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.
- Leviticus 10:1-3
“…our God is a consuming fire.”
- Hebrews 12:29
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
- Matthew 7:21-23
Not all ministry is proven to be true ministry. Simply because we engage in ministry does not mean God has given His approval. In a relatively obscure Old Testament story an interesting contrast is given between ministry as presumed and ministry as accepted. There is a subtle but critical difference between these two. The contrast is stark and the story has an unanticipated ending. In Leviticus 10 two religious men are engaged in ministry. They are offering their ministry to God and are supposing God’s favor. Rather than concern over how their ministry was offered their service to God was rendered their own way and according to their personal dictates. You see, even going back to the story of Cain and Abel how one worships matters. In other words, for two odd-named chaps, specifically Nadab and Abihu, the how of ministry was not important, but rather only that ministry was being done. The difficulty they encountered was that ministry done for personal approbation always meets with disapproval from God. You see, the God worthy of worship dictates the manner and acceptability of worship. Ministry must be done His way. Nadab and Abihu mistakenly assumed their ministry to God, and paid dearly for it. Then in summary, God makes it clear that in ministry His glory is at stake (v. 3). As Nadab and Abihu found out, false worship is a capital crime.
Interestingly, Jesus gives a harsh warning to ministry workers in Matthew 7. In a ministry teeming with the presumed fruit of applauded success such as prophecy, exorcism and miracles Jesus speaks a word of judgment. Their ministry was unlawful. In other words, at the very heart of ministry was no true ministry at all. It was opposed to God’s commands and rife with idolatry. They were not at all engaged in ministry; rather they were workers of lawlessness.
The Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here,
‘But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men….or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.’ (WCF 21:1)
God determines the acceptability of both ministry and worship. These passages should serve as a warning for every pursuit of and engagement in ministry. Because the glory of God is at stake pragmatism or 'felt needs' must not rule the day. How we engage in ministry matters. Ministry is to be ‘lawful’ ministry, and by that we must help those who engage in ministry to be self-consciously aware of the commands of God. True ministry must have the glory of God at the center. Sadly, much of what passes for ministry these days is simply the telegraphing of one's own personal desires, and oft-times no restraint or direction is given by the command of God nor the glory of God.
Ministry? By all means yes! Ministry that is acceptable to God is self-consciously aware that His glory and His commands provide direction for all true ministry. Because like Nadab and Abihu, without them...we’re toast.