August 15, 2007
“The Laws of the Land”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 15, as we continue to work our way through this great book of Moses and the story of Israel in the wilderness. We’ve noted for the last several weeks that Numbers 11-14 pictures Israel grumbling and complaining and murmuring and rebelling. And in fact, the last time we were together, in Numbers 14, we saw a cycle of rebellion and intercession and pardon, followed by further rebellion.
In the book of Judges you have the pattern of sin and then the consequences of sin, and then repentance, and then restoration, and then the cycle goes over again. But they don’t even get that far in Numbers 14. It goes from sin to judgment, to intercession, to more sin, to more rebellion in Numbers 14. And so when we get to Numbers 15, we come to an entirely dissimilar kind of literature and content. One minute you’re in Numbers 13 in a spy story, and then in Numbers 14 you’re in this story of judgment because of the unbelief of the children of Israel at God’s promises about their going into the Promised Land, and then suddenly in Numbers 15 you’re in laws about offerings. So what’s up with that? That question ought to be on your mind when you come to Numbers 15.
Many of you are fans of Britain’s infamous comedy act, Monty Python, and you will remember the famous line that they would employ between totally unrelated and disjointed skits, and usually John Cleese would say it. He’d say, “And now for something completely different….” I’m very tempted to introduce Numbers 15 that way. It almost seems jarringly disjointed from Numbers 11-14, but of course God always has a purpose with what He puts where in His word, and there is a tremendous message for us in the placement of this passage at this point. Right when Israel is at the apex of their failure and unbelief and sin on the verge of going into the land (and are getting ready to be sent back into the wilderness for forty years because of their sin), suddenly God repeats these laws. And if you’ll notice, all these laws are about the land — about what they’re supposed to do when they’re in the land, even though for the next forty years they’re not going to be in the land. Even though they have just sinned a sin that is going to keep them out of the land for forty years, God is giving them right at this point laws that they are to keep in the land.
Now this passage gives us four huge messages for today. Let me just give you four words to help you keep this in mind. One is the message of grace. You’re going to see that in the first couple of verses. Two is there is a very important message in the passage about worship. Three, there’s a very important message in this passage about atonement; and, four, there’s an important message about obedience. So grace, worship, atonement, and obedience. Let’s read God’s word together, and before we do, let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. As we read it, we pray that you would open our eyes by Your Spirit to behold the wonders of Your truth and instruction and Law, that we would believe and not grumble and murmur and rebel. For we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you offer to the Lord from the herd or from the flock a food offering or a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering, or at your appointed feasts, to make a pleasing aroma to the Lord, then he who brings his offering shall offer to the Lord a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil; and you shall offer with the burnt offering, or for the sacrifice, a quarter of a hin of wine for the drink offering for each lamb. Or for a ram, you shall offer for a grain offering two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with a third of a hin of oil. And for the drink offering you shall offer a third of a hin of wine, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And when you offer a bull as a burnt offering or sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or for peace offerings to the Lord, then one shall offer with the bull a grain offering of three tenths of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with half a hin of oil. And you shall offer for the drink offering half a hin of wine, as a food offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
“Thus it shall be done for each bull or ram, or for each lamb or young goat. As many as you offer, so shall you do with each one, as many as there are. Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.’
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land to which I bring you and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the Lord. Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord as a contribution throughout your generations.
“‘But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.
“‘If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken His commandment, that person shall be utterly but off; his iniquity shall be on him.’
“While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandment of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.’”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There’s a method to Moses’ madness in the placement of this passage tonight. One might have expected the consequences of Israel’s infidelity displayed in Numbers 11, Numbers 12, Numbers 14, to lead to utter oblivion, to lead to their utter exclusion from the land of promise. But God is sending a huge message through Moses’ ordering of this passage. God is saying through Moses, by giving laws about what the children of Israel are to do when they get to the land that He has promised them, even though it will be forty years hence, He is sending them the message, ‘I haven’t wavered in My purposes at all. Steady as she goes. Here’s what you’re going to do when you get into the promised land, even though you yourselves doubted whether I would ever bring you to the promised land, let Me let you know as you wander for the next forty years that I’ve already got it planned out what you’re going to do when you get there; and here is what it is, set forth in these laws about offerings and about obedience.’
Well, Moses wants us to appreciate four things in this passage. Actually, there are more things in this passage than we could possibly scrape the surface of tonight, so we’re just going to focus on four of them. One, God’s unwavering grace; two, the comprehensiveness of our worship; three, the cost of forgiveness; and, four, the demand of obedience. Grace, worship, atonement, obedience.
Moses is teaching us in this passage that the believer’s life — if I could say this in a little bit of a flowery, poetic way — the believer’s life is to be lived under the sky of grace. That is, grace is to be a dominating thing under which the believer lives with a constant inescapable awareness. The believer’s life is to be lived under the sky of grace. Moses shows us God’s grace in the very first words of this passage. Moses has just seen God’s judgment on a generation, the majority of which (and all of the adult leadership except two young men, Joshua and Caleb) have utterly rejected the word of God and the promise of God. God justly announced to Moses His plans to wipe the whole generation of them out and to make Moses a new nation in their place. And in the very first words of this passage in Numbers 15, Moses shows that God’s favor to His people and His fidelity to His plans and purposes and promises is utterly undeserved.
In the wake of this catastrophic rebellion upon the part of the people of God that has been described in Numbers 13 and 14, we read the first two verses of Numbers 15: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people….’” Is that not beautiful, right there? Here is the Lord turning right back around to this rebellious people, and He is blessing them by doing what? Speaking to them. Speaking to His people. And what does He speak to them? “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you….”
It’s kind of amazing, isn’t it? Cataclysm on every side; four chapters of turmoil, grumbling, murmuring, rebellion, unbelief–utter turmoil on every side to the point that Moses is ready to die in Numbers 12. He and Aaron are falling on their faces in Number 14. It is catastrophe all the way around, but as far as God is concerned nothing has changed in His plans. Steady as she goes. It’s almost like the Lord, after this mass rebellion, says, ‘OK, we’ve taken care of that. Now where were we? Oh, yes. Now, when you get into the land….’ You know, you’re expecting this passage to go behind Numbers 7 where God’s giving laws, or maybe later on in the book of Numbers. But here right in the middle of this scene of rebellion, God is saying, ‘Now where were we? Oh, yes. Now when you get into the land, do this.’
What’s the point? The giving of the laws here reasserts emphatically that the Lord is going to bring His people into Canaan. He is not wavering in His purposes. And is that not a picture of God’s persevering grace, His unwavering grace? The fact that every breath we take, every moment that we live, we live under God’s unwavering grace.
Almost all the young preachers in here will love the story (and it happened at least twice in Calvin’s career in Geneva) when he suffered severe interruptions in his life and ministry. In 1538, on Easter Sunday, he was booted out of the city of Geneva. And three years later, in September of 1541, he came back to Geneva, and he climbed up in the pulpit. And do you know what he said? The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Now, when we were last together in this book, we were in such-and-such a verse…’ and he started on the next verse and he started preaching. Many years later, in 1558, he was preaching through Isaiah and he got very seriously ill. He was out of the pulpit for a year. And when he got back into the pulpit, his first words were, ‘When we were last together we were in this particular verse’ and he picked up the very next verse and he started to go. Catastrophic events going on in his life, but he’s unwavering in persevering, preaching through those books.
It’s the same thing with God. Things are going crazy in Israel, but His purposes have not changed: ‘Now where were we? Oh, yes. Now when you get into the land, these are the laws that you are going to obey.’ It is a picture of God’s persevering grace. We’re to live in light of God’s grace.
There’s a second thing we learn here, though, and it’s something that we learn about worship. The believer is to give the best of everything to God in worship.
There’s a lot of debate amongst commentators about the specific meaning of the foods that are mentioned here accompanying the various offerings, and we could get into some fascinating discussions about the different things that are ordered here in comparison to things that are ordered elsewhere. But the long and the short of it is if you look at the things which are to accompany the various offerings, they represent a variety of the foods of the land which the Lord is giving to the children of Israel. They represent things that would be a banquet or a feast, and they represent the very finest of those things. So the idea is that as we come in to the worship of God, we are bringing the best of all the many things that God has given to us in worship, and giving them as a sacrifice to the Lord–acknowledging that He gave them in the first place, that He’s been very generous in His giving, and that He owns everything that we have. He deserves everything that we have, and so these very generous gifts of sacrifice that are given back to Him are a picture of the way we are to give the best of everything to God in worship. The kinds of offerings that are to be given indicate the importance of worshiping God from the best of all of life, and in the best of all of life.
Now how do we, as believers in the new covenant who do not worship through the physical giving of sacrifices, give this kind of way to the Lord–sacrificially from all of life? Well, the Apostle Paul answers that question for himself in Philippians 2:17. Take a peek at it sometime. The point is, however, over and over in the New Testament the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament is applied to the believer worshiping God in all of life, by giving all of himself or herself in the service of the Lord. If you took a peek at Philippians 2:17 later on, you would find out, for instance, that the Apostle Paul saw his sufferings for the sake of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to be an act of worship in which he “filled up that which was lacking” in Christ’s sacrifice. Now of course the Apostle Paul is not calling into question for a second the fullness or the sufficiency of the atoning death of Jesus Christ. What he is saying is this: What is left to be added to that sacrifice is not something which atones for us — because Christ has already atoned for us — but the way that we add to and join in, in gratitude, to the sacrificial worship of God is not bringing burnt offerings or food offerings, but it’s giving the whole of ourselves in all of our life to the worship of God.
How might that happen for you? Well, it might happen in being willing to let your children go to the mission field…and die on the mission field. It might be in being ready to sacrifice your career for fidelity to the Lord, if it comes to that. It might be being ready to die for Christ yourself. Or, it might just be giving your all in preparation to gather with the Lord’s people on Sunday. The whole point is that in worship we give all of ourselves, all of our best, to God in gratitude for what He has given to us. And the commands in this passage from verses 3-21 about these various offerings that are to be offered up as a pleasing aroma to the Lord remind us of that.
There’s a third thing I want you to see, and you see this especially in verses 22-31, as we learn something here about atonement. The believer sees the seriousness of sin in two ways in verses 22-31. The believer sees the seriousness of sin in atonement (the laws of atonement that are given there), and of course the believer sees the seriousness of sin in judgment, especially the illustration of judgment that will come in verses 32-36. All sin requires atonement. All sin requires covering, satisfaction, propitiation, the turning away of God’s deserved judgment. All sin requires this. In that atonement, that sin is dealt with either through representative substitutionary satisfaction in which God provides a substitute that bears the deserved judgment, or that sin is dealt with in personal punishment. Now both of those things are illustrated in this passage.
The first is illustrated in verses 22-31, where the laws of atonement are given. The second is graphically illustrated in verses 32-36, when a man receives himself the due penalty for his sin. But the point, of course, is that sin is never to be taken lightly, and that the costliness of forgiveness is to be rightly reckoned. And the believer sees the seriousness of sin, and the costliness of forgiveness both in light of atonement and judgment. That’s the third thing that we learn in this passage.
But there’s a fourth (and the last) thing that I want you to see as well, and you see it especially in verses 32-41. This passage teaches us about obedience.
The believer knows that God takes our holiness seriously, and two illustrations of that point are given in this section. The first illustration is given in verses 32-36, with the man who openly, blatantly breaks God’s Sabbath law in public view in Israel, and who is apprehended and taken to Moses and Aaron to await judgment. This illustrates the seriousness of sin and how seriously God takes our holiness. The man eventually receives the death sentence for his high-handed sin. You remember Moses speaking about the “high-handed sin” in the previous few verses? Well, this is an illustration of that kind of high-handed sin. Nobody in Israel could have said ‘You know, did God say anything about this in the Sabbath Day?’ No, everybody had heard what God had said to do and not do on the Sabbath Day, and this man just went blithely ahead and did whatever he wanted to do. And in the face of that high-handed sin, he received the sharp judgment of the death penalty. God will judge sin.
It reminds you of another passage, doesn’t it, in the book of Hebrews. Remember what the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 10:26-29?
“For if we go on sinning deliberately, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and the fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the spirit of grace?”
It’s virtually a New Testament commentary on this very passage. What happens to this man? He dies on the account of two witnesses for a high-handed sin. Though he had been given the privilege of being within the body of Israel and having the means of grace administered, and the words of God spoken to him, he flagrantly turned his back and repudiated the commandments of his God, and upon him fell a just judgment. And, my friends, that same judgment awaits every unbeliever…every unbeliever. No one can be neutral about Christ. You either love Him and embrace Him or you spurn Him and you reject Him, because indifference is rejection.
But of course there’s another picture in this passage as well, and you see it in verses 37-41. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? It’s a requirement that you wear tassels with blue in them on your garments. What’s going on there?
Well, as you know, in the ancient Near East, blue or purple was the color of kings and of priests. Even the tabernacle was decorated with blue or purple, and the high priest was required to wear blue and purple in his garment. And in requiring all of the people of God to wear these tassels with the line of blue in them, what are they being reminded? ‘You are a kingdom of priests. You’re like little tabernacles walking around.’ And what’s in the tabernacle, friends? The law, right in the heart of the tabernacle. And what’s in the tabernacle, friends? The Spirit of God, the presence of God. And they’re to live their lives how? In accordance with God’s word. And those tassels are to remind them, ‘We’re a kingdom of priests, and we are to live as if we are little tabernacles walking around, with the law in our hearts and the Spirit of God present in our hearts writing that law on the tablets of our hearts, so that we live out the word of God. Because God takes our holiness seriously.’ What does He say again, in the book of Hebrews?
“…Holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”
Oh, there’s so much more that we could learn in this passage tonight, but Moses has taught us about God’s unwavering grace and about the comprehensiveness of our worship, and the cost of forgiveness in atonement and in judgment, and about the demand of obedience. May God grant that we would believe on Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and live as a congregation of priests.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Grant that we would not be merely hearers of it, but doers of Your truth. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
[Congregation sings The Doxology.]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.