Moses looked at him in panic and yelled: "Aaron! Put fire and incense in your censor! Run! Make atonement for the people! The plague has started! Hurry!" He turned and sprinted toward the altar. It had been a very difficult few days.
Just two days ago, Korah the Levite and some others had risen up in rebellion. They had gathered about 250 community leaders to confront Moses and him, accusing them of taking too much power. "The whole nation is holy, are we not?", the rebels had asked. "Who has put you above everyone else?" Moses assured them that God would make clear who He had chosen. He gave them instructions to appear before the Lord the next day, with censers and incense, at the entrance of the Tabernacle.
Yesterday, when everyone had gathered, the glory of the Lord appeared to the entire assembly. The Lord told Moses to have the people move away from the tents of the rebels. Then Moses had cried out: "This is how you know that the Lord has sent me, and that I do not claim this role on my own: if the Lord opens up the earth and swallows them and everything that belongs to them." Suddenly, there was a deep rumbling. A small crack appeared and travelled and spread along the surface of ground. The shaking continued; the opening grew wider and deeper. Things began to fall into the gaping hole: first tents, and then animals and people. Screams rose above the noise of the rumbling until the crack closed abruptly with a decisive snap! It was silent for a moment, but then the screaming began again as fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering incense at the door of the tabernacle. The remaining people had panicked and fled!
Almost the whole nation had gathered this morning near the Tabernacle. They stood and accused Moses of killing the Lord's people. The crowd might have killed them right there, but the cloud had covered the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord had appeared again. The Lord spoke to Moses and him, warning them "Get away from this assembly!" And now here he was running through camp, hoping to stop a plague.
He could see the people dying, like a dark wave rolling toward him across the camp. He ran, the censer swaying, incense billowing out around him. He wove his way around the tents to position himself in front of the center of the leading edge. He stopped, spread his arms out wide, closed his eyes, and planted his feet as if to steel himself for the wave that would crash over him. And then...
He opened his right eye a crack. He stood straighter and lowered his arms. Now he opened both eyes and looked around. The plague had reached him and stopped. He stood at the high water mark, at the line separating the living from the dead.
It is a divine truth: Sin must be punished. So it is not a surprise that the rebellion of Korah ended in death for the perpetrators. Nor is it surprising that the people, rising against Moses in the aftermath of Korah's judgement, faced a similar fate. It is not surprising that they were deserving of death. What is surprising is that any were spared.
The means by which they were spared was not anything they did to defend themselves, but rather what someone did on their behalf. The Lord had told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the assembly He intended to punish. Yet Moses instructs Aaron to act on the people's behalf, to make atonement for them. He did so by taking fire from the altar and a censer full of incense. Then he ran into danger to stand among the people. We read that Aaron "stood between the living and the dead" and that, when it reached him, the plague stopped. His sacrifice protected the people.
Like Aaron, Christ was not deserving of punishment. He could have stood apart. Instead, He came and stood among the people, bearing the wrath and judgement that they deserved. Those who place themselves under his protection need not fear God's judgement for He has taken that punishment on our behalf. He is the dividing line between the living and the dead.