Numbers 18 and 19. Together, these two chapters answer the question asked by the people in Chapter 7, how is it possible for an unholy people to come before a holy God through the provision of priest and purification? We look to the reading of God’s Word if you join me in prayer. Father God, indeed, we ask by your Holy Spirit that you would open our minds that as your scriptures are read and as your word is proclaimed, that we would be led into your truth. Father, that we would be taught your will and all is for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose name we now pray, Amen. Beginning in Chapter 18, the Lord said to Aaron, You and your sons in 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 you shall not come near 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 the people of Israel. Chapter 19, Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Aaron, saying, This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded. Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, in which a yoke has never come. And the liaise of the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood towards the front of the tent of meeting seven times. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hissop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire, burning the heifer. And the man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water, for impurity, for the congregation of the people of Israel.
It is a sin offering. The word of the Lord. Please be seated. As Americans, we have a strange relationship with rituals. Most will tell you that rituals or ritualism is bad. The strange part comes is that people don’t usually recognize the rituals in their lives as rituals. That’s the modern failure because what makes sense to us, we don’t consider rituals. And the rituals we don’t like or don’t understand, that is what we consider to be rituals. And in doing so, we fail to see what’s clearly right in front of us. A number of Christians over the years have told me that their church doesn’t do rituals or liturgy. And it’s usually meant as a criticism of what we do. But their service is filled from start to finish with rituals. Liturgy just means what we do. Everybody does something and everybody does it usually in the same way. That’s liturgy. What makes much of the Old Testament distasteful to many are the rituals they don’t understand. But if you truly want to understand a culture, you have to understand its rituals. You could easily see a foreigner asking the question, Why do you guys have the ritual of singing your national anthem at all sporting events?
Why do you take a perfectly good cake and put burning wax candles in it to flavor the frosty? Why do you buy flowers for sickness and death and then for Valentine’s Day and prom? It’s what we do. It’s not a ritual. Makes sense to us. Humans are made for rituals. It’s a part of God’s design. It’s not just the Old Testament. Powerful symbols speak to important realities in our lives. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, I put this in your bulletin. He said, Ritual is the poetry of religion that leads us to a moment of transcendence. When a ritual fails because it either lacks content or is misleading, it loses its efficacy, its power, and its purpose. He goes on to say, Words fall from our lips like the dead leaves of autumn, but rituals endure with repetition. They are visual and participatory. They embed themselves in a memory at a young age, reinforced with each enactment. In the Old Testament, the Lord has given certain rituals as symbols that speak of His holiness and our sin. He gave priests as mediators of these rituals. And also it speaks then of the coming mediator who will bring the reality of these symbols to new life.
And because the Lord provides a way for His people to draw near to Him, we are to come into his presence and holiness. Last week we looked and saw the rebellion of Corah, which he was challenging the rule of Moses, the rule of Aaron. We see really it’s a challenge of God Himself. God set up the rules and the procedures that they didn’t like. He was asking you basically, Well, why should some be limited in what they can do for the Lord? Because we’re all holy. All of God’s people are holy. Why are you letting some do this and others can’t? But God is the one who set restrictions on how he was to be approached. The larger question was, how can a holy God be present with a polluted people? And the answer was to keep the sanctuary from being defiled. And number 17, the very end after that great catastrophe, the people of Israel say to Moses, behold, we perish. We’re undone. We’re all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. All of us will perish because of what took place. The Lord gave the priesthood for the sake of protecting the community.
The priest and the Levi served as a safety barrier against people encroaching upon the Holy Sanctuary. The priests were also the channel of God’s blessing to his people. They were to mediate that blessing as well. And so with God dwelling in their midst, both the potential for the power of death and the power of life, it flowed through the sanctuary. The Lord provided priest and purification for Israel. Well, looking then from Corah’s rebellion at proper priest, Corah contested whether Aaron and his family had the exclusive right to the priesthood. And here in Chapter 18, the Lord further records his intention so that no more disputes arise. Corah’s rebellion resulted in 250 leading men dying in a very dramatic fashion. And then several thousand died of a divine plague. In panic, the people are, We perish, we perish, we’re undone. Who can come near the tabernacle and not die? And in direct answer to that, the Lord replies to Aaron, He says, You and your sons, your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary. You and your sons with you shall bear in equity connected with your priesthood. They’re responsible and God puts it on them.
And they were to bring the tribe of Levi in to help to join with them. And they also were to be a part of the service of the tent of Ministry. And verse 3, They shall keep guard over you and the whole tent, but you shall not come near to the vessels of sanctuary or to the altar lest you and they die. There was prohibitions placed. And verse 7, I give you the priesthood as a gift. Any outsider who comes near shall be put to death. That was a serious prohibition. How can an unholy people come before a holy God? Through divinely appointed mediators. Why can’t anyone do this? That’s the question, isn’t it? That’s the question that takes us right back to the Garden of Eden. You can eat of any tree, anywhere, all the fruit. All of that is yours, except for that one. Oh, really? Why can’t I have that one? That’s the one I want. Who are you to restrict my freedom? That’s the problem of the human heart from the garden. And we see that here. God makes a decree and immediately I don’t like that decree. It doesn’t make sense to me.
Why should I follow that? If someone wanted to be a priest, he had to belong to the family of Aaron. A Levi had to belong to the tribe of Levi. If you wanted to serve the Lord in that way and you were from another tribe, too bad. It wasn’t up for debate. The Lord was not asking for volunteers. He allowed the Nazareth Vow for anyone to participate in a Priestley like opportunity. But Israel is to look different than the nations around them. God set the agenda, He set the rules, and obedience was expected from everyone. And that was to undo the problem that they were facing. Who can come before the Lord? Well, not just anybody. God had coming before Him in a particular way. And the rest of Chapter 8, verses 8 to 32, then shows how the priests and the Levites were to be provided for. God provided for them, for the people, and now the people were to provide for the Levites and the priests. Remember, they were not given a land inheritance in the promised land. Rather, they were scattered throughout all the tribes to be teachers and instructors to oversee worship at the tavern.
Verse 19, Chapter 18 says, All the holy contributions that the people of Israel present to the Lord, I give to you, meaning to Aaron, to the priest. To your sons, your daughters with you as a perpetual due. And the Lord said to Aaron, you shall have no inheritance in the land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion, your inheritance among the people of Israel. So the ties and the offerings given to the Lord were to be used to provide for the priests and for the Levites. Because the Lord had set them apart to lead and to guide Israel in her worship and in service. And Israel was expected to provide for them. This principle carries into the New Testament as well. Jesus reminds His disciples when He sent them out in Matthew 10, the labor deserves His food. Paul makes a direct connection to our text in 1 Corinthians 9. He said, Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple. Those who serve at the altar in the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Now, it is risky to be called by God to serve and care for his people and then to be dependent upon those same people to serve and to care for you. But that’s how the Lord set it up. It’s a part of the community. It was true of Israel then, it’s true of the church today. Because Israel was a living symbol to the world. These somewhat elaborate rituals with the priesthood communicated great truth to the world. The questions that the people had are answered by the Lord. How can we come before you in worship through the office of priests and doing what I’ve asked them to do? How can the people who are defileded by uncleanness, who pollute the sanctuary, how can they come to you? By the means, the Lord provides for purification. There’s a whole bunch of people who died in the plague, along with a whole older generation who were dying in the wilderness before the young ones would go in to the promised land. How could the rest stay clean as it were in the midst of death? They were a polluted people, and God provided waters of purification, Chapter 19.
It was a relatively easy way for the average Israelite to purify himself or herself from being near or around the dead. All cultures have rituals with death, the dying. Everyone does. Remember, everything about worship to the Lord highlighted life. The various laws and rituals have in common is that they all touch on issues of life and death. Impurity is related to death. Purity is related to the symbols of life. Death and its symbols are not to come in contact with the living God. There’s a boundary of holiness maintained within the community of Israel, which is sacred because a sacred God is in their presence. It begins by saying you need to take a red cow, verse 2. Red, the color of blood, a red, reddish brown. In verse 6, we see that they added cedar, which is a reddish wood, scarlet thread, which is reddish, along with hissyp. Those are the same things that lepers were part of their purification. All these are red. It’s the symbol. The seven times all that is telling you this is a highly symbolic event. Blood in the Bible is connected with both life and death. The spilling of blood, the shedding of blood is a sign of death.
Blood also carries life. Genesis 9, Leviticus 19, we read life is in the blood. Blood is what at stake here. It is a powerful symbol for richly leading someone from the realm of death to the realm of life. Nothing magical about it. There’s nothing intrinsic about this that made someone clean. One rabbi from the first century, the time of Jesus, was asked about this very ritual. And this is his response, Rabbi Johanin. He said, The corpse does not have a power by itself to defile, nor does a mixture of ash and water have power by itself to cleanse. The truth is that the purifying power of the red cow is a decree of the Holy One, meaning God. The Holy One said, I have set down as a statute, I have issued as a decree. You are not permitted to transgress my decree. This is a ritual law. Why does it do what it does? Because God had ordained it to do so. Nothing magic in that. But it is an important symbol and ritual of what’s taking place. What’s also unique about this water of purification ritual is that it purifies the defileded and it defiles the purified.
Impurity is transmitted to the one who prepares the ashes, to the one who sprinters them, everything to do with that. Verse 7, The priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water after he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. Verse 8, The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until the evening. Verse 10, The one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. Why? This is the thing that’s supposed to make people clean. So why is everybody who’s touching it impure? It’s a ritual symbol that’s taking place. The water of purification is essentially a portable sin offering. The offering symbolically absorbs the impurity. The one doing the cleansing takes on, as it were, the uncleanness of the defileded person. Does that ring a bell with anything we know? Hebrews 9, verse 11 to 14, But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent, speaking of the tabernacle, not made with hands, that is not of this creation, Jesus entered once for all into the Holy Place, not by means of blood of goats and calves, but by the means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
For the blood of goats and bulls, the sprinkling of a defile person with ashes of a heifer, sanctifying the purification of the flesh. How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God? Jesus, the clean and innocent one, takes upon himself our sin as a sin offering. The ritual of the priest and purification all looked forward to Jesus. The Father is setting in motion everything for the understanding of what Jesus would accomplish as the Messiah. And when the Messiah came into the world, he entered into all of these rituals and symbols as their fulfillment. Think about John 6, when Jesus says, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. What does everybody immediately go, Oh, man. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. This makes no sense apart from what God is doing in Israel’s history, from Genesis to Malachi. The problem has always been that the impure needs purified, the sinner needs forgiven.
What are they to do? And the answer is Jesus. His death on the cross is a substitution. He is a substitution for us. His blood cleanses us from our defilement and our sin. Both the guilt and the punishment are removed through Him. S uddenly now, all of these rituals and symbols take on a whole new significance because of the person to whom they point to the work that is accomplished through Him. It’s not an accident. Part of the problem we have is we’re so far removed from this, the power of the Gospel has gone out into the world in such a way that this is ancient history. Nobody does blood rituals anymore because of the complete accomplishment of Christ. Not only that, particularly for our culture, we live in a very casual culture. Formal things are looked down upon as bad. Informal things are looked on as sincere, and that affects the church. You got this, Yo, God, what’s up? Attitude. When people ran into an angel, they didn’t go, Yo, they fell on her face. They fell on her face and they were completely aware of their sinfulness. They were aware of the holiness in front of them as another created being in the presence of God.
It’s not even God himself. That’s part of the problem, again, is our own culture, how we view rituals and formality. It changes the meaning of them and how we carry them through. Think about it. Have you ever seen a gun salute at a funeral in a military service? It’s moving. It’s profound. It’s beautiful. You know what it wouldn’t be? If the people walking up with the rifles, some of them were in flip flops and shorts, and somebody wet willies another guy, and he’s getting ready to shoot his rifle, we look at that as a total desecration. It would be awful. Because what makes it so profound is the ritual itself and what it symbolizes. That’s something I think we need to consider as Americans who struggle with formality. Not only that, in the Western world, all these purity issues seem a little bit crazy to us because we don’t do those kinds of things, but we do exclude people based on issues of purity and defilement still. We just do it in a different way. If you don’t hold to my beliefs, which include my symbols, flags, rainbows, colors, political signs, you name it, you’re now excluded from the conversation.
And this is on the right and on the left, both. Both exclusive based on adherence to standards of what to file or not into those symbols. Our contemporary cancel culture is concerned with canceling what is not clean. The impulse to cancel the unclean goes all the way back to the fall of Adam and Eve. Because something’s not right in us. The problem is we’re always answering the question wrongly. What’s not right with us? Well, we put ourselves at the center of that question and not God. So that happens then is you’re the problem. You need to be fixed to be in my presence. No, the problem is our sinful hearts. And that question then comes is how do I remove my own guilt? How do I remove the shame that others place on me from their sins? How have people responded to that in rituals of self harm, of cutting, of self atonement? All of those try to answer that question of shame. What about acceptance into a community? Well, we are accepted into community through clothing, through group think and speech. You look and sound like us to be one of us. We all do that.
And Jesus comes to our sinful and broken world to provide full access to the Father. We are accepted by what He has done what we were incapable of doing. The Holy One has taken our sin and our defilement upon Himself. He bore the weight of it so that we could be set free. That’s the good news of the Gospel. And every time we see the failure of Israel to be God’s people, to be his presence to the world, we now see the accomplishment of the true Israel of God in Jesus. Think about the temptations that Satan offered to Jesus. T hen he quotes directly out of Deuteronomy in response, all four of those were failures of Israel in the wilderness. And all four of those were Jesus obedience to the Father to do what they failed to do. That’s good news for us. We have been cleansed because of Him. And even as that ritual is, week by week, we come confessing our sins for the cleansing that comes through the final act of Christ. That we’re able to come as people and collectively confess and individually confess the things that we’ve done. Receiving forgiveness, receiving cleansing from him.
That’s something the world is in such desperate need of. Everyone is trying to cancel somebody with this impulse of cle. And we can look at that and we can go, you know that impulse has a solution in the gospel. It’s not a wrong impulse. What you do with it is wrong. But the impulse itself, let me tell you how Jesus completes that. How Jesus brings life to what you think of as death. That’s what we have the opportunity as God’s people. And we live that opportunity with one another. We’re surrounded by people who are very different from who dress very differently from one another, who have different appreciation levels for different things. And we’re all the people of God that we don’t have to think alike, we don’t have to dress alike. We don’t have to dress alike. We don’t have to do all these things for a particular acceptance in a group. It also brings a challenge because of all those differences. What is very difficult for all of us is that there are people who attack our symbols and it makes us mad. They make fun of, mock, or belittle the things that we hold dear.
And then we are called to walk in the same way that our Savior walked. He tells us to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who despitefully use us. That’s a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in our heart. When the reality of that is seen by the world of people angry and upset and doing all these things and polarizing, there’s a response that says, I don’t like you, but boy, there’s something about that that’s attractive. Tell me more. Show me more of this Jesus. That’s what we have. That’s what we offer the world, access to the Father. That all of this scripted through divinely inspired rituals and purification and things that now seem strange to us all was leading into Jesus for all of humanity, that he now brings God’s presence to the world, what we cannot accomplish, he accomplished. And we rejoice in that because we fail repeatedly to live up to the standards to which we are unhappy with other people not living up to. And we need the same Jesus to forgive us. We need the same Jesus to mediate between the Father and us to change our hearts.
That’s what numbers 18 and 19 speaks to. That all of these things given by God so that he, a holy God, can be present with an unholy people. His solution is to make us holy through his son. That’s worth rejoicing in. Pray with me. Father, as we come before you here in this time, in this place, we want to say thank you. Thank you for giving us full access to you through our Savior, Jesus. Thank you for your acceptance. Thank you for removing our shame, our guilt, our sins. Thank you for removing this penalty. Father, we would ask then that you would help us to be a people of life. Father, that you would through us bring forth the good news of Jesus to a world in desperate need. Father, we pray that indeed we would be a holy people because you are a holy God. We bless you. We thank you all through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Disclaimer: Automated Sermon Transcription