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.

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.

God Will Be Faithful

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you offer to the Lord from the herd or from the flock a food offering or a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or at your appointed feasts, to make a pleasing aroma to the Lord, then he who brings his offering shall offer to the Lord a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil; and you shall offer with the burnt offering, or for the sacrifice, a quarter of a hin of wine for the drink offering for each lamb. Or for a ram, you shall offer for a grain offering two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with a third of a hin of oil. And for the drink offering you shall offer a third of a hin of wine, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And when you offer a bull as a burnt offering or sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or for peace offerings to the Lord, then one shall offer with the bull a grain offering of three tenths of an ephah of fine flour, mixed with half a hin of oil. 10 And you shall offer for the drink offering half a hin of wine, as a food offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

11 “Thus it shall be done for each bull or ram, or for each lamb or young goat. 12 As many as you offer, so shall you do with each one, as many as there are. 13 Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. 14 And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. 15 For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Lord. 16 One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you.”

17 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 18 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land to which I bring you 19 and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the Lord. 20 Of the first of your dough you shall present a loaf as a contribution; like a contribution from the threshing floor, so shall you present it. 21 Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord as a contribution throughout your generations. Numbers 15:1-21 ESV

Even though God had condemned an entire generation of Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years as punishment for their rebellion, He would not abandon them. The Lord would continue to guide them, provide for and protect them, and even give them further instructions regarding their eventual occupation of the land of Canaan. While that generation would never experience the joy of crossing over the Jordan and experiencing God’s rest, their children would. And God used the four-decade-long detour through the wilderness as a training opportunity for the next generation of Israelites, providing them with detailed instructions for their eventual entrance into the land of promise.

Though the adult population had allowed the fear-laden advice of the ten spies to deter them from keeping God’s command to enter and conquer the land of Canaan, God refused to renege on His promise. He remained committed to the covenant He had made with Abraham and assured Moses that the offspring of the rebellious generation would inherit the land.

God had made it perfectly clear that the adults in the room had blown their chance.

“…not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 NLT

Yet, despite their blatant display of disobedience, He would not hold the children responsible for the sins of their parents. During the 40-year delay, things would continue just as they had since the Israelites departed Egypt. The tabernacle would remain in the center of the camp with the Shekinah glory of God located above the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. The sacrificial system would continue just as God had prescribed it on Mount Sinai. Sacrifices would be offered and sins atoned for. Life would go on as it had before. And each year, children would be born into the Israelite community and members of the older generation would die off. There would be a slow but steady changing of the guard as the infants grew into adolescents who eventually became adults.

And God provided Moses with the assurance that a new group of Israelites would eventually enter the land.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel.

“When you finally settle in the land I am giving you, you will offer special gifts as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. – Numbers 15:2-3 NLT

The faces and names of the people would change, but the covenant would be fulfilled. And this message from God must have been a painful reminder to the older generation that their disobedience had been costly. They would never have the joy of crossing the Jordan River into the land of promise with their children and grandchildren. Their lives would end in death in the wilderness. They were close but yet so far. Canaan was within reach but completely off limits because of their refusal to obey God.

This chapter contains additional instructions regarding the sacrificial system and it focuses on the changes God would require once they entered the new land. It is interesting to note that this addendum includes additional sacrifices involving grain, oil, and wine. When the people arrive in the land, they will be required to supplement their meat offerings with “a grain offering of two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of olive oil” (Numbers 15:4 NLT). And for each lamb offered, they would add “one quart of wine as a liquid offering” (Numbers 15:5 NLT).

This appears to be a reference to the fruitfulness of the land of Canaan. When the spies had returned from their expedition within the borders of Canaan, they reported that it was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27 NLT). It was rich and bountiful. In fact, they had brought back “a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs” (Numbers 13:23 NLT).

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses describes just how bountiful the land of promise will be.

“The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT

For people who were living in the wilderness, surviving off of manna and quail, this description must have been highly attractive. The prospect of enjoying the comforts of a real house over the cramped confines of a tent would have been difficult to imagine. Ever since leaving Egypt, they had eaten no fruit, raised no crops, baked no bread, or enjoyed any of the comforts of “home.” They were nomads wandering through a godforsaken wilderness.

But God assured them that upon entering the land of promise, all that would change. They would have plenty of grain, oil, and wine. So much so, that these bountiful resources would become a part of the sacrificial system. According to the book of Exodus, the Israelites had left Egypt with “great flocks and herds of livestock” (Exodus 12:38 NLT). So, animal sacrifices had always been plentiful, even in the wilderness. But they had no access to grain, oil, and wine. The only bread they had to eat was in the form of the manna which God miraculously provided. Since there were few olive trees or vineyards in the wilderness, oil and wine were in short supply. But things would be different in Canaan.

This entire passage is meant to emphasize God’s faithfulness and to assure the Israelites of His unfailing commitment to providing for all their needs. And their response to His faithfulness was to be one of gratitude, expressed through the offering of meat, grain, oil, and wine. These gifts were intended to honor God for His goodness and grace – “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 15:3) for all that He had done.

It’s important to remember that these instructions were given long before the people entered the land and long before they had access to the oil, grain, and wine. But God was assuring them that the day would come when the bounty of the land would become readily available. In fact, He was guaranteeing its availability.

“When you arrive in the land where I am taking you, and you eat the crops that grow there, you must set some aside as a sacred offering to the Lord. Present a cake from the first of the flour you grind, and set it aside as a sacred offering, as you do with the first grain from the threshing floor. Throughout the generations to come, you are to present a sacred offering to the Lord each year from the first of your ground flour.” – Numbers 15:18-21 NLT

To the rebellious generation who had decided that the conquest of Canaan was impossible, this word from God must have been difficult to hear. They must have been filled with regret when they considered all that they had sacrificed when they made their fateful decision to disobey God. Not only would they fail to enter the land, but they would never enjoy its fruit or experience the joy of standing alongside their children and grandchildren as they offered God gifts of gratitude for its bounty.

But God underscores His own faithfulness when He states that these offerings will take place “throughout the generations to come” (Numbers 15:21 NLT). The next generation will conquer and occupy the land. The land will provide for all their needs. And the people will be expected to offer up their thanks to God for His goodness and graciousness – for generations to come.

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.

 

Redeemed!

40 And the Lord said to Moses, “List all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking the number of their names. 41 And you shall take the Levites for me—I am the Lord—instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the cattle of the people of Israel.” 42 So Moses listed all the firstborn among the people of Israel, as the Lord commanded him. 43 And all the firstborn males, according to the number of names, from a month old and upward as listed were 22,273.

44 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites instead of their cattle. The Levites shall be mine: I am the Lord. 46 And as the redemption price for the 273 of the firstborn of the people of Israel, over and above the number of the male Levites, 47 you shall take five shekels per head; you shall take them according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel of twenty gerahs), 48 and give the money to Aaron and his sons as the redemption price for those who are over.” 49 So Moses took the redemption money from those who were over and above those redeemed by the Levites. 50 From the firstborn of the people of Israel he took the money, 1,365 shekels, by the shekel of the sanctuary. 51 And Moses gave the redemption money to Aaron and his sons, according to the word of the Lord, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 3:40-51 ESV

It is easy to view the Levites as nothing more than the priestly order, the one tribe whose sole responsibility was to care for the tabernacle and serve as priests on behalf of the people of God. But there is a much deeper theological significance to their role as the spiritual mediators of Israel.

As has been stated before, God had spared the firstborn sons of Israel when He sent the death angel to punish the nation of Egypt. As a result of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to release the descendants of Jacob from their captivity, God gave Moses instructions concerning the final plague He would bring upon the Egyptians.

So Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.” – Exodus 11:4-6 ESV

Then God instructed the Israelites to prepare for the coming judgment by selecting an unblemished lamb for every household.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household…. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:1-3, 5-6 ESV

Each household was to sacrifice their lamb at the same time and follow God’s exacting instructions.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord‘s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:7-13 ESV

When the death angel passed through the land, he would “pass over” those homes on which the blood had been sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels. The sacrifice of the unblemished lambs would redeem any firstborn residing in that home.

“For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.” – Exodus 12:23 ESV

On the fateful night when the death angel passed over the city, “the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29 ESV). But because of the sacrifice of the unblemished lambs, the homes of the Israelites were protected and their firstborn sons were spared. But “there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead” (Exodus 12:30 ESV).

As a result of this miraculous redemption of Israel’s firstborn sons, God commanded Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1 ESV).

God had spared the firstborn of Israel, and He commanded that they be dedicated to His service. But as the Israelites were making their way to the land of Canaan, God ordered the tribe of Levi to serve as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. The males of this one tribe would act as stand-ins for all those firstborn sons of the 11 other tribes who rightfully belonged to God. The Levites would redeem or ransom their brothers and serve on their behalf.

God ordered Moses to make a list of all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward. It would appear that these were the sons who had been born since the Israelites left Egypt. According to verse 43, that number amounted to 22,273 firstborn male sons from the 11 tribes of Israel. Verse 39 reveals that there were 22,000 firstborn male sons from the tribe of Levi.

“The Levites, amounting to twenty-two thousand, were given in exchange for an equal number of the first-born from the other tribes, leaving an excess of two hundred seventy-three; and as there were no substitutes for these, they were redeemed at the rate of five shekels for each (Nu 18:15, 16). Every Israelite would naturally wish that his son might be redeemed by a Levite without the payment of this tax, and yet some would have to incur the expense, for there were not Levites enough to make an equal exchange. Jewish writers say the matter was determined by lot, in this manner: Moses put into an urn twenty-two thousand pieces of parchment, on each of which he wrote “a son of Levi,” and two hundred seventy-three more, containing the words, “five shekels.” These being shaken, he ordered each of the first-born to put in his hand and take out a slip. If it contained the first inscription, the boy was redeemed by a Levite; if the latter, the parent had to pay. The ransom-money…was appropriated to the use of the sanctuary.” – Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary

The Levites were more than just priests, they served as God-ordained substitutes whose lives were used to redeem or ransom those who rightfully belonged to God. They served in place of and on behalf of all those whom God had redeemed from death at the original Passover. And when the number of Levites didn’t match that of the firstborn males from the other 11 tribes, 273 families had to pay a sizeable tax of five shekels. The lack of a substitute came at a high price.

And this cost was meant to convey the value of each Levite’s life. No firstborn male was to take his freedom from service lightly or to treat the life of his Levite counterpart flippantly. This passage should serve as a reminder of the tremendous price God paid on behalf of every sinner whom He redeemed from death through the sacrifice of His Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:18-20 ESV

The author of Hebrews refers to the church as “the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23 NLT). Each has been “ransomed with the precious blood of the Son of God. All men are the Lord’s by creation, and all true Christians are his by redemption” (Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary).

According to Paul, Jesus is “the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29 NLT). He was the firstborn Son of God who served as the sinless substitute for sinful men and women. His death made possible the gift of eternal life for those who at one time stood condemned before God. And had Jesus not offered His life as our substitute, none of us could have afforded to pay the debt we owed to God.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT

For God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

Numbers chapter 3 should remind us of the lines of that great old hymn, “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.”

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child, and forever, I am.

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.

Service as Substitutes

14 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, 15 “List the sons of Levi, by fathers’ houses and by clans; every male from a month old and upward you shall list.” 16 So Moses listed them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded. 17 And these were the sons of Levi by their names: Gershon and Kohath and Merari. 18 And these are the names of the sons of Gershon by their clans: Libni and Shimei. 19 And the sons of Kohath by their clans: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. 20 And the sons of Merari by their clans: Mahli and Mushi. These are the clans of the Levites, by their fathers’ houses.

21 To Gershon belonged the clan of the Libnites and the clan of the Shimeites; these were the clans of the Gershonites. 22 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 7,500. 23 The clans of the Gershonites were to camp behind the tabernacle on the west, 24 with Eliasaph, the son of Lael as chief of the fathers’ house of the Gershonites. 25 And the guard duty of the sons of Gershon in the tent of meeting involved the tabernacle, the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting, 26 the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court that is around the tabernacle and the altar, and its cords—all the service connected with these.

27 To Kohath belonged the clan of the Amramites and the clan of the Izharites and the clan of the Hebronites and the clan of the Uzzielites; these are the clans of the Kohathites. 28 According to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, there were 8,600, keeping guard over the sanctuary. 29 The clans of the sons of Kohath were to camp on the south side of the tabernacle, 30 with Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of the Kohathites. 31 And their guard duty involved the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen; all the service connected with these. 32 And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest was to be chief over the chiefs of the Levites, and to have oversight of those who kept guard over the sanctuary.

33 To Merari belonged the clan of the Mahlites and the clan of the Mushites: these are the clans of Merari. 34 Their listing according to the number of all the males from a month old and upward was 6,200. 35 And the chief of the fathers’ house of the clans of Merari was Zuriel the son of Abihail. They were to camp on the north side of the tabernacle. 36 And the appointed guard duty of the sons of Merari involved the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories; all the service connected with these; 37 also the pillars around the court, with their bases and pegs and cords.

38 Those who were to camp before the tabernacle on the east, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses and Aaron and his sons, guarding the sanctuary itself, to protect the people of Israel. And any outsider who came near was to be put to death. 39 All those listed among the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron listed at the commandment of the Lord, by clans, all the males from a month old and upward, were 22,000. Numbers 3:14-39 ESV

Back when God brought the final plague of the death of the firstborn on the Egyptians, He claimed all the firstborn males of the Israelites as His own.

“Dedicate to me all the firstborn sons of Israel and every firstborn male animal. They are mine.” – Exodus 13:2 NLT

God had spared the firstborn of the Israelites and, in return, the people were to set apart those individuals to His service. They belonged to Him. But later, God revealed to Moses another plan. He appointed the tribe of Levi to serve as ministers to the priests and the Tabernacle. They were the smallest of the tribes and seemed to hold special favor with God because of their role in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle.

“All of you who are on the LORD’s side, come over here and join me.” And all the Levites came. He told them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Strap on your swords! Go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other, killing even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses, and about three thousand people died that day. Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Because of this, he will now give you a great blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NL)

The Levites had become His servants. Now, they were to become the peoples’ substitutes. God still claimed the firstborn as His own. They belonged to Him because He had spared their lives the night the death angel had passed over their homes in the land of Egypt. When Moses numbered all the firstborn males of the tribes of Israel they totaled 22,273. These were probably the number of firstborn males who had been born since they had left Egypt. The total number of Levite males from one month and older was 22,000.

God was going to allow the Levites to become substitutes for the firstborn of all the Israelites.

“The Levites will be reserved for me as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel; I am the LORD. And the Levites’ livestock are mine as substitutes for the firstborn livestock of the whole nation of Israel.” – Number 3:41 NLT

God could have demanded that the firstborn males of all the tribes perform the service required to maintain and move His Tabernacle. He could have pressed them into service as His ministers and priests but instead, He set aside the tribe of Levi for this important duty. And in doing so, the Levites became substitutes for the people.

The Levites were not to be included in the census of fighting men but were made responsible for the care and transportation of the tabernacle. It was their task to take down and set up the tabernacle whenever God commanded them to move. And when they arrived at their God-appointed destination, they reassembled the tabernacle and then set up their own camps around it.

In this passage, God provides Moses with detailed instructions to divide the tribe of Levi into its clans or family groups.

So Moses listed them, just as the Lord had commanded.

Levi had three sons, whose names were Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

The clans descended from Gershon were named after two of his descendants, Libni and Shimei.

The clans descended from Kohath were named after four of his descendants, Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.

The clans descended from Merari were named after two of his descendants, Mahli and Mushi.

These were the Levite clans, listed according to their family groups. – Numbers 3:16-20 NLT

Each of these clans was to set up their camp on a particular perimeter of the tabernacle. One to the east, one to the west, another to the north, and the last one to the south. In doing so, they would be protecting the sons of Israel from coming near the tabernacle in an unclean state and facing certain death (Numbers 1:47-54).

The Levites had been given a huge responsibility. Not only were they to care for all the things related to the tabernacle, but they were to maintain its holiness. The tabernacle was God’s dwelling place and was to be treated with reverence. God seemed to know that if it was left up to the people, they would drop the ball. The tabernacle would probably fall into disrepair as they became distracted with their own cares and concerns. So He appointed this task to the Levites. They served as substitutes. They were given the unenviable task of keeping everything associated with the tabernacle pure and holy, including themselves and the people they served.

God had set apart the entire nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests.

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And God had claimed the right to require the service of every firstborn among the Israelites because He had spared them from death during the final plague in Exodus. But He had chosen the Levites to serve as their substitutes. They served in the place of those who were rightfully obligated to serve God. Not every Israelite was required to serve as a priest. Their place was taken by the Levites. Not every firstborn was required to dedicate their life to the service of God and His tabernacle. Their place was taken by the Levites.

Which is a picture of Christ’s substitutionary death for each of us. He became our sin substitute. He paid the debt we owed. He took our place. He served in our stead. He satisfied the demands of a holy God and did what none of us could on our own. He made the ultimate sacrifice. And that is what the Levites did. They became a sacrifice for the people of Israel. They served and satisfied the demands of God by maintaining and caring for His Tabernacle. They kept the people of Israel from experiencing death by keeping the tabernacle holy and set apart for God. Their role was vital to the spiritual life of the people of God. They gave so that others might live. Just as Jesus did for us.

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.

Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

1 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” – Malachi 2:1-9 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been given the special privilege of serving God with the responsibility of overseeing the tabernacle and everything associated with it.

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.

“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant.

“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:1-2, 5-6 NLT

But at the time Malachi penned his prophetic pronouncement, the Levitical priesthood was guilty of neglecting its duties and treating its priestly responsibilities as a burden and not a blessing. The men given the responsibility of caring for God’s house found their duties to be a drudgery, not a delight. They even claimed, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord” (Malachi 1:13 NLT) and rejected God’s commands as too difficult and burdensome. In a real sense, their hearts were not in their work, and that is exactly what God has to say about their behavior.

“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” – Malachi 2:2 ESV

God expected heartfelt obedience to His commands, and His emphasis on the condition of their hearts was meant to reveal the true nature of their problem. This wasn’t a case of simple neglect or poor planning. Their failure to follow through on their commitment wasn’t due to overwork or lack of resources. They simply didn’t have the heart for it because their hearts were far from God.

“The word ‘heart’ (leb/lebab) denotes in Hebrew what may be called the command center of a person’s life, where knowledge is collected and considered and where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of one’s life.” – Footnote 173: H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 40.

These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel but instead, they were setting a dangerous precedent for those under their care. If the restored remnant of Israel was going to survive their return to Judah and enjoy the blessings God had in store for them, it would only happen if the priests faithfully fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. But God’s priests were guilty of the very same sin that had led to Israel’s banishment from Judah in the first place.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men. – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God holds spiritual leaders to a higher standard because, as His shepherds, they are responsible for the care of His flock. They serve as His undershepherds and must give an account for the way they have nurtured those under their care. And as for the Levitical priests, they were also responsible for the sacrificial system God had decreed.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:2, 9 NLT

Malachi delivers God’s stinging rebuke to these heartless and faithless priests, warning them that they were about to be cursed for their infidelity.

“I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile.” – Malachi 2:3 NLT

“The disgusting picture is of God taking the internal waste of the sacrificial animals and smearing it on the priests’ faces. Consequently both sacrifices and priests would have to be taken outside for disposal. This play on words communicates a double curse.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God was threatening to use their defiled sacrifices to defile them. He would no longer allow them to defame His name by their failure to execute their priestly responsibilities with integrity and honor. In a sense, God was warning that He was about to clean house. He remained committed to His covenant with the tribe of Levi.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

But these particular men had forfeited their right to serve as God’s priests. And when God’s curse fell on them, they would finally understand the gravity of their sin and the sacredness of the priestly role they had once held. And God provides them with a much-needed reminder of how their forefathers had faithfully lived up to their job description, bringing God’s blessings upon the people.

“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin. – Malachi 2:5-6 NLT

God had kept His word and restored a remnant of His disobedient people to the land of Judah. Seventy years after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had sovereignly arranged for King Cyrus to issue a decree that allowed a small band of exiled to make the long journey home and begin the restoration of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the walls had been rebuilt, the gates rehung, and the temple had risen majestically from the rubble. And the priests had been given the opportunity to renew their role as the spiritual leaders of Israel, providing instruction in the law and overseeing the recently reinstituted sacrificial system. Yet, despite all the blessings God had poured out on the nation of Israel, the priests had dropped the ball.

“But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:8 NLT

It’s essential to understand the serious nature of their sin. These men had not just led poorly, they had purposefully misled and misguided the people. Their teaching of the law had been inaccurate and confusing. They were guilty of misinterpreting and misrepresenting God’s commands, causing the people to unknowingly violate the will of God. Their propensity to offer unacceptable sacrifices meant that the peoples’ sins were never really atoned for. Unlike their forefathers, these men were liars and cheats, living unrighteous lives and causing the people to follow their example. And God was unwilling to allow their devastating actions to continue any longer.

“So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.” – Malachi 2:9 NLT

According to Numbers 18:32, their penalty should have been death, but God had chosen to punish them by diminishing their stature in the eyes of the people. Their fall from God’s good grace would be painful and swift. They had been set apart by God and given the responsibility of leading and feeding His flock. But they had ended up treating both their position and God’s flock with disdain. After 70 years in exile, the people of God desperately needed solid biblical instruction, godly leadership, and a sacrificial system that provided true atonement from sin. But these men provided none of the above. They twisted God’s words, misled His flock, and defiled the very sacrifices that should have brought atonement to God’s people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Problem of Polluted Priests

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. 13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:6-14 ESV

Malachi now turns his attention to the priestly leadership of Israel. These men had returned with the exiled from Babylon and, with the rebuilding of the temple, had been given the task of reinstituting the sacrificial system and the worship of Yahweh. As members of the tribe of Levi, their priestly responsibilities had been God-ordained and their role was vital to the overall well-being of the people. God had given them clear instructions regarding their job description.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

Levi was the third son born to Leah and Jacob, and he would become the father of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of Moses and Aaron. During the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan, God appointed Aaron and his sons as the first priests of Israel.

“You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. Then you shall take the garments, and put on Aaron the coat and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod. And you shall set the turban on his head and put the holy crown on the turban. You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on his head and anoint him. Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.” – Exodus 29:4-9 ESV

These men had been set apart by God as mediators between Himself and the people of Israel. They were given the task of ministering in the tabernacle during their journey to Canaan and, later, in the temple Solomon built in Jerusalem. Their role was critical to maintaining the spiritual integrity of the nation, and their faithful allegiance to God was intended to establish a precedence for all the people of Israel. As the priests went, so did the people.

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God. – Exodus 29:44-46 ESV

But post-exile, the priests had lost sight of their God-given responsibility and were treating their role with disdain and their God with disrespect. One of their responsibilities was to teach the people God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). And they were to serve as judges over the people (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). But Malachi points out that they had failed at both. It was almost impossible for them to teach the law when they regularly violated it themselves. And how were they to judge others when they were incapable of keeping God’s commands? They had become hypocritical and, therefore, ineffective models for the people of Israel.

As their Father, God demanded to know why they refused to honor Him. In doing so, He was accusing them of violating one of the foundational requirements found in the Ten Commandments.

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. – Exodus 20:12 ESV

God had created them and consecrated them for His service, but they refused to treat Him with the honor and respect He deserved. They enjoyed the distinct privilege of having been set apart by God to serve Him as His sons. But they showed their Heavenly Father little reverence and awe. Not only that, they refused to treat God as their Master and Lord.

“If I am your father and master, where are the honor and respect I deserve? You have shown contempt for my name!” – Malachi 1:6 NLT

As priests, these men bore the name of God, and their actions had brought shame on His name. They were His representatives among the people and their behavior was dishonoring His reputation and diminishing the worthiness of His character. As the people viewed the godless lifestyle of the priests, they were tempted to mimic their behavior. And since the priests were cutting corners in their worship of God, the people were prone to do the same thing.

But these pious men refused to acknowledge their guilt, choosing instead to question the charges God had leveled against them.

How have we ever shown contempt for your name? – Malachi 1:6 NLT

“How have we defiled the sacrifices?” – Malachi 1:7 NLT

In a sense, they were demanding that God prove His accusations against them. In their pride and arrogance, they refused to acknowledge that they had done anything wrong. But God pulled no punches when detailing the egregious nature of their sins.

“You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong? And isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are crippled and diseased? Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – Malachi 1:7-8 NLT

They were guilty of using their priestly office for profit. It seems that these men were sacrificing lame and injured animals as sacrifices to God, in direct violation of His law.  It seems likely that the people were bringing unblemished animals to be sacrificed but the priests were substituting those healthy animals with injured ones. In doing so, they were able to keep the healthy ones for their own consumption. By offering unacceptable sacrifices on behalf of the people, they invalidated the whole sacrificial system. No sins could be atoned for by offering up an unacceptable sacrifice. God would not and could not be appeased. God had been very specific regarding this matter.

“Give Aaron and his sons and all the Israelites these instructions, which apply both to native Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.

“If you present a gift as a burnt offering to the LORD, whether it is to fulfill a vow or is a voluntary offering, you will be accepted only if your offering is a male animal with no defects. It may be a bull, a ram, or a male goat. Do not present an animal with defects, because the LORD will not accept it on your behalf.” – Leviticus 22:18-20 NLT

God expected His priests to be holy and He demanded that the sacrifices they offered be holy as well.

“They must be set apart as holy to their God and must never bring shame on the name of God. They must be holy, for they are the ones who present the special gifts to the Lord, gifts of food for their God.” – Leviticus 21:6 NLT

And Malachi picks up on this theme of presenting gifts of food for God by describing their blemished offerings as “contemptible food” that “defile the Lord’s table” (Malachi 1:12 NLT). They wouldn’t dare to serve the royal governor tainted meat but they had no problem offering God unacceptable sacrifices. And God displays His anger by declaring His desire to shut the doors of the temple to bring an end to their hypocrisy. It’s important to remember that the sacrificial system had just been reinstituted. It had been more than 70 years since the people had been able to have their sins atoned for, and now, they ran the risk of losing this vital opportunity once again. All because of the sins of the priesthood. 

But these men remain unrepentant, choosing instead to blame their behavior on the overwhelming nature of the entire sacrificial system. It is just too hard, they say. They find it all so wearisome and difficult to maintain. So, they treat God’s words with disdain and dismiss His commands as optional. But God will have none of it. He marvels at the sheer arrogance of these men, pointing out the mind-boggling audacity of their actions.

“Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” – Malachi 1:13 ESV

Their behavior is unthinkable and their gifts are unacceptable. And God pronounces a curse upon these men.

“Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.” – Malachi 1:14 ESV

Their set-apart status would not protect them from the anger of God. He would judge and punish them for their actions. If they were unwilling to honor His name, God would do it Himself. Their refusal to live up to their responsibility as His priests and the peoples’ shepherds would bring down the wrath of God. Their failure to honor God by keeping His commandments would result in His just and righteous judgment of them. A returned people and a restored temple meant nothing if the priests of God refused to lead the people of God to repentance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Hope for the Hopeless

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. Luke 5:12-16 ESV

Once again, Luke presents what appears to be a slightly different timeline for this event. But he is far less concerned with presenting an accurate chronology than he is with focusing on what Jesus said and did. In other words, the when takes a backseat to the what in his mind. His primary point of emphasis is the interaction between Jesus and the various people He encountered during His public ministry. And it will soon become clear that while Jesus was attracting a growing number of followers, He was also drawing the attention and, ultimately, the ire of the Jewish religious leaders. These powerful and influential men were growing concerned about His increasing popularity among the common people, and it would not be long before they were forced to deal with this threat to their authority.

But as Jesus entered yet another city, He was approached by a man who suffered from the debilitating effects of leprosy. Not only did he have to deal with the pain and suffering inflicted by this dreaded disease, but he also had to endure the social ostracization that accompanied it. He was an outcast who was deemed to be unclean and unapproachable by his own people. He was unwelcome in the synagogue and considered a social pariah. But all throughout the gospels, those who suffered from this incurable disease seem to represent the spiritual state of the people of Israel. Whether they realized it or not, they were considered unclean and unapproachable by God. Their sin had infected them to such a degree that they were unwelcome in His presence and doomed to a life marked by helplessness and hopelessness.

Yet, this leprous man took his hopeless condition to Jesus. He had heard about the miracles Jesus had performed in other cities, so when he discovered that the famous rabbi was in town, he made the bold decision to approach Him. This would have been considered an egregious breach of social protocol and the rest of the crowd would have been angered by the man’s presumptuous behavior.

But this man was desperate and had nothing to lose. He no longer had any dignity and his only hope of ever living a normal life was bound up in this stranger from Nazareth. So, he fell at the feet of Jesus and pleaded, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12 ESV). What jumps off the page is the depth of the man’s faith. He displays a profound belief in Jesus’ capacity to heal him of his disease. In fact, he believed the only thing standing between him and his complete healing was the willingness of Jesus to make it happen. And in his gospel account, Mark records that Jesus, moved by compassion for the man, reaching out and touched him. You can almost hear the audible gasp from the crowd as they watched Jesus do the unthinkable. In touching the diseased man, Jesus had just made Himself unclean. He ran the risk of contamination and, subsequently, social ostracization. But Jesus knew something they didn’t know. He had come to conquer the ravages of sin and death. His entire ministry was aimed at bringing healing to the spiritually diseased and dying. And a few verses later in this same chapter, Luke records the words of Jesus concerning His mission.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:31-32 ESV

The leper’s illness was readily apparent. It was highly visible and undeniable. But the spiritually sick are harder to spot. They can disguise their terminal illness with good works and pious acts of self-righteousness. Yet Jesus knew that all those in the crowd were just as hopeless and helpless as the leper. But he had something they lacked: Faith. He believed that Jesus could do something about his condition. And Jesus did not disappoint.

And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” – Luke 5:13 ESV

We’re not told how long this man had suffered from his condition, but when Jesus touched him, it would have been the first human contact he had experienced in a long time. Notice that Jesus places the emphasis not on the man’s disease but on his state of uncleanness. Jesus didn’t say, “Be healed.” He said, “Be clean.” He was restoring the man’s dignity and ability to worship as part of the faith community. That’s why Jesus commanded him, “Go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Moses for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed” (Luke 5:14 NLT).

Jesus was requiring that the man follow the proper requirements as outlined in the Mosaic Law. His cleanness would not be complete until the proper sacrifices were made for the atonement of his sins.

The priest shall offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. And afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean. – Leviticus 14:19-20 ESV

Jesus was not suggesting the man’s leprosy was the result of sin, but He knew that the man would not be accepted back into fellowship until he met the required conditions. He could appear cleansed and whole, but it required a blood sacrifice and the blessing of the priest before he could be officially declared healed and purified.

This entire scene brings to mind the words of the apostle Paul, written to the church in Ephesus. He reminded them that they too had once been in a similar state as the leprous man. They were the walking dead, living in a state of spiritual helplessness and hopelessness, separated from God by their own sinfulness.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. – Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT

But Paul adds the good news.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

All those who come to Jesus as the leper did, expressing their faith in His ability to heal their disease, will hear Him say the very same thing: “I will, be clean.”

Having received his healing, the man did as Jesus had said and made his way to visit the priest. But according to Mark’s gospel, the man disobeyed Jesus’ warning to tell no one what had happened. Instead, “as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places” (Mark 1:45 NLT).

These miracles were intended to prove Jesus’ authority as the Son of God. They demonstrated his power over demons and disease. With just a word, He could set people free from their captivity to demonic possession or the ravages of a disease or disability. But the risk Jesus ran every time He performed a miracle was that the people would see Him as their hope for political liberation rather than spiritual deliverance. He knew that they longed for a Messiah who would restore Israel’s prominence and power. He was well aware that they were looking for a political Savior, not a spiritual one. So, He was forced to seek refuge from the growing crowds and their increasing anticipation that He was going to put Israel back on the map politically speaking.

And Luke reports that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16 ESV). In the midst of all the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded His ministry, Jesus sought time to get alone with His Heavenly Father. He remained focused on doing His Father’s will and sticking to the timeline established for His earthly ministry. He was not going to allow the peoples’ agenda to distract or deter Him from His God-appointed mission. Because He knew that true cleansing and complete forgiveness from sins would only come through His atoning sacrifice. And that day, while drawing closer, had not yet come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Salvation, Revelation, and Redemption

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Luke 2:22-38 ESV

Once again, Luke presents us with a detailed timeline of events. Eight days after His birth, Jesus was taken by Mary and Joseph to be circumcised, in accordance with the Mosaic Law.

“‘When a woman produces offspring and bears a male child, she will be unclean seven days, as she is unclean during the days of her menstruation. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised. Then she will remain thirty-three days in blood purity.’” – Leviticus 12:2-4 NLT

According to the law, the mother was considered to be unclean because of her contact with blood during the birth process. At the end of the prescribed period of purification (40 days), Mary was required to go to the temple in Jerusalem in order to present an offering before the Lord so that she might be declared clean.

“‘When the days of her purification are completed for a son or for a daughter, she must bring a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering to the entrance of the Meeting Tent, to the priest. The priest is to present it before the Lord and make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean from her flow of blood.’” – Leviticus 12:6-7 NLT

But strangely, Luke reports that “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22 ESV). Notice that Luke uses the plural pronoun, “their,” while the Leviticus passage used the singular pronoun, “her.” It could be that Joseph also required purification because he had been required to assist Mary in giving birth. But it could be that Luke is hinting that this human couple required atonement (cleansing from sin) before they could begin the process of raising the Son of God. They were both being purified for the daunting task of parenting the Messiah.

As part of their trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph also consecrated their newborn son to the Lord. The Mosaic law required that all firstborn sons be set apart or consecrated to God.

“Set apart to me every firstborn male—the first offspring of every womb among the Israelites, whether human or animal; it is mine.” – Exodus 13:2 NLT

“…then you must give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. Every firstling of a beast that you have—the males will be the Lord’s. – Exodus 13:12 NLT

The reason behind this ritual was tied to the final plague that had eventually secured the release of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. God sent an angel throughout the land of Egypt with orders to strike dead the firstborn males of both man and beast (Exodus 12:12). But God also ordered every Israelite household to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorpost and lintel of their house. When the angel saw the blood, he passed over that home, sparing all the firstborn males of that family. This became known as the Passover Celebration. And God told the Israelites how to explain this annual celebration to each succeeding generation.

“When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to release us, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of people to the firstborn of animals. That is why I am sacrificingto the Lord the first male offspring of every womb, but all my firstborn sons I redeem.” – Exodus 13:15 NLT

So, Mary and Joseph obediently consecrated their new son to the Lord. But Luke informs his readers that there was something special that took place that day. God had arranged for a specific priest to be on duty that day. His name was Simeon and Luke describes him as “righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25 ESV). This man had lived his entire life longing to see “the consolation of Israel.” The word “consolation” is paraklēsis in Greek and it means “to comfort or refresh” Simeon believed that God was going to send the Messiah to redeem and restore the spiritual fortunes of Israel. And, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Simeon believed this long-anticipated event would take place in his lifetime.

God ordained that Simeon would be the priest on duty that day. Led by the Spirit of God, Simeon made his way to the temple and was there when Mary and Joseph showed up to consecrate Jesus. With the Spirit’s help, Simeon immediately recognized that Jesus was the one for whom the nation of Israel had been looking and hoping. While just over a month old at the time, Jesus was the Savior and Redeemer of Israel. And in a state of ecstatic joy and gratitude, Simeon took the infant in his arms and offered up a heartfelt blessing to God.

“Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permityour servant to depart in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” – Luke 2:29-32 NLT

Simeon’s greatest desire had been fulfilled. He had lived to see the coming of the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel. And under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he describes Jesus as the salvation of God and then adds that He will be a light of revelation to the Gentiles. This statement was a direct reference to the words of God recorded by the prophet Isaiah.

“You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:6 ESV

This Messianic passage speaks of the commissioning of the Servant of God who would redeem and restore the rebellious nation of Israel but who would also bring the salvation of God to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he was holding this Savior and Redeemer in his hands. Jesus was the very same Servant whose words Isaiah had recorded centuries earlier.

“The LORD called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” – Isaiah 49:1 NLT

And this Servant would have a two-fold mission to accomplish.

“…the one who formed me from birth to be his servant—
he did this to restore Jacob to himself,
so that Israel might be gathered to him;
and I will be honored in the Lord’s sight,
for my God is my source of strength—
he says, “Is it too insignificant a task for you to be my servant,
to reestablish the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the remnant of Israel?
I will make you a light to the nations,
so you can bring my deliverance to the remote regions of the earth.” – Isaiah 49:5-6 NLT

Yes, Jesus would be the Messiah of Israel, restoring them to a right relationship with God. But He would also be a light to the nations, shining the glory of God’s goodness and grace to all the nations of the world. But Simeon, as a faithful Jewish priest, understood the words recorded by Isaiah to be primarily a promise of God’s future restoration of the nation of Israel. They were experiencing difficult days. They had no king. The Romans ruled them with a heavy hand and burdened them with oppressive taxes. He, like all the other faithful of Israel, longed for the day when the Messiah would appear on the scene to set things right. And he must have had the words of Psalm 98 in mind when he composed his own song of thanksgiving to God.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he performs amazing deeds.
His right hand and his mighty arm
accomplish deliverance.
The Lord demonstrates his power to deliver;
in the sight of the nations he reveals his justice.
He remains loyal and faithful to the family of Israel.
All the ends of the earth see our God deliver us. – Psalm 98:1-3 NLT

For Simeon, God’s faithful restoration of Israel would be the light that would illumine the minds of the sin-darkened nations of the earth. But little did he know that God had something different in mind. The future restoration of Israel will take place, but it was not going to take place at the first coming of Jesus. Simeon had no way of knowing that his people would end up rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. The young baby Simeon held in his hands would end up crucified and rejected by those He came to save.

And Simeon, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, pronounces a blessing on Mary and Joseph the meaning of which he probably did not fully comprehend.

“Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” – Luke 2:34-35 NLT

He prophetically announces that Jesus will have a decisive, yet divisive influence. There will be those who fall by rejecting Jesus as their Messiah, and others who will rise by recognizing Him as the anointed one of God. Jesus will divide the nation by exposing the hearts of the people. And Simeon prophetically predicts that Mary will have her own heart pierced by the events she will be forced to witness. Her son, the Savior and Redeemer of Israel will be rejected and destroyed by His own people.

But this somewhat depressing statement of blessing by Simeon was followed up by a declaration of joy and thanksgiving by an elderly Hebrew prophetess named Anna. Luke indicates the timeliness of her appearance by stating that she showed up “at that very hour.” This was all part of God’s sovereign plan. And Luke adds that “she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38 NLT).

Their legal requirements fulfilled, Mary and Joseph left Jerusalem and returned to Nazareth, with the words of Simeon and Anna still ringing in their ears. And for the next 12 years, they would raise their son in relative obscurity and silence, not knowing exactly how His future would unfold.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Darkness to Light

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:33-39 ESV

At Noon on Friday, as Jesus hung on the cross, His life slowly ebbing away, the sky was suddenly darkened. Luke described it rather poetically: “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45 ESV). For three hours Jesus had suffered in broad daylight, in full sight of the high priest and the other members of the Sanhedrin, who mocked Him relentlessly. The crowd that had gathered to watch this macabre spectacle, cast their eyes and their ire on Jesus, taunting Him to save Himself by coming down from the cross. The soldiers looked up at Him with scorn as they gambled over His garments. Even the two criminals who were being crucified on either side of Him couldn’t resist the temptation to revile this so-called King of Israel. For three long hours, Jesus hung in broad daylight, facing the judgment of sinful men. Then. suddenly and unexpectedly, the sky grew dark. And for the next three hours, Jesus would face the righteous judgment of God.

Jesus had been charged with the crime of blasphemy by a religious council made up of mere men. He had been condemned to die by the earthly authority of another man, an official representative of the Roman government. And Jesus had been scourged, mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross by men who wore the uniform of the Roman Legion, serving at the behest of the Emperor. But none of these men were responsible for what was taking place that day. This entire scene had been the pre-ordained plan of God. He had orchestrated the whole affair so that His sinless Son could bear the righteous judgment that must be poured out on mankind’s rebellion. With the darkening of the sun, the wrath of men was replaced by the wrath of God. What transpired at high Noon that Friday was the pouring out of God’s judgment against the sin and rebellion of mankind, just as the prophet Amos had predicted.

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
    “I will make the sun go down at noon
    and darken the earth in broad daylight.” – Amos 8:9 ESV

Isaiah had also prophesied about this dark day when “the Lord laid on him the sins of us all” (Isaiah 53:6 NLT). Paul would later describe the nature of Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice in terms that we could understand.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

At that very moment, the full weight of God’s divine retribution for the sin and rebellion of mankind was poured out on His Son. Jesus hung on the cross as the sacrificial Lamb, destined to bear the full brunt of God’s just and righteous anger for the centuries-worth of open disdain and disregard for His rightful rule and reign. Paul tells us that “God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18 NLT). And one of the ways God revealed His anger against mankind’s rebellion was to abandon them to a life of futility and hopeless slavery to sin. “God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired” (Romans 1:24 NLT). 

But ultimately, mankind would be forced to pay for their sin and rebellion, and the payment required would be death, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NLT). But the payment God would demand would involve much more than just physical death. It would require eternal separation from Him. Mankind’s rejection of God would eventually result in their permanent and painful casting from His presence. But God had a plan to remedy this problem. He had arranged to send His Son to act as the ransom for the sins of many.  He would give His life as the sinless substitute for a humanity that had been justly condemned by its own stubborn refusal to honor God.

And when the sun darkened, it was a visible display of God’s glory departing the scene. As the Son took on the full sum of humanity’s sin, the Father was forced to look away. As Isaiah put it, “the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.” The guilt and condemnation for every sin – past, present, and future – was placed upon Jesus. But not only did He bear the guilt, but He also experienced the full measure of God’s displeasure and divine judgment. And that is what led Jesus to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV). At that precise moment, Jesus experienced the unbearable reality of being separated from His Heavenly Father, for the first time in His eternal life.

Back during God’s deliverance of His people from their captivity in Egypt, He had brought a series of plagues against Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The tenth plague was darkness. God had told Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt” (Exodus 10:21 ESV). And that pervading darkness lasted for three long days. Interestingly enough, the plague of darkness was followed by the death of the firstborn. And in the same way, the three hours during which all of Israel was plunged into darkness would be followed by the death of the firstborn Son of God.

Even in His cry of despair and pain, Jesus quoted Scripture. He cited Psalm 22:1, demonstrating that His sacrificial act on the cross was in fulfillment of God’s Word. Jesus was not questioning the actions of His Heavenly Father. He was simply acknowledging that this moment had been pre-ordained and was a non-negotiable part of the redemptive plan of God. Jesus had to be forsaken so that mankind’s sins could be forgiven.

For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

Jesus knew that His suffering for sin was necessary. He also knew that His Father would be forced to turn His back on Him as long as He bore the sins of mankind. And the only thing that would satisfy the just demands of His Father would be the sacrifice of His own life as payment. The author of Hebrews reveals that the death of Jesus was the only solution to mankind’s sin problem.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God,

“You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings.
    But you have given me a body to offer.
You were not pleased with burnt offerings
    or other offerings for sin.
Then I said, ‘Look, I have come to do your will, O God…” – Hebrews 10:4-7 NLT

Jesus had come to do God’s will. And that required Him to suffer the unbearable reality of separation from His own Father. And during that three-hour interval, when darkness covered the land of Israel, God provided yet another visible sign to demonstrate the efficacy of His Son’s sacrifice. Mark indicates that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38 ESV). This massive curtain, that hung in the temple, and separated the Holy of Holies from the Most Holy Place, was torn in two. This rending of the curtain symbolized that the barrier that separated sinful men from a Holy God had been removed. With His death, Jesus was making access into God’s presence possible for all who would accept His sacrifice on their behalf.

…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. – Hebrews 9:12 ESV

He poured out His own blood on the mercy seat located within the Most Holy Place. He atoned for the sins of mankind by offering His sinless life as the all-sufficient sacrifice, once for all. And as the darkness receded and the light was restored, Jesus breathed His last. His mission complete, He laid down His life and died. And one of the men who had assisted in His crucifixion and bartered over His garments looked on in wonder. And all he could say was, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 ESV). The doubter became a believer. The one who had mocked Jesus became His follower. Into the darkness of his life, the Light of God shone bright and clear. This man experienced exactly what Jesus had told Nicodemus.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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 Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson