Mistakes Will Happen

22 “But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, 23 all that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the Lord gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations, 24 then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord, with its grain offering and its drink offering, according to the rule, and one male goat for a sin offering. 25 And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake, and they have brought their offering, a food offering to the Lord, and their sin offering before the Lord for their mistake. 26 And all the congregation of the people of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole population was involved in the mistake.

27 “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” 

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. Numbers 15:22-36 ESV

The people of Israel were guilty of having committed the sin of rebellion. They had purposefully rejected His command to enter the land of Canaan, because they doubted His ability to give them victory over its current occupants. According to the assessment of the ten spies, the pagan nations that populated the promised land were too powerful and the odds of failure were insurmountable. There was no way a rag-tag militia comprised of former slaves, shepherds, and farmers were going to defeat the well-armed and highly-trained armies of the Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. So, they had decided to disobey God’s will, dismiss His appointed leaders, and return to Egypt.

But rather than reining down judgment and wiping them off the face of the earth, God sentenced them to a lifetime of meaningless wandering in the wilderness – until the last of that generation had died off. They would pay for their sin by experiencing a permanent ban from entering the land of promise or ever enjoying the promise of God’s rest.

Their sin had been deliberate and premeditated. They had intentionally rejected God’s will and would have to suffer the consequences. But in verses 22-26, God graciously made provision for unintentional sin. He knew there would be occasions when His children sinned “by mistake.” In other words, they would accidentally or unintentionally violate His commands without knowing they had done so. And God made provision for those inevitable occasions.

God provided Moses with a hypothetical, “what-if” scenario that was designed to eliminate the guilt that came from inadvertently violating His commands. He made a provision for man’s built-in propensity for committing sin. And this special dispensation was to be a long-standing and applicable to every successive generation.

And suppose your descendants in the future fail to do everything the Lord has commanded through Moses. If the mistake was made unintentionally, and the community was unaware of it, the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Numbers 15:23-24 NLT

The kind of sacrifices referred to in these verses were meant to cover sins of commission as well as omission. Whether the guilty party simply forgot to keep a command (omission) or unknowingly violated a command (commission), as long as they had done so by mistake, they could receive forgiveness. But it was to be a community-wide affair. Once they discovered the presence of sin in the camp, the entire nation was to take a part in making atonement for the  offense.

“…the whole community must present a young bull for a burnt offering as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. It must be offered along with its prescribed grain offering and liquid offering and with one male goat for a sin offering.” – Numbers 15:24 NLT

Sin is sin, and its impact is universal. No one sins alone. The nature of sin is that it is highly contagious and infectious. It can spread like yeast in a lump of dough or like cancer cells in the human body. And it doesn’t matter whether the sin was committed intentionally or not. Any violation of God’s law requires confession and restitution. The sin must be atoned for and that atonement required a sacrifice.

And God knew that anyone was capable of committing unintentional sin, including the high priest.

“If the high priest sins, bringing guilt upon the entire community, he must give a sin offering for the sin he has committed. – Leviticus 4:3 NLT

And the price for his atonement was an unblemished young bull. And if the entire community happened to commit corporate sin without realizing it, they were also required a young bull. If one of the nation’s leaders committed an unintentional sin, he was required to offer an unblemished goat as payment. And in all three cases the blood of the sacrificed animal was to be placed on the horns of the altar within the tabernacle. The Leviticus passage makes it clear that even sins committed by mistake would render the individual, leader, or community as guilty before God. And, unless atonement was made, that guilt would lead to condemnation.

Yet, when the sin was exposed, the guilt was admitted, and the proper sacrifice was made, the individual could expect to receive the forgiveness of God.

“With it the priest will purify the whole community of Israel, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven.” – Numbers 15:25 NLT

But what about those who knowingly and deliberately violated one of God’s commands? What hope did they have of receiving God’s forgiveness?

But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community.” – Numbers 15:30 NLT

The language suggests that this individual has boldly and unapologetically chosen to disobey the revealed will of God. There is no sense of remorse or regret. No confession is forthcoming and no repentance is displayed. Even when the sin is exposed, this individual persists in justifying and continuing his rebellions ways – with impunity. And the result is drastic: “they must be cut off from the community.”

This is not suggesting their dismissal from the camp or some kind of public ostracization. No, this is a reference to death. The guilty party is to be cut off by virtue of their public execution. What God seems to have in mind here are sins that are committed against Him. This would include the worship of false gods, the fabricating of idols, taking His name in vain, or failing to honor the Sabbath. These violations would incur God’s wrath and demand the death of the perpetrator.

The book of Leviticus indicates that willful sins committed against another individual were to be treated differently. While all violations of God’s laws are ultimately sins against Him, He made special provisions for sins committed against a neighbor.

“Suppose one of you sins against your associate and is unfaithful to the Lord. Suppose you cheat in a deal involving a security deposit, or you steal or commit fraud, or you find lost property and lie about it, or you lie while swearing to tell the truth, or you commit any other such sin. If you have sinned in any of these ways, you are guilty. – Leviticus 6:2-4 NLT

Repentance and restitution were required. Amends must be made. But not only that, a guilt offering was demanded to restore the sinner’s relationship with God.

“As a guilt offering to the Lord, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process, the priest will purify you before the Lord, making you right with him, and you will be forgiven for any of these sins you have committed.” – Leviticus 6:6-7 NLT

And, as if to give a concrete example of a non-repentant and brazenly defiant sin against God, Moses includes the story of a Sabbath breaker. The man was discovered collecting firewood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the fourth commandment. Evidently, he knew exactly what he was doing and was defiant in doing so. And the penalty for his blatant display of disobedience was death.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

Mistakes were inevitable and unavoidable. Everyone would sin at some point. They important distinction was whether that sin was intentional or not. Secondly, it was important to differentiate between horizontal and vertical sin. A sin committed against a brother could be atoned for and forgiven. But any willful and unrepentant violation of one of the first four commandments would bring down the full wrath of God. Mistakes would happen and were redeemable through God’s grace. But brazen sins against God were unforgivable and deserving of His righteous indignation and full justice.

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.

 

Close, But Yet So Far

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” Numbers 14:13-25 ESV

God was angry. He had deemed the ungrateful and disobedient response of the people to His leadership as unacceptable and worthy of judgment.

“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:11-12 ESV

But this was not the first time that God had grown impatient with His chosen people. When they had been camped at the base of Mount Sinai, He had reached a similar conclusion because of their blatant display of rebellion. While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to fashion and worship a golden calf. To make matters worse, the Israelites were crediting their new idol with their recent deliverance from Egypt. So, God told Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” – Exodus 32:9-10 ESV

In both cases, God declared His intent to destroy the people of Israel and start from scratch. But notice that in neither scenario would His destruction have included Moses and his family. God was willing to spare His chosen leader and start the process of building a great nation all over again. He had started the original plan with Abraham, and there was nothing to prevent Him from doing so with Moses. Except for Moses.

On both occasions, one person stood in the way of God carrying out His plan to completely destroy His rebellious people. Moses intervened. He interceded on behalf of his fellow Israelites. Despite the fact that these very same people had repeatedly questioned his leadership and had even attempted to replace him, he boldly defended them.  In Exodus, we read that “Moses implored the Lord his God…” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). And in Numbers, it states that “Moses said to the Lord…” (Numbers 14:13 ESV).

This beleaguered and often discredited man stood by his fellow Israelites and begged God to consider the impact His destruction would have on His reputation. At Sinai, Moses had raised the prospect of the Egyptians gloating over the annihilation of the Jewish people by their own God.

“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” – Exodus 32:12 ESV

Moses appealed to God’s sense of honor and reminded Him of the covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:13 ESV

As a result, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV).

In the wilderness of Paran, Moses employed a similar tactic with God, arguing that news of His destruction of the people would get back to the Egyptians and they would spread rumors among the Canaanites about His unfaithfulness.

“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land…” – Numbers 14:13-14 ESV

Moses reminded God that the nations that occupied Canaan had already heard of His presence among the people of Israel.

“They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.” – Numbers 14:14 ESV

News of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt had already reached Canaan. They had heard about God’s power and the devastating plagues He had poured out on the Egyptians. Rumors concerning this massive host of people traveling through the wilderness had made their way to the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. Reports of Israel’s God going before them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night had reached their ears and left them shaking in terror.

But Moses warns God that if He follows through with His plan to wipe out the Israelites, it could do irreparable damage to His reputation among the Canaanites. They will go from fearing Him to feeling sorry for Him.

“Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:15-16 ESV

So, Moses appeals to God’s love, patience, and faithfulness.

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Numbers 14:18 ESV

Moses was not denying the guilt of the people; he was simply calling on God to only punish those who were responsible for the rebellion. He pleaded with God to “pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (Numbers 14:19 ESV). From Moses’ perspective, the people had been misled and negatively influenced by the report of the ten spies. These men had coerced the people into rejecting God’s command to enter the land of Canaan. Moses believed the spies were deserving of God’s judgment but the people deserved God’s forgiveness. And God agreed. He pardoned the people but declared His intent to punish the ten spies.

“…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV

But what Moses failed to understand was the deep-rooted rebellion among that generation of Israelites. The problem was greater than Moses realized. And while God was willing to pardon the nation as a whole, He would not forgive those who had questioned His integrity and rejected His command to enter the land. The ten spies would suffer immediate death as a result of a God-ordained plague (Numbers 14:36-38). But the rest of that generation would be spared. Yet, as the following verses reveal, they would ultimately die of natural causes in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-33).

They had listened to the report of the spies and refused to obey God’s command to enter the land of promise. In doing so, they were denying God’s power to give them victory over their enemies. They were discrediting God’s promises, inferring that He was incapable of doing what He had said He would do. And they were displaying their ingratitude for all that He had done on their behalf. God would remain faithful. He would continue to display His steadfast love and extend His grace and mercy. But that generation would pay dearly for their refusal to do His will. He had wanted to bless them but they had forfeited that right through their stubborn disobedience.

God would not destroy them, but they would never set foot in Canaan. They had been delivered by God but would never experience the joy of entering into His rest.

“…when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
    and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
    “They shall not enter my rest.” – Psalm 90:9-11 ESV

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.

Sin the the Camp

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

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong. But if the man has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for him. And every contribution, all the holy donations of the people of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. 10 Each one shall keep his holy donations: whatever anyone gives to the priest shall be his.” Numbers 5:1-10 ESV

God puts a high priority on holiness and because He set apart the people of Israel as His own possession, He expected them to live up to His exacting standards.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

Having dealt with the Levitical responsibility for the care of the tabernacle, God now turns His attention to the rest of the tribes of Israel. And in the next two chapters, He provides Moses with some rather strange instructions that deal with a wide range of topics – from the seemingly harsh treatment of lepers and those individuals suffering from potentially contagious diseases to the trial of a wife accused of adultery and the strange regulations concerning the Nazirite vow.

But the underlying point seems to be fairly simple: God is highly concerned about the moral purity of His people. He takes the vows of His people seriously. He expects them to maintain moral and ethical standards that are superior to those of other nations. He holds His chosen people to a higher standard than the rest of the nations.

It’s interesting to note that these two chapters talk a lot about moral failure, uncleanliness, and defilement. Yet in the end, there is a beautiful statement regarding God’s desire to bless and protect His people. God wanted to show His people favor and grace. He wanted to shine the light of His glory on them. But He couldn’t do it if there was sin in the camp. He couldn’t dwell in the midst of uncleanness and defilement. He would not make His home in a place surrounded by sin.

So God takes special care to maintain external cleanliness in His people. In verses 1-4 of chapter 5, God commands that those who carry potentially deadly diseases be removed from the camp. This seems like harsh and unloving treatment of the disadvantaged, but its intent was protective and not punitive. They were placed outside the camp so that their disease would not spread, bringing disaster and death to the entire nation.

This rather startling command was meant to provide a not-so-subtle picture of how God’s people were to deal with sin found in their midst. They were to view it as dangerous and potentially deadly and remove it. Like a communicable disease, sin posed a real threat, threatening to spread throughout the camp if left unchecked. The risk of contamination was real and needed to be dealt with decisively. But God’s people always find it much easier to allow sin to exist. We are reluctant to judge, lest we be judged. Yet God seems to be reminding us that the regulations made for ensuring cleanliness in the camp of Israel suggest the adoption of similar means for maintaining purity in the church.

“And although, in large communities of Christians, it may be often difficult or delicate to do this, the suspension or, in flagrant cases of sin, the total excommunication of the offender from the privileges and communion of the church is an imperative duty, as necessary to the moral purity of the Christian as the exclusion of the leper from the camp was to physical health and ceremonial purity in the Jewish church.” – Matthew Henry, The Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible

God wanted to bless His people. He wanted to shower them with His favor, but He expected them to take seriously those things that might defile them and diminish their holiness. And He had given Moses very detailed instructions regarding those physical conditions that would render a person impure and, therefore, unholy.

“If anyone has a swelling or a rash or discolored skin that might develop into a serious skin disease, that person must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons. The priest will examine the affected area of the skin. If the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, it is a serious skin disease, and the priest who examines it must pronounce the person ceremonially unclean.” – Leviticus 13:2-3 NLT

“If anyone has suffered a burn on the skin and the burned area changes color, becoming either reddish white or shiny white, the priest must examine it. If he finds that the hair in the affected area has turned white and the problem appears to be more than skin-deep, a skin disease has broken out in the burn. The priest must then pronounce the person ceremonially unclean, for it is clearly a serious skin disease. – Leviticus 13:24-25 NLT

These instructions go on for several chapters and make for a far-from-pleasant read. But the point behind them is clear. God viewed these skin conditions as potentially contagious and, therefore, dangerous to the well-being of the nation. The one inflicted with them was to be declared ceremonially unclean and separated from the rest of the camp until healed.

Anyone who had come into contact with a dead body was also to be considered ceremonially unclean and placed in isolation for a period of seven days (Numbers 19:11). And God provides the reasoning behind this command and the others that demanded removal from the camp.

“Remove them so they will not defile the camp in which I live among them…” – Numbers 5:3 NLT

God’s presence demanded the purity of His people, both physically and spiritually. The Levites had been charged with keeping the tabernacle holy and consecrated to the Lord. Now, God was letting the rest of the tribes know that His tabernacle must dwell in the midst of a holy people.

These chapters reveal that the purity of God’s people was a high priority to Him. Why? Because He wanted to bless them and dwell among them. He desired to show them His favor. But sin separates. Sin brings God’s anger instead of His favor. Sin destroys. And God made sure the people made the connection between physical defilement and moral uncleanness by declaring the danger of sinful behavior among His people.

“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If any of the people—men or women—betray the Lord by doing wrong to another person, they are guilty. They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged.” – Numbers 5:6-7 NLT

Sin was not to be tolerated or treated lightly. It was to be dealt with decisively and immediately. And God clarifies that sin is ultimately an affront to Him. It is a betrayal of the Lord. The Hebrew word is מַעַל (maʿal), and it refers to an act of treachery or betrayal. In committing any sin, the guilty party has displayed their unfaithfulness to the Lord. While their sin harmed another human being, it was done in violation of the will of God. So, God required that restitution be made. Their sin came at a cost. Restoration to God was not possible until payment was made to the innocent party. But if restitution was not possible, the guilty party was obligated to make things right with God.

But if the person who was wronged is dead, and there are no near relatives to whom restitution can be made, the payment belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest. Those who are guilty must also bring a ram as a sacrifice, and they will be purified and made right with the Lord. – Numbers 5:8 NLT

While God was concerned about the interpersonal relationships between His people, He was even more concerned about their status with Him. Sins committed against others were ultimately an affront to God because He had provided strict laws concerning the interactions between His people. They were prohibited from committing murder, practicing adultery, lying, stealing, dishonoring their parents, coveting, and speaking falsely about one another.

But God knew that they would have a hard time adhering to these commands. That’s why He provided them with the sacrificial system that provided a means of atonement. Even when they committed unintentional sins, they would need a means of restoring their broken relationship with God.

“Suppose you sin by violating one of the Lord’s commands. Even if you are unaware of what you have done, you are guilty and will be punished for your sin. For a guilt offering, you must bring to the priest your own ram with no defects, or you may buy one of equal value. Through this process the priest will purify you from your unintentional sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. This is a guilt offering, for you have been guilty of an offense against the Lord.” – Leviticus 5:17-19 NLT

God made provision for sin. And for the people of Israel, it involved the sacrificial system. But the author of Hebrews reminds us that the sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to man’s sin problem.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. 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 10:1-5 NLT

God has given His Son as payment for our sins – past, present, and future. We no longer have to pay the penalty that sin requires – which is death and separation from God. But we still must take sin seriously. Paul asks this powerful and probing question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1 NIV). Then he provides the answer: “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2 NIV).

Paul goes on to tell us: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7 NIV). We no longer have to sin. We have been set free from its power and its penalty. Yet we find that we still have a propensity to sin. And God expects us to treat sin with the same soberness and seriousness that He demanded of the people of Israel. So He can bless us with His favor.

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.

Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:13-20 ESV

Back in the previous chapter, James wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2 ESV). He accused his readers of two sins. The first had to do with allowing their unfulfilled passions to turn into covetousness and greed. Unable to get what they believed to be rightfully theirs, they were attempting to get it by force, even expressing a willingness to kill for it. But that raises the second sin of which they were guilty. They never made their request known to God.

These people were fighting amongst themselves because their unmet desires were producing uncontrollable jealousy and envy. Rather than expressing their so-called needs to God, they were taking matters into their own hands. And, on those rare occasions when they did manage to ask God for what they craved, they did so with the wrong motives.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:3 ESV

James accused them of spiritual adultery because they displayed a greater love for the things of this world than they did for God. The things they so greatly desired were of more value to them than their relationship with God.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addressed a conflict between two women in the congregation.

Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. – Philippians 4:2 NLT

These two godly women were experiencing some kind of personal disagreement that had become apparent to the rest of the church members. And Paul called on the church to come to their aid so that their dispute could be resolved and their relationship restored. Then he addressed the entire faith community.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 NLT

There was no place for quarreling and fighting within the body of Christ. Jealousy and greed should not exist among believers because we serve a God who is fully capable of meeting all our needs. But we must never forget that God is not obligated to fulfill all our desires. At times, we treat God like a cosmic genie in a bottle by demanding that He give us whatever we wish for. But God does not exist to obey our every command and to fulfill our deepest cravings and desires.

Notice that Paul told the Philippians to make their requests known to God, but he didn’t promise them that all those requests would be fulfilled. Instead, he assured them that God would give them the one thing they needed more than anything else: peace of mind. God would replace their craving with contentment. Oftentimes, the things for which we ask God reveal that our hope is misplaced. We wrongly believe that our answered prayer will bring us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. If we’re sick, we become convinced that healing is what we need most. If we are having financial difficulties, a sudden influx of cash will surely make all our problems go away. If we’re experiencing a relational conflict, we convince ourselves that if God would only change the other person, everything would be better.

But prayer is less about getting what we want from God than it is about us learning to trust Him. Prayer is the believer’s primary form of communication with the Father and it is intended to be a conversation, not a monologue. Too often, we craft our list of petitions and methodically communicate them to God, fully expecting Him to fulfill each and every request. And we base our belief in this make-a-wish approach to prayer on the words of Jesus. After all, didn’t He say, “Ask, and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7 NLT)? And wasn’t it Jesus who promised, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you” (Matthew 18:19 NLT)? And didn’t He tell His disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 NLT)?

But Jesus was not offering His followers carte blanche when it came to prayer. He wasn’t providing them with a blank check that obligated Him to give them whatever their heart desired. There is a sense in which our requests need to line up with the will of God and demonstrate faith in His greatness and goodness. We are not free to dictate to God what we have determined to be best for our lives. He is sovereign over all things, including our desires. Only He knows what we truly need at any given moment. In making our requests known to God, we are expressing our hearts and desires to Him, but we are also placing our hope in His providential plans for our lives. We are trusting Him to do what He deems best.

And that is the gist of James’ closing words to his audience. He wraps up his letter by calling them to pray. Rather than fighting amongst themselves, they were to take their problems to the Lord. If they were suffering, they were to pray rather than figure out ways to get out of it on their own. On the other hand, if they were experiencing joy and contentment, they were to offer up prayers of praise to God for His goodness and grace. If they were experiencing poor health, they were to call on the elders of the church and seek their wisdom and prayers.

James seems to be suggesting that there are some illnesses that are spiritually related. His instructions to call on the elders would indicate that there are times when there is more to a physical illness than meets the eye. Verse 15 seems to suggest that the one who is suffering may have unconfessed sin in their life?

Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. – James 5:15 NLT

We must be careful to not assume that all sickness is the result of sin. That was a false perception of Jesus’ own disciples. One day, they encountered a man who had been blind since birth, and they asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT).

They wrongly assumed that this man’s condition had been the direct result of somebody’s sin. He was suffering because someone had offended God. But Jesus corrected their misconception by stating, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT). According to Jesus, this man’s blindness was nothing more than a perfect opportunity to display God’s power through healing, and Jesus went on to restore his sight. 

But James makes it clear that there can be a direct correlation between continued sickness and unconfessed sin.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

James has already accused this congregation of committing spiritual adultery. They were displaying jealousy and greed, fighting and quarreling amongst themselves, and manifesting an inordinate love for the things of this world. They had offended one another. They were guilty of treating one another with contempt and unjust discrimination. Feelings had been hurt. The poor had been mistreated. The name of Christ had been damaged in the community. And repentance, reconciliation, and restitution was required.

And James insists that their less-than-ideal spiritual state could be changed for the better – through the power of prayer. And he used the story of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, as an example.

Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. – James 5:17-18 NLT

This story ties into James’ earlier statement: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). Elijah was a righteous man who made his request known to God and his prayer was answered – in a spectacular and supernatural way. This one man, praying in tune with the will of God, had been able to summon a three-and-a-half-year drought. And then, at just the right time and in keeping with God’s will, Elijah brought down much-needed rain.

In order to understand James’ use of Elijah as an example of a righteous and prayerful man, you have to go back to 1 Kings. There we can see the spiritual conditions that led Elijah to pray for a devastating drought, and it all had to do with the ungodly leadership of the king.

Ahab son of Omri began to rule over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign in Judah. He reigned in Samaria twenty-two years. But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him. – 1 Kings 16:29-33 NLT

The drought was intended as punishment for the unfaithfulness of Ahab. The king had sinned against God by leading the people of Israel to commit idolatry. By withholding rain, God was punishing His rebellious people and encouraging them to repent and return to Him. And the restoration of the rain was God’s gracious attempt to remind them of His goodness.

And James ends his letter with a similar call to repentance and restoration, so that the church to whom he wrote might experience the grace and goodness of God.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

It’s clear from the rest of the letter, that there were some who had wandered away from the truth of God’s Word. They were living apart from the will of God and damaging the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ. And it was up to the entire congregation to take seriously the sin within their midst and call one another to repentance and reconciliation. Because unconfessed sin can result in spiritual death or separation from God and the community of faith. But repentance can bring forgiveness and restoration.

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

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

The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

…suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:2-4 NLT

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

…you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 NLT

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

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

The Audacity of Autonomy

The wisest of women builds her house,
    but folly with her own hands tears it down.
Whoever walks in uprightness fears the Lord,
    but he who is devious in his ways despises him.
By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back,
    but the lips of the wise will preserve them.
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,
    but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
A faithful witness does not lie,
    but a false witness breathes out lies.
A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain,
    but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.
Leave the presence of a fool,
    for there you do not meet words of knowledge.
The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way,
    but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Fools mock at the guilt offering,
    but the upright enjoy acceptance.
10 The heart knows its own bitterness,
    and no stranger shares its joy.
11 The house of the wicked will be destroyed,
    but the tent of the upright will flourish.
12 There is a way that seems right to a man,
    but its end is the way to death.
– Proverbs 14:1-12 ESV

Solomon continues his differentiation between wisdom and folly. Yet, with this particular collection of proverbial sayings, it’s more difficult to find a consistent theme or singular heading with which to summarize them. It’s clear that Solomon is still juxtaposing the life of righteousness with the life of wickedness but he seems less intent on categorizing or arranging the content in a systemized manner. Nonetheless, the reader has no trouble assessing which lifestyle Solomon is recommending. He blatantly promotes the way of the wise because it leads to a constructive rather than a destructive life (verse 1).

Out of reverence for God, the wise person lives a “straight” life, while the one who despises God ends up living a “crooked” or perverse life (verse 2). For Solomon, a healthy relationship with God was vital to living a productive and satisfying life. There was no hope for the godless.

Strangely enough, the fool, who lacks wisdom, tends to have an overabundance of pride (verse 3). And his excessive and unwarranted hubris expresses itself in insufferable boasting that eventually turns everyone against him. Unlike the wise person, whose words are filled with grace and humility, the fool displays a pretentiousness and pride that comes back to haunt him.

A wise person would rather deal with the inconvenience of a dirty barn that comes from owning a hard-working ox (verse 4). But, in a sense, the fool would cut off his nose to spite his face. Out of laziness, he would sell off his ox just to keep from having to clean up its stall and, in doing so, he would forfeit his means of survival.

The fool ends up lying for a living (verse 5). His words can’t be trusted. Lying becomes as natural and necessary to a fool as breathing. Deceit is like oxygen to a fool; he can’t exist without it. The context seems to be that of a trial. Solomon describes two kinds of witnesses; one who is a pathological liar bent on self-preservation and the other is a trustworthy witness who refuses to lie, even in his own defense.

Solomon puts a high premium on wisdom but points out that the pursuit of wisdom for wisdom’s sake is useless. “A mocker seeks wisdom and never finds it” because he seeks it apart from a relationship with God (verse 6). Solomon uses the Hebrew word, lûṣ, which refers to someone with an overinflated sense of self-worth. As a result, they deride and dismiss others, even God Himself. And Solomon’s father warned him about people like this.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt; their acts are vile. There is no one who does good. – Psalm 14:1 BSB

True wisdom is impossible to find apart from a relationship with God. If you say there is no God, you will never know wisdom. It’s as simple as that. And, according to Solomon, that is all the reason you need to avoid the fool.

Stay away from fools,
    for you won’t find knowledge on their lips. – Proverbs 14:7 NLT

He is not suggesting that fools are stupid or devoid of intelligence. It is just that they lack the kind of knowledge that only God can provide. Their wisdom is man-made and of this world. It lacks divine depth and an eternal perspective. Human wisdom tends to be myopic and focused on the here-and-now. Without God, it is devoid of vision and divine insight. This leads fools to deceive themselves (verse 8). Believing themselves to be wise, they end up becoming increasingly more foolish (Romans 1:22). Their dismissal of God leads to an ever-increasing sense of superior intelligence that fuels an ever-diminishing capacity for true wisdom. But because the wise know God, they can always know where they’re going because He directs their path (Proverbs 16:9).

One of the characteristics of a fool is that they never seem to feel guilt or shame for their godless behavior (verse 9). They view their way as the right way. They see no need to confess sin or seek atonement because they have become like God, knowing right from wrong. While “Fools make fun of guilt,” deeming it to be an unnecessary burden, “the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation” (Proverbs 14:9 NLT). It was Jesus who told the arrogant and self-righteous Pharisees of His day, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:31-32 NLT). Fools see no need for repentance because they refuse to acknowledge their actions as sinful and reject their need for God’s forgiveness. But the godly respond like the tax collector in a parable that Jesus told His disciples.

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Like 18:13-14 NLT

The beauty of forgiveness is that it relieves the heart of sorrow and despair. While the fool may try to dismiss the reality of sin, its presence and consequences are inescapable. Man is hardwired to feel shame and guilt for living in violation of God’s commands. That is why Solomon states, “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (verse 10). Guilt and conviction settle in the heart, creating an overwhelming sense of culpability that must be dealt with either by confession or denial. A fool refuses to assuage his guilt and release his burden through repentance. This leaves him no other choice than to seek escape through further disobedience. In desperate search of release from the weight of sin’s condemnation, the sinner sinks deeper into a lifestyle of rebellion against God. And the result is bitterness rather than joy.

But this futile path leads to destruction, not release from the inescapable guilt and shame.

The house of the wicked will be destroyed – Proverbs 14:11 ESV

The fool is building a house of cards, a flimsy structure that cannot withstand the rigors of this life and the reality of eternity. Jesus described the sad plight of the individual who refuses to heed the Wisdom of God.

“But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” – Matthew 7:26-27 NLT

The fool believes his house to be well-constructed and built on a solid foundation but, in time, the shaky state of his life will be exposed for what it is: A rickety bundle of sticks and stones built on an unsteady foundation of lies. Yet, as Solomon points out, the wise and righteous man dwells in his temporary tent with utter confidence knowing that it rests on the unwavering foundation of God’s unfailing Word.

The author of Hebrews reminded his readers of the faith of Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. He describes Abraham’s sojourn in Canaan, the land God had promised to give to him as an inheritance for his descendants. But Abraham never had the pleasure of building a house in Canaan. Instead, he lived in tents and waited for something greater that God had in store for him.

…even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. – Hebrews 11:9-10 NLT

Abraham could have acted the fool and built for himself a beautiful house in the land of promise. He could have easily justified his actions by claiming that God had given him the land. But that is not what God had called him to do. His “house” would come later. His dwelling place would be made by the hands of God, not man. And he was willing to wait for God’s best rather than settle for a home built on sand.

Solomon reminds us that “There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death” (verse 12). Every human being faces the temptation to deem their way to be the right way. Ever since the fall, we have been plagued with an insatiable desire to be like God, with the sole power to decide what is right and wrong. We are obsessed with the need to pursue a life of autonomy, acting as the sole arbiters of our fate. But, as Solomon warns, that way leads to death and not life. And God would have us remember:

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

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.

A Trifecta of Blessing

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV

After a brief salutation, Paul begins his letter with a virtual flood of carefully crafted words designed to express his deep admiration and appreciation for the saving work of God the Father as expressed through the sacrificial life of the Son and empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these 12 verses form one long but eloquently worded run-on sentence. It’s as if Paul were speaking the words, and in his excitement, the thoughts in his mind literally explode from his lips without leaving him time to catch his breath.

He is a man possessed by and obsessed with the incredible nature of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. Unable to contain his enthusiasm for all that God has done, Paul explodes in a flood of praise and worship for each member of the Godhead, outlining the vital role that each played. This punctuation-free praise song to the Trinity is designed to instill in the Ephesian believers a deep and abiding awareness of the divine nature of their salvation. They had been chosen, predestined, and adopted by God the Father. They had been redeemed out of slavery to sin by the precious and priceless blood of Jesus Christ. And they had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God as a sign of their new identity as God’s children and as a proof of the promises to come.

For Paul, it all begins with God the Father, who made the determination to send His Son as the solution to mankind’s sin problem. And, according to Paul, God came up with that plan “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). In other words, long before God made the universe or fashioned Adam out of the dust of the ground, He had come up with the plan to send His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of a not-yet-existent humanity.

God had not been caught off guard by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. He had actually made provision for their fall and had a predetermined plan already in place long before they made the fateful determination to disobey His command. And Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they had been blessed by God in Christ. Jesus was the sole means by which God had chosen to redeem fallen mankind. Together, the Father and His Son made possible the reconciliation of a guilty and justly condemned humanity – and that included the believers in Ephesus. They had been blessed by God in or through Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

Paul emphasizes spiritual blessings in order to accentuate the eternal nature of the gift the Ephesians had received. God had not sent His son to die so that men and women might have their best life now. The sacrificial death of Jesus was not meant to pave the way to an earthly life marked by health, wealth, and prosperity. His precious blood was spilled so that a spiritual transformation might take place, turning former sinners into sons and daughters of God, holy and blameless in His sight. All “according to the purpose of his will” and “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6 ESV). This radical transformation of sinners into saints had been God’s idea and had only been possible as a result of His grace or unmerited favor. No one deserved to be saved. No one had earned the right to be redeemed.

Paul stresses that God “lavished” His grace on mankind. The Greek word, perisseuō, conveys the idea of a superabundance of grace. God poured out His grace in such a way that it overflowed and exceeded all expectations and requirements. It was, as Jesus told Paul, an all-sufficient grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul knew that the Ephesian believers were grateful for the forgiveness of sins that came with their faith in Christ, but he wanted them to understand that was just the tip of the iceberg. Paul doesn’t underestimate the value of forgiveness but stresses that God was “so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT). But God’s grace didn’t stop there. He also showered His children with “wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:8 NLT), so that they might know “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9 ESV). And by disclosing this previously undisclosed mystery, God revealed His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10 ESV).

In other words, God’s plan of salvation includes far more than forgiveness of sins. As great as that may be, it pales in comparison to the future God has in store for His children. Forgiveness of sins does not eradicate the presence of sin in the life of a believer. Life on this earth will always be marred by the persistent presence of sin. Believers are no longer slaves to sin but they are not free from its influence. Paul described his own experience with sin in his letter to the Romans.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

And that’s why Paul places so much emphasis on the inheritance that awaits the believer.

…because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan. – Ephesians 1:11 NLT

It is the promise of this future inheritance that should motivate the believer in this life. It is the assurance of coming glorification that should encourage a life of faithfulness as we wait for God to fulfill the final phase of His grand redemptive plan. That is why Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to focus their attention on the hope to come.

We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:2-5 NLT

In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul reiterates the role of the Holy Spirit as the downpayment or guarantee of their future glorification.

The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. – Ephesians 1:14 NLT

And the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike. The body of Christ was made up of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. It was just as Paul had told the Christians living in Galatia.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

While God had set apart the Jews as His chosen people and had ordained that His Son be born of the seed of Abraham, He had always planned for His gracious gift of redemption to be for all mankind. The Jews were a means to an end. They had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to the world. And God had accomplished that blessing through the gift of His Son and guaranteed the eternal nature of its consequences through the gift of His Spirit.

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.

 

Son, Servant, Savior

19 So they went up to the steward of Joseph’s house and spoke with him at the door of the house, 20 and said, “Oh, my lord, we came down the first time to buy food. 21 And when we came to the lodging place we opened our sacks, and there was each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight. So we have brought it again with us, 22 and we have brought other money down with us to buy food. We do not know who put our money in our sacks.” 23 He replied, “Peace to you, do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has put treasure in your sacks for you. I received your money.” Then he brought Simeon out to them. 24 And when the man had brought the men into Joseph’s house and given them water, and they had washed their feet, and when he had given their donkeys fodder, 25 they prepared the present for Joseph’s coming at noon, for they heard that they should eat bread there.

26 When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present that they had with them and bowed down to him to the ground. 27 And he inquired about their welfare and said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” 28 They said, “Your servant our father is well; he is still alive.” And they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves. 29 And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” 30 Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. 31 Then he washed his face and came out. And controlling himself he said, “Serve the food.” 32 They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. 33 And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at one another in amazement. 34 Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him. – Genesis 43:19-34 ESV

The sons of Jacob returned to Egypt, accompanied by their younger brother, Benjamin. Eleven men made the arduous journey from Canaan to the land of the Pharaohs, not knowing what fate awaited them upon their arrival. They were bringing with them gifts to offer Zaphenath-paneah, the governor of Egypt, who was holding their brother, Simeon, as a hostage. They had also brought the money that had somehow made its way into the sacks of grain they had brought back to Canaan on their first trip. For some inexplicable reason, their payment for the first shipment of grain had never made it to the hands of the royal governor, so they feared they would be viewed as thieves and treated accordingly.

Upon their arrival in Egypt, the brothers headed straight to the governor’s palace, and anxiously explained their predicament to his household steward. They declared their innocence and professed ignorance as to how the money had ended up back in their possession. They wanted the steward to know that they were anxious to settle their debt and to purchase additional grain for their families back in Canaan.

Then the brothers received the first of what would be many surprises. The steward attempted to calm their fears by informing them that they owed nothing. He had received full payment for their initial order. And then, this pagan Egyptian informed them that the money found in their grain sacks must have been a gift from ‘ĕlōhîm, the God of their father Jacob. This statement must have left the brothers speechless and staring at one another in astonishment. Was the steward suggesting that the money had been a gift from God? But before they had time to ascertain just what the steward meant, they found themselves reunited with Simeon. At this point, they had to be wondering why things were going so unexpectedly well.

But the brothers had little time to discuss their good fortune because the steward ushered them into the palace and told them to clean up for lunch. Much to their ongoing surprise, they discovered that they would be dining with the governor himself. These 11 sons of Jacob would be treated to a sumptuous feast in the royal palace as the honored guests of Zaphenath-paneah, the second-most powerful man in all of Egypt. As they prepared for this high honor, they must have debated and discussed the surrealistic nature of their unexpected welcome. All of this would have been a shock to theirs systems. It was far beyond anything they could have ever imagined.

And then, just as they were beginning to wrap their minds around these unprecedented events, the governor showed up. Upon seeing this powerful dignitary enter the room, the 11 brothers bowed down before him as sign of honor and deference. And as Joseph stood looking down on his prostrate brothers, the images he had seen in his long-forgotten dreams must have flooded into his mind.

As a young boy, Joseph had been given a vision in his sleep that portrayed he and his 11 brothers as bundles of grain. But what made the dream so offensive to his brothers when he shared it with them was that their sheaves of grain all bowed down to his. And Joseph had a second dream that conveyed the same basic message. In it, he saw the sun, moon, and 11 stars all bowing down before him. And when he shared this dream with his father and brothers, it was met with the same degree of anger and animosity.

Yet, years later, Joseph stood in his royal palace with his brothers lying on their faces before him. The irony of this moment would not have escaped Joseph. His dreams had become vividly and indisputably true. But Joseph didn’t gloat. Instead, he recalled his aging father back in Canaan and inquired as to the status of his health.

“How is your father, the old man you spoke about? Is he still alive?”  Genesis 43:27 NLT

The brothers affirmed that their father was alive and well, and humbly referred to him as a servant of the governor. They followed this statement by bowing before Joseph yet a second time. This action would have been done on behalf of Jacob, illustrating his humble subservience to the Egyptian governor.

News of his father’s good health pleased Joseph greatly. He probably harbored hopes that he might live to see his father once again. But it was the presence of his younger brother, Benjamin, that drew Joseph’s attention. For the first time in years, he stood face to face with his blood brother, and the experience moved him deeply.

Joseph hurried from the room because he was overcome with emotion for his brother. He went into his private room, where he broke down and wept. – Genesis 43:30 NLT

But Joseph regained his composure and returned to the dining room where he ordered the food to be served. Then he treated his brothers to a royal feast fit for a king. To the brothers’ amazement, the governor ushered each of them to their seat, arranging them in the proper chronological order based on their birth. How would this pagan Egyptian have known who was the oldest and who was the youngest? And, once again, the brothers received an additional shock when the governor took it upon himself to serve their plates with food from his own table. Little did they know that the brother whom they had treated with disdain and contempt was showing them honor and reverence. The innocent young man whom they hold sold into slavery was now performing the task of a lowly household servant. In a sense, he was taking the food from his own table and feeding it to the “dogs” who had treated him as less than animal, throwing him into a pit and selling him for a few pieces of silver.

Without realizing it, Joseph was modeling the life of Christ, long before He left His throne in glory and took on human flesh. Jesus said of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT). In a real sense, Joseph had “given his life” when his brothers sold him into slavery. When the Ishmaelite slave traders dragged him away in chains, he had left behind his place of honor in his father’s house. And he soon found himself living as a common slave. He ended up being falsely accused and eventually arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. But, like Jesus, Joseph had been sent to bring rescue to God’s people. But he had ended up humiliated and humbled. But the day came when he was glorified and lifted up, and invested with the power to offer help and hope to those in need. His brothers, undeserving of his grace and mercy, would receive redemption instead of retribution. They would be forgiven and their crime would be forgotten. And, in time, they would discover the true identity of their benefactor. Zaphenath-paneah would end up being their long lost brother and their unlikely savior.

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.

 

Innocent Blood Spilled

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Genesis 4:8-16 ESV

As a child of Adam and Eve, Cain had inherited the mandate given to them by God. Like his mother and father, he was to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (Genesis 1:28 ESV). The Hebrew word for dominion is רָדָה (rāḏâ), and it conveys the idea of rule or reign. God had created mankind with the expectation that they would rule over and care for the world He had created for them. That capacity to serve as His designated caretakers was to reflect their close association with Him. They bore His image.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26 ESV

But once sin entered the world, man’s ability to reflect the glory of God became dimmed and diminished. At the core of man’s problem was the desire to rule according to his own standards. By eating the forbidden fruit, Eve had fulfilled her longing to be like God, knowing good from evil. She sought autonomy, the freedom to run her own life on her own terms. But she soon found out that she couldn’t even “rule over” her base desires. “She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it” (Genesis 3:6 NLT). 

Now, her first-born son, Cain, finds himself struggling with his own incapacity to control his inner desires. After having his offering rejected by God, Cain became filled with rage and consumed by bitter jealousy against his brother, Abel. And God warned him, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7 ESV).

God described sin as a deadly predator, waiting to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. And Peter would later describe Satan in similar terms.

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. – 1 Peter 5:8-9 NLT

It’s interesting to note that God told Cain he must “rule over” sin. The Hebrew word is  מָשַׁל (māšal), and it means “to rule, have dominion, reign.” Like the rest of creation, this deadly “beast” crouching at Cain’s door should have been under his dominion. Cain had been given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26 ESV).

But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Cain had no ability to control the raging beast that crouched outside the door of his heart. Rather than be the subduer, he would become subdued and find his life consumed by the “desires” תְּשׁוּקָה (tᵊšûqâ) of sin. What happens next is the first recorded occurrence of premeditated murder.

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him. – Genesis 4:8 NLT

The oldest extant manuscripts of the book of Genesis (Smr, LXX, Vulgate, and Syriac) record this brief but extremely insightful statement from Cain to his brother Abel. He had a plan in mind. Sin had already consumed his heart and was had taken full control of his faculties. At that moment, he had become a slave to sin. Any hope he had of experiencing autonomy and the free expression of his will was gone. It was Jesus who told the self-righteous Pharisees, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34 ESV).

And the apostle Paul echoed the words of Jesus when he warned the believers in Rome, “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living” (Romans 6:16 NLT). Then Peter provides another sobering statement regarding sin: “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19 ESV). The proof of these words is lived out in the life of Cain.

And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. – Genesis 4:8 ESV

The text provides no indication as to how much time had passed since Cain’s offering had been rejected by God and his decision to commit this heinous crime. But enough time had passed for him to calm down and regain control of his overheated emotions. Yet, instead, Cain had grown increasingly more incensed over the rejection of his offering and what appeared to be his brother’s favored status with God. So, he took matters into his own hands and made a determination to eliminate the competition. In taking his brother’s life, Cain exhibited his desire to “like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 ESV). He had designated himself the sole arbiter of right and wrong. Cain had become the judge, jury, and executioner. And it’s interesting to note that, at his birth, Cain’s mother had declared, I have created a man just as the Lord did!” (Genesis 4:1 NET). She had taken credit for giving her son life. Now, that very same son had given himself the prerogative to take life. Cain spilled the innocent blood of his brother.

And, once again, God steps into the scene, posing a simple, yet illuminating question.

“Where is Abel your brother?” – Genesis 4:9 ESV

God was not looking for information. He was seeking a confession. He wanted Cain to take responsibility for his egregious actions. But instead, Cain feigns ignorance and displays a fair amount of insolence.

“I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” – Genesis 4:10 ESV

Cain’s response to God is filled with irreverence and pride. He displays no fear of or respect for the Almighty. In fact, he actually questions God’s divine capacity to care for His own creation. By stating, “am I my brother’s keeper,” Cain was suggesting that the guardianship of Abel was God’s responsibility, not his. In a way, Cain was blaming God for Abel’s death. He was accusing the Almighty of failing to keep track of His own creation.

But, unwilling to play Cain’s little game of rhetoric, God posited a second question: “What have you done?” (Genesis 4:10 ESV). Once again, God is not asking for insight or information. He knew exactly what had happened and why. This question was meant to cause Cain to consider the ramifications of his actions. In Cain’s mind, with the killing of his brother, he had accomplished his objective. But now, God was letting this overconfident, self-obsessed man know that his actions would have long-lasting and devastating consequences.

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.” – Genesis 4:10-11 NLT

As the sins of man increase, so does the intensity of God’s curse. This indictment from God against Cain and his descendants is an extension of the curse God had leveled against Adam.

“…cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread…” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Because of Adam’s sin, God had cursed the ground. But now, God was cursing Cain and banishing him from the ground. This man, who had been “a worker of the ground” (Genesis 4:2 ESV) and had “brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground” (Genesis 4:3 ESV), would now find the ground unproductive and unfruitful. The one who had placed all his faith in his capacity to provide for himself would now be ejected from the very land that had met his needs. He was cast out.

Just as Adam and Eve had been banished from the garden because of their disobedience, Cain was exiled from his family because of the murder of his brother. He was cast adrift and doomed to “be a homeless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12 NET). In murdering his brother, Cain had destroyed his relationship with his mother and father. He had forfeited his right to benefit from the bounty of God’s creation. This imagery of being cast from the land is found throughout the Old Testament. In the book of Leviticus, God provided Moses with a series of sober warnings concerning the land of Canaan, the land of milk and honey that He was giving to the people of Israel as their inheritance.

“So do not defile the land and give it a reason to vomit you out…” – Leviticus 18:28 NLT

Cain had defiled the land by spilling his brother’s blood. Now, he was having to pay for it. And, in a statement of regret, but not repentance, Cain declared his punishment to be more than he could handle.

“My punishment is greater than I can bear. – Genesis 4:13 ESV

Cain feared retribution. He distinctively knew that there might be payback for his crime against Abel. But God assured Cain that his punishment would be far more difficult than death at the hands of an avenger. God was going to spare Cain and allow him to live with his guilt and condemnation for the rest of his life. In a rather strange turn of events, God pledges to become Cain’s “keeper.” In His infinite grace and mercy, God would spare the murderer and prolong his life. He would protect the guilty one who had chosen to take the life of the innocent one. And all of this points to the coming of a future Son of God whose innocent blood would be spilled so that condemned sinners might find life.

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. – Romans 3:25-26 NLT

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.