Sin has been humanity's number one problem since shortly after creation week, when Adam and Eve first sinned (Gen. 3:1-6). Before considering three dimensions of sin, we must first define sin. The Bible gives four explicit definitions of sin.
First, "sin is the transgression of the law" (1 Jn. 3:4). To transgress God's law means to go beyond what God has authorized.
Second, "All unrighteousness is sin" (1 Jn. 5:17). Unrighteousness, simply put, is not doing what is right, and "right" must be defined by God's standard.
Third, "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin" (Jas. 4:17).
Fourth, "whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:26). In the context of Romans 14, "faith" refers to one's own conscience about participating in matters of indifference, such as eating meats and/or esteeming certain days above other days (Rom. 14:1-8). Thus, Romans 14:26 is teaching that violating our conscience is sin.
There are many passages to which we could turn to measure the dimensions of sin, but for this study, let us see the dimensions involved with the sin of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2).
One of the most rudimentary dimensions of sin, that is often overlooked, is disrespect, not only for the word of God, but also for occasions that call for reverence toward God. This dimension of sin in the Nadab and Abihu situation is known when Leviticus 9 is read in conjunction with Chapter 10. In Leviticus 9, Aaron was instructed and offered sacrifices for himself and the people. In the reading of this chapter, three items are of particular interest.
First, Aarorn and his sons are explicitly referred to in five verses (Lev. 9:1, 9, 12-13, 18), which lets us know that Nadab and Abihu were well aware of the occasion and its significance.
Second, the phrase, or its equivalent, "as the LORD [or Moses] commanded" occurs in five verses (Lev. 9:5-7, 10, 21), which lets us know that Nadab and Abihu knew that these instructions were from God.
Third, the "glory of the LORD," either promised or appearing to them, occurs twice (Lev. 9:6, 23), which lets us know that the occasion called for reverence toward God.
The disrespect of Nadab and Abihu was blatant. After offering the sacrifices as God instructed,
"Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces" (Lev. 9:23-24).
Note that on this occasion, all the people were prostrate with their faces toward the ground in awe of God. It was at this moment that "Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD" (Lev. 10:1). Yes, offering the "strange fire" was sin, but it started with disrespect. We must have respect for God. When we fail to respect God and His word, we sin. We must "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28).
The most obvious dimension of sin is that of disobedience. Sin involves not following God's will. Even if sin is done in ignorance, it is still disobedience to God. One can transgress God's law even if he or she does not know God's law (cf. Lk. 12:47-48). Suppose a man is driving 70 mph in a 55 mph zone, but he honestly thinks it is a 70 mph zone. Is he breaking the law? Of course! So it is with God's law. Because one is ignorant of the law does not mean he or she cannot break it! Nadab and Abihu, however, did not sin in ignorance. They sinned presumptuously. Nadab and Abihu sinned because only the high priest was to offer the incense (Ex. 30:1, 6-9). Nadab and Abihu sinned because it seems the fire to be used for burning incense in the tabernacle should have come from the altar of burnt offerings (cf. Lev. 16:12), but their fire is described as "strange [profane, NKJ; unauthorized, ESV] fire" (Lev. 10:1). Had Nadab and Abihu sinned in ignorance, they could have offered a sacrifice and been forgiven of that sin (Lev. 4:2-3 cf. Num. 15:27-29), but the law provided no sacrifice for presumptuous sin (Num. 15:30-31 cf. Heb. 10:26-27). Note also that Nadab and Abihu "offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not" (Lev. 10:1). Because the Lord does not explicitly say that we cannot do something does not mean that we have His permission to do it. Some falsely assume, for example, that because God did not say, "Thou shalt not worship with a mechanical instrument of music," that we are free to worship with mechanical instruments of music. Such, however, could not be further from the truth. We are only free to worship as God authorized. We violate God's authority when we, like Nadab and Abihu, worship in a way that "God commanded...not" (cf. Num. 3:4; 26:61). We must not altar God's word, either by our words or our actions (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Pr. 30:6). We must respect God's word and obey it!
Death was the immediate result of Nadab and Abihu's sin. After they offered the unauthorized fire, "there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD" (Lev. 10:2). Earlier, fire from the Lord showed His approval (Lev. 9:24), but at this time fire from the Lord showed His disapproval! God's reaction to sin in this way was needed at the beginning of His covenant to emphasize four important truths:
(1) sinners must be punished;
(2) God's law must be respected;
(3) obedience to God is necessary; and
(4) future generations must be warned.
In much the same way, the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were necessary in the beginning of the new covenant (Acts 5:1-11). We must realize that sin always results in death (Rom. 6:23). Thanks be unto God, however, that He does not strike us dead the moment we sin, as He did with Nadab and Abihu. If that were the case, none of us would be here today. God does not want us to die in sin (Ezk. 18:32). Thankfully, He "is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). God's longsuffering is His invitation for us to repent. Do we respect God and His word? Are we in obedience to His word? If God were to call us to account for our lives right now, would we be with Him eternally, or, like Nadab and Abihu, would we be eternally separated from God?