We don’t understand the space between what we are as physical creatures and spiritual beings, and our explanations often hurt us because they’re often not actually biblical.
“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange and unholy fire before the Lord, as he had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the Lord and killed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2, AMPC).
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a strange story. Because it’s in the Old Testament, it’s easy for some to dismiss with the excuse of “Well, there are a lot of strange things in the first half of the Bible, along with a lot of rules we don’t obey anymore, so just ignore it!” Others take it as yet one more example of how the God of the Old Testament is an angry deity whom Jesus reforms with love and grace.
Both of those interpretations overlook passages like the following where Jesus also had hard things to say about how God’s law defies human expectations. “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5, ESV).
Musing on both these passages in a sermon, R. C. Sproul said, “We are no longer amazed by grace and we are shocked — in total consternation — by justice.”
Nadab and Abihu probably thought that what they were doing would be fine, maybe even give them more authority with God. That would’ve match how Egyptian religious practices mostly played out. What they were doing probably seemed entirely logical for them from their religious point of view. If the Egyptian deities worked this way, so should God. The crowd in Jesus’ day made assumptions in a similar vein. The cultures around them presumed that people who prospered were favored by whatever god they worshipped, so that must be how God worked too.
God isn’t okay with us redefining his rules to match secular or even religious culture. We’re in no place to scoff at those ancient believers, though, who struggled with how God doesn’t conform to what seems ‘reasonable’ to us based on the current philosophy around us.
God’s people have always struggled with wanting to change God’s rules, and one notable area where many of us wrestle to this day is with vestiges of Gnostic beliefs.
Gnosticism was a ‘Christian’ cult that combined an older religion with the Bible and popular Stoic philosophy. It gained a lot traction in the 2nd century as it claimed that the material cosmos was the result of a primordial error on the devil’s part, and God had to enter the picture to save people from a satanic world. All of existence was divided into two equally powerful realms: good and evil, spirit and matter, higher and lower spheres. The highest aim of Christians then was to experience the purification of their souls while mortifying their corrupted flesh until they died, shed their bodies and became androgynous spirits.
Gnostic Christians believed that passion and emotions were products of the corrupted body and therefore evil. Marriage and sex were succumbing to the urges of the body and also evil. Women were naturally much more susceptible to corruption than men since they could become pregnant and thus produce more demonic fleshly matter.
The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus gave the movement particular problems since it seemed wildly improbable that the holy God they envisioned would stoop to taking on a body of infernal matter. Some Gnostics believed that Jesus only took the appearance of mortality and never allowed himself to actually be encased in tainted flesh. Others argued that Jesus was in a polluted corporeal form only until he was crucified, and then he was raised like a Force ghost in a Star Wars movie.
Basically, physical form was the dirty slippers Jesus borrowed to run across the yard before darting back and abandoning them by the back door.
For these reasons and many more, the early church fathers called Gnosticism pretentious drivel that had the potential to be dangerous. Irenaeus was particularly scathing in his response to Gnosticism. He was born around AD 130 and studied under Polycarp, who had been a student of John the Apostle. One researcher noted, “’The glory of God,’ Irenaeus says, ‘is a living man [or “a man fully alive”]’ (4.20). And that life consists of beholding God. That we might see God, the Father has made himself known to us in his Son, who took on our human nature, was present in this creation, and saved it, that we might participate in the glory of the Father. We are made fully alive in Jesus, who came that he might ‘vivify those who receive and behold him through faith’ (4:20). Unlike the heretical Gnostics, whose noses were held high away from creation in their uber-spirituality, Irenaeus preached the earthy Gospel of the creating God who is not embarrassed by the stuff that he made.” This church father’s return to scripture showed the glory of God in his marvelous creation, where men and women stood at the pinnacle as coheirs in Christ, honoring God with their emotions, marriage, sexuality, children and passions.
Irenaeus’ work as the ‘champion of the incarnation’, as he would later be known, fended off Gnostic thought for several centuries, but eventually it seeped back into popular religious practice.
The church began demanding that its leaders remain celibate because of the corrupting influence of marriage and sex. Passion and emotion were seen as the work of the devil, and women and children were degraded as lesser beings. ‘Lost gospels’ were brought into Christian discussions, and heretical myths surrounding various followers of Christ and certain locations in Israel became popular. Radicals began stepping forward to protest that the church’s path was not biblical, leaders like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Jan Łaski, William Tyndale, Marguerite de Navarre, John Knox, Jiří Třanovský, Jeanne d’Albret, Marie Dentière, John Calvin and many, many more.
The reformation’s conviction that scripture alone is authoritative (sola scriptura) and justification is by faith (sola fide), not by works or social status or any other way that we might categorize other people, redefined an era of the church. Believers’ religious or secular culture, no matter how ‘reasonable’ it seemed to them, shouldn’t be allowed to push the boundaries of God’s law. When Peter preached salvation under the hand of the Holy Spirit and said, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39), that included everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
A little over two centuries later, a man named Charles Darwin would introduce the idea of evolution, kicking off the Enlightenment, and Christian Gnosticism would enjoy its day in the sun once more because it provided a religious justification for a sharp divide between body and spirit as well as biological and spiritual hierarchies (certain individuals or cultures are more ‘evolved’ than others, and strangely enough this evolutionary gradient adheres really well to cultural prejudices). Everyone loves a good hierarchy, as long as we’re the ones on top!
Many of the ideas touted during this period still haunt Western culture and even the church to this day.
The Gnostic concept of “human alienation as a result of people being trapped in some form of existence which inhibits the full expression of their true nature”, as John Drane described it on Themelios, should sound eerily recognizable to anyone familiar with New Age philosophy or the LGBTQ+ movement. Our bodies are inhibiting the genuine expression of our spirits, hence ideas like the one that a man may be born in the body of a woman or visa versa.
Another Gnostic idea that faith was deeply personal, emotional connection to the divine and unconcerned with pushing back on society shows up alarmingly often among modern day Christians. What happened to Paul’s defenses of Christianity as an intellectual, corporate event that should rattle cages? How often have we heard, “What matters most is your personal relationship with God”? Salvation must be chosen individually, it’s true; but our relating to God happens within a spiritual body where we are a hand or a foot or an ear. We don’t detach like Legos; “truth” can’t become private rather than public, something only for the individual, not the universe.
Distinguished senior Professor David Wells preached, “The spiritual journey in this contemporary sense does not begin with what has been given by God or with what does not change. Rather, it begins with the self. It begins in the soil of human autonomy and it gives to the self the authority to decide what to believe, from what sources to draw knowledge and inspiration, and how to test the viability of what is believed. …They [Gnostic Christians] were opposed to a doctrinally shaped and governed Christianity.”
If my religion is exclusively intellectual and divorced from the reality of my own body’s needs and emotions, I will offer solutions to problems around me that fail to acknowledge at least 50 percent of the issue.
If my relationship with God is an ‘ultra-spiritual,’ emotional affair, I’m left with an anemic, escapist religion where I am woefully unprepared to address issues of heresy, identity, racism, sexism, eugenics, nationalism, to name only a handful.
We must return over and over to the conviction that God’s Word alone is authoritative, whether or not it fits nicely with our cultural ideas. As Joshua West explained in a podcast episode about the importance of the law in the Bible for modern believers, “The law of God, in and of itself, relates to all of humanity, no matter if we want to accept it or not. This is the character of God. This is who God is. This is what God expects from people, not because he's petty but because he's holy. I think the most important thing I could say about the law of God is this is tied into the nature of God.” In God’s commands and ways of ordering the world, he reveals his nature and design for us within our bodies, abilities, families, communities and environments. If we humbly submit ourselves to God’s pattern for both the material and spiritual realms, we will find both peace and power.