No Shortcuts to Holiness

14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: 15 how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. 16 And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” 18 But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” 19 And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. 21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

22 And they journeyed from Kadesh, and the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. 23 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, 24 “Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. 26 And strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there.” 27 Moses did as the Lord commanded. And they went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron had perished, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.  Numbers 20:14-29 ESV

The Israelites were nearing their final destination and as they approached the borders of Canaan, God was cleaning house. Chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam. But the end of the chapter records the death of her brother, Aaron, the high priest of Israel. He too was disciplined by God for his part in the affair at Meribah. God had accused both Aaron and Moses of treating Him disrespectfully before the people.

“Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:12 ESV

While Moses had been the one to strike the rock three times in anger, Aaron had done nothing to stop his brother from disobeying God’s command. God had clearly communicated His orders to both men.

“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT

But Moses and Aaron were fed up with the constant bickering and complaining of the people. Despite what God had ordered them to do, they were going to use this God-ordained miracle as an opportunity to teach the people a lesson.

Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:10-11 NLT

Moses, speaking on behalf of himself and his brother, tried to leave the impression that they were the ones who would meet the Israelite’s needs by providing water from the rock. In essence, they tried to rob God of glory. Then, by striking the rock rather than speaking to it, Moses violated the command of God. And God would hold both men accountable for their actions.

It was on the southern border of the land of Edom that God delivered the devastating news to Aaron and Moses.

“He will not enter the land I am giving the people of Israel, because the two of you rebelled against my instructions concerning the water at Meribah.” – Numbers 20:24 NLT

In a rather sobering ceremony atop Mount Hor, Moses took the priestly robes off of Aaron and gave them to Aaron’s son, Eleazar. It appears from the text that Aaron did not get to live out the rest of his life wandering in the wilderness, but died on top of the mountain while Moses and Eleazar looked on. They descended the mountain without him and the people of Israel mourned his death for 30 days.

Now Moses was alone. For nearly 40 years he had led the people of Israel with the help of his brother and sister, but their deaths had left him with the sole responsibility of getting the people of Israel to the land of Canaan. But Moses knew that he was never going to set foot in the land because of his role in the affair at Meribah. Like Aaron, he would be denied access to the land of promise and breathe his last breath in the wilderness.

But Moses continued to fulfill the duties God had given to him some four decades earlier. He mourned the loss of his brother but then set about leading the people of Israel to the border of Canaan. To do so, he had attempted to take a shortcut through the land of Edom.

Edom was located on the southernmost border of Canaan and was occupied by distant relatives of the Israelites. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob. When Esau had been cheated out of his birthright by Jacob, he decided to relocate his family to another part of Canaan.

Esau took his wives, his children, and his entire household, along with his livestock and cattle—all the wealth he had acquired in the land of Canaan—and moved away from his brother, Jacob. There was not enough land to support them both because of all the livestock and possessions they had acquired. So Esau (also known as Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir. – Genesis 36:6-8 NLT

Once there, Esau’s descendants prospered and developed a thriving kingdom. During the four centuries that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, the Edomites lived under a long line of kings (Genesis 36:31) and enjoyed a measure of peace and prosperity.

So, when Moses sent emissaries to the king of Edom seeking permission to pass through their territory, he expected a favorable response.

“This is what your relatives, the people of Israel, say: You know all the hardships we have been through. Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived there a long time, and we and our ancestors were brutally mistreated by the Egyptians. But when we cried out to the Lord, he heard us and sent an angel who brought us out of Egypt. Now we are camped at Kadesh, a town on the border of your land. Please let us travel through your land. We will be careful not to go through your fields and vineyards. We won’t even drink water from your wells. We will stay on the king’s road and never leave it until we have passed through your territory.”– Numbers 20:14-17 NLT

The kingdom of Edom covered a large swath of land and without the right of safe passage through its territory, Moses and the people of Israel would be forced to take a much longer route around it. But no matter how hard Moses pleaded, the king of Edom refused to grant access to their land. He even threatened them with war if they tried. He even “mobilized his army and marched out against them with an imposing force” (Numbers 20:20 NLT). 

Rejected by their own kin, the Israelites were forced to reverse course and take the long detour around Edom. What’s interesting to consider is that the Israelites had always been led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. God had used these two phenomena to guide His people throughout their four-decade-long journey. So, was Moses’ attempt to go through Edom an unauthorized decision on his part? Had the cloud led him to this point or was the negotiations with Edom something he had come up with on his own? Was Moses trying to shorten the distance to Canaan by taking an unauthorized path through the land of Edom?

It seems unlikely that God would have chosen to use the Edomites to help His chosen people reach the land He had promised to provide for them. These two nations remained in constant conflict with one another long after Israel conquered and occupied the land of Canaan. And the book of Obadiah describes God’s anger against Edom for the way it took advantage of Israel’s later misfortunes when the Babylonians conquered them and left the land desolate and depopulated.

“Because of the violence you did
    to your close relatives in Israel,
you will be filled with shame
    and destroyed forever.
When they were invaded,
    you stood aloof, refusing to help them.
Foreign invaders carried off their wealth
    and cast lots to divide up Jerusalem,
    but you acted like one of Israel’s enemies.

“You should not have gloated
    when they exiled your relatives to distant lands.
You should not have rejoiced
    when the people of Judah suffered such misfortune.
You should not have spoken arrogantly
    in that terrible time of trouble.
You should not have plundered the land of Israel
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have gloated over their destruction
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have seized their wealth
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossroads,
    killing those who tried to escape.
You should not have captured the survivors
    and handed them over in their terrible time of trouble.– Obadiah 10-14 ESV

The Israelites received no assistance from their distant relatives and were forced to travel southeasterly toward the Arabian desert. This unexpected setback must have disappointed Moses and it’s clear from the next chapter that it left the people of Israel far from pleased.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. – Numbers 21:4 ESV

God was not done teaching them the lessons they needed to learn. They were not yet ready to enter His rest. So, God continued to purge their leadership and purify their hearts in preparation for the day when He would lead them into their promised inheritance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Danger of Doubt and Disobedience

1 And the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and was buried there.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.” Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him.

10 Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13 These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and through them he showed himself holy. Numbers 20:1-13 ESV

Nearly 40 years have passed since the Israelites first arrived at the border of the land of Canaan but refused to obey God’s command and take possession of it. Due to their rebellion, they had spent the last four decades wandering through the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan until that generation died off. God was not going to allow them a second chance to take possession of their inheritance. That privilege would be passed to their sons and daughters.

Ever since the Israelites had been delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had shown a propensity for complaining and, ultimately, rebellion. They had a habit of viewing everything from a negative perspective. And this problem went all the way to the top.

This chapter opens up with the death of Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron. And what is significant about the timing of her death is its location. She takes her last breath on earth in a place called Kadesh.

This had been a regular camping point for the people of God during their days in the wilderness. They had been here before, years earlier, and had proven their penchant for rebellion and refusal to obey God’s commands.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you.” – Deuteronomy 9:22-24 NLT

Kadesh was located near the southern borders of Canaan and it came to represent a kind of stop sign in the lives of the nation of Israel. It was as if this spot was as far as they could force themselves to go in their quest to occupy the land that God had given them. And it would be in Kadesh that Miriam’s life would come to an end. She would never set foot in the land of promise. And all because she had chosen to question God’s will by attempting to wrest leadership from the hands of her own brother. This less-than-flattering scene from Miriam’s life is recorded in Numbers 12. She and Aaron joined forces to demand equal billing when it came to leading the nation.

They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

There weren’t content in their roles and desired to share the leadership responsibilities with their brother. But God did not agree.

“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. – Numbers 12:8-9 ESV

For her part in the attempted coup, Miriam was struck with leprosy. But Moses interceded for his sister and begged God to heal her, which He did. But while Miriam was spared the pain and social ostracization that comes with leprosy, she would be denied entry into the land of Canaan. She paid dearly for her rebellion.

And the story of her death is followed by yet another example of rebellion on the part of the people. The people found themselves in Kadesh once again and, more specifically, at a place called Meribah. That name had a special significance to the people of Israel – for both good and bad reasons. It was at Meribah that God had performed a miraculous sign by providing them with water out of a rock.

All the way back in Exodus 17, we have recorded this first encounter with “the rock.” On that occasion, they had been fairly early on in their wilderness experience. When they came to the wilderness of Sin, they discovered that there was no water for them to drink. So the people did what they were prone to do – they complained. And Moses did what he was prone to do – take the matter to God.

God instructed him to take his rod and strike a particular rock. When he did, water gushed from the rock. In the book of Corinthians, Paul tells us something significant about this rock.

…and all of them drank the same miraculous water. For they all drank from the miraculous rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:4 NLT

Now there was a legend that the rabbis taught that said the rock actually traveled with the people of Israel. There is no Scriptural basis for this theory, but in Numbers 20, the “rock” makes an appearance once again. Whether it was the very same rock or just another rock through which God provided for the peoples’ needs, Paul’s point is that the rock symbolized Christ. It was He who had been with the Israelites all the time they were in the wilderness, providing life-sustaining water for them. In fact, when God told Moses to strike the rock back in Exodus 17, that word means to “strike, beat, scourge, ravage, slay, or wound.” It’s the same word used when God “smote” the firstborn of Egypt. It paints a picture of the scourging and beating of Christ at His trials and crucifixion. Jesus would become the source of living water. During His encounter with the Samaritan woman  Jesus told her, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who I am, you would ask me, and I would give you living water” (John 4:10 NLT). Just a few chapters later in the book of John, Jesus tells the crowds, “If you are thirsty, come to me! If you believe in me, come and drink! For the Scriptures declare that rivers of living water will flow out from within” (John 7:37-38 NLT).

In chapter 20 of the book of Numbers, we have not a retelling of the story of Meribah, but another Meribah. This is one of those “deja-vu-all-over-again” type of experiences. Meribah means ” argument” or “strife.” And the names stems from the actions of the people of God because they argued or quarreled with God both times. The second time, God instructed Moses to take his rod again, but this time He specifically tells Moses to SPEAK to the rock – not strike it. Back in Exodus 17, His instructions were to strike the rock. But now Moses was simply to speak to it.

But in his anger with the people, Moses disobeys God and strikes the rock twice. His actions produce the desired result, but in disobeying God, Moses incurred His wrath. Think about it. If what Paul says in 1 Corinthians is true – that the rock is a representation of Christ, then Moses is taking out his anger on Christ. The first time Moses struck the rock, it was a representation of the death that Christ must suffer in order that we might have life. But from that point forward, Christ’s life-sustaining power was available for the asking. There was no need to “beat” it out of Him. He had provided before and He would provide again. All Moses needed to do was ask. But instead He struck the rock in anger. And this action would prevent Moses from entering the promised land. Like his sister, Miriam, Moses would die in the wilderness, having been denied entrance into the very land he had strived so long to enjoy. And Aaron would suffer a similar fate.

This is a tough passage. It seems as if Moses and Aaron got too severe a punishment from the hand of God. But in his commentary on the Old Testament, Matthew Henry sheds some helpful light on this passage.

First, They did not punctually observe their orders, but in some things varied from their commission; God bade them speak to the rock, and they spoke to the people, and smote the rock, which at this time they were not ordered to do, but they thought speaking would not do. When, in distrust of the power of the word, we have recourse to the secular power in matters of pure conscience, we do, as Moses here, smite the rock to which we should only speak, Secondly, They assumed too much of the glory of this work of wonder to themselves: Must we fetch water? as if it were done by some power or worthiness of theirs. Therefore it is charged upon them (v. 12) that they did not sanctify God, that is, they did not give him that glory of this miracle which was due unto his name. Thirdly, Unbelief was the great transgression (v. 12): You believed me not; nay, it is called rebelling against God’s commandment, ch. 27:14. The command was to bring water out of the rock, but they rebelled against this command, by distrusting it, and doubting whether it would take effect or no. They speak doubtfully: Must we fetch water? And probably they did in some other ways discover an uncertainty in their own minds whether water would come or no for such a rebellious generation as this was. And perhaps they the rather questioned it, though God had promised it, because the glory of the Lord did not appear before them upon this rock, as it had done upon the rock in Rephidim, Ex. 17:6. They would not take God’s word without a sign.” – Matthew Henry, “Numbers,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible

Disobedience, unbelief, and seeking glory for themselves. That was their sin. And it is the sin of many of us today. We disobey God because we do not believe God. And when we do obey, we do it in order to get the glory for ourselves. But God would have none of it from Moses and Aaron, and He will have none of it from us. He will provide, but He will have us obey. He will provide, but He will get the glory. He will provide, but He will expect us to believe. To trust Him. God is holy and demands that we treat Him as such.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

11 “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days. 12 He shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean. But if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. 13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him.

14 “This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent shall be unclean seven days. 15 And every open vessel that has no cover fastened on it is unclean. 16 Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days. 17 For the unclean they shall take some ashes of the burnt sin offering, and fresh water shall be added in a vessel. 18 Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. 19 And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean.

20 “If the man who is unclean does not cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, since he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord. Because the water for impurity has not been thrown on him, he is unclean. 21 And it shall be a statute forever for them. The one who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and the one who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening. 22 And whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean, and anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.” Numbers 19:11-22 ESV

I am always amazed at the level of detail and intricacy found in the laws God gave to the Israelites. It can become confusing and a bit overwhelming at times as you read about the various sacrifices outlined by God in order for the people to maintain their purity before Him. It had to be intimidating for the people of Moses’ day.

Just trying to remember and keep all those rules and regulations would have been a daunting task. And there were different sacrifices for different situations. Chapter 19 outlines the sacrifice necessary to cleanse someone who has become defiled by having touched or been in the vicinity of a dead body. There was an elaborate and very specific rite or ritual to be followed in order for that person to be cleansed. Failure to follow God’s instructions would result in continued defilement and their removal from the camp. Not only would they be physically banned from fellowship, but they would also be cut off from access to the tabernacle and any ability to offer sacrifices for their sins. This was serious stuff.

So, God tells them to sacrifice a red heifer – one without defect and that had never worn a yoke. It was to be slaughtered outside the camp, then some of its blood was to be sprinkled on the tabernacle in order to cleanse it from defilement. The body of the heifer was to be burned completely, along with some cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn. The ashes were to be gathered and stored in a clean place outside the camp. Those ashes would play a critical role in the cleansing process of the defiled.

Any time someone came into contact with a dead body, they were to be immediately banned from the community to keep their defilement from spreading. The ashes from the red heifer were to be mixed with clean water, then sprinkled on the defiled person on the third and seventh days of his uncleanness. Then on the seventh day, he was to bathe and wash his clothes.

That same water was also to be sprinkled on the tabernacle and all its furnishings because when one of the Israelites became defiled, it defiled the tabernacle itself. And if you think about it, with people dying on a regular basis because of disease, old age, and other natural causes, it would have been easy to become defiled. So, this regulation was probably put into use quite frequently. Through no fault of your own, you could find yourself defiled and in danger of being cut off from the people of God. But fortunately, God provided a way to receive cleansing, and it involved the shedding of blood. The life of an unblemished animal had to be sacrificed so that the defiled person could receive cleansing.

There is a lot of obvious symbolism here. The unblemished red heifer represents Christ. He was the unblemished sacrifice for our sins. The hyssop, cedar wood, and scarlet yarn were all used in the cleansing of lepers. They may also represent the hyssop branch that was used to offer wine to Christ on the cross (John 19:29), the wood of the cross on which He was hung, and the scarlet robe that was placed on Him at His trial (Matthew 27:28). The blood speaks of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of mankind.

…the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin… – 1 John 1:7 ESV

Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:14 NLT

But all the symbolic imagery found in Numbers 19 was but a shadow of what was to come. While the mixture of water and ashes could cleanse a man on the outside, it did nothing to purify his heart. He would be outwardly clean, but inside, he could still be full of sin and corruption. Such was the inadequacy of this system. It was incomplete and incapable of totally wiping away sin and guilt. Additional sacrifices would be required. More blood would have to be shed. More ashes and water would need to be sprinkled. At no point could the people of God know that their sins were completely and permanently forgiven.

Just minutes after going through the rite of purification, you could inadvertently stumble upon a dead body and be defiled again. Or a loved one could die in your tent. And so you would have to start the process all over again. It was a never-ending process that required extreme diligence and perfect obedience. But these sacrifices were intended to represent a far better and more permanent sacrifice to come.

The book of Hebrews tells us that these regulations were a picture of the atoning work of Christ. They were an imperfect glimpse into the perfect cleansing that He would offer.

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! – Hebrews 9:13-14 NIV

The Message paraphrases those verses this way: “If that animal blood and the other rituals of purification were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out” (Hebrews 9:13-14 MSG).

Inside and out. That’s the difference. That’s the key. Christ came to provide cleansing that goes to the core of who we are. He came to purify our hearts, not just our actions. He came to cleanse us from the sin that permeates our very being. We aren’t just defiled by sin, we are sinners. Our very nature is sinful. We have sinful natures and that’s what separates us from God. But Jesus Christ came to give us a new nature. He didn’t just sprinkle us with His blood; He washed us with it. And we are daily being transformed into His likeness as the old vestiges of our sinful nature are slowly but surely removed. He is cleansing us inside and out.

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing pow’r?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? – Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Death, Defilement, and Cleansing

1 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. 10 And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. Numbers 19:1-10 ESV

One of the things to keep in mind when reading these verses is the recent judgment that God had enacted upon the people of God. As a result of Korah’s rebellion, nearly 15,000 Israelites had died from a plague that God had sent among the people. This large-scale pandemic had left the survivors with a massive clean-up task. The bodies of the fallen had to be gathered and properly buried, rendering unclean all those who participated in the operation. Having come into contact with the bodies of the dead, they would have been considered defiled and in need of purification. And God had already provided clear instructions regarding the treatment of the unclean.

“Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.” And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the Lord said to Moses, so the people of Israel did. – Numbers 5:2-4 ESV

Due to the sheer number of volunteers necessary to dispose of nearly 15,000 corpses, the Israelites would have needed a tent city to house all those who had become defiled and ceremonially unclean. So, God instituted a new command that would bring a quick resolution to the problem.

Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer, a perfect animal that has no defects and has never been yoked to a plow. Give it to Eleazar the priest, and it will be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 19:2-4 NLT

This was to be a corporate endeavor, with the entire congregation participating, whether they were personally unclean or not. They were to choose a red heifer that was free from defect and had never been used to pull a plow. This means it would have been a highly valuable animal in the prime of health. They were not free to bring a maimed or diseased heifer. There was no option to offer an animal well past its prime or damaged by a lifetime of hard work. This sacrifice was going to cost them something.

The whole point of this ceremony was to protect the holiness of the tabernacle. The deaths of the rebels would have ended up defiling the entire congregation. And their defilement posed a very real and present danger to the holiness of the tabernacle itself. But the death of the heifer was not meant for atonement. In other words, it’s death was not intended to cleanse from sin but to purify from defilement.

Notice the detailed instructions God provided for Aaron. First, the animal was to be slaughtered and some of its blood used as a cleansing agent.

Eleazar will take some of its blood on his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tabernacle. – Numbers 19:4 NLT

Eleazar was one of the four sons of Aaron and served as a priest alongside his father and brothers. His job was to supervise the entire process, ensuring that the remains of the heifer were taken outside the camp and burned. As the body was cremated, Eleazar was to add a stick of cedar, a hyssop branch, and some scarlet yarn.

“Cedar wood was not as subject to decay as most other woods and so represented the continuance of life. It was also aromatic when burnt and was probably either the common brown-berried cedar or the Phoenician juniper.[164] Hyssop stood for purification from corruption, and the priests used it to apply blood, as in the Passover ritual. Scarlet wool symbolized the strong vital energy connected with blood (cf. Lev. 14:6). All of these elements combined to signify all that strengthened life. The person in charge added these elements to the heifer ashes as the heifer was burning.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

The leftover ashes were to be collected and kept in a specific location outside the camp. All those involved in the sacrifice of the heifer were required to go through a special purification process before they could return to the camp. And the ashes were to be maintained for future purification of any who became defiled through contact with the dead. The ashes were to be mixed with water and used as a purifying agent. The death of the innocent and unblemished heifer was required for the cleansing properties of the water to be effective. The ashes mixed with water would provide purification from defilement and restore the guilty to a state of holiness. They could once again enter into the camp and enjoy access to the tabernacle and all the rites associated with it.

God, in His grace and mercy, provided a means by which the guilty could be forgiven and the unclean could be purified from the devastating effects of sin and death.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

I Am Your Portion

20 And the Lord said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

21 “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, 22 so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. 23 But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. 24 For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the Lord, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.”

25 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 26 “Moreover, you shall speak and say to the Levites, ‘When you take from the people of Israel the tithe that I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present a contribution from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe. 27 And your contribution shall be counted to you as though it were the grain of the threshing floor, and as the fullness of the winepress. 28 So you shall also present a contribution to the Lord from all your tithes, which you receive from the people of Israel. And from it you shall give the Lord‘s contribution to Aaron the priest. 29 Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every contribution due to the Lord; from each its best part is to be dedicated.’ 30 Therefore you shall say to them, ‘When you have offered from it the best of it, then the rest shall be counted to the Levites as produce of the threshing floor, and as produce of the winepress. 31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your households, for it is your reward in return for your service in the tent of meeting. 32 And you shall bear no sin by reason of it, when you have contributed the best of it. But you shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, lest you die.’” Numbers 18:20-32 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God and assigned responsibility for caring for the tabernacle and overseeing the elaborate sacrificial system He had ordained for the nation of Israel. Of the 12 tribes of Israel, they were the only one that would not be given an allotment of land in Canaan. Rather than inheriting a designated area within the land of promise, they would be given 48 cities located within the territorial boundaries of the other tribes.

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, where a person who has accidentally killed someone can flee for safety. In addition, give them forty-two other towns. In all, forty-eight towns with the surrounding pastureland will be given to the Levites. These towns will come from the property of the people of Israel. The larger tribes will give more towns to the Levites, while the smaller tribes will give fewer. Each tribe will give property in proportion to the size of its land.” – Numbers 35:6-8 NLT

This meant that members of the tribe of Levi would be distributed among the other tribes of Israel. In a sense, as God’s “holy ”ones, they were to permeate the rest of God’s people and provide a positive spiritual influence on the nation as a whole. In return for their faithful service as priests and caretakers of the tabernacle, the Levites would enjoy the provision of God.

“You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.

“To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting – Numbers 18:20-21 ESV

God promised to meet all their needs. But their compensation would not come in the form of agricultural commodities or livestock. They would grow no crops of their own. They would own no flocks or herds. Yet, God would provide for them through means of the sacrificial system. God would graciously share with the Levitical priests the gifts given to Him by the people.

“These are the parts the priests may claim as their share from the cattle, sheep, and goats that the people bring as offerings: the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach. You must also give to the priests the first share of the grain, the new wine, the olive oil, and the wool at shearing time. For the Lord your God chose the tribe of Levi out of all your tribes to minister in the Lord’s name forever.” – Deuteronomy 18:3-5 NLT

“God was the unique inheritance to the Levites. He was the focus of their service, the source of their sustenance, and the significance of their calling. Their inheritance included cities, daily food, and a constant vocation, but it did not include the same type of land inheritance given to the other tribes of Israel.” – http://www.gotquestions.org

In their position as God’s mediators, the Levites played a vital role in protecting the spiritual and physcial well-being of the people. They served as guardians of the tabernacle with the responsibility of preventing any unauthorized individual from attempting to enter the holy place or come in contact with the consecrated items contained within it.

“From now on, no Israelites except priests or Levites may approach the Tabernacle. If they come too near, they will be judged guilty and will die. Only the Levites may serve at the Tabernacle, and they will be held responsible for any offenses against it. – Numbers 18:22-23 NLT

Failure to do their job would have dire consequences for all involved. So, God stressed to Aaron the serious nature of their role. Holiness was a high priority for God and the Levites were to help the nation of Israel maintain their set-apart status by requiring obedience to His commands

In return, God would provide for all their needs. Yet, the Levites were still expected to contribute a tithe on the basis of His gracious gifts to them. In other words, they were to offer a tithe on the tithe. When the people gave their tithes to God, the Levites would receive a portion as a gracious gift from God. But God expected them to a tithe in return, as a token of their gratitude toward and complete reliance upon Him.

“You must present one-tenth of the tithe received from the Israelites as a sacred offering to the Lord. This is the Lord’s sacred portion, and you must present it to Aaron the priest. Be sure to give to the Lord the best portions of the gifts given to you.” – Numbers 18:28-29 NLT

They were instructed to treat the tithes of the people as if they were the produce they had grown, the flocks they had raised, and the fruits they had cultivated.

When you present the best part as your offering, it will be considered as though it came from your own threshing floor or winepress. – Numbers 18:30 NLT

This was intended to create a sense of total dependence upon God. He was to be their sole source of provision and by giving a tenth of what they received back to Him, they would be demonstrating their complete reliance upon His grace and mercy. But God warned them to take this command seriously and obey it religiously. There was no room for debate or differences of opinion.

You Levites and your families may eat this food anywhere you wish, for it is your compensation for serving in the Tabernacle. You will not be considered guilty for accepting the Lord’s tithes if you give the best portion to the priests. But be careful not to treat the holy gifts of the people of Israel as though they were common. If you do, you will die.” – Numbers 18:31-32 NLT

Disobedience would result in God’s disapproval and, ultimately, the death of the guilty party. If they treated the tithes of the people with disrespect, they would pay with their lives. Those gifts and offerings had been dedicated to God and were to be revered as His possessions. He was graciously sharing with them what was rightfully His. And what He really wanted them to understand was that He was to be their portion. The Hebrew word is חֵלֶק (ḥēleq), and it can be translated as “portion,” “part,” or “territory.”

While they would receive no land as their inheritance, God would serve as their territory. The benefits they would normally expect to receive from land ownership would be provided by God Himself, and He would prove to be a more than sufficient source of sustenance. Yet, His goodness would be directly tied to their obedience.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

God Will Provide

Then the Lord spoke to Aaron, “Behold, I have given you charge of the contributions made to me, all the consecrated things of the people of Israel. I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual due. This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire: every offering of theirs, every grain offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs and every guilt offering of theirs, which they render to me, shall be most holy to you and to your sons. 10 In a most holy place shall you eat it. Every male may eat it; it is holy to you. 11 This also is yours: the contribution of their gift, all the wave offerings of the people of Israel. I have given them to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. 12 All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the Lord, I give to you. 13 The first ripe fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours. Everyone who is clean in your house may eat it. 14 Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours. 15 Everything that opens the womb of all flesh, whether man or beast, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours. Nevertheless, the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstborn of unclean animals you shall redeem. 16 And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, which is twenty gerahs. 17 But the firstborn of a cow, or the firstborn of a sheep, or the firstborn of a goat, you shall not redeem; they are holy. You shall sprinkle their blood on the altar and shall burn their fat as a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 18 But their flesh shall be yours, as the breast that is waved and as the right thigh are yours. 19 All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due. It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.”  Numbers 18:8-19 ESV

After having dealt decisively with the rebellious leaders of Israel, God reiterates the priestly duties of Aaron and his sons. Despite the demands of Korah and his dissatisfied co-conspirators, God had not budged one inch. He had not compromised His sovereign will that the priesthood belonged to Aaron and his offspring. And this chapter opened with God reiterating His instructions to Aaron.

Then the Lord said to Aaron: “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood. – Numbers 18:1 NLT

With the privilege of service in God’s house came the burden of responsibility. God was going to hold Aaron and his sons accountable for any sins the people might commit in conjunction with the tabernacle or the sacrificial system. Maintaining the holiness of the tabernacle and every object it contained was up to these men. And they were required to follow God’s strict and stringent rules concerning their own moral purity in order to act as His servants and the peoples’ mediators.

God wanted Aaron to consider the priesthood as a gift that should be carefully maintained and painstakingly protected. Purity was essential. And adherence to God’s commands concerning the tabernacle were to be non-negotiable.

“I am giving you the priesthood as your special privilege of service.” – Numbers 18:7 NLT

And this incredible gift would come with unparalleled blessings. The amazing thing about serving God is how He graciously blesses His servants. Aaron and his sons would enjoy the fruit of their labors in the form of a “portion of all the most holy offerings—including the grain offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings” (Numbers 18:9 NLT). All their dietary needs would be met as they feasted on the gifts given by the people as sacrifices to God.

As part of the requirements for offerings and sacrifices, the people could only bring the best of the best. They had to bring the first-fruits – “the best of the olive oil, new wine, and grain” (Numbers 18:12 NLT). No damaged goods or expired fruit allowed.

“All the sacred offerings and special offerings presented to me when the Israelites lift them up before the altar also belong to you. I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters as your permanent share. Any member of your family who is ceremonially clean may eat of these offerings. – Numbers 18:11 NLT

Any gifts given by the people to God would automatically become the property of the priests. Once an offering was made and accepted, a portion of the sacrifice would be reserved for the priests. This included the meal, sin, and trespass offerings. In this way, the priests and their families would always have plenty of food to eat. As part of God’s plan, the Levites would own no property within the land of Canaan. As a result, they could grow no crops of their own or raise flocks and herds from which they could expect to receive milk and meat to eat or skin and fleece with which to clothe themselves. They were completely dependent upon the gracious provision of God. He would willingly share a portion of the gifts given to Him by the people.

“All the first crops of their land that the people present to the Lord belong to you. Any member of your family who is ceremonially clean may eat this food.” – Numbers 18:13 NLT

They would enjoy luxury of good food thanks to the goodness of their generous God. And God reminded Aaron of the significance of this arrangement.

“Everything in Israel that is specially set apart for the Lord also belongs to you.” – Numbers 18:14 NLT

God even made provision for the dedication of the firstborn, both human and animal. Technically, every firstborn male child belonged to God. And when that child’s parents dedicated him to God, they could offer a special redemption price to buy his freedom.

“When the firstborn of all living things were offered to God, they became, in part, the property of the priests, God’s representatives. When people or animals were redeemed, the priests received the payment (the redemption price). When a firstborn animal was sacrificed, the priest received a portion. The contributions from all these offerings helped compensate the priests for not being allowed to own land (15-20).” –  Bridgeway Bible Commentary

That redemption price became yet another means by which God provided for the priests of Israel. He would have a multitude of ways in which He could meet their needs. But there were certain animals that were off-limits and intended for God’s use only. They could not be redeemed or paid for.

“However, you may not redeem the firstborn of cattle, sheep, or goats. They are holy and have been set apart for the Lord. Sprinkle their blood on the altar, and burn their fat as a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. – Numbers 18:17 NLT

But God still allowed His priests to enjoy a portion of the meat from these sacrificial animals.

The meat of these animals will be yours, just like the breast and right thigh that are presented by lifting them up as a special offering before the altar. Yes, I am giving you all these holy offerings that the people of Israel bring to the Lord. They are for you and your sons and daughters, to be eaten as your permanent share.” – Numbers 18:18-19 NLT

God refers to this arrangement as a covenant of salt. This helps to convey its longevity and perseverance. Salt was a preservative used to prolong the viability of meats. And by declaring His arrangement with the priest in these terms, God was declaring His intentions to meet their needs for generations to come. He was faithful and could be relied upon to feed and care for His priests. They had nothing to worry about.

“It is a covenant of salt forever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you.” – Numbers 18:19 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

A Shadow of Things to Come

So the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. And with you bring your brothers also, the tribe of Levi, the tribe of your father, that they may join you and minister to you while you and your sons with you are before the tent of the testimony. They shall keep guard over you and over the whole tent, but shall not come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die. They shall join you and keep guard over the tent of meeting for all the service of the tent, and no outsider shall come near you. And you shall keep guard over the sanctuary and over the altar, that there may never again be wrath on the people of Israel. And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to the Lord, to do the service of the tent of meeting. And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood for all that concerns the altar and that is within the veil; and you shall serve. I give your priesthood as a gift, and any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” Numbers 18:1-7 ESV

As a result of the rebellion of Korah, God brought a plague among the people of Israel. It was only Aaron’s quick action, as he atoned for their sins, that prevented the complete destruction of the people of Israel at the hands of God. He intervened and interceded on their behalf, and God spared them. As a result, God reconfirmed His selection of Aaron and his sons to serve as His priests.

The budding of the rod of Aaron was a divine sign of God’s choosing of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as His servants. They would belong to Him. Only the Levites could serve as caretakers of the tabernacle and only Aaron and his sons could serve as intercessors with God on behalf of the people. With their jobs came great responsibilities and great blessings. They were to remain holy and set apart to God. They received no inheritance in the land, but God provided for them from the gifts that were given to Him as a part of the sacrifices of the people. The Levites received from God that which was holy. They ate well but they had to be very careful not to profane or desecrate the things of God through unholy conduct. God warned Aaron, “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood” (Numbers 18:1 NLT).

These were ordinary men who had been given an extraordinary responsibility. They were the literal keepers of the spiritual flame of Israel. They were to maintain God’s house and everything in it. They protected it and transported it. Aaron and his sons, as the priests, were responsible for offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, atoning for their sins, and providing a means for them to remain in right standing with God. But their work could never fully remove guilt or provide full atonement for the sins of the people. But the priesthood and the sacrificial system as outlined in the Old Testament was a foreshadowing of something greater to come.

They serve in a system of worship that is only a copy, a shadow of the real one in heaven. For when Moses was getting ready to build the Tabernacle, God gave him this warning: “Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain.” But now Jesus, our High Priest, has been given a ministry that is far superior to the old priesthood, for he is the one who mediates for us a far better covenant with God, based on better promises. – Hebrews 8:5-6 NLT

God’s plan for the tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and the priesthood was a temporary system that represented a far greater future reality. It was imperfect because it involved sinful men. Aaron and his sons were flawed and far from perfect, just like every other Israelite. For them to perform their duties as priests, they had to undergo rigorous purification rites for the atonement of their own sins. And, according to the book of Hebrews, their humanity made them susceptible to death just like everyone else and required that there be constant replacements available.

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office. – Hebrews 7:23 ESV

But God’s plan was far greater than that of the tabernacle and the earthly priesthood. He had already determined a better means of atoning for the sins of man. And it would involve His own Son. This had been God’s plan all along. After His resurrection from the dead, Jesus gave His disciples two separate Bible lessons where He “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45 ESV). For the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV). Jesus unpacked all the writings of Moses and the prophets, showing how He had been foreshadowed and predicted. Everything had been pointing to Him. The entire sacrificial system was but a shadow of things to come. The priesthood as practiced in Moses’ day, served as a glimpse of something greater to come.

He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven.  Unlike those other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices every day. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he offered himself as the sacrifice for the people’s sins.  The law appointed high priests who were limited by human weakness. But after the law was given, God appointed his Son with an oath, and his Son has been made the perfect High Priest forever. – Hebrews 7:26-28 NLT

Man would need a greater High Priest. We would require a greater means of atonement. The sacrificial system, as practiced by the Jews in the days of Moses and even into the days of Jesus, could never fully eradicate the sins of men. Because man’s capacity for sin was endless, so was the need for constant sacrifice. There was never a point at which they were totally forgiven and completely free from the guilt of their sin. If nothing else, the law and the sacrificial system were a daily reminder of the ever-present reality of sin and guilt. No one could keep the law perfectly so, therefore, no one was truly sinless. And the constant capacity to sin required the constant need to sacrifice in order to atone for those sins.

But Jesus came to put an end to the madness. He was the High Priest who came to deal with sin once and for all.

He did not enter heaven to offer himself again and again, like the high priest here on earth who enters the Most Holy Place year after year with the blood of an animal. If that had been necessary, Christ would have had to die again and again, ever since the world began. But now, once for all time, he has appeared at the end of the age to remove sin by his own death as a sacrifice. And just as each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment, so also Christ died once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him. – Hebrews 9:25-28 NLT

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins have been paid for. Our atonement has been accomplished once and for all. We can now stand before God as righteous in His eyes. All because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross on our behalf. We have been set free and are no longer slaves to sin. We have the capacity to live differently and distinctively, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. And our righteousness is not of our own making but has been provided for us by Christ Himself. He bore our sins and transferred His righteousness to us. He died so that we might live.

When reading the Old Testament, we must look for Christ and understand that it all foreshadows His ultimate arrival on the scene. The Old Testament is as much about Christ as the four Gospels. Prior to His ascension, Jesus took time to teach His disciples and point out all that the Old Testament Scriptures revealed about Himself. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s ultimate redemption of mankind through the saving work of Jesus. Like any story, it has a beginning and an end. In the story recorded in Luke, we see Jesus departing from His disciples, ascending up into heaven. But we know that’s not the end of the story.

This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven. – Acts 1:11 ESV

He has gone, but He will someday return. His work as High Priest is complete but His job as King is not yet finished. And we look forward to the day when God closes the final chapter in His great book of redemption.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Learning to Trust God

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.” Moses spoke to the people of Israel. And all their chiefs gave him staffs, one for each chief, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. And the staff of Aaron was among their staffs. And Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the testimony.

On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the people of Israel. And they looked, and each man took his staff. 10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.” 11 Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did.

12 And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. 13 Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?” Numbers 17:1-13 ESV

The Israelites had become first-class, professional whiners. They could grumble with the best of them. Over and over again, since the day they left Egypt, they had found reasons to complain – about everything from the food to the leadership of Moses. Most recently, it had been God’s decision to have only the Levites serve as priests in the tabernacle. God had given them the responsibility that was supposed to belong to the first-born males of every tribe. The Levites had been divinely chosen to serve as substitutes.

But the people had decided they didn’t like this plan. Under the leadership of Korah and a few other leaders, the people had risen up against Moses and Aaron, demanding their version of equality and inclusion. But their demands were met with the discipline of God. He destroyed all those who instigated the rebellion against Moses and Aaron and then brought a plague against those who blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of their friends. Only the quick action of Aaron, who offered an atoning sacrifice for the people, spared even more from death that day.

In light of all the complaining, God came up with a plan to bring it to a close once and for all. He knew the people were far from done. It was just a matter of time before they found something else to stir them up and cause them to lash out at God and His chosen leaders. So God instructed Moses to have each tribe select a branch from an almond tree and inscribe on it the name of the prince or head of their tribe. These 12 rods were then to be placed in the tabernacle before the Lord.

The next day Moses went in and discovered that the rod bearing Aaron’s name had budded, blossomed, and bore fruit. Miraculously, it had gone through an entire growing season in one evening. Devoid of water and the benefits of the tree from which it had been taken, Aaron’s rod evidenced a supernatural capacity for fruitfulness. This amazing visual display was intended to show the people that God had selected Aaron and his sons to serve Him as priests. Case closed! There was no more reason for the people to question or complain. God had settled the dispute once and for all.

Or maybe not. Because immediately after this, the people crank up their complaining once again. This time it was about their physical well-being. They said, “We are as good as dead. Everyone who even comes close to the Tabernacle of the LORD dies. We are all doomed!” (Numbers 17:12-13 NLT). Instead of praising God for what He had done with the almond rod, they focused their attention on their own well-being. They were so busy pitying themselves, they had no time to think about God’s miraculous demonstration of power and His clear endorsement of Aaron and his sons.

God’s divine display had been intended to settle the dispute about leadership. He had unquestionably reaffirmed His selection of the Aaronic priesthood. He even commanded that the rod be placed alongside the Ark of the Covenant. It was to serve as a perpetual reminder that God had spoken and the matter was settled. His will was not up for debate and He expected His commands to be obeyed at all times.

But the people saw His actions as a statement of judgment and feared further retribution from God. They had just witnessed the earth open up and swallow the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then they stood back and watched as the fire of the Lord consumed the 250 leaders who had joined in the rebellion. Finally, they had seen 14,700 of their fellow Israelites die from the plague that God had sent upon them.

So, they viewed the budding of Aaron’s rod as a further indictment of their guilt and reacted with fear.

“Look, we are doomed! We are dead! We are ruined! Everyone who even comes close to the Tabernacle of the Lord dies. Are we all doomed to die?” – Numbers 17:12-13 NLT

Rather than glorying in the greatness of God, they cowered in fear. Instead of repenting for their rebellion against Him, they accused Him of being a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity. They display no remorse. They exhibit no signs of sorrow for their sins. They simply express their fear of God’s judgment and wrath. After all the time they had spent in His presence and enjoyed His power and provision, they still had no idea who He was and how they were to respond to Him.

But isn’t that what we do? We can get so consumed with our dissatisfaction with our lot in life that we fail to see the miracles of God taking place all around us. We whine and moan, and spend all our time grumbling to God that we never see all that He is doing around us. Yet God patiently endures our rejection of Him. He continues to shower us with His grace and unmerited favor.

We turn our backs on Him, but He never abandons us. He disciplines us, but He never stops loving us. He is faithful, even when we are unfaithful. He provides us with leadership, direction, sustenance, and everything we need to survive in this hostile environment. Yet we continually turn our backs on Him. Or worse yet, we end up fearing Him rather than basking in the love He pours out on us. Like the Israelites, we live as if God is out to get us, not to bless us. We view Him as a cosmic killjoy, not a loving Father who wants to meet our every need in Christ.

Sin is ultimately self-centered. It always has been. It ends up being all about me. And when I focus on myself, I lose sight of Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Fire of Cleansing

36 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Tell Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest to take up the censers out of the blaze. Then scatter the fire far and wide, for they have become holy. 38 As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they offered them before the Lord, and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the people of Israel.” 39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers, which those who were burned had offered, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar, 40 to be a reminder to the people of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become like Korah and his company—as the Lord said to him through Moses.

41 But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” 42 And when the congregation had assembled against Moses and against Aaron, they turned toward the tent of meeting. And behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 And Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47 So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. 49 Now those who died in the plague were 14,700, besides those who died in the affair of Korah. 50 And Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting, when the plague was stopped.  Numbers 16:36-50 ESV

God cleaned house. He purged the wickedness from the midst of the camp of Israel by swallowing the households of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then He consumed the 250 co-conspirators with fire as they attempted to offer unacceptable sacrifices to Him. And when the smoke had lifted, all that was left were their bronze censers lying among the ashes with their charred bones.

This macabre scene was the result of a test that Moses had arranged to determine who among the Israelites was truly holy to the Lord.

“Korah, you and all your followers must prepare your incense burners. Light fires in them tomorrow, and burn incense before the Lord. Then we will see whom the Lord chooses as his holy one.” – Numbers 16:6-7 NLT

And God had declared the outcome of the test in no uncertain terms. The guilty and unholy had been punished. Yet, their destruction produced a rather strange result. The incense burners these rebels had been carrying at the time of their destruction had been purified in the process. The Lord ordered Moses to have them gathered and hammered into a covering for the altar.

“Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to pull all the incense burners from the fire, for they are holy. Also tell him to scatter the burning coals. Take the incense burners of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and hammer the metal into a thin sheet to overlay the altar. Since these burners were used in the Lord’s presence, they have become holy. Let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel.” – Numbers 16:37-38 NLT

Those men had presented their censers and burning incense to the Lord, but He had consumed them with flames because they were guilty of rebellion against Him. But because their incense burners had been presented to God, they had become holy or set apart for His use.

“As we think about the notion of the ‘holy,’ we recognize that things are made holy in Scripture, not because people are holy, but because the things are presented to the Lord, who is holy. Since these wicked men presented their censers to the Lord, the censers are holy, despite the men’s own wickedness.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

This entire story provides a powerful reminder of the ever-present danger of doubt in the life of the follower of God. Doubt has a way of turning into disobedience, and disobedience against God is nothing more than rebellion against His Word and His will. In chapter eight of Numbers, this pattern was lived out in the lives of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On. These men were descendants of Levi and, as such, they were responsible for the care and upkeep of the tabernacle of God. God had set them apart as His servants and their jobs were essential to the spiritual well-being of the people of Israel. But they were dissatisfied with things as God had planned them. They wanted more responsibility. They wanted a greater role. They doubted God’s order of things and demanded a restructuring of responsibilities and duties. They pointed their fingers at Aaron and Moses, exclaiming, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3 ESV). Like Miriam in chapter 12, these men expressed their doubt in God’s preordained order of things and it led to their open disobedience and rebellion.

As a holy, righteous King, God was unwilling to tolerate the open rebellion of these men. While the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram was more pronounced and obvious, the reality was that the entire congregation was guilty of turning against God. But Moses and Aaron had interceded and begged God to spare the congregation and punish the ring leaders. God would not tolerate rebellion among His people. He knew it to be like cancer that, if left unchecked, would spread among the people. So He eradicated it in a powerful way. But, according to Moses’ request, He spared the people.

And yet, amazingly, we read, “on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of the Lord’” (Numbers 16:41 ESV). Once again, they expressed doubt that what had happened had been God’s will, and they openly rebelled against God’s representatives. So, as before, God warned Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the people because He was about to destroy them. But Moses interceded yet again, telling Aaron to take his censer and “carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun” (Numbers 16:36 ESV).

God was bringing judgment on the people, and Moses’ quick thinking and Aarons’ immediate response spared the lives of many. In spite of their efforts, 14,700 people died that day – at the hand of God. Yet, there would have been even more, had they not interceded. The rebellion of the people had been a sin against God, and only the atoning work of Aaron, the high priest, had been able to satisfy the righteous judgment of God against them. Doubt is inevitable and, if left unchecked, it will always result in disobedience and rebellion against God. Mankind is prone to unfaithfulness, even those who call themselves followers of God. Disobedience is in our nature. The risk of rebellion is a constant reality for each of us.

In the gospel of Luke, there is another story of the people of God rebelling against the will of God. He had sent His Son as the Savior of the world. But Jesus didn’t come in the form they had anticipated. He failed to meet their expectations. Rather than a conquering king on a white horse leading a powerful army, He had shown up as a carpenter from the small hamlet of Nazareth and accompanied by a rag-tag group of disciples. Instead of revering Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah, the religious leaders responded with revulsion. They longed to rid themselves of His presence. They had Him arrested and dragged before Pilate, the governor, for trial and, ultimately, execution. Even Pilate found Jesus to be innocent of any wrongdoing. He tried repeatedly to release Him, but the people demanded His crucifixion, and they got their wish.

Their doubt led to disobedience, which resulted in rebellion and led to the death of the One whom God had sent. They doubted God’s Word and rejected His will. Writing more than 750 years before the events of the crucifixion, the prophet Isaiah predicted, “But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NLT).

God sent His Son to deal with our rebellion. But rather than snuff us out, He provided a means by which we could be healed and made whole. He paid the debt we owed, He suffered the death that was meant for us. He took on the penalty for our rebellion against God.

And it’s interesting to note that Aaron had been able to atone for the sins of the people by taking fire from the altar of God and using it to ignite incense in a censer. The same fire that had consumed the 250 leaders who had rejected God’s will was used to atone for and spare the rebellious Israelites. An incense burner in the hand of God’s anointed was the means by which God redeemed the unholy and undeserving. The all-consuming fire of God actually averted the deaths of tens of thousands of Israelites who had been deserving of God’s judgment. The plague was averted and the people were spared.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Rebels Without a Cause

15 And Moses was very angry and said to the Lord, “Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one donkey from them, and I have not harmed one of them.”

16 And Moses said to Korah, “Be present, you and all your company, before the Lord, you and they, and Aaron, tomorrow. 17 And let every one of you take his censer and put incense on it, and every one of you bring before the Lord his censer, 250 censers; you also, and Aaron, each his censer.” 18 So every man took his censer and put fire in them and laid incense on them and stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 Then Korah assembled all the congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation.

20 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 21 “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.” 22 And they fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?” 23 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

25 Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. 26 And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.” 27 So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones. 28 And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. 29 If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”

31 And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 32 And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” 35 And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Numbers 16:15-35 ESV

Moses displays a range of emotions in this story. First, he was shocked by the accusations of Korah and his companions. After their initial confrontation Moses literally “fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4) in dismay. But then, he rallied and challenged their audacity to question his leadership and questioned their misguided refusal to accept God’s will for their lives. They were unwilling to remain in their God-ordained roles and demanded more. And their attitude floored Moses.

But he rallied and proposed a test. He told the malcontents to gather at the tabernacle and bring incense to burn before the Lord. But they refused.

“We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us?” – Numbers 16:12-13 ESV

Once again, these prideful men attacked Moses and accused him of leadership malpractice. They declared their unwillingness to obey his commands because he had failed to do what he had promised to do. He had been unsuccessful in gaining them entrance into the land of promise. According to them, their wilderness wanderings were all his fault.

“…you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” – Numbers 16:14 ESV

This time, Moses responded in anger and voiced his feelings to God. He declared his innocence and pleaded for God to refuse their sacrifices. He had done nothing to deserve their harsh treatment and offended that these men would treat him with such ingratitude and distrust. But Moses rallied yet again. One more time, he challenged Korah and his wanna-be priests to come to the tabernacle with their incense burners.

“You and all your followers must come here tomorrow and present yourselves before the Lord. Aaron will also be here. You and each of your 250 followers must prepare an incense burner and put incense on it, so you can all present them before the Lord. Aaron will also bring his incense burner.” – Numbers 16:16-17 NLT

This time, Korah and his 250 co-conspirators agreed to the challenge and showed up at the tabernacle with their incense burners and fire in hand. It was intended to be a showdown, and the odds were not in Moses’ favor. It was Korah and his 250 followers standing against Aaron. And Moses had made it clear that this was going to be a test to determine who was right and who was wrong.

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show us who belongs to him and who is holy. The Lord will allow only those whom he selects to enter his own presence.” – Numbers 16:5 NLT

And God showed up, only to find that Korah had turned the entire congregation against Moses and Aaron. He had spent the evening spreading rumors and riling up the rest of the community.

Meanwhile, Korah had stirred up the entire community against Moses and Aaron, and they all gathered at the Tabernacle entrance. – Numbers 16:19 NLT

So, when the Almighty appeared and saw the host standing before the tabernacle, He told Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the entire congregation because He was going to destroy them all. He was furious and expressed His intentions to wipe out Korah and everyone who had dared to side with him.

“Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” – Numbers 16:21 NLT

But amazingly, Moses and Aaron stepped in and pleaded with God to show mercy.

“O God,” they pleaded, “you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Must you be angry with all the people when only one man sins?” – Numbers 16:22 NLT

They blamed the whole affair on one person: Korah. He alone was responsible for fomenting unrest among the other leaders and the congregation. And they begged God not to punish the many for the sins of a few.

As a result of the intercession of Moses and Aaron, God instructed them to separate the people from the rest of the rebels. And Moses did as God commanded.

“Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. – Numbers 16:26-27 NLT

As the people stood back and watched. Moses declared the conditions of the test that was about to take place. God was going to determine who was in the right.

“This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things that I have done—for I have not done them on my own. If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for the Lord.” – Numbers 16:28-30 NLT

Imagine the scene as Korah, Dathan, and Abiram stood with their burning censers in hand and their families gathered around them. Then the judgment of God fell. In a miraculous display of His power and righteous indignation, God caused the ground to open up and swallow alive every single one of the guilty individuals who had dared to question His wisdom and challenge Moses’ leadership.

The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. – Numbers 16:33 NLT

It was a shocking and disturbing scene. And, amazingly, the 250 leaders who had aligned themselves with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, were forced to witness the whole affair. They stood there with their censers in hand as their former leaders disappeared from sight. And as the rest of the congregation fled the scene in fear, a fire descended from heaven and consumed the 250. The small fires of their incense burners were no match for the purging fire of God. Their offerings of incense were anything but a sweet aroma to the Lord. He had judged their hearts, declared them guilty of sedition, and punished them accordingly.

God had cleansed the camp. He had purged His people of the sin that had begun to spread throughout their midst. And, in doing so, He had clearly restated His unwavering approval of Moses and Aaron as His appointed leaders. There was to no longer be any question as to who was in charge. And the people had been given a stark reminder that rebellion of any kind was ultimately an attack on God’s sovereignty. Moses and Aaron acted on His behalf. Any attempt to question or overthrow their rule was a direct attack on the will of God. These men were His representatives and they were to be obeyed – at all costs.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.