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The text from today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church is below.  I’ve structured it so that it is almost two sermons put together as one: the first dealing with the case study on transgression of the law of God and the second dealing with the case study on unfaithfulness.  It is worth noticing that the first text provides for the priests.  It is also worth noticing that the case study on unfaithfulness is also designed to protect the innocent woman from her jealous husband.  Many of the laws of Israel were designed to protect innocent women–especially marriage and divorce laws.  However, the Bible is not a law code.  Scripture does not tell us all of the laws of the nation of Israel.  So we always need to ask the question of the laws we find in the Bible: Why were these particular laws chosen for the Bible?  The sermon audio is available at this link here.  If you want to see more of the big picture of Numbers 1-10, check out this post here.  Even better, check out especially the last several introductions to the previous sermons from Numbers.

In the larger context of the book we have said that Numbers is telling the story of a new creation. Numbers 1-2 is the new creation prologue of the book and Numbers 3-4 retell this new creation focusing in on the role of the Levites. However, this new creation did not include new hearts. Thus Numbers 5 is three case studies showing how the ways their hearts were not new. We looked at the first case study last Sunday. That case study showed us that their hearts were still defiled. The theme of defilement included situations like skin diseases where the living person’s flesh was dying, natural discharges from men and women, and coming into contact with dead bodies. Defilement took place because they came into contact with the realm of death in one way or another. Often you had no choice whether you came into contact with the realm of death or not. It is not as if people chose to have skin diseases or as if women chose to have their period. The continuing presence of death and therefore of defilement was one way that things had not changed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only thing that stayed the same. The people also continued to transgress the law of God and to be unfaithful to YHWH God. Today we will look at the next two case studies, each one in turn, that show how their hearts were still wicked and thinking evil continually. The first of these two case studies deals with sin as transgression.

Numbers 5:5-10 (ESV)

  1. The people of God have to deal not only with being defiled but also with sin as transgression.

    1. This case study showed ancient Israel how to deal with sin when it was a transgression of God’s law. The first step in dealing with sin was confession of it. It wasn’t enough that the person’s conscience has convicted them of it—they have to admit it. But these words had to be backed up with the actions of repentance. They had to make it right. Often such sin was directed against another person. Hence the passage explains how restitution would be made to the person who was wronged. The person who had sinned against another person would have to repay them in full and add an extra 1/5th or 20%. These instructions even explain how to deal with sin against other people when they are no longer living. In these cases, you would pay restitution to their closest living relative or if they had no next of kin you would pay the restitution to YHWH for the priest. The parallel with Leviticus 6 suggests that the kinds of offenses in view would have been theft by deception or by misrepresentation. However, in Numbers the offense is deliberately left vague because this can be applied to many different situations. Thus the people now know how to deal with sin when their conscience convicts them of it on a horizontal level—for these transgressions are sins by one person against another person. But ultimately sin is primarily against God Himself. Thus they also needed to know how to deal with sin when their conscience convicts them of it on a vertical level. These transgressions were foremost an offense against God. So, in addition to making restitution to other people, the ancient Hebrews would offer to God a ram of atonement. It was an act of faith that there would be a substitute who would die in their place. In any case, the fact that they continued to need to confess their sins, pay restitution for their sins, and atone for their sins supports the point that their hearts were not new. (Not only were they defiled, but they also continued to transgress God’s law. Not only were they sinners at heart, but they also continued to commit sins.)

    2. Anyone who is in Christ, however, has a new heart and is able to do good. To be sure, our old-age-self continues to be unclean and to sin and continues to need to be put to death. As the apostle John puts it, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). We both have sin and we have sinned. We both are unclean and commit transgressions. And like the ancient Hebrews, we are to confess our sins and make restitution to those people we have wronged. But what saves us is not our confession or restitution – what saves us is the atoning blood of the lamb Jesus Christ. We do not offer up a ram of atonement for Jesus has died for our atonement. Thus we are able to do good and we are able to do evil and the transgressions we commit God is just to forgive because Jesus died for us. And one day soon, when Jesus comes, we will no longer be able to transgress God’s law for we will be unable to sin. Until then, we exist in this awkward situation of having a heart that is new but finding our body doing what we don’t want to do and when it does we confess our sins, make restitution whenever that applies to the situation, and we give thanks for Christ’s atoning blood. Thus the way that we deal with sin during our wilderness journey isn’t that different than the ancient Hebrew did—except for the offering of a ram of atonement because Jesus was offered once for all who believe in Him. But the other big change is that the ancient Hebrew did not have a new heart and therefore transgressed God’s law continually while we have new hearts and are able to do good. (We said earlier, the fact that they continued to need to confess their sins, pay restitution for their sins, and atone for their sins supports the point that their hearts were not new. But I think the fact that we continue to need to confess our sins and pay restitution for our sins means that it isn’t enough to prove it. So lets turn to the third case study in Numbers 5. In this one we sin not as defilement or as transgression but as unfaithfulness to God.)

Numbers 5:11-31 (ESV)

  1. In addition to having to deal with sin as defilement and transgression, the people of God also need an answer to sin as unfaithfulness.
    1. This is by far the longest and most bizarre case study of the chapter, but in it the people were to leave judgment of the wife’s faithfulness in the hands of God. It wasn’t a magic test. God had to bring the curse of bitterness, which is barrenness, upon the woman who had been unfaithful to her husband. There was not anything about the water or the dust or the ink that would harm her if she was an adulteress. He had to bring the curse down on her. God who knows hearts and sees what people hide from other people was to be the judge. Calling it a cup of bitter water is to remind the reader of the bitter water at Marah in Exodus 15:23. Moses put a piece of wood into the bitter water at Marah and it became sweet. That episode also was a test—if they obeyed God then they would not experience the curses that befell the Egyptians but experience God’s healing. One of the standard curses for covenant unfaithfulness was barrenness and a miscarrying womb (Exodus 23:26). Thus the reason for the presence of this case study in Numbers 5 is that it is a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. Israel was the bride of God. Thus the focus on the woman here. In Numbers 5:6, transgression is breaking faith with YHWH. And in Numbers 5:12, a wife’s adultery is described as breaking faith with her husband. And we can argue from the lesser to the greater – if God would curse the woman who had been adulterous with barrenness and a miscarrying womb even though there was no compelling human testimony that she had done it but only the Lord knew about it, then how much more would God curse Israel who would become famous for her spiritual unfaithfulness to God? There would be no lack of evidence of Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness to God. And then would Israel feel the curse to the extent of utter barrenness? As it so happened, she would drink the bitter cup of exile but it was not the end of the story of Israel for as Duguid words it, “He went after his unfaithful wife and wooed her back.”

    2. Indeed, Jesus would drink the bitter cup of death and save His bride the church so that the bitter cup of suffering and death that He drank is made sweet for us by a wooden cross. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper it is His blood that we drink. But what was bitter for Him has been transformed into something sweet for us like that water was made sweet by throwing a piece of wood into it. So yet again, it is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross of wood that deals with our spiritual unfaithfulness to God. He deals with our defilement – having cleansed our hearts so that we are not unclean but are holy and regularly cleansing us of all unrighteousness. He deals with our transgressions – for He has atoned for our sins of breaking God’s law. And He even deals with our spiritual unfaithfulness to God so that we will not be spiritually barren and have to drink the bitter cup of our own blood. Jesus bore the curse for our spiritual unfaithfulness and yet His church has given birth to many. In other words, He took upon Himself the curse for our spiritual unfaithfulness so that we would not experience the curse of barrenness but instead the blessing of seeing many born again with new hearts. Israel’s inability to love God with all of her heart, soul, mind and strength shows us that she did not have a new heart. But we have those new hearts – we are able to be faithful to God alone. And thanks be to God, any spiritual indiscretions we might have done along the way to the Promised Land can never separate us from God in Christ Jesus. For God sees the heart, and Jesus has given us new ones. Hallelujah. Amen.

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