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.

Don’t Pass Up the Passover

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, at twilight, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its rules you shall keep it.” So Moses told the people of Israel that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so the people of Israel did. And there were certain men who were unclean through touching a dead body, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day, and they came before Moses and Aaron on that day. And those men said to him, “We are unclean through touching a dead body. Why are we kept from bringing the Lord’s offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?” And Moses said to them, “Wait, that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.”

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. 11 In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight they shall keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They shall leave none of it until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it. 13 But if anyone who is clean and is not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. 14 And if a stranger sojourns among you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, according to the statute of the Passover and according to its rule, so shall he do. You shall have one statute, both for the sojourner and for the native.” Numbers 9:1-14 ESV

The first 14 verses of chapter 9 record God’s call for Israel to celebrate the second annual Passover. A year had passed since He had instituted the original Passover meal that had resulted in the deliverance of the people of Israel from the divine judgment meted out by the Death Angel. Any home where the blood of an unblemished lamb had been spread on the doorpost and lintel had been spared the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12). The sacrifice of the innocent lambs provided protection from the wrath of God. Their lives were offered up in place of the firstborn sons of the Israelites.

God graciously reminded His people to keep this annual festival, knowing that they would naturally tend to forget. A lot had transpired since they had left Egypt a year earlier and the celebration of that long-forgotten night would have been the last thing on their minds. Yet, God had commanded them to commemorate that fateful day every year on the same day from generation to generation.

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” – Exodus 12:14 ESV

The second-annual Passover was to occur in the first month of the second year after the Exodus, Which means it took place a month earlier than the census recorded in chapter 1, in which God had instituted “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1 ESV). This tells us that the events recorded in Numbers are not necessarily in chronological order.

According to God’s command, the Passover was to be kept “at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its rules” (Numbers 9:3 ESV). Nothing was left to chance. They couldn’t skip it or make any changes to it. Everything had to be done in accordance with the requirements spelled out by God on the evening of the first Passover.

“Every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:3, 5-6 ESV

As part of the celebration, the people of Israel were required to reenact all the requirements that  God had handed down regarding the Passover, including the sacrifice of the lamb.

“…take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.” – Exodus 12:7 ESV

While they were living in Egypt, the Israelites had been shepherds (Exodus 9:1-7), so they had ready access to the lambs necessary for obeying God’s commands. And even when they departed Egypt, they did so with “great flocks and herds of livestock” (Exodus 12:38 NLT).  So, they had plenty of resources to obey God’s command and commemorate this annual festival.

Once again, they were not free to twist the rules or skimp on the requirements. The lambs must be without blemish. They couldn’t cut corners by offering a flawed or disfigured animal. That would have made the sacrifice unacceptable to God. Every detail concerning the celebration of the original Passover had been critical and non-negotiable. If they wanted to experience God’s deliverance, the people would have to do everything according to His exacting standards. And as the years passed and each successive generation asked, “What does this ceremony mean?,” their parents were to answer, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. And though he struck the Egyptians, he spared our families” (Exodus 12:25-27 NLT).

God had graciously spared the Israelites, but they had been required to do everything according to plan. Their obedience was non-optional and non-negotiable. And, a year later, that fact remained unchanged.

The Passover was all about God’s mercy and grace. When the Death Angel passed through the land of Canaan, all the firstborns of the flocks and herds were to die, as well as the firstborns of all the households in Egypt. That would have included the Israelites – unless they obeyed God’s command and purified their homes with the blood of the unblemished lamb.

The Passover meal had been ordained for the Israelites alone. God had made it perfectly clear that “no uncircumcised male may ever eat the Passover meal” (Exodus 12:48 NLT). Any foreigner wishing to celebrate that Passover and escape the wrath of God was required to undergo the right of circumcision. 

“If there are foreigners living among you who want to celebrate the Lord’s Passover, let all their males be circumcised. Only then may they celebrate the Passover with you like any native-born Israelite.” – Exodus 12:48 NLT

And a year later, another provision was made for those who were ceremonially unclean.

…some of the men had been ceremonially defiled by touching a dead body, so they could not celebrate the Passover that day. – Numbers 9:6 NLT

Having come into contact with a corpse, they had become defiled and ceremonially impure. As a result, they were unable to celebrate the Passover meal or take part in the rest of the events associated with the festival. So, they made an appeal to Moses.

“We have become ceremonially unclean by touching a dead body. But why should we be prevented from presenting the Lord’s offering at the proper time with the rest of the Israelites?” – Numbers 9:7 NLT

Unsure as to what to do about this unexpected conundrum, Moses sought direction from God. And He responded.

“They must offer the Passover sacrifice one month later, at twilight on the fourteenth day of the second month.” – Numbers 9:11 NLT

This act of leniency would not have been possible a year earlier. Passover took place the very night on which the Death Angel passed through the land. A month’s delay would have resulted in death. But God had already delivered His people. They had escaped His judgment. Now, a year later, He could extend them grace by allowing them to delay their eating of the meal for 30 days; just enough time for them to undergo ceremonial purification and restoration. Once the month-long delay was complete, they were to keep every aspect of God’s command down to the last detail.

“They must follow all the normal regulations concerning the Passover.” – Numbers 9:12 NLT

God was gracious and came up with a provision for their defilement. But anyone who simply neglected to keep the Passover could not expect to enjoy the mercy of God.

“But those who neglect to celebrate the Passover at the regular time, even though they are ceremonially clean and not away on a trip, will be cut off from the community of Israel. If they fail to present the Lord’s offering at the proper time, they will suffer the consequences of their guilt. – Numbers 9:13 NLT

These individuals were to be treated as ceremonially unclean and cut off from the faith community. Their failure to obey God’s command concerning the Passover would result in their banishment. There would be no Death Angel passing through the midst of the camp, but they would suffer relational death – a painful removal from their family and friends, but worse yet, from the presence of God.

And God held everyone within the Israelite community to the same exacting standards, whether they were Jews or Gentile converts to Judaism.

“…if foreigners living among you want to celebrate the Passover to the Lord, they must follow these same decrees and regulations. The same laws apply both to native-born Israelites and to the foreigners living among you.” – Numbers 9:14 NLT

There are some biblical scholars who believe the reference to being “cut off” from the faith community is really a reference to physical death. One of the verses they use to support this interpretation is found in the book of Leviticus.

“All who do not deny themselves that day will be cut off from God’s people. And I will destroy anyone among you who does any work on that day. – Leviticus 23:29-30 NLT

God commanded that the annual Day of Atonement be treated as a Sabbath day of rest. The people of Israel were prohibited from doing any work from sundown of one day to sundown of the next. If they did, they were to be cut off or destroyed. And those who failed to keep the Passover were also to be “cut off” so that they might “suffer the consequences of their guilt” (Numbers 9:13 NLT).

Whether the separation was merely physical, in terms of removal from the fellowship, or of a more permanent nature, due to death, it is clear that God considered obedience to His commands to be non-negotiable. His people were to keep His word or face the consequences.

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

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

Sin the the Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world… – Hebrews 10:1-5 NLT

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

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

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

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

Redeemed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subtle Snare of Self-Sufficiency

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 ESV

It would seem that much of the conflict within the congregation to which James wrote had to do with the haves and the have-nots. There was obviously some kind of tension taking place between the wealthier members and those who were of less fortunate means. James has already addressed this cause of disunity several times in his letter.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. – James 1:9-11 NLT

In chapter two, he addressed their problem of showing partiality to the rich while treating the poor with contempt. He even presented them with a hypothetical scenario that was probably more fact than fiction.

suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:1-4 NLT

James pointed out that those who attempted to flatter the wealthier members of their community were doing so for the wrong reasons. They were motivated by greed and hopeful of winning over the very ones who were making their lives miserable.

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

It seems that some of the believers were inviting their affluent oppressors to visit their worship services where they treated them like celebrities. But in doing so, they were discriminating against the poor whom God had chosen to extend His grace and mercy. In fact, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not only that, they stood to inherit the Kingdom God had promised to all those who love him (James 2:5).

In chapter four, James addressed the curse of self-confidence. He pointed out that there were those who somehow believed that they were in control of their own lives.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” – James 4:13 NLT

This describes a person of means, someone with the financial resources to relocate to another city in order to set up a new business. Only a person with substantial capital could afford such a costly and potentially risky proposition. But just because they have the financial wherewithal to pull off such a grandiose plan doesn’t mean they should. James warns that their sense of self-sufficiency was a bit presumptuous because they had no way of knowing what the future held.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

The problem with having ample financial resources is that it can create a sense of autonomy and an attitude of independence from God. James wanted the wealthy to understand that their capacity to make things happen could cause them to replace God’s will with their own, and that would be a risky proposition. So, he encouraged them to put their money and their means at God’s disposal, to do with as He saw fit.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money” (Matthew 6:24 NLT).

Money is amoral and not inherently evil. But it can become a source of temptation and a means of living outside the will of God. Rather than waiting on God to confirm His will through the provision of resources, the wealthy can formulate and fund their plans independently. It is this propensity for prideful self-sufficiency that James addresses in this section of his letter. In a rather prophetic and unapologetically harsh tone, James calls out the privileged class. He doesn’t seem to be differentiating between believers and unbelievers but is pointing out the fate of all who use their wealth for unjust purposes. And he is unsparing in his criticism.

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. – James 5:1-3 NLT

To a certain degree, James is also addressing the have-nots within the local congregation by opening their eyes to the less-attractive side of financial independence. They all aspired to have more. They longed to experience all the pleasures and benefits that money could provide. But James wanted them to understand that wealth could be both a blessing and a curse. It is as if he had in mind the words that Paul wrote to Timothy.

…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. But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:9-11 NLT

With wealth comes great responsibility. And the rich to whom James referred were guilty of abusing their responsibilities by taking advantage of the less fortunate. They were lining their pockets by defrauding their employees. They were increasing their wealth by fleecing the poor and defenseless. But James warns them that their immoral and unethical actions had not gone unnoticed.

For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – James 5:4 NLT

This is a direct reference to the Mosaic law, where God warned His people against abusing their less-fortunate laborers.

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don’t, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NLT

James is continuing to remind his readers that faith is always tied to behavior. That’s why had told them, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). To know the will of God and then fail to carry it out was nothing less than sin and worthy of His judgment. To claim to have faith in God but to live in disobedience to the will of God rendered your faith lifeless and impotent. There was no evidence of transformation. And regardless of whether someone was wealthy or poor, they had an obligation to demonstrate the sanctifying nature of their faith through acts of righteousness. In this passage, James is simply supporting what he said earlier in his letter.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. – James 2:17 NLT

And James declares that the wealthy to whom he referred had more than proven the lifeless nature of their faith. Their works gave testimony to the worthlessness of their so-called faith in Christ.

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. – James 5:5-6 NLT

James is merciless in his condemnation because of the serious nature of the problem. He seems to infer that the unethical actions of the wealthy had resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Whether James is speaking hyperbolically or literally is unclear. If these affluent landowners were guilty of underpaying their employees, it could have easily resulted in the starvation of some of the more destitute among them.

“. . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6).” – Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead

Our behavior should be a reflection of our beliefs. The presence of wealth or poverty should not determine the nature of our lives. For the Christ follower, the indwelling Holy Spirit should be the motivating force behind our every action and activity. The apostle John provides a much-needed reminder that we should emulate Christ in all that we do. His love for us should show up in our love for others, and be evidenced by our willingness to use every resource at our disposal to benefit those around us.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. – 1 John 3:16-19 NLT

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

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

Just Do It

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 ESV

Up to this point, Solomon has provided us with a somewhat autobiographical and deeply personal look at life. He has revealed a perspective on life as seen from his unique vantage point as an aging monarch whose reflections are filled with regret and remorse. Yet, he sees himself as a preacher or teacher, whose responsibility as a leader of his people is to share his mistakes and the insights he has gleaned from them.

In this section, Solomon’s writing style becomes less autobiographical and more proverbial, similar to that of the book of Proverbs, which he wrote and edited. Proverbs are succinct, simple statements designed to teach powerful truths using few words, but in a memorable and impactful manner. Typically, proverbs are gathered in collections, with what appears to be little or no rhyme or reason as to their order or flow. They appear as isolated and seemingly unrelated thoughts, with each operating as a stand-alone truth claim.

In chapter five, we have a series of these proverbs, and the first few all have something to do with making vows before God. As has been the case before, Solomon appears to be writing from personal experience. These are not simply words of wisdom he has run across and deemed worthy of inclusion in his book. They are practical life lessons that he has experienced firsthand. And the very first one he shares has to do with the attitudes one should bring into the house of God. They concern one’s worship of God.

When entering into the presence of God, attitude and actions should not be separated. He warns against offering sacrifices to God in a flippant and disrespectful manner. For Solomon, it was a dangerous thing to go through the motions of worship while showing no reverence or fear for God. He describes a form of worship that is self-motivated and manipulative, offering sacrifices and making rash vows to God in order to get something from Him. He recommends listening over sacrificing.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. – Ecclesiastes 5:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “listening” is shama` and it carries with it the ideas of hearing and obeying. Solomon knew that there was a real risk of showing up at the temple to offer the required sacrifices and failing to hear what God might be trying to say. You could end up going through the motions of worship while ignoring the very one to whom you were offering the sacrifice. There is little doubt that Solomon was very familiar with the words that the prophet Samuel spoke to Saul, the first king of Israel.

“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT

Solomon’s own father, David, had discovered this same truth.

“You take no delight in sacrifices or offerings.
    Now that you have made me listen, I finally understand—
    you don’t require burnt offerings or sin offerings.
Then I said, “Look, I have come.
    As is written about me in the Scriptures:
I take joy in doing your will, my God,
    for your instructions are written on my heart.” – Psalm 40:6-8 NLT

And after the Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the law by harvesting grain on the sabbath, Jesus responded, “I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices” (Matthew 12:7 NLT).

Jesus was condemning these men for placing a higher priority on the sacrificial system than on the God to whom the sacrifices were being offered. And Solomon warns his readers: “Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:3 NLT).

Solomon is not simply spouting a clever-sounding maxim, but revealing a painful, yet valuable lesson learned from real life. He reminds us that God is transcendent. He is in heaven and we are on earth, and there is a great gulf that separates us, both literally and figuratively. God is holy and we are not. God is sinless and completely righteous in all He does. We are just the opposite. And we cannot afford to enter into His presence with a sense of dishonor or disrespect.

And one of the areas in which we can get ourselves into trouble with God is through the making of vows or commitments to Him. Vows were commonplace in Solomon’s day. They were verbal commitments made to God. A vow was a solemn promise to do something for God or to offer a sacrifice to God in the hopes of receiving blessings from Him in return. And Solomon warns, “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow” (Ecclesiastes 5:4 ESV).

There is little doubt that Solomon had made many rash vows to God, promising to do something for God in return for His blessings. But Solomon knew the truth. He had failed to keep his side of the bargain, and he had learned the valuable lesson that God does not suffer fools lightly. The kind of vows to which Solomon refers could have been free-will offerings that were not part of the normal sacrificial requirements. When going through a time of difficulty or trial, it would be easy to promise to offer God a free-will offering in return for His rescue or relief. But it’s nothing more than a form of bargaining with God., and the book of Judges records just such a rash vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” – Judges 11:30-31 ESV

And the story goes on to record that God gave Jephthah victory over the Ammonites, but it also reveals the tragic outcome of Jephthah’s rash vow.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” – Judges 11:34-35 ESV

Solomon wants his readers to know that God takes vows seriously, which is why he states, “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NLT). Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be hasty. Treat God as holy and don’t be too quick to make promises you have no intention of keeping. Because God will hold you to your word. Again, Solomon seems to speak from experience when he writes:

Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 5:6 NLT

And it would seem from this verse, that Solomon has widened the application to include vows or promises made to other individuals. If you make a commitment to someone, keep it. You can’t get out of it by stating your original promise was a mistake.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had some serious things to say about the matter of vows.

“You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!’ because heaven is God’s throne. And do not say, ‘By the earth!’ because the earth is his footstool. And do not say, ‘By Jerusalem!’ for Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Do not even say, ‘By my head!’ for you can’t turn one hair white or black. Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:33-36 NLT

Don’t miss what Jesus is saying. The prevalent perspective in His day was to keep any and all vows made to God. But Jesus warns not to make any vows at all. His reason for this was that the Jewish religious leaders had developed a variety of loopholes and workarounds that would allow people to make vows without having to keep them. And Jesus lists just a few. They had developed a system by which you could make a vow that was legally breakable because you made it based on something that was non-binding. Through clever use of words, you could make a vow that sounded binding but wasn’t. It gave the impression that you would follow through on your commitment, but with no intention to do so. These kinds of vows were little more than lies, and Jesus warned His followers not to make them. Instead, they were to say “Yes, I will!” or “No, I won’t!”

Solomon wraps up this short section with a somewhat enigmatic verse.

For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear. – Ecclesiastes 5:7 ESV

The New Living Translation sheds some light on what Solomon may have been trying to say. “Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead.” Someone who experiences an abundance of dreams ends up struggling with whether what they have dreamed has true significance or meaning. What are they to believe? The same is true when we use too many words and make too many vows. No one knows whether what we are saying is true or to be believed. Dreams mean nothing unless they are put into action. And words are of little value if they are not accompanied by follow-through. Remember what Solomon said: Let your words be few. Verbosity is no substitute for integrity. Why waste your time making promises? Just do it.

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.

Practical and Personal

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33 ESV

Paul has strongly stressed the need to know and obey the will of the Lord (Ephesians 5:17). He has called each member of the congregation to live as a light in the midst of the darkness of Ephesus by submitting to the control of the Holy Spirit within them. Together, they were to shine the light of God’s life-transforming glory into the dark recesses of the sin-soaked society around them. The fledgling church in Ephesus was to be a beacon of hope as they allowed the Holy Spirit to fill them. His presence and power would overflow and impact all their relationships. Paul indicates that this Spirit-empowered change in their corporate interactions will leave them singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Ephesians 5:19 NLT). As the Spirit makes the will of God known and then empowers the Ephesians to obey it, they will see their relationships radically changed, and their gratefulness to God increase. But it will all begin with their willingness to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

It’s interesting to note how verse 21 is often overlooked or ignored by those who take issue with verses 22-24. In the modern-day church, there are many who find Paul’s words regarding wives submitting to their husbands as old-fashioned and heavily patriarchal. They view them as antiquated and no longer applicable in today’s more modern and enlightened context. There is little debate that, when taken out of its context, Paul’s teachings about submission within the home can sound like he has a low regard for women. But nothing could be further from the truth. Paul is not suggesting that wives have less value or worth than their husbands. He is not treating them as second-class citizens or subjugating them to an inferior role in the marriage relationship. He is simply continuing his discussion on knowing the will of God and allowing the Holy Spirit to apply that will to everyday life so that the Ephesian believers might be lights in the darkness.

Paul brings up the institution of marriage because it was something the Ephesian believers shared with their unsaved neighbors. Marriage was an accepted part of everyday life in Ephesus. Christians were not the only ones who participated in the God-ordained institution of marriage. But Christians were the only ones who could demonstrate what God’s will was concerning marriage.

Within the 1st-Century context of Greek culture, Paul’s teaching regarding husbands and wives was radical and unexpected. The prevailing view of the day held that wives were little more than property. Oftentimes, they were treated more like slaves than helpmeets. In general, women were seen as inferior to men and accorded little honor or respect.

“After centuries of Christian teaching, we scarcely appreciate the revolutionary nature of Paul’s views on family life set forth in this passage. Among the Jews of his day, as also among the Romans and the Greeks, women were seen as secondary citizens with few or no rights. The pious male Jew daily said a prayer in which he thanked God for not making him a woman. And he could divorce his wife by simply writing ‘a bill of divorcement’ (which must include the provision that she was then free to marry whomever she wanted). The wife had no such right.” – Leon Morris, Expository Reflections on the Letter to the Ephesians

But Paul was not attempting to write a commentary on gender equity or trying to rectify centuries of ungodly thinking about the role of women in society. His interest was in helping Christian husbands and wives apply the will of God regarding marriage to their own homes. And his words must be kept within the context of his call to mutual submission found in verse 21. That’s the key to understanding verses 22-33.

Don’t forget how Paul opened this section of his letter.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV

How are mere humans supposed to imitate God? How can fallen men and women model their lives after a holy and completely righteous God? The only way they can do it is through a relationship with the Son of God. It is only through faith in Christ that anyone can be made right with God. And as believers are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, their lives inherently imitate God because they emulate the One who “expresses the very character of God” (Hebrews 1:3 NLT).

Paul opened this chapter by calling the Ephesians to imitate God by demonstrating the same kind of sacrificial love that Christ poured out on them. God so loved the world that He sent His Son (John 3:16), and He “showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT).

Now, in verses 22-33, Paul is taking this call to imitate God by loving like Christ and applying it to the institution of marriage. He is focusing his attention on the one place in society where love and submission could and should be practiced and prove the power of the Spirit of God to apply the will of God to everyday life.

Paul begins by addressing the wives, telling them to “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). It’s amazing how often the last four words of his statement are left out by those who take issue with this passage. They also overlook his emphasis on wives and their own husbands. This is not intended as a blanket statement regarding the relationship between all women and all men. This has less to do with gender than it does with the God-ordained institution of marriage and the divine definition regarding the roles of husbands and their wives. And it only applies to Christian marriages. What Paul is prescribing here is only possible when both husband and wife share a common faith in Jesus Christ. 

When Paul calls the wife to submit to her husband, he is not issuing a command to subjugate herself to a lower or inferior status in the relationship. He is not suggesting that the wife is of lesser value or importance to God.

“People often misunderstand submission. It does not indicate inferiority or involve losing one’s identity and becoming a non-person. Some women fear that submission will lead to abuse and or a feeling of being used. Submission does not mean blind obedience or passivity. It means giving oneself up to someone else.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Ephesians

Paul is teaching the will of God concerning the marriage relationship. A Christian marriage is to look distinctively different than a non-Christian marriage. A husband and wife who are also a brother and sister in Christ are to model a radically different kind of marriage. Their interactions with one another are to be in keeping with the will of God and empowered by the Spirit of God. And it begins with a willingness to submit to or come under God’s providential plan for the marriage relationship.

These 12 verses, when taken in their context, reveal that the Christian marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. This must not be overlooked or discounted. That is the whole point of Paul’s teaching. The wife is intended to represent the church, the holy and spotless bride of Christ. The husband represents Christ, who demonstrated His love for His bride by laying down His life. Jesus gave His life so that His bride might have fulness of life. He died so that His bride might live. He sacrificed His body in order that the church might be cleansed and made holy. He modeled selflessness in the form of sacrifice.

In the same way, the wife is to model selflessness in the form of willful submission. The church, the bride of Christ, willingly submits to Him because it is God’s will. And when a Christian wife submits to her Christian husband, she is doing so “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22 ESV). Or to put it another way, she submits to her husband in the same way that she submitted to the Lord – through faith – trusting that God’s will and His ways are best. Paul doesn’t suggest that she submit only when her husband acts like Christ. That is where faith comes in. She is expected to do God’s will whether the conditions are perfect or the outcome looks predictable. That’s why Paul added, “as to the Lord.” Ultimately, she is trusting that obedience to God’s will is preferable to her own desire for autonomy or self-will.

What Paul is suggesting is not only difficult, but it is impossible – without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. No one likes to submit. There is no human being that likes the idea of coming under the authority or leadership of another. Yet we all do it every day if we feel like we will receive some benefit from having done so. Employees submit to their bosses, in order to get a salary. Citizens submit to their governing authorities, in exchange for protection and the preservation of their rights and freedoms. You might call it a form of quid pro quo.

But Paul is suggesting something altogether different. He is calling husbands and wives to follow the example of Christ. He willingly submitted to the will of His Father, even to the point of laying down His life (Philippians 2:6-8). He willingly sacrificed His life so that His bride might be made holy, righteous, and pure. And when a husband and wife, two people whom God has formed into one, do the same thing, they bring Him glory. They reflect His will and imitate His very nature – together.

And Paul sums up his teaching by calling it a “great mystery…an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:32 NLT). On a human level, it makes no sense. It seems illogical and impractical. To today’s modern sensibilities, it seems out of date and out of touch with reality. But Paul is revealing God’s will, not marriage advice. And he does sum up his teaching about this great mystery with some rather simple advice:

So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. – Ephesians 5:33 NLT

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

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

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

 

Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greater Love Has No Man

18 Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’

24 “When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will go down. For we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28 One left me, and I said, “Surely he has been torn to pieces,” and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

30 “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32 For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” – Genesis 44:18-34 ESV

The Egyptian governor has accused Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, of having stolen a valuable silver goblet. As his punishment, the boy will be forced to remain in Egypt as a slave while his 10 brothers return home to Canaan. Of course, the entire affair had been the brainchild of Joseph, who had ordered that the goblet be placed in Benjamin’s belongings before the brothers started their journey home. In a sense, Joseph had framed his own brother for the crime so that he might determine the true condition of his brothers’ hearts. He had absolved them of any guilt and given them the option of returning to Canaan without Benjamin. Now, it was time to see what his brothers would do. Had they changed? Or, in order to save their own skins, would they abandon Benjamin to a life of slavery just as they had done to him?

Judah was the first to speak up. He approached the Egyptian governor and begged him to reconsider. Judah explained that Benjamin was the youngest son of their father, Jacob, and that boy was near and dear to the old man’s heart. When they had returned the first time and informed Jacob that the governor demanded that they bring Benjamin back to Egypt, Jacob had become distressed at the thought of losing another son. Judah explained, in a rather abbreviated form, that their father had lost another son and had never really gotten over the pain of his sudden and unexpected disappearance.

What makes this dialogue so ironic is that the one to whom it was directed was already very familiar with the details of the story. Joseph knew exactly what Judah was including and all that he was leaving out. Understandably so, Judah expressed no ownership for the “disappearance” of Joseph. He shared nothing about the role he and his brothers played in selling their younger brother to Ishmaelite traders. To do so would have been an acknowledgment that they were all untrustworthy men. So, Judah sanitized the story, emphasizing the tragic loss of their brother while never divulging their involvement in it. He also failed to share how they deceived their own father, allowing him to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

All Judah chose to share was the devastating impact the governor’s decree had on their father. Not only had they returned without Simeon, but they had been forced to tell their aging father that he would never see Simeon again unless Benjamin returned to Egypt with them. And Jacob had found this news to be more than he could bear.

“As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned. Doubtless he was torn to pieces by some wild animal. I have never seen him since. Now if you take his brother away from me, and any harm comes to him, you will send this grieving, white-haired man to his grave.” – Genesis 44:27-29 NLT

Judah was pulling at the governor’s heartstrings. He was desperately attempting to appeal to Zaphenath-paneah’s emotions, hoping that this powerful Egyptian ruler might empathize with their plight and rescind his order.

But the next words to come out of Judah’s mouth revealed to Joseph that his brother was serious about saving Benjamin’s life. Judah painted a gut-wrenching image of their elderly and grief-stricken father waiting anxiously back in Canaan. But he also expressed his willingness to offer his own life as a substitute for Benjamin’s. Judah told the governor how he had assured his father that he would take personal responsibility for the boy.

“My lord, I guaranteed to my father that I would take care of the boy. I told him, ‘If I don’t bring him back to you, I will bear the blame forever.’” – Genesis 44:32 NLT

And this is where Judah reveals the true nature of his heart. This very same man who had come up with the idea of selling Joseph to the Ishmaelite slave traders offered to trade his life for that of Benjamin.

“So please, my lord, let me stay here as a slave instead of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I return to my father if the boy is not with me? I couldn’t bear to see the anguish this would cause my father!” – Genesis 44:33-34 NLT

Judah was willing to forfeit his own freedom so that his younger brother could be set free and return to their father. Judah was not the same callous individual who had allowed jealousy and envy to cloud his thinking and drive him to betray his own brother. All those years ago, Judah had shown no love for Joseph and he had exhibited no remorse for causing his father so much pain. But Judah was not that same man. He had grown up and was now willing to stand up and do the right thing. Judah’s sacrificial and selfless offer reflects the kind of love described and demonstrated by Jesus.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:13 ESV

Judah was making a huge sacrifice. He had a family back home that was dependent upon his return. But he was willing to jeopardize his own wife and children in order to honor his father and protect the life of his brother. Judah was offering to redeem the life of Benjamin by substituting his life as payment for Benjamin’s debt. He would pay the penalty on behalf of Benjamin, allowing the boy to return to the embrace of his father. And it’s important to note that Jesus would come through the line of Judah. And years later, Jacob would bestow on Judah a very special blessing that would have future ramifications.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:10 ESV

“Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship that the king serves the people, not vice versa. Judah is transformed from one who sells his brother as a slave to one who is willing to be the slave for his brother. With that offer he exemplifies Israel’s ideal kingship.” – Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary

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.

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