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.

The Danger With Discontentment

1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “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?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all his company; put fire in them and put incense on them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” And Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and to stand before the congregation to minister to them, 10 and that he has brought you near him, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? 11 Therefore it is against the Lord that you and all your company have gathered together. What is Aaron that you grumble against him?”

12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? 14 Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” Numbers 16:1-14 ESV

The story of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness is a fascinating one, filled with plenty of twists and turns, plot changes and story lines. It is easy to read this chronicle of the lives of the people of God and wonder how they could be so slow to learn. How could they refuse to obey God after all He had done for them? Why would they continue to whine, complain, and moan about their lot in life when the God of the universe was leading them, providing for them, and revealing Himself to them day after day? But the truth is, as believers, we have the Spirit of God living within us and the Word of God made available to us and yet we still struggle with obedience and belief. So, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to harshly judge the Israelites.

Yet in today’s story from chapter 16 we have another occurrence of jealousy and rebellion. It seems that Korah, a grandson of Kohath, and a member of the tribe of Levi, decided that he wanted to be free to take part in the priestly responsibilities. As a Kohathite, he was part of the clan responsible for the transportation and care of all the vessels and utensils of the Tabernacle. They had been assigned that role by God.

“The duties of the Kohathites at the Tabernacle will relate to the most sacred objects.” – Numbers 4:4 NLT

According to God’s instructions, the Kohathites had a very specific role to play. And in order for them to do that job, Aaron, the high priest, and his sons had to prepare all the sacred objects for transport.

“When the camp moves, Aaron and his sons must enter the Tabernacle first to take down the inner curtain and cover the Ark of the Covenant with it. Then they must cover the inner curtain with fine goatskin leather and spread over that a single piece of blue cloth. Finally, they must put the carrying poles of the Ark in place.” – Numbers 4:5-6 NLT

Every item had to be carefully prepared according to God’s painstaking instructions. If Aaron and his sons failed to do everything just as God had commanded, it would have devastating consequences for Korah and the rest of his clan.

“The camp will be ready to move when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the sacred articles. The Kohathites will come and carry these things to the next destination. But they must not touch the sacred objects, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:15 NLT

“Do not let the Kohathite clans be destroyed from among the Levites! This is what you must do so they will live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects. Aaron and his sons must always go in with them and assign a specific duty or load to each person. The Kohathites must never enter the sanctuary to look at the sacred objects for even a moment, or they will die.” – Numbers 4:18-20 NLT

All the holy objects were to be covered with cloths to prevent the Kohathites from inadvertently touching them. And the larger items had poles inserted into the specially crafted rings that allowed them to be carried safely and securely without risk of death. It should have been considered an honor to carry these priceless objects that were essential for the worship of Yahweh. Yet, we learn that Korah was not content with the God-ordained role he and his clan had been assigned. He wanted more.

Driven by jealousy and a desire for greater prominence, he enlisted the support of others and, together, they incited a rebellion against Moses, along with 250 other leaders of the community, all prominent members of the assembly” (Numbers 4:2 NLT). It was a coup.

Korah appealed to other men in the camp to join him in his rebellion. He stirred up men from the tribe of Reuben by getting them to see that Moses had taken away the right of the firstborn of every tribe to serve God by replacing them with the sons of Levi. His argument was that every single Israelite was holy; not just Moses, Aaron, and the Levites.

He accused Moses of exalting himself above everyone else. He and his compatriots went to Moses and said, “You have gone too far! Everyone in Israel has been set apart by the LORD, and he is with all of us. What right do you have to act as though you are greater than anyone else among all these people of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:3 NLT).

Although Korah was from the tribe of Levi, he and his clan were not allowed to serve as priests, and he found this slight to be unacceptable. He viewed their role as “moving men” to be less-than-acceptable and more than a bit demeaning.

In his defense, Korah was basing his argument on a statement given by God when the people of Israel were still in Egypt.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

But what Korah failed to remember was that the entire nation had done irreparable damage to their holy status when they had been encamped at Mount Sinai. While Moses had been up on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to turn their back on God and worship a newly constructed golden calf (Exodus 32). And as punishment for their sin, God had given Moses orders to execute all those who had taken part in the idolatrous festivities.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

It had been the Levites who stood by Moses’ side and carried out God’s orders. As a result, Moses rewarded them for their show of faithfulness and obedience.

“Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:29 NLT

But Korah wasn’t satisfied with God’s will. He demanded that a new plan be put in place. Yet, Moses attempted to reason with his disgruntled kinsman.

“Does it seem insignificant to you that the God of Israel has chosen you from among all the community of Israel to be near him so you can serve in the Lord’s Tabernacle and stand before the people to minister to them? Korah, he has already given this special ministry to you and your fellow Levites. Are you now demanding the priesthood as well?” – Numbers 16:9-10 NLT

Moses couldn’t understand why Korah considered himself and his clansmen as second-class citizens. Why was he unable to view their God-ordained role as vital and worthy of their best efforts? And Moses tried to warn them that their complaint was really with God, not himself or Aaron.

The Lord is the one you and your followers are really revolting against! For who is Aaron that you are complaining about him?” – Numbers 16:11 NLT

Korah was walking on thin ice. He was venturing into uncharted waters that would not bring him to a far-from-pleasant destination. And Moses attempted to reason with Korah’s compatriots, but they refused to listen to what he had to say.

“We refuse to come before you! Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us here in this wilderness, and that you now treat us like your subjects? What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come.” – Numbers 16:12-14 NLT

The stage was set. The lines were drawn. Korah and his disenchanted companions stood their ground and refused to heed the warnings of Moses. They were done taking orders from Moses and Aaron. As far as they were concerned, it was their time to shine and they would not be satisfied until they were the ones calling the shots.

But they failed to recognize that their complaints had reached the ears of God. He had been listening to their arrogant demands and knew that their discontentment was ultimately directed at Him. And it’s interesting to note that the very people who were responsible for transporting the holy objects from the tabernacle were carrying resentment for the very one for whom the tabernacle had been constructed.

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.

 

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” 10 But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively. 11 Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion. – Jude 1:9-11 ESV

You don’t have to be a theological scholar to recognize that Jude has a strong dislike for the false teachers about whom he is writing. You won’t find any grace or kindness in his words regarding them. He doesn’t paint them as well-meaning, but misinformed individuals who hold a slightly different view than his. He isn”t accommodating or concilatory. He shows no interest in compromise or making concessions. The issues these individuals are addressing are not up for debate and are not subject to their own personal opinions or views.

Jude saw their intentions as anything but well-meaning. In fact, he paints them as spies, describing them as having “crept in unnoticed” with the sole into to “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 1:4 ESV).  These people were not to be trusted or tolerated. And Jude leaves no doubt as to the reason for his dislike for and disdain of them.

…these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT

It seems that these individuals displayed a certain sense of super-spirituality, claiming to have received visions from God to back up their false teaching. And yet, Jude points out that their lives were marked by immorality, rebellion against authority, and a rejection of the supernatural. That last point is somewhat cryptic and difficult to understand, but Jude seems to be picking up on something that Peter dealt with in one of his letter.

He [God] is especially hard on those who follow their own twisted sexual desire, and who despise authority.

These people are proud and arrogant, daring even to scoff at supernatural beings without so much as trembling. But the angels, who are far greater in power and strength, do not dare to bring from the Lord a charge of blasphemy against those supernatural beings. – 2 Peter 2:10-11 NLT

It would appear that these false teachers were guilty of rejecting certain ideas concerning the supernatural realm, including the presence of demons or fallen angels. They scoffed at the idea, labeling it as nothing more than superstition. And yet, Peter made it clear that God took the presence of demons seriously.

For God did not spare even the angels who sinned. He threw them into hell, in gloomy pits of darkness, where they are being held until the day of judgment. – 2 Peter 2:4 NLT

And as Peter pointed out, even good angels refuse to speak a negative word regarding their fallen counterparts. As spiritual beings, they had a serious and reverent regard for the supernatural. But that was not the case for these false teachers. They thought they knew better. They saw themselves as smarter than angels.

But, to put it bluntly, the false teachers were nothing more than religious rebels, attempting to force their particular point of view on the unsuspecting believers within the local congregation. They had an open disregard for God’s point of view. And it appears that they treated the supernatural with disdain.

At this point, Jude uses what appears to be a well-known story regarding Moses, which is not recorded in the Bible. It is likely based on oral tradition and had been handed down among the Jewish community over the centuries. It was actually recorded in the apocryphal book, The Assumption of Moses. Jude’s use of this story shouldn’t necessarily be taken as proof of its authenticity. He was simply using its familiar details for the purpose of proving his point.

So that we might better understand the nature of Jude’s use of this story, William John Deane provides this commentary.

Taking into consideration the circumstances of the burial of Moses, we see that it was intended to be a secret transaction. The Lord, we are told (Deut. xxxiv.6), “buried him in a valley of the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor; but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” Doubtless there was a good reason for this secrecy. The, proneness of the Jews to idolatry, the likelihood that the body of their great leader might become an object of adoration, even as the brazen serpent drew their hearts away in later time, the tendency to follow the creature-worship and to pay that undue reverence to relics which they had seen in Egypt, — these considerations may have led to the concealment of the body of Moses. And the devil wished to frustrate this purpose. He saw an opportunity of using the mortal remains of Moses to draw away the Israelites from true religion. He would have no mystery about the burial. The people should be shown their leader’s resting place; of the result he had no doubt whatever. And Michael, the appointed guard of the grave, as the Targum says, resisted this evil attempt of Satan, and firmly carried out the purpose of God. Using the words which God Himself had employed when the wicked spirit endeavoured to withstand His act of clothing Joshua, the high priest, in festal garments (Zech. iii.), Michael answered, “The Lord rebuke thee.” And in the unknown spot the body rested; or, at any rate, it was seen no more till it appeared to the wondering three on the Mount of Transfiguration fourteen hundred years later. – William John Deane, Pseudepigrapha

Jude is not validating the veracity of the story as much as he is using it in order to expose the sins of the false teachers. In the story, the angel Michael does not treat Satan with contempt or derision. He doesn’t speak with contempt, but simply says, “The Lord rebuke you.”

Jude is pointing out that the supernatural realm exists. And yet, “these people scoff at things they do not understand” (Jude 1:10 NLT). The Greek word translated as “scoff” is blasphēmeō, and it refers to irreverent or reviling speech. They were treating the things of God, the unseen and inexplicable things of God, with an air of arrogance and open disregard. And when they spoke, they did so in ignorance.

Jude compares the with dumb, unthinking animals who “do whatever their instincts tell them” (Jude 1:10 NLT). In other words, they were driven by their passions and controlled by their natural, fallen instincts. And Jude compares them to two notorious characters from history: Cain and Balaam. Both of these men had less-than-stellar reputations. Cain, driven by jealousy and the desire for revenge, committed the first murder, killing his own brother, Abel. Balaam, a prophet, disobeyed the expressed will of God and provided the enemies of Israel with a plan for causing their downfall. And what he did was driven by his desire for money. He sold out the people of God for personal gain. Both men were controlled by their sinful desires.

And, by comparison, so were these false teachers. And their actions were going to result in their own destruction. They were headed for a fall, because they were standing in opposition to God Himself. They were guilty of rebellion against God and, as a result, they would perish, just as Korah had. This is another reference to a well-known historic event recorded in the book of Numbers. Korah led a rebellion against Moses, claiming, “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). Korah disrespected Moses’ God-ordained leadership role and tried to usurp his authority. But God stepped in and destroyed Korah and all who joined his rebellion.

Jude is making it quite clear that the future for these false teachers will be unpleasant. If they continue down the path they have chosen, it will not end well for them. And he wants his readers to understand the danger in following the teaching of these misguided and self-obsessed individuals. They do not represent an alternative form of leadership. Their teaching is not to be treated as an acceptable option or viewpoint. It is to be rejected at all costs. They were to be seen as a danger to the faith community and a threat to the integrity of the gospel message. And they were to be avoided at all costs.

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

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

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