The prepared text of today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church is below. Israel’s question, “Are we all to perish?” is the same kind of thinking that is all-to-common today as American Christians often cannot see a future for the church. But we have even greater reasons for hope than they did. If you listen to it using this link, you’ll notice that the audio includes parts not in the prepared text. Next Sunday we will be exploring Numbers 20. I would recommend that you start with the post at this link for further reading on this section of Numbers.
A few Sundays ago I mentioned to you that there is a pattern in the Torah of Moses of major transgression and then collection of laws. Thus after the rebellion that would keep the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for a total of forty years, there was a collection of laws. The collection of laws in Numbers 15 was a rebuke of that rebellious generation—a generation that would rather go back to Egypt or enter the land of Canaan without the Lord than to believe in Him. These laws described sacrifices that would be possible because the land is good even though that rebellious generation wanted to believe that the land wasn’t good. Because YHWH gave these laws to rebellious people, giving them laws increased the trespass. Those laws gave Israel knowledge of sin, arousing their sinful passions, and then bringing God’s wrath. His wrath came in the form of stoning to death a man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day. His wrath came in the form of the earth swallowing alive Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and their families. His wrath came in the form of fire consuming the 250 men offering incense to Him. His wrath came in the form of a plague that killed an additional 14,700 people. Wrath went out from the Lord in the form of a plague in Numbers 16 because the people had committed yet another transgression. That transgression was a rebellion where the whole congregation of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron saying that they had killed Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their families, and the 250 well-known chiefs of the congregation in the affair of Korah. And the Lord gave them a prophetic sign of the end of grumbling, the staff of Aaron sprouted and put forth buds and blossoms and bore ripe almonds. However, the people of Israel focused on the staffs from their own tribe. Those staffs remained dead sticks that would be good kindling for a fire. So the people interpreted the sign as bad news as we will read in the last few verses of Numbers 17. And the collection of laws that follow it are God’s reply.
The people cried out, “We perish,” and the Lord answered with the law that brings His wrath. (A few weeks ago, I noted that Paul tells us in the New Testament that these laws were added because of Israel’s transgression (Gal 3:19) and that the law came in to increase the trespass (Rom 5:20a) and bring God’s wrath (Rom 4:15).)
It is relatively easy to see that these laws were added because of Israel’s transgression. These laws are a response to that transgression.
First, the Lord gave laws concerning the priests and Levites and tithing to support them as a response to Israel’s transgression in Numbers 16. Like Korah, Israel’s transgression was a rebellion against Aaron the priest. The people had bought into Korah’s propaganda that they were holy and therefore should be able to approach the Lord and live. They were only partially correct when they concluded that everyone who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. Yes, if they did so then they would die. But Aaron and the priests and Levites could come near to the tabernacle and live. Thus again we have all of these laws concerning the duties of priests and Levites and tithing to support them.
The laws of purification also were added because of Israel’s transgression. The first of the laws of purification told the people to bring a red heifer without defect or blemish that never carried a yoke to be sacrificed and to make ashes for what we might call an instant purification offering. Duguid’s commentary compares it to instant tea or instant soup—just add water. But again, it was a sin offering for transgression like their transgression in Numbers 16. Furthermore, remember that a plague just killed 14,700 people in their presence. Thus we have purification laws like, “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. He shall cleanse himself with water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean.” (It isn’t an accident that the first cleansing is on the third day.) The law continues by noting that anyone who fails to do this defiles the tabernacle and they shall be cut off from Israel. There are purification laws about those who touch a human bone or grave being unclean for seven days. I would imagine that few people could have escaped becoming ritually unclean in the aftermath of that plague. There were 14,700 people to bury.
These laws also came in to increase the trespass and bring God’s wrath. When a rebellious people hear that they will be put to death if they come too close, then some will do just that and be put to death. Laws about the tithing that would support the Levites may lead rebellious people in other tribes to envy them and thus to rebellion that would bring God’s wrath. Purification laws that say you have to wash with water on the third and seventh day or you will be unclean and defile the tabernacle and thus be cut off from Israel may lead others to do just that. The people were right that it was dangerous to be near the tabernacle. If they weren’t clean, then they defiled the tabernacle and brought God’s wrath upon them. (So, yes, the people said, “we perish,” and God responded with the law that brings God’s wrath.)
However, when Paul said, “The law came in to increase the trespass,” he also noted, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20).
When the people ask, “Are we all to perish?” it shows that they didn’t really understand God’s ministry of grace. Yes, the people finally were afraid to speak against Moses and Aaron. So that’s good. But the only thing they see is God’s wrath. They still believe that there is no future for their people. They believe everyone will die because the Lord is in their midst. Thus these laws show just how abounding God’s grace is. The goal of the ministry of the priests and Levites was that the people should not die. The Levites protected the sanctity of the holy things from unclean people. But these laws actually go one step further. If they failed to protect the holy things, then they and the one who went where they weren’t supposed to go would die. It says, “lest they, and you, die” (Num 18:3). They would die instead of the entire nation. So the Levites now are taking on the danger of death for sin on behalf of the rest of the people. (This should sound familiar—the death of Christ.) The regulations showing how the people would support the priests and the Levites shows that the people have a future. Moreover, the regulations showing that the people would support the Levites through firstfruits and tithes shows that the people have a future in the Promised Land. Incidentally, Duguid points out that the people were to give ten percent of their produce in the land to support a tribe that was only about four percent of the total population. Thus if the people faithfully tithed, then the Levites would have more than enough for their needs. This tithing was like paying taxes for their king. In the ANE, kings would collect ten percent of the produce of the land in their kingdom and they often gave that food to their officials and temples. The Levites were servants of the king of Israel—the Lord Himself—and thus the ten percent collected from tithing went to support the servants of the Lord. The people would want to give these tithes because the Lord gave them the land and because the land was so good they would have so much food to share. The law of the instant purification offering says that it is a perpetual statute for the people of Israel and for the stranger sojourning among them (Num 19:10). This again shows God’s grace that the next generation will enter the Promised Land. (And this is the point, the law was bringing God’s wrath upon the older disobedient generation—but the law also was a reminder of God’s ministry of grace. The law was a call to repent and believe. And the law encouraged the younger generation to imagine their future in the land. They weren’t all undone. They weren’t all to perish. The next generation would enter the land by faith.)
The law still today serves to give us knowledge of sin, arouse our sinful passions, and put to death our old self, but we too need to understand God’s ministry of grace. Far too often today, American churches go in a casual direction that fails to take God seriously and to worship Him as the Holy One of Israel. Instead, hearing the law and the gospel creates a healthy fear of the Lord. A healthy fear of the Lord is standing in awe of Him not only because of His judgment but also because of His mercy. The people of Israel were right to finally express fear of the Lord for the same reasons that Miriam and Aaron should have been afraid to speak against Moses. But the ministry of the priests and the Levites was a ministry not just of death but of life. The people of Israel missed God’s gracious sign of new life with the budding and blossoming and fruitful staff of Aaron. It was a staff that last Sunday we saw points forward to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus we have an even greater reason for a healthy fear of the Lord. The priests and Levites exercised a ministry of exclusion—standing guard between the people and the tabernacle. Today pastors and elders in the church of Jesus Christ exercise the ministry of exclusion and inclusion by using the keys of the kingdom. As an ordained servant of God, I use the keys every time that I pronounce the forgiveness of sins in worship. But I can only do that for people who are present in some kind of worship setting like this today. Ruling elders also use the keys when they add new members or remove people from the rolls. This is part of God’s ministry of both law and gospel. One reason for removing someone from the rolls is that they have been inactive for a long time. Thus when they hear that they might be taken off the roles it acts like God’s law. The response of some people to that bad news is a hardened heart and they get upset. For them, the law gave them knowledge of their sin, aroused their sinful passions, and brought God’s wrath, but they fail to see that it is meant to lead them to repentance and to receive God’s grace. But for others it will put to death the old self and serve to awaken them to the good news of God’s grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks what every sin deserves. The answer is, “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse both in this life, and that which is to come” (84). Then it asks, “What does God require of us, that we may escape His wrath and curse due to us for sin?” The answer: “Faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption” (85). By being here today you can make use of several outward means whereby Christ communicates these benefits to you. The outward and ordinary means that Christ uses to do this, the catechism says are “His ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer” (88). The law even puts to death our old selves that want to store up wealth for ourselves and make our present wilderness wandering more comfortable. And then we want to give above and beyond some kind of tithe because we understand God’s ministry of grace and have faith in God for the future of His people. We have even more reason to give than Israel did. One really important difference between those days and today, however, is that back then only the Levites and the priests could get very close to God’s presence, but today because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit on Pentecost, we all can sit in His very presence this morning. Thus again and again and as we grow in our understanding of God’s ministry of grace we have even more reason to say, “Hallelujah. Amen.”