A Method to His Seeming Madness

11 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon. 13 And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath (the chief men of the land he had taken away), 14 that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand. 15 But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army. Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape?

16 “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant with him he broke, in Babylon he shall die. 17 Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, when mounds are cast up and siege walls built to cut off many lives. 18 He despised the oath in breaking the covenant, and behold, he gave his hand and did all these things; he shall not escape. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head. 20 I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there for the treachery he has committed against me. 21 And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken.”

22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”  Ezekiel 17:11-24 ESV

I’m not particularly fond of riddles. I don’t like puzzles either, and guessing games drive me crazy. I prefer answers over questions and clarity over confusion. So, when God speaks in riddles and parables, I find myself getting a bit uncomfortable and, when this chapter started off with a riddle, I was less than excited. But fortunately, this is one of those cases where God doesn’t leave us guessing as to the meaning. He graciously provides an explanation so there’s absolutely no confusion as to what He is trying to say.

Yet God insinuates that the people of Judah should have been able to pick up on the meaning of the riddle. Why? Because they were living it out in real-time. As they listened to the words of the prophet, they were standing somewhere along the banks of the Kebar River deep in the heart of Babylon. They had actually experienced something very similar to what the prophet was describing.

In the first part of his message, God describes a giant eagle swooping down and plucking off the top of a cedar tree, which he carries to a distant city. The eagle also took a seedling and planted it by a river where it grew into a vine with deep roots and strong branches. Then this healthy, growing vine, turned its attention to another eagle. Despite its prosperous and fruitful condition, it looked to the second eagle as a source of sustenance. It had plenty of good soil and water right where it was, but was dissatisfied. So, God indicated this vine would be uprooted, its fruit cut off, and left it to wither and die in the very soil where it had experienced fruitfulness.

But Ezekiel’s audience must have missed the message. They were struggling with the meaning behind this bizarre-sounding story of the eagle and the vine. So, God carefully explains the point He is trying to make.

“The king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, took away her king and princes, and brought them to Babylon.” – Ezekiel 17:11 NLT

At this point, the light should have gone on. They would have immediately made the connection that their very presence in Babylon was the immediate result of that fateful historical event. They could recall the moment when the Babylonian forces invaded the city of Jerusalem and took their king captive.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and captured it, and he bound Jehoiakim in bronze chains and led him away to Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:6 NLT

The memory of the temple being ransacked by foreign soldiers was still fresh in their minds.

Nebuchadnezzar also took some of the treasures from the Temple of the Lord, and he placed them in his palace in Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:7 NLT

The Babylonians had allowed the people of Judah to keep their monarchy in place, but the kings served as pawns of King Nebuchadnezzar, paying him large annual fees as a form of tribute and a sign of Judah’s subservience to Babylon. Eventually, Jehoiakim was replaced by his son, Jehoiachin, but his reign lasted only three months before he too was deported to Babylon.

Many treasures from the Temple of the Lord were also taken to Babylon at that time. And Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as the next king in Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 36:10 NLT

The first eagle represents Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He “swooped” down with his troops, invaded Jerusalem, and took Jehoiachin, king of Judah as his prisoner back to Babylon. He then set up another puppet king named Zedekiah (the seedling) on the throne of Jerusalem.

This is where the story begins to take on a whole different meaning. Zedekiah was still on the throne when God delivered this riddle to the people of Judah living in Babylon. From their perspective, Zedekiah was firmly entrenched as the sovereign king over their homeland. He had actually made a covenant agreement with Nebuchadnezzar – an oath of loyalty. As long as he kept that oath, the nation prospered. But what the people didn’t know was that their king was wicked and rebellious. He never intended to keep his agreement with Nebuchadnezzar.

But Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God, and he refused to humble himself when the prophet Jeremiah spoke to him directly from the Lord. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, even though he had taken an oath of loyalty in God’s name. Zedekiah was a hard and stubborn man, refusing to turn to the Lord, the God of Israel. – 2 Chronicles 36:12-13 NLT

God was revealing the next phase of His judgment upon His unfaithful people. The day was fast approaching when Zedekiah would decide to rebel against the Babylonians by turning to Egypt for assistance.

What is interesting to note is that the prophet, Jeremiah, who was ministering to the people still living in Jerusalem, had been led by God to send a letter to the exiles living in Babylon. In it, he provided them with a word of encouragement regarding their less-than-appealing conditions.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7 NLT

And Jeremiah had also provided Zedekiah and the people living in Judah with a word of warning concerning their response to the Babylonian occupation of their land.

“So you must submit to Babylon’s king and serve him; put your neck under Babylon’s yoke! I will punish any nation that refuses to be his slave, says the Lord. I will send war, famine, and disease upon that nation until Babylon has conquered it. Do not listen to your false prophets, fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, mediums, and sorcerers who say, ‘The king of Babylon will not conquer you.’ They are all liars, and their lies will lead to your being driven out of your land. I will drive you out and send you far away to die. But the people of any nation that submits to the king of Babylon will be allowed to stay in their own country to farm the land as usual. I, the Lord, have spoken!’”– Jeremiah 27:8-11 NLT

But Zedekiah would end up violating his contract with Nebuchadnezzar. As a result, Jerusalem would be invaded again, the city would be leveled, and the temple destroyed. Zedekiah would be forced to witness the execution of all his sons, then have his eyes gouged out and be taken captive to Babylon. God made it painfully clear that “the king of Israel disregarded his treaty and broke it after swearing to obey; therefore, he will not escape” (Ezekiel 17:18 NLT). The entire Babylonian occupation had been God’s will and He expected His people to submit to it. They would not escape His divine judgment.

But God was not finished with His explanation. At the very end, He provides a glimmer of hope in the midst of all the gloom and doom. He reveals yet another “eagle” that will take another branch from the top of the cedar tree and plant it on Israel’s highest mountain.

“It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches.” – Ezekiel 17:33 NLT

God is predicting the future renewal and restoration of His chosen people. But the branch to which He refers is not just another human king who will help to reestablish the fortunes of Israel. This branch will be someone of great importance and renown. He will be a king like no other.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” – Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV

This branch is Jesus, the Messiah. God is predicting the day when He will send His Son back to earth to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will reign for 1,000 years. Israel will be restored to greatness. The throne of David, long-vacant because of the nation’s rebellion, will once again be occupied by a descendant of the great king. And God assures that all the other nations of the earth will recognize the greatness and glory of God when this happens.

“And all the trees will know that it is I, the Lord, who cuts the tall tree down and makes the short tree grow tall. It is I who makes the green tree wither and gives the dead tree new life. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I said!” – Ezekiel 17:24 NLT

Babylon, Egypt, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and all the other nations of the earth are no match for the plan of God. Babylon was a tool in the hands of God to accomplish His divine will, and He had a greater plan in place. He was out to accomplish His will in His way and according to His divine timetable. When God completes His plan all people will know that He has been in control all along, cutting down the tall trees and making the short tree grow, withering the green tree, and giving new life to the dead one.

God is sovereign and in complete control. In fact, that point is how He began the  chapter.

“Son of man, give this riddle, and tell this story to the people of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 17:2 NLT

He knows what He is doing and there is a method to His seeming madness. We may understand or even like His ways, but we can rest assured that He always does what is just and right. His plan is perfect and His timing is impeccable.

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 Universal Body of Christ

12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all. – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

The early community of Christ was a close-knit one. Despite the fact that Paul was traveling from one end of the known world to the other, and planting churches in ethnically and geologically diverse regions, they all shared a bond of unity. Wherever they were located, these fledgling communities of faith were in the minority and found themselves facing extreme opposition. To unbelieving Gentiles, Christians were nothing more than a sect of the Jewish religion. After all, the converts to Christianity followed the teachings of an itinerant Jewish rabbi. But to the Jews, Christians represented a dangerous heresy that rejected the Mosaic Law and dismissed the rite of circumcision. So, wherever Paul and his companions preached the gospel and saw its message of faith in Christ take root, they met with strong opposition fueled by extreme antagonism.

These new congregations of believers were often ostracized and isolated from their former communities, and lacked mature spiritual leadership, so Paul felt a strong sense of responsibility to provide them with instruction and encouragement. He wanted them to know that they were part of a much larger community of faith that was spreading around the world. His letters formed a kind of literary highway system linking together these distant and disparate congregations. His growing network of spiritual disciples included men like Timothy, Titus, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, and Apollos, who each played a vital role in ministering to the far-flung Christian community. These men provided much-needed spiritual training to the faithful, but they also served as the eyes and ears of Paul, giving him insight into what was happening within the body of Christ around the world.

Paul was constantly traveling from one place to another, fulfilling his commission to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations. But he tended to leave a part of his heart in every city, town, and village where the gospel found converts. In many cases, his first visit to a city was his last. His travels didn’t always allow him to circle back and check in on the churches he had helped to plant. And, in time, his lengthy imprisonment in Rome would completely curtail his efforts to minister to those whom he loved like his own children. But Paul never left them without adequate spiritual nourishment or oversight. He desperately wanted them to know that they were all in this together. They were part of a much larger family of faith that God was planting around the world and, for Paul, it was essential that each of these churches understand their role within the bigger picture. Rather than focus all their attention on their particular circumstances, they were to see themselves as members of the growing body of Christ.

Paul firmly believed that when an individual came to faith in Christ, they were to align themselves with a local faith community. They were not to act as a free agent, operating Lone Ranger style, independent and isolated from other Christians in their community. This corporate mentality was essential to the spiritual well-being of the individual and the community. And for Paul, it went well beyond geographic confines. He often used the metaphor of the human body as a way of illustrating the interconnected and interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

The concept of a global church made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable economic background, and diverse ethnic makeups was revolutionary. And this new admixture of individuals into a mutually beneficial community of faith was making a radical impact on the world. The church was growing and people were noticing. And Paul was obsessed with getting his expanding family of faith to understand their need for one another. He encouraged an attitude of generosity and selflessness and praised the churches in Macedonia for their gracious giving toward the needs of the church in Jerusalem.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:3-5 NLT

Paul went on to encourage the believers in Corinth to follow the example of the Macedonian churches.

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. – 2 Corinthians 8:11 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to have the same attitude, telling Titus, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14 ESV).

The church is a living organism, not an organization. It is an interactive, interdependent collection of individuals who have been formed into a worldwide community that is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. And the letter that Paul wrote to Titus is as applicable today as it was in the 1st Century in which he penned it. His call to Christ-likeness, humility, submission, service, and an unwavering commitment to the truth is as vital today as it ever was. The words Paul used to open his letter still apply.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 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 Work of the Ministry

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. – Titus 1:1-4 ESV

As the title of this letter reflects, Paul was writing to Titus, another one of his young disciples in the faith. This letter, like the ones Paul wrote to Timothy, is intended to encourage and instruct Titus as he ministers on behalf of the gospel.

Paul had left Titus in Crete with the task of ministering to the faithful living there, and had given him orders to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 ESV). Now, Paul was writing to this young man with further words of encouragement and instruction. But Paul’s letter begins with a customary salutation or greeting. This was a common feature of most letters during that day. Unlike modern letters, where the sender signs their name at the end, ancient letters began with a formal introduction of the sender at the very beginning. All of Paul’s letters begin this way, with some featuring longer salutations than others. This is a particularly long one and is far more than a simple greeting or introduction. In it, Paul provides a summation of what he is going to be dealing with in the main content of his letter.

Paul begins with a dual description of himself as the servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. Both are intended to establish Paul’s credentials as a minister of the gospel. He is, first of all and most importantly, a servant of God. The Greek word he used for servant is doulos and it refers to a bondservant or slave. Paul, as a former Pharisee, was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been very familiar with the use of the term, servant, in association with some of the great patriarchs of the Israelites.

Moses, David, and Elijah were each referred to as servants or slaves of God. This was a designation of honor, not infamy. Each of these men had been chosen by God for His role and, in essence, they belonged to Him. Yet, they viewed their subservient status to God as a privilege and not a burden. And Paul claimed to have that same kind of relationship with the God of Moses, David, and Elijah. Yahweh had hand-picked and commissioned Paul to accomplish His will on this earth. So, Paul understood that he served God and not man. It was to God he would ultimately have to answer for his life and ministry. His was a divine calling, complete with the authority and power that had been given to Him by God Himself.

Secondly, Paul states that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ. The Greek word is apostolos and it refers to a delegate, messenger, or one sent forth with orders (“G652 – apostolosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). Paul was not only a chosen servant of God but he had also been delegated by Jesus Christ as His representative and had been given a very specific task to perform. The exact words of that commission recorded in the book of Acts. They are part of Paul’s testimony regarding his salvation experience on the road to Damascus.

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” – Acts 26:15-18 ESV

Jesus had appointed Paul to be His servant, with the task of telling others all that he had seen and heard. Paul had been given the privilege of seeing the resurrected Christ. He would be anointed by Ananias and receive the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And Paul was to take this message to the Gentiles, opening their eyes to the good news of the gospel.

In the opening lines of his letter to Titus, Paul provides further clarification of the purpose behind his role as a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 NLT

This point was important for Titus to hear because it applied to him as well. Paul had been sent to proclaim the message of salvation by faith in Christ so that all those whom God had chosen could hear it. And when those so chosen by God had placed their faith in Christ, Paul was obligated by God and His Son to teach them the truth, so that they might live godly lives. In other words, Paul had a dual responsibility: To play a role in the salvation of the lost, but also in the sanctification of the saved. And Titus shared that same responsibility.

As the opening line of this letter indicates, Paul had a firm belief in the doctrine of election. He uses the term, “God’s elect” in order to refer to those whom God has chosen to come to faith. The Greek word is eklektos and it means “picked out or chosen” (“G1588 – eklektosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). In Paul’s understanding of the gospel, God was the acting agent behind salvation, leaving nothing up to chance. Just as God had chosen Paul for salvation, so He has pre-ordained all those who will come to faith in Christ.

Paul had played no role in his own salvation. He had not been seeking the resurrected Christ. In fact, he had been busy persecuting and eliminating all those who claimed to be followers of Christ. And yet, God had chosen him for salvation. And Paul strongly believed that fact was true for all who come to faith in Christ, past, present, or future.

The doctrine of divine election firmly establishes the believer’s eternal security. God has not left the believer’s assurance of salvation captive to changing feelings or faltering faith. Rather, the faithfulness of God demonstrated in his divine election secures the believer’s salvation in the will and purposes of God himself. – Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin Jr., 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, p. 265

For Paul, salvation, godliness, and eternal life were all the work of God. None of them were possible apart from God. And all of them were pre-ordained and promised by God “before the ages began” (Titus 1:2 ESV). And Paul insists that the message regarding salvation, godliness, and eternal life was given at just the right time, through men like Paul, so that the elect might come to faith through the preaching of the good news. Paul wanted Titus to know that he was nothing more than a messenger and a means by which God would accomplish His preordained will concerning the elect.

Suffice it to say, Paul saw himself as a man with divine authority and a providential responsibility to spread the gospel so that others might come to faith in Christ. But Paul also believed that he had a divine commission to ensure that those very same individuals grew in godliness. And he wanted Titus to know that he shared this very same responsibility and calling. This young man, whom Paul saw as his child in the faith, was also carrying the heavy burden of ministering the gospel to the people of Crete, carrying on what Paul and others had begun. And in the rest of his letter to Titus, Paul will provide him with much-needed guidance and encouragement for the task that lay before him.

That’s why Paul extends to him “Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior” (Titus 1:4 ESV). Paul knew exactly what Titus was up against. The gospel ministry was anything but easy and Titus would need to be constantly reminded of his dependence upon the grace (charis) or unmerited favor of God.

grace: the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues. – Blue Letter Bible, Outline of Biblical Usage

Titus would know the peace of God only to the extent that he understood the grace of God. His effectiveness as a minister of the gospel would be directly tied to his reliance upon God’s power and his understanding of his role as a servant. And Paul wanted Titus to never lose sight of the fact that the greatest expression of God’s grace and mercy is found in “Christ Jesus our Savior.” It was God who graciously sent His Son to suffer in the place of undeserving sinners. This was a recurring theme in Paul’s letters.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in offenses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved! – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

It was not Titus’ job to save anyone. He was simply to point them to the Savior, the one who had already paid the penalty for their sins and guaranteed their hope of eternal life. Titus was a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, just like Paul. And, while he had a job to do, the work had already been accomplished by Jesus.

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.

Busy But Blessed

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

20 O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” 21 for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.

Grace be with you. – 1 Timothy 6:11-21 ESV

Flee, pursue, fight, take hold, keep, guard, and avoid. Paul’s final words to Timothy contain a lengthy list of infinitive verbs that are meant to solicit action and encourage godly behavior. He wants his young associate to take his role seriously and to use his position to influence the faithfulness of the Ephesian believers.

He calls him to live a distinctively different life as distinctive, set apart from all those around him, including those who craved money or had wandered from the faith. Unlike the false teachers for whom godliness was merely a way to become wealthy, Timothy was to run from that kind of attitude and make true godliness his sole goal, along with ever-increasing faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness.

Paul tells him to “pursue” godliness. The Greek word Paul used is diōkō (διώκω), which means “to run swiftly in order to catch.” It can also refer to one “who in a race runs swiftly to reach the goal.” Money, materialism, popularity, power, pleasure, significance, comfort – none of these things were to be the focus of Timothy’s life. And while Paul is addressing this last section of his letter to Timothy, it is really a call to all believers of every age. Paul had made it clear to Timothy that he was to “Teach these things … and encourage everyone to obey them. Some people may contradict our teaching, but these are the wholesome teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. These teachings promote a godly life” (1 Timothy 6:2-3 NLT).

Everything Paul had shared in his letter was intended to be practiced and promoted among the people of God. As a leader, Timothy was to be an example of godly living to all those under his care, despite his young age.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. – 1 Timothy 4:12 NLT

As believers, our lives are always on display. Despite what we may think, others are watching. Our behavior and conduct are constantly being witnessed by God Himself, our fellow believers, and the countless lost who surround us. That’s Paul encouraged Timothy to live a life marked by consistency and outward purity. He portrayed the Christian life as a battle for good.

…fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you. – 1 Timothy 6:12 NLT

For Paul, perseverance and consistency of faith were essential. He wanted Timothy to finish well. He wanted him to keep his eyes on the goal, which was the return of Christ. The reality of that event was to never be far from Timothy’s heart and mind so that he would live his life in such a way that no one could find fault with his character or conduct. There would certainly be those who disliked and disparaged his life because he lived it for God, just as Paul had experienced. Suffering for the sake of Christ was always to be expected. But Paul didn’t want Timothy to do anything that would harm his reputation as a believer or bring dishonor to God.

Paul gives Timothy one last message concerning those who are rich in the things of this world.

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. – 1 Timothy 6:17 NLT

He doesn’t condemn them, but simply warns them not to put their trust in their money because it will prove to be unreliable and unable to save them. Money makes a lousy god. It promises the world but can’t save the soul. It can’t even bring true happiness or contentment.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:9-10 NLT

Instead, the rich were to put their trust in God, who is the ultimate provider of their needs. Those who had been blessed with money were to see it as a divinely ordained resource to be used for the care of others and to further the cause of the Kingdom of God. They were to be “rich” in good works and generous to those in need. They had been wealthy when God had called them, so He must have had a purpose for placing them in the body of Christ in that condition. By focusing their attention on obedience to God and service to others, they would learn to view their wealth as a tool in the hands of God, not a treasure to be hoarded and held onto.

Some of Paul’s last words to Timothy were, “guard what God has entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20 NLT). He was to see his own salvation and the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as invaluable and worthy of his constant protection.

Leadership in the body of Christ was a dangerous calling and it came with great responsibilities. Timothy had been entrusted with the message of the gospel and the care of the flock of Jesus Christ. He had an obligation to put the needs of the congregation ahead of his own. And yet, he was also to guard himself – constantly watching over his character and conduct. The same message applied to Timothy that Paul shared with the elders in Ephesus.

So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock – his church, purchased with his own blood – over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. – Acts 20:28 NLT

The goal for all spiritual leaders should be godliness – not only for themselves but for all those under their care. But godliness without God’s grace is impossible. The journey of faith to which we have been called is only possible through an ever-increasing dependence upon God. We need His Word to teach and guide us. We need His Spirit to empower us. We need His grace and mercy to miraculously meet us where we are along the way and constantly remind us that godliness is our one and only calling.

But the pursuit of godliness demands action, not apathy. It requires consistency, not complacency. It is a life filled with verbs like flee, pursue, fight, take hold, keep, guard, and avoid. But it also offers the promise of rest, contentment, hope, peace, unity, confidence, and joy. The life of godliness is busy but also blessed.

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 Priority of the Gospel

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. – 1 Timothy 2:1-15 ESV

This chapter is chock-full of verses around which men have built entire doctrines or teachings regarding the church. And in many cases, they have ignored the context while focusing on a single concept or idea. But we have to remember that Paul is giving Timothy, his young disciple, instructions regarding his ministry among the people in Ephesus. The focus of this entire chapter is on the gospel and the environment in which it thrives and spreads best. There are things that can hurt or hinder the spread of the gospel. There are activities or circumstances that can cause the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to be difficult to understand. There are also things that believers can do that can end up discrediting their role as messengers of the gospel. Paul’s primary emphasis in this chapter is the salvation of others. Everything else he deals with becomes the context in which the salvation of others functions best.

He begins with an admonition to pray. Paul did not view prayer as a magic formula or secret weapon given to believers but as intimate communication with God. Every child of God is provided with the privilege of being able to speak with their Heavenly Father, at any time and from any place.

As the church, we are the people of God and, as such, we should always have a God-ward focus in our thinking. Paul tells Timothy to pray for all people. But pray for what?

Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. – 1 Timothy 2:1 NLT

In the original Greek, Paul actually lists four different aspects of prayer: requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving. Each word was carefully chosen and designed to illustrate the rich depth that should mark our communication with God.

“Requests” is the Greek word deeseis and it carries a sense of determination and earnestness based on an awareness of the other person’s needs. As believers, we understand the needs of all men, whether we know them or not. They need Jesus.

The word “prayers” is the Greek word proseuchas, and it is a more general description that covers prayers of all kinds. Its focus is on God, not the one for whom we are praying. We are to lift up all men before God, placing them in His hands and under His care, trusting that He knows what they need.

“Intercession” (enteuxeis) seems to cover the specific requests we bring to God on behalf of others. When we become aware of a specific need or circumstance in someone else’s life, we boldly bring it before the throne of God.

Finally, “thanksgiving” (eucharistias) reminds us that our prayers are to be filled with expressions of gratitude to God. But in this context, Paul is suggesting that our prayers of thanksgiving concern those for whom we are praying – and that includes all men and not just some. Again, the focus is on God. To be able to thank God for someone whom we would normally feel unthankful is to express trust in the sovereignty of God. It is to confess that He is in charge and has a purpose for that person’s presence in our life.

Prayer is not meant to be formulaic or ritualistic. It is to be marked by a variety and intensity of style and content, with the focus always on God.

Paul goes on to instruct Timothy to include kings and all authority figures in his prayers. These people are sometimes the most difficult individuals for whom to pray. But Paul instructs Timothy to pray that God would use these people to help create an atmosphere in which believers might “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2 NLT) and that the gospel might prosper and spread.

But why? Because God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. His desire is that all men hear the good news that “there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NLT). So, we are to pray that God would use political leaders to foster an atmosphere conducive to spreading the gospel message.

But there are certain things that can hinder our prayers and destroy our witness as believers. Paul mentions anger and controversy. Jesus warned us that “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT).

Disunity can derail our prayer lives but so can our actions. And our behavior among those for whom we are praying can have a powerful impact on whether they eventually embrace the salvation we know they need. Our outward actions can derail our efforts to share the gospel by contradicting the very message of the gospel’s life-transforming power.

Paul addresses an issue that continues to be a problem in the church today: The immodesty of dress among Christian women. He writes, “I want women to be modest in their appearance” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT). This wasn’t just Paul’s personal preference but reflects his instructions as an apostle of and spokesman for God. The women in the church at Ephesus were sending mixed messages. On the one hand, they were spreading the gospel. But some of them were so interested in how they looked and focused on drawing attention to themselves, that they were actually doing more harm than good. Good looks had replaced good behavior as the point of emphasis in their lives. They had become focused on the externals, rather than the condition of their own hearts.

The next issue Paul addressed with Timothy remains a hot-button topic even today. It dealt with the role of women in the assembly of the church, and it had to do with order and headship. But as with every other topic in this chapter, it had to do with the spread of the gospel. Anything we do that hinders or hurts the gospel message is to be avoided at all costs. In this case, the female members of the Ephesian church had discovered a new-found freedom in Christ but it had led to license and was creating disorder within the local body of Christ. Paul insisted that there must be order and decorum in the church. There was a God-given structure to the body of Christ, with Christ himself serving as the head. God had given to men the responsibility of serving in a place of authority and responsibility, both within the local church and the home.

This had nothing to do with value or worth but with divine order and human responsibility. The real issue here seems to be a woman taking on inappropriate authority not given to her by God. Ultimately, Paul’s concern was the spread of the gospel. Again, disunity and anger seem to be at the core of Paul’s message. If those outside the church were to look inside and see a lack of unity and the presence of disharmony, their interest in the gospel might be negatively impacted. Yet, Paul insisted that God had provided an order and authority structure to the body of Christ. In God’s grand scheme, men were to lead the church. They were responsible to God for teaching the Scriptures. This in no way implies that women are incapable or unqualified to teach God’s Word. It has to do with authority and responsibility, not capability.

God had placed men in the role of teachers and leaders within the local church. When this order was ignored or violated, it caused disunity and discord. Paul seems to be saying that order within the church and the spread of the Gospel should take precedence over the need to look good or to be seen as a person of power and influence. It was important that men be able to “pray with holy hands lifted up” – free from controversy and anger. The goal is always to be the spread of the gospel. Whether male or female, our greatest concern should be that others come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Our need to be noticed, in charge, seen as attractive, powerful, influential, and even as spiritual – has to take a backseat to God’s non-negotiable command to make disciples. That should be the focus of our prayers and the emphasis of our lives.

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.

Faith Is the Victory

1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.” And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:1-9 ESV

One of the things the Israelites seemed to quickly forget was that their presence in the wilderness was their own fault. God had led them from Egypt to the edge of the land of promise 40 years earlier, but they had decided that entrance into the land was way too risky. The 12 spies they had in to reconnoiter the land had returned with a conflicting report concerning conditions in Canaan.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! – Numbers 13:27-28 ESV

The second half of their report left the Israelites dejected and demoralized. Despite the news that this land was fertile and filled with abundant fruit, the presence of “giants” was too much for the Israelites. And the spies fed their doubts and anxieties by confirming their worst fears.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:31-33 ESV

These rumors succeeded in convincing the Israelites that God’s promise of victory over their enemies was impossible. Rather than enter the land and risk certain death, they decided it would make more sense to return to Egypt. This bit of twisted logic earned them the wrath of God. He made the fateful decision to allow that entire generation to spend the rest of their lives wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until none of them was left. They would not be allowed to enter Canaan or return to Egypt. Instead, they would spend the remaining days of their lives in a kind of existential limbo that lasted four decades.

During that time, both Miriam and Aaron died. Many of their friends and family members succumbed to the effects of old age and illness. And they all discovered that life in the wilderness was no picnic. Their persistent presence near the borders of Canaan had attracted the attention of the land’s occupants. These nations had heard the rumors about this massive host of people who had escaped from Egypt and were headed their way. It is likely that they knew the Israelites to be the descendants of Jacob and were afraid that they would be looking to find a place to live. This was a migrant problem of epic proportions. The thought of two million-plus Israelites invading their borders caused these nations to react with fear and brute force.

The last chapter revealed that the Edomites sent a large army to dissuade the Israelites from attempting to pass through their land. They wanted nothing to do with them. And now, “The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners” (Numbers 21:2 NLT). Nothing was going well for the Israelites. As a nation, they were persona non grata. They had no home and were finding the nations outside the borders of Canaan to be just as dangerous as the “giants“ they had refused to confront. Their refusal to enter the land had come with serious repercussions.

Yet, there is one glimmer of hope in this dark period of Israel’s existence. Their self-inflicted troubles caused them to call out to God. When some of their people were captured by the forces of the king of Arad, the Israelites begged God to come to their aid. And what’s interesting to note is that these very same people who had seen the odds in Canaan as insurmountable were suddenly ready to take on all comers. They even made a vow to completely annihilate the opposition if God would come to their aid.

“If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” – Numbers 21:2 NLT

What makes this even more fascinating is that the Israelites had been here before. Thirty-eight years earlier, after having refused to enter the land of Canaan the first time, God had sentenced them to their life of wandering in the wilderness. In response to this death sentence from God, they quickly changed their minds and decided to enter the land after all. But Moses warned them that it was too late.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But the people refused to listen, and “defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp” (Numbers 14:44 NLT). The result was a rout. The Israelites were soundly defeated because they attempted to take on their enemies without God’s permission or help.

Now, 38 years later, they decided to seek God’s assistance, and He “heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns” (Numbers 22:3 NLT). Amazingly, what they had feared was impossible four decades earlier, was actually quite easy when they did it God’s way. Their victory was assured when they chose to seek God’s permission and assistance.

But even after that exhilarating display of God’s power, they quickly reverted to their old habit of complaining about their lot in life. While they had enjoyed a great victory, they were not allowed to occupy the towns they had conquered. Instead, they had to backtrack to Mount Hor and then travel further south and east in order to skirt the borders of Edom. They had gotten a taste of success, but still found themselves cursed to wander through the wilderness. Those conquered cities and villages were not theirs to occupy.

And as the people made the long trek around Edom, the thrill of victory soon gave way to the agony of defeat and despair.

…the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:4-5 NLT

The incessant wandering they had brought on themselves soon led to discontentment and dissidence with God’s will. They were not happy with the way things were going and they let Moses know. And God let them have it. He sent a plague of poisonous snakes among them, and soon the bodies of the dead began to pile up. And suddenly, the people were singing a different tune.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

God’s judgment produced a confession. The people repented of their sin and begged Moses to intercede on their behalf and ask God to remove the curse of the snakes. And when Moses sought God, he was given the following instructions.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

This rather strange command makes it appear as if God was asking Moses to make an idol. But the serpent on a stick was not meant to be worshiped. It was intended to be a test of their faith.

God did not answer their request to remove the snakes. In fact, He indicated that the snakes would continue to do what He had sent them to do. They would keep inflicting pain, suffering, and death upon the Israelites as punishment for their ingratitude and dishonor of His holiness. What God did was create a rather bizarre plan for receiving deliverance over certain death. When bitten, all the people had to do was look at the serpent on the pole and they would be healed. But that simple glance would require faith.

God did not remove the penalty for their sins. They would still be bitten by the snakes. But now they had a means of receiving life rather than death. The bite of the snake would no longer prove deadly. But the secret to receiving life rather than death was faith – the belief that God could and would heal. And that faith required the one who had been bitten to look their death sentence in the face. They had to turn their eyes to the pole and see their condemnation on public display. And if they refused, they would die.

And the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus where He stated that this entire scene in the wilderness was meant to foreshadow His coming and His substitutionary death on the cross.

…the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. – John 3:13-15 NLT

When a sinner looks at the cross, he sees the wrath of God poured out on the sins of mankind. Jesus was not the cause of our death but the means of our victory over it. He bore our sins so that we might not have to pay for them with our own lives. And that is exactly what the apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth.

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 BSB

And Peter would state the same blessed hope.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

And the key to victory over death is faith. One must “believe in Him” to be saved. The Israelites had only to look at the serpent on the pole to be saved from death. And all those under the death sentence that comes as a result of sin need only look at the cross of Christ to receive life everlasting.

It should be noted that this entire scene began with the people complaining about the manna that God had graciously given as a source of life. Their ingratitude was met with God’s judgment. They had refused His offer of the bread of life and faced the sting of death. And the only means of salvation would be faith in His mercy and grace.

“The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

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

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

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shadow of Things to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fire of Cleansing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separated to God

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. He shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.

“All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the Lord, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.

“All the days that he separates himself to the Lord he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.

“And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. 10 On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 11 and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day 12 and separate himself to the Lord for the days of his separation and bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering. But the previous period shall be void, because his separation was defiled.

13 “And this is the law for the Nazirite, when the time of his separation has been completed: he shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, 14 and he shall bring his gift to the Lord, one male lamb a year old without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish as a sin offering, and one ram without blemish as a peace offering, 15 and a basket of unleavened bread, loaves of fine flour mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers smeared with oil, and their grain offering and their drink offerings. 16 And the priest shall bring them before the Lord and offer his sin offering and his burnt offering, 17 and he shall offer the ram as a sacrifice of peace offering to the Lord, with the basket of unleavened bread. The priest shall offer also its grain offering and its drink offering. 18 And the Nazirite shall shave his consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall take the hair from his consecrated head and put it on the fire that is under the sacrifice of the peace offering. 19 And the priest shall take the shoulder of the ram, when it is boiled, and one unleavened loaf out of the basket and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them on the hands of the Nazirite, after he has shaved the hair of his consecration, 20 and the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord. They are a holy portion for the priest, together with the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed. And after that the Nazirite may drink wine.

21 “This is the law of the Nazirite. But if he vows an offering to the Lord above his Nazirite vow, as he can afford, in exact accordance with the vow that he takes, then he shall do in addition to the law of the Nazirite.” Numbers 6:1-21 ESV

God had set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. The male members of the tribe of Levi had been set apart to serve as assistants to the priests and as caretakers of the tabernacle. But in Numbers 6, we read of God’s provision for individual volunteerism. Any member of the faith community could choose to offer themselves in service to God by taking what was called the Nazirite Vow.

The Hebrew word nāzîr simply means “consecrated or devoted one.” These individuals took an oath of fealty to God, setting themselves apart as His servants. This period of consecrated service was usually for a specific length of time but, in some cases, it could last a lifetime. This commitment was not to be entered into lightly because they were “setting themselves apart to the Lord in a special way” (Numbers 6:2 NLT). God took their vow seriously and expected them to keep their oath at all costs.

To emphasize the gravity of taking the Nazirite vow, God attached strict requirements that were intended to discourage the uncommitted. To dedicate oneself to God was a serious matter and it required sober introspection. While a certain amount of prestige could come from making the commitment to dedicate yourself to the service of God, it was not about improving one’s social standing. Taking the vow was easy. Fulfilling it was another matter altogether. So God outlined the cost of commitment associated with becoming a Nazirite. He wanted everyone to carefully consider whether they were willing to accept the severe standards that came with the vow.

God prescribed clear requirements for anyone wishing to dedicate themselves to His service. This consecration came with outward commitments that were designed to differentiate a Nazirite from the rest of the faith community. Not only were they set apart as God’s servants, but they were also to stand out from the crowd. First of all, they were prohibited from drinking wine.

“…they must give up wine and other alcoholic drinks. They must not use vinegar made from wine or from other alcoholic drinks, they must not drink fresh grape juice, and they must not eat grapes or raisins.” – Numbers 6:3 NLT

In a society where wine was a staple at every meal and a ubiquitous part of daily life, this would have proven to be a difficult concession to make. This requirement of abstinence was not because God considered the consumption of wine to be sinful, but because there was always the risk of drunkenness. The Scriptures are filled with stories of individuals who allowed alcohol to blur their decision-making and cause them to violate God’s will. The book of Genesis describes how Noah “drank some wine he had made, and he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent” (Genesis 9:21 NLT). God considered Noah to be “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), but this godly man allowed alcohol to dull his senses and that decision had serious and long-lasting consequences (Genesis 9:18-25).

The apostle Peter referred to Lot as “a righteous man” (2 Peter 2:7), yet the book of Genesis describes how Lot’s daughters got him drunk with wine and then proceeded to have sex with him.

“There are no men left anywhere in this entire area, so we can’t get married like everyone else. And our father will soon be too old to have children. Come, let’s get him drunk with wine, and then we will have sex with him. That way we will preserve our family line through our father.” – Genesis 19:31-32 NLT

The end result of these two incestuous encounters was the birth of two sons who would later become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites, two nations that would become the sworn enemies of Israel.

The fruit of the vine was intended to be a sign of God’s blessing but, like all of God’s blessings, it could be abused and misused. So, the Nazirites were strictly prohibited from consuming alcohol for as long as they remained in service to God.

Secondly, all Nazirites were prohibited from cutting their hair.

“They must never cut their hair throughout the time of their vow, for they are holy and set apart to the Lord. Until the time of their vow has been fulfilled, they must let their hair grow long. – Numbers 6:5 NLT

The length of their hair was intended to act as a sign or symbol of their set-apart status. There is no explanation given for this particular prohibition. Both men and women were required to allow their hair to grow for as long as they remained in service to God. Perhaps it was intended as a demonstration of their willingness to place their personal preferences on hold while they were in God’s service. Any concern they had for their outward appearance was to take a back seat to their commitment to God’s will. It’s interesting to note that Samson, one of the judges of Israel and a Nazirite, had come to the conclusion that his long hair was the source of his superhuman strength.

“A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” – Judges 16:17 ESV

Samson’s long hair had been intended to serve as a sign of his commitment to God, not a source of his strength. He had been set apart for God’s service but lived his life according to his own selfish standards. He was driven by his passions and given to living a life of excess. And when Samson’s hair was cut by Delilah, he lost his strength, not because he had lost his hair but because he had been abandoned by God.

…he didn’t realize the Lord had left him. So the Philistines captured him and gouged out his eyes. They took him to Gaza, where he was bound with bronze chains and forced to grind grain in the prison. – Judges 16:20-21 NLT

Samson lost his strength because he had long ago abandoned his commitment to God. He had repeatedly violated his vow to God and his shaved head was a sign that God no longer considered Samson to be set apart for His service. As the text clearly states, “the hair on their head is the symbol of their separation to God” (Numbers 6:7 NLT).

The third requirement had to do with defilement from personal contact with the dead. As a servant of God, the Nazirite was expected to remain ceremonially pure. Any physical contact with a human corpse would result in immediate defilement and require purification. What is interesting to note is how God highlights the role of the hair in the defilement process.

“If someone falls dead beside them, the hair they have dedicated will be defiled. They must wait for seven days and then shave their heads. Then they will be cleansed from their defilement. – Numbers 6:9 NLT

The longer length of the hair would present a problem if someone came in close proximity to a dead body. While they might refrain from touching the corpse with their hands, their hair could easily come into contact with the diseased, rendering the Nazirite ceremonially unclean. The only remedy was to shave their heads and then offer a sacrifice at the tabernacle. Once purified, he or she was free to complete their vow to God. The whole point was that God expected each Nazirite to maintain their holiness as long as they were in His service.

“All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.” – Numbers 6:8 ESV

When each individual had completed the terms of their vow, there was a ceremony conducted that officially released them from their commitment to God. It was called “the law of the Nazirite” and required each individual to shave their head and then burn the hair on the brazen altar as part of a sacrifice to God. This elaborate ritual brought the Nazirite’s service commitment to a close and allowed them to return to their former life.

But as long as the Nazirite’s vow was in place, they were expected to keep their commitment to God without fail.

And they must be careful to do whatever they vowed when they set themselves apart as Nazirites.” – Numbers 6:21 NLT

While the Nazirite vow no longer exists or applies, there is a similar calling issued to every child of God today. The apostle Paul outlines this non-negotiable commitment in his letter to the believers in Rome and it still calls God’s people to maintain their commitment to moral purity and holiness – at all times and at all costs.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:1-2 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.