The prepared text for today’s sermon for MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. Worship begins 30 minutes earlier (at 10:00 a.m.) for the summer hours and today’s service at that hour will be at Ellicott Creek Park on Niagara Falls Blvd. The main text is Numbers 3. The sermon audio will be uploaded and shared at a link here when I am able to do so. You can find my commentary on Numbers starting with the post at this link, but note that there are some new observations even in the introduction to today’s message.
The book of Numbers is the same kind of literature as Genesis. Genesis begins with a prologue – Genesis 1:1-2:3 – a story of creation in six days and God resting on the seventh. This prologue is followed by ten books. Each book begins, “These are the generations of….” Numbers also begins with a prologue – it is the first two chapters of Numbers – where we read about the head of each house that assisted Moses in taking a census, then we read the census, and then we read about the arrangement of the camp of Israel. These two prologues have a lot more in common than you might realize at first. For example, in the prologue of Genesis we read about the creation of the stars and in the prologue of Numbers the numbers in the census show us that Israel reflected the stars. Or consider this: in the prologue of Genesis we see God organizing creation—putting everything in its place—and in the prologue of Numbers we see God organizing Israel with a census and the arrangement of the camp. Or again, in the prologue of Genesis we see God creating kingdoms such as light and darkness, the sky and sea, and the land, and kings like the sun, moon and stars, the fish, sea monsters, and birds, and man, and it comes to a climax with God enthroned as king over all of creation and resting. Likewise, in the prologue of Numbers we see God creating the kingdom of Israel and then it comes to a climax with God Himself as the king of Israel. I mentioned last Sunday that the tent in the center of the camp is the tent of the king in the ancient near east and that the tabernacle, which is God’s tent, was in the center of the camp of Israel because the Lord God Himself is the king of Israel. In any case, our passage today begins the same way each book after that prologue in Genesis began. It begins, “These are the generations of…” – this time it is the generations of Aaron and Moses. Usually, we read Moses before Aaron, but here the high priest Aaron is first because the focus of what follows is the priesthood and the Levites. The Gospel of Matthew actually begins with this line, “These are the generations of Jesus Christ.” Matthew is the same kind of literature as Genesis and Numbers. In other words, Numbers is the Gospel of Aaron and Moses. It might not seem like it at first, but today’s passage is good news.
- The Gospel of Aaron and Moses is the gospel of a Mediator.
- The priesthood is the ministry of mediators. The priests represent the people before God and teach God’s word to the people. The priests of Israel mediated between God and the people of Israel. That’s why we call them mediators. Mediators are necessary because otherwise God’s wrath would consume His people. God appointed them to stick up for the people and remind Him of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Ever since Adam’s fall, it has been dangerous to approach God. At the east of the Garden of Eden, God placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Thus the tabernacle, which itself is meant to remind the reader of the Garden of Eden, with its lampstand like a tree of life, needs a mediator to bridge that divide between God and us. Twice we read in Numbers 3 that Aaron and his sons shall guard their priesthood or guard the sanctuary itself to protect the people of Israel, but if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death (Numbers 3:10, 38). Ultimately, however, it will be through the death of the mediator Jesus Christ that we are able to approach God and live. (The gospel of Aaron and Moses is a gospel of a Mediator…)
And that Mediator is Jesus Christ, who is both foiled and foreshadowed in this passage. Nadab and Abihu are foils for their two brothers Eleazar and Ithamar who served as priests for the rest of their long lives but even more clearly they are foils for Jesus Christ. Eleazar’s son Phinehas would become a hero in Numbers, but Nadab is an anti-hero. All we know about what happened to Nadab and Abihu is that they were consumed by fire and died before the Lord because they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord. Numbers 3:4 says, “But Nadab and Abihu died before YHWH when they offered unauthorized fire before YHWH in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children.” The verse is alluding to Leviticus 10:1-2, but those verses are not much more enlightening. Leviticus says, “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 YHWH, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before YHWH and consumed them, and they died before YHWH [meaning in His presence].” The two youngest brothers, Eleazar and Ithamar, were careful to do according to what the Lord instructed, but the two eldest brothers, Nadab and Abihu, were not. Keep in mind that it isn’t so much that they did something that God had forbidden, but rather that they did something that God had not said to do. The two sons of Aaron consumed by fire show the limits of the priesthood of Aaron and serve as a reminder that God would have to save by means of a greater priesthood where the priest was sinless. Even Aaron made the golden calf—a very similar sin to the unauthorized fire offered by his first two sons. However, Jesus Christ is our high priest who performs His priesthood perfectly. The tabernacle was but an earthly copy of the sanctuary where Jesus serves as our high priest in heaven. And Jesus not only is our high priest, but He was our sacrifice. Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire like a sacrificial offering, but they were consumed by fire because they offered fire God had not authorized. Their deaths were like burnt offerings but their deaths were not a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Their deaths saved no one. The final judgment came early for them and that trial by fire ended with a finding of guilty. On the other hand, Jesus was a perfect priest and Himself the perfect offering and His resurrection from the dead proves His innocence. (Besides the concept of a mediator, there is another concept that is very important in Numbers 3. It is the concept of a redeemer. For…)
- The Gospel of Aaron and Moses is the gospel of a Redeemer.
A redeemer brings salvation by the payment of a price. The Lord God Himself was the Redeemer of Israel. For this reason, the firstborn of Israel belonged to the Lord. The firstborn represent the rest of the family, but the point here is even more specific to the tenth plague. This is the familiar story: at midnight the angel would strike down all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt but the Lord had the Hebrew people paint the blood of a lamb over the doorpost of their homes so that the angel would pass over those homes and spare the firstborn in those homes. Therefore, the Lord says that the firstborn of Israel belong to Him—He redeemed them. They were redeemed by the deaths of the firstborn of Egypt. He bought their salvation. But instead of having the firstborn of Israel serve Him like the Levites would, God decided to have the Levites stand in their place. Thus instead of all of the firstborn of Israel being set apart to God to serve Him, He set apart the Levites as their substitute. So He says twice in Numbers 3, something like “They shall be mine: I am YHWH” (Numbers 3:43, 45). The death and the redemption of the firstborn ultimately points forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died the death the disobedient deserve and He rose on the third day. Jesus took our place—as our substitute—in order to redeem us. He paid the price so that we were purchased to serve God as priests.
We get a picture of the gospel of a Redeemer when we see that every one of the firstborn of Israel had to be redeemed. Of the people of Israel, 22,273 were the firstborn. But there were only 22,000 Levites. Thus we read that the redemption price was five shekels per head for the difference of 273 people. Of course, money cannot redeem people anymore than the blood of bulls and goats can take away sins. Eventually, it will need to be a person who is their substitute and not only the substitute of the firstborn but the substitute of all of His people. But all of this is to say that the book of Numbers is the Gospel of Aaron and Moses. It is a book that points us to Jesus Christ—our Mediator and our Redeemer—who has died that we might live and serve God. Serving God is not something to be taken lightly. But we serve God without the fear of God’s wrath consuming us in our wilderness because Jesus died to redeem us and because Jesus is continually interceding for us before the throne of God Almighty. May God be praised. Amen.