February 7, 2007
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Numbers 5; and if you don't, there should be a sheet somewhere near you on one of the tables that has a copy of the whole of the chapter of
Numbers 5. I want to say ahead of time that though I began today expecting to preach on this whole chapter, I'm only going to preach on the first ten verses, because the final verses of this chapter have so many complicating and perplexing concepts in them that they deserve to be treated in a full sermon on their own, lest I leave you with more questions than you came here asking. And so we’ll come back the next time and we’ll look at that whole section as a part unto itself. I am going to read into the eleventh verse because I want you to hear three phrases in this chapter.
If you want to outline this chapter, it's pretty easy. You go verses 1-4, verses 5-10, and then verse 11 to the end of the chapter. The way you know that is because of this repeated phrase that you’re going to see three times, in verses 1, 5, and 11: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying….” Moses didn't have chapters and he didn't have verses when he wrote down the Scripture for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The people of God knew how to outline this passage because he had phrases that he repeated in order to distinctly break up the material and explain to us something of the logic of the passage.
Notice verses 1-4 deal with physical impurities that cause the people of God to have to be removed from the camp and the near proximity to that physical, visible symbol of the presence of God with His people, the tabernacle. They had to be removed from the camp because of these physical impurities. Then verses 5-10 deal with moral offenses. And then finally, in verses 11-31, interestingly even domestic tensions are a concern with regard to dwelling in the presence of God. Now, that we’ll come back to next time we're together in this book, God willing.
But tonight we’ll look especially at verses 1-10. We’ll read into the eleventh verse just so you can see those three phrases together, but we're going to concentrate on these physical impurities that require exclusion of even members of the covenant community from the camp, the presence of God; and, the moral offenses that also constitute defilement in the people of God. And we're going to see not only lessons for Israel, but lessons for us.
In this book so far we have seen God faithful in His answer to prayer, taking a group of people that went down into Egypt numbering only seventy and bringing them out with 603,000-plus fighting men. We have seen Him number them; we have seen Him arrange them; we have seen Him count the priests; and He has taught us great spiritual lessons in all of these things. Now He is going to teach us about sin, and what a lesson it is.
Let's pray before we read God's word.
O Lord, thank You for this book. Thank You for its practicality. Thank You for its inspiration – that these words are God-breathed and they are given to us for our teaching, instruction, reproof, correction, training in righteousness. We thank You that these words are profitable, that they are sufficient to equip us for every good work. And we thank You, O God, that these words teach us about You and they teach us about Your Son. And so, O God, exalt Yourself and Your Son in our hearts tonight, even in the reading of Your word. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.’ And the sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp; just as the Lord had spoken to Moses, thus the sons of Israel did.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong, and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. So every man's holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.’’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying….”
Thus far, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
A strange passage. A passage about physical impurities. It seems a little harsh at first, doesn't it? You have a physical impurity, you’re excluded from the camp. You’re part of God's chosen people. You’re part of God's covenant people. You’re a true blue-blood Israelite, and yet you are sent out of the camp. Sounds harsh, doesn't it? What's the message? There is a message in this passage, and it's a message about defilement and how it excludes us from the enjoyment of communion with God and with His people. And even in these ceremonial defilements that are spoken about in verses 1-4, there are great theological and Christological messages for us; that is, there are things for us to learn not only about the practical purposes of these commandments on defilement, but there are things to learn about who God is and what He is like, and who Jesus Christ is and what He has done in these instructions about defilement because of physical infirmities and exclusion from the camp.
But it doesn't stop there, does it? It goes on to address in verses 5-10 moral offenses, and there we learn that unlike so often our stereotype, the Old Testament is not merely concerned with the external. The Old Testament is not merely concerned with the ceremonial and the ritual. No, God is concerned with our hearts, He's concerned with our lives, He's concerned with our behavior, and moral offenses are just as defiling as these ritual offenses, as these defilements that are occasioned because of ceremonial impurity brought on by physical infirmities. So, God cares about our character. He cares about our lives, our actions, our deeds, our words; and we’ll learn that in verses 5-10, and then we’ll come to these domestic tensions next week and give some focused attention on this strange and perhaps perplexing adultery test that is recorded in verses 11-31. I warn you ahead of time, the reading is definitely PG-13!
I. Physical impurities.
Well, what are we to learn from verses 1-4? Physical impurities are listed there, things that defiled an Israelite, things that required an Israelite to be removed from the camp. And you’ll notice three things in particular that are listed. This is not the first time that we've heard of this. We've heard of it some in Exodus and some in Leviticus, and we’ll hear of it again in the Book of Deuteronomy. But here we see three categories of physical impurity that render a person ceremonially or ritually defiled, and require that they be removed from the camp (at least for a period of time) until their period of impurity has passed. Then they are tested by the priest (we find out elsewhere in the Pentateuch) and they are allowed back into the fellowship of the community. What are we to learn from this?
Well, let me suggest three things that we're to learn from this. There's a practical significance, of course, to these actions. The kinds of diseases that could have easily been spread in the heat of the wilderness because of contact with people with leprosy, people with hemorrhages or discharges, or even from a dead body, could have ravaged the people of God. There's an obvious kind physical provision of God for the well-being of His people simply in their day to day lives by removing those who could spread contagion within the camp. The diseases could have run like wildfire, unchecked, without any of the benefits we have today from the powers of these new generations of antibiotics and all the glorious treatments of medicine. No, quarantine was the best way to make sure that devastating outbreak of disease which could have killed thousands upon thousands as it spread…it may look harsh, it may look hard, but it is actually a very kind provision of God for the well being for the totality of His people.
There's a practical significance. People who had come into contact with leprosy, or someone with a discharge or uncleanness were a physical danger to the camp. This is God pastorally and paternally looking out for the physical well being of His people.
But there's much, much more to it than that, isn't there? There's a great theological significance to this. The people of God are meant to learn something about God. In fact, I'm going to suggest to you that they’re meant to learn three things about God. They’re meant to learn that God is holy; they’re meant to learn that God is present; and, they’re meant to learn that God has spoken. God is holy, God is present, God has spoken.
They’re meant to learn that God is holy. The whole point here, isn't it, is that God is in the camp and therefore the defiled cannot be there. Look at verse 3:
“You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.”
“I am holy”…and God does not dwell with that which is defiled. What a powerful way of driving home the truth of the holiness of God! When you are in a state of defilement, even physical impurity constituting defilement, you may not dwell in that place where God manifests His special presence. And so you learn that God is holy, and that the defiled cannot dwell with Him.
We’re reminded of that again, by the way, at the end of the Book of Revelation. John goes out of his way to say — what? — who will not be in heaven. Liars. Adulterers. Thieves. Those who are defiled will not dwell with God in heaven, because He is holy.
Secondly, though, we learn that God is present. This is the flip side of God's dwelling in the midst of the camp. It is a blessing that God is present, but His presence requires purity on the part of those with whom He dwells. It's frankly a pain to have to live in the camp with God, because you have to take extra care because God is in the house. And they learn that along with the blessing of His presence, there are very important obligations and responsibilities that have to be fulfilled. It requires purity on the part of those with whom He dwells because He is present.
But we also learn here that God has spoken. His command rules the community. He has said this is how it's going to be, and Moses goes out of his way to remind you of this: that everything He had spoken to Israel, the sons of Israel did. Look at verse 4:
“The sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp.”
Now, friends, understand that the people that they’re sending out of the camp are their own mothers and fathers, their own sisters and brothers, their own sons and daughters, their own husbands and wives. But God said so. And Israel did. God's people live by the book.
Do you live by the book? Even when the book asks you to do something that cuts against your grain? That goes against your desires? That you question in your mind? The people of God lived by the book, because God has spoken.
Now we learn lots of things about God, don't we? He's holy, He's present, He has spoken. But, my friends, the most glorious thing of all that we learn about in verses 1-4 is about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Let me just remind you that Luke read the Book of Numbers. Good ole Dr. Luke, friend of the Apostle Paul, companion on missionary journeys, author of The Gospel of Luke, read the Book of Numbers, and he goes out of his way to tell you something extraordinary. You see, in Luke 5:12-13, Luke is telling you that Jesus is going through various cities. And of course He is being accompanied by faithful Bible-believing Jewish people, people who had been trained under rabbis who were very much influenced by the movement of Phariseeism…and when you hear that word Phariseeism, don't bow your back up quick, because if we had been living then we would be in a Pharisee synagogue, not at the liberal Sadducees’ temple services! You see, the Pharisees were the Bible-believers in those days. The Sadducees were the liberals. They believed the Scripture, and they believed that one reason that Israel was in captivity to these pagan Romans was that ‘we have not obeyed the Law.’ And so they were absolutely committed to making sure that the people of God obeyed the Law. And suddenly in Luke 5:12 they see — what? A leper approaching Jesus. And every blue-blooded Jewish boy there is saying, “Jesus! Get away from him! You will be defiled!” What does Jesus do? He stretches His hand out and He touches the leper. But something strange happens. Jesus doesn't become unclean because He touched the leper, as in Numbers 5; the leper becomes clean because Jesus has touched him.
And then you turn forward to Luke 8, and a godly man has come to Jesus and he said, ‘My twelve-year-old daughter is dying, Master. She needs Your help. You’re the only one who can help her. Would You come, Lord, and help my daughter?’ ‘Yes, I will.’ And on the way, as He's passing through the crowd, Luke tells us a woman who had had a hemorrhage for years reaches out her hand and she touches the hem of His garment, and something really strange happens. He doesn't become unclean; she becomes clean. She's healed. Instantaneously! Just like the leper!
And He goes on to the house, and by the time He gets to the house the child is dead. And what does He do? He goes into the house, Luke tells us, and He touches the child. And He does not become unclean, she is raised from the dead. You see what Luke is telling you: all three of these categories of defilement — the leper; the one with the hemorrhage, the issue, the discharge; and the one who is dead — those who once defiled the camp of Israel and thus were excluded are now made clean and healed by Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. He's the answer to our defilement.
You see, all Luke is doing is expounding the Book of Numbers for you in light of the powerful work of Jesus Christ, and he would never have been able to appreciate the profundity of what Jesus had done, had not God in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit written the Book of Numbers by the hand of Moses. You see this powerful testimony to the work of Jesus Christ right there in Numbers 5:1-4.
II. Moral offenses.
But then come verses 5-10, and these are harder verses on us, because these verses speak to the various kinds of moral offenses that we commit. Notice how generally it's put in verse 6:
“Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty….”
All kinds of sins are included under this. All manner of breaking [especially of the second table] of the Law, especially sins against our brothers and sisters are included here. And you notice how sin is defined, and how its effects are described in this passage:
“When a man or a woman commits any of the sins of mankind…”
It's assumed that these sins are primarily sins committed against your neighbor, and so the effect of your sin is that you have violated the fundamental principle of the law of love for your neighbor. Instead of loving your neighbor, you have used your neighbor out of self-love, and thus sin entails a horizontal dimension. It entails a fracturing of your relationship with your neighbor.
But then notice how it puts it: “…acting unfaithfully against the Lord.” Does that remind you of anything? David masterminds the murder of Uriah; he fornicates and then commits adultery, and then takes illegitimately into marriage Bathsheba; he lies to the best of his household; he puts his general and his army in a situation of aiding and abetting his immorality; and what does he say in Psalm 51? “Against You and You only have I sinned….” Because even my sins against you and even your sins against one another are unfaithfulness to the Lord. They have a vertical dimension. There is no sin without a vertical dimension.
And then there is a personal dimension, because what is the end result? What is the last phrase? “That person is guilty.” Not just by declaration of a court of law, but intrinsically according to his heart. And so there's a horizontal and a vertical and a personal dimension of sin, and we learn that from this passage.
We also learn how we're supposed to respond to this, because one of the things that God makes so clear in this passage is that there is a need for repentance here that goes way beyond simply saying ‘I'm sorry.’ I don't know how it is when you’re teaching your children to repent, but I know a couple of children who have a tendency, when confronted especially with their sins towards one another, to say with great pathos, and meaning welling up in their eyes to one another, “I'm sorry!” and turn away. And we have to turn them back around and say, “I'm sorry for what? And would you forgive me?” And so on….
But you know, we adults in our dealings with one another are sometimes no different from our children (except that maybe we're a little more hard-hearted), and our reaction very often when we have been caught red-handed is “I'm sorry!”
And in this passage, you see, God is saying, that's not how repentance works in My household. You’re My children, and here's how repentance works: (1) You’re going to recognize your sin. You’re going to admit that it was unloving to your neighbor, it was unfaithful to Me, and it brought personal guilt upon you. You’re going to recognize your sin. (This is what my brothers and I referred to as “the eat-it principle.” When we were caught in red-handed sin by our mother, she recounted to us, no matter how fully and sincerely we had expressed to her our deep regret and remorse for the action which we had just done, she recounted to us in greater detail the depth of the wickedness that we had committed so that our only choice was simply to eat her words. And we were thinking all along, ‘Mom, I just said to you I'm sorry for doing this; you are recounting it in triplicate to me what I've done.’ What was she doing? She was impressing upon us our recognition of our sin, because sin loves to repent generally as opposed to specifically, so that we can skirt the full effect of the damage that it has wreaked. And so she made sure that there was no generality left in the particular sin that had been committed, because it begins with recognizing your sin — verse 6.)
Then, secondly, he says confess the sin. Not just “I'm sorry.” But “This is what I've done against You, and it's wrong. It's horrible. It's inexcusable.”
I've told you the story before of a friend of mine who was the chief ethical policy advisor to the President of the United States, our current President George Bush. And a year or so ago he resigned from that position, and a few weeks later it was discovered why he had resigned from that position: because he had been going to Target stores and stealing. He was a Christian, however – a godly man in so many ways. And he went through a period of specific dealings with his pastors and elders in repentance. And one day he stood before the Judge, and, much to his lawyers’ chagrin, confessed in detail without plea for mitigation everything that he had done, and then simply said to the Judge that he cast himself upon the mercy of the court. And the Judge was flabbergasted. He said, “You know, in some thirty years on the bench, I have never heard someone confess to a crime like this.” Well, he did, because he was a Christian, and it was important for him to confess his sin. There's more to that story. I’ll tell it to you some other time.
But then it doesn't stop there, does it? It goes on to restitution, and notice how this restitution works. If the person whom you have defrauded is not alive, restitution still must be made to a family member. If a family member can't be found, that restitution goes to the house of the Lord to further the services of the priests of God. And what do priests do? They make atonement. That's their business. They make atonement.
And then of course that's the last step of it, isn't it, an atonement offering? Atonement must be made by the priest for the guilty party. You see the fullness of this repentance? There's recognition of sin, confession of sin, restitution for sin, atonement for sin. No easy forgiveness here, you understand. This repentance recognizes that dealing with sin is hard — very hard.
And of course the last lesson in this is simply this: moral offenses defile the camp of God just as surely as do physical impurities; indeed, more so, because God has called us to be holy as He is holy. But this, too, points us to Christ, doesn't it? Because in the end none of those sacrifices — none of those sacrifices — can touch the depth of the sin in my heart. And that's why when we're redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we love to proclaim it.
O God, forgive us for thinking that this book is anything less than manna from heaven for hungry hearts, and make us to believe it and feast on it and live it by Your grace alone, for Your glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let's sing The Doxology.