride caused him to commit two sins. The first was his failure to wait on Samuel to arrive to offer sacrifices before beginning battle. When Samuel arrived to find that Saul had started without him, he stated,
(1 Sam. 13:14) “But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”
Thereafter, in a familiar story, Samuel told Saul to attack and completely destroy the Amalekites. Saul conquered them, but disobeyed Samuel’s instructions by sparing their king and livestock. When Samuel learned of this, God’s rejection of Saul was irrevocable:
(1 Sam. 15:28) Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors-to one better than you.”
Thereupon, God took his Spirit from Saul, Saul never repented, and God’s Spirit never
(1 Sam. 16:14) Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.
The story of David is very different. He also received God’s Spirit.
(1 Sam. 16:13a) So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power … .
And like Saul, David also sinned. However, Saul’s sin was pride. He offered a sacrifice contrary to Samuel’s instructions rather than humbly waiting for Samuel to do so. He kept livestock and the Amalekite king as trophies of his campaign. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with offering a sacrifice or retaining captured livestock or a king-unless God’s prophet has given other instructions.
No one was hurt by Saul’s actions. His mistakes were easily remedied. There was no lasting harm from his sins. Nonetheless, God rejected him.
David was guilty of much worse sins: adultery, murder, and betrayal. Uriah was one of David’s 30 mighty men (2 Sam. 23:8-39). He stood beside David when Saul was trying to capture and kill him. He was with David among the Philistines. No man ever had a more loyal friend and ally than Uriah.
And yet while Uriah was fighting for David, and David stayed behind in his palace, David sent for Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and slept with her. And she became pregnant. After trying to conceal his sin, David gave instructions that Uriah be allowed to die in battle, and on David’s order, Uriah died.
God’s prophet Nathan judged David regarding his sin.
(2 Sam. 12:13-14) Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”
David repented and God forgave him. However, David still was required to suffer the
earthly consequences of his actions.
One of David’s psalms describe the nature of his forgiveness.
(Psalm 32:1-2) Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.
These very verses are used by Paul in Romans 4 to describe the nature of Christian
(Rom. 4:5-6) However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works … .
Moreover, God never took his Spirit from David (Psalm 51:11; 2 Sam. 23:1-2). Why did David keep God’s Spirit and God’s acceptance while Saul lost God’s Spirit and was rejected?
David’s sins were as black as any recorded in the Bible. By any objective standard, David’s sins were much worse than Saul’s. And yet God forgave David and not Saul. God appointed the second son of Bathsheba as king after David: Solomon. Thus, God even accepted David’s marriage to her.
By now the point is obvious. It is not the sin but the heart that determines a Christian’s status before God. An arrogant, unrepentant heart will damn you, even for “trivial” sins. A penitent, faithful heart will keep you safe despite the blackest of sins. Obviously, a penitent, faithful Christian does not make a habit of or condone murder or adultery, but God’s grace is higher, broader, wider, and deeper than we can ask or imagine.
If God was this generous under the Law, how much more generous will he be today?
One of the Old Testament’s most fascinating accounts is the story of Naaman. Naaman was a commander in the Syrian army. He was struck with leprosy and could find no cure. Eventually, he came to Elisha, a prophet of God, and Elisha told Naaman that he would be cured if he dipped seven times in the Jordan River.
(2 Kings 5:11-14) But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
This passage has often been used, by analogy, to demonstrate the importance of strict compliance with the ordinance of baptism. After all, Naaman was not cleansed until he had followed all of Elisha’s instructions—only on the seventh dip was Naaman cured.
Thus, we have argued (correctly, I think) that one who has received instructions on baptism should do precisely as he has been told, for the promise is given only to those who meet the terms of the promise.
But we often overlook another intriguing element of the account:
(2 Kings 5:17-19a) [S]aid Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”
“Go in peace,” Elisha said.
Amazingly, Naaman (a) was not a proselyte to Judaism—nothing remotely suggests that he was, for example, circumcised, and (b) intended to continue to enter the temple of an idol and to feign worship of the idol. And yet Elisha approved Naaman’s proposal.
Here’s another example of worship and faith being accepted outside the covenant. Naaman came nowhere close to meeting the terms of the Law of Moses, and yet he is
accepted by God’s prophet.
What does Elisha in fact do? He says to Naaman, “Go in peace.” “Go in peace,” says the prophet of the Lord to this man torn between the ideals of his new faith and the realities of his old life. … “Go in peace,” says the prophet to the people we so quickly judge and dismiss when we make idols of our limited understandings.
“Go in peace.” The words swirl in the air surrounding Naaman and surrounding us, telling us our God is not a tame God. We can grasp at him through our theologies of peace, hope, liberation, grace, or personal salvation through Christ. But always we know him only in part, always he rises fiercely and wildly above us just when we think we have pinned him down. He is not a butterfly to be chased and stuck to a board and admired. He is, finally, as we see in Jesus, a God of joy and love, but he is a God also whose ways remain partly mysterious and unknowable, and before whom we do well to bow with fear and trembling as he touches and moves our lives in ways our bottles of theology and doctrine are too small and fragile to contain.
Michael A. King, “Naaman and the Wild God of Israel,” Spirituality Today (Spring 1986), Vol. 8, pp. 4-8.
God is a person — a holy person who expects his commands to be obeyed, but even more so a person who loves and doesn’t damn anyone who approaches his throne with faith and contrite heart.
Go in peace. God has given you his peace. Enjoy it.
(Rom 15:13) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.