Conselor Christ has sent, lead us in the path of your commandments and in the ancient way of your will. Through Christ Jesus, our Savior, we pray, Amen. Selection from numbers 15, this is the word of the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, when you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you offer to the Lord from the herd or from the flock a food offering, or a burnt offering, or a sacrifice to fulfill a vow, or a free offering, or at your appointed feast to make a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or if anyone is living permanently among you and he wishes to offer a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do. For the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be a light before the Lord. The Lord spoke to Moses saying, speak to the people of Israel and say to them, when you come into the land to which I bring you, and when you eat of the bread of the land, you shall present a contribution to the Lord.
Of the first of your dough, you shall present a loaf as a contribution. But if you sin unintentionally and do not observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses, then all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is a native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment. That person shall be utterly cut off. His iniquity shall be on him. And while the people were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath t day. And they brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, The man shall be put to death, and all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.
The Lord said to Moses, Speak to the people of Israel and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after, so that you shall remember and do all my commandments and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God. The word of our Lord, you may be seated. Let me pray for the preaching of God’s Word. Father, as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But if my words should stray from yours, may they be quickly forgotten. I pray this in the name and in the power of Jesus Christ, Amen. I understand that in the deserts of Arabia, some of the smaller oasises or Oasis the Eye, whatever, the Oasis seem to be strangely out of place. If you don’t know the area, all that you will see for miles in every direction is drifting hot sand.
But if you are traveling with someone who knows the routes, then you’ll crest what might seem like another endless sand dune and be startled by the life on the other side. Tucked into the desert, a small spring of water that tenaciously holds its ground and gives hope to all who travel by. Its small spring gives light to a few plants, a bit of grass, and refreshment to all the wanderers, both man and beast. It seems strangely out of place, and yet it is so necessary. This is the case with numbers 15. It is out of the out of place. The scholars would tell us that it would fit much better with either Leviticus 7 or numbers 29. And yet our good Lord chose to place it here, right between the great double disobedience of Chapter 14 and before Corah’s rebellion in 16. In Chapter 14, we saw the people twice ignore God’s command and in unbelief, trusted in their own judgment and strength or lack of. And this resulted in the promise of death for all the people over the age of 20. And in 16, the rebellion is back as Corah leads the people away from the Lord.
But here in the desert of disobedience is Chapter 15, that glimmer of hope and a foretaste of what is to come. Now, you may be surprised even after as we read the selection of Chapter 15 to hear it referred to as an oasis. Because at first glance, it might seem like just another one of those cumbersome chapters on sacrificial law that we unfortunately, and usually, just race right over. Yep, kill a cow, add a hen of this and a eaphath of that, whatever a hen is, and God accepts it as a pleasing aroma. Sin, sacrifice, repeat. It’s a shame that we do that to the scriptures, but we do. But verse 2 shows us that this chapter is different. First, refresh your mind with the context. The people have justified God twice. And this is the people that have seen just a few weeks ago the elite chariot of Egypt, vanquished by God. And yet they were afraid of the Canoites. They refused to go in. The report came and the fear spread like wildfire. The people had declared, Would that we have died in the wilderness rather than be slain by the Canoite sword?
And so the Lord grants their wish. They will die in the wilderness. And the children that they feared that would be prayed upon in the land of Canoed would, in fact, possess it. And of course, on hearing of that punishment of death in the wilderness, then the people rebelled again. They choose to attack or chose rather to attack the land in their own strength, on their own terms. And they were utterly defeated and driven back into the wilderness. And they now undoubtedly feel the weight of the promised curse from God and feel utterly cut off from the promised land. And then verse 2, When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you. What is this? God has not forgotten his gift. He seems determined to bring his children into this land. Nancy Guthrie, an author who about 50 of our women are studying right now, writes that the story of the Bible is a story of God working out his plan to be at home with his people. And she notes, One of the most amazing things about the story, it is much more about God’s desire to dwell with his people than about God’s people’s desire to dwell with him.
God truly loves us more than we could ever love him. We’ve seen in dramatic color the people’s reluctance to dwell with God. They’re determined to blindly plod through life on their own terms. And in the midst of that disobedience and blindness of chapters 14 and 16, God declares His intention. And we note with Old Testament scholar Gordon Winham that God’s ultimate purposes will not be thwarted even by our disobedience. This is a picture of the grace of our God that sust hope. Perhaps some of the adult generation felt a genuine regret that they had abused God’s grace, that they had failed to trust in his deliverance, and from that feeling of remorse and despair, to hear the words, When you come into the land that I am giving you, to realize that there was hope for their children, hope that one day their children would gain what they had lost. Perhaps some were learning that the good life can only be found in a good and lifegiving God. And that is why we must conform our lives to his gracious demands. And it is the grace of our Lord that sust hope. The established fact of verse 2 is that they will enter the promised land.
God will give them the land. And when they enter into that gift, the expected and normal response will be one of thanksgiving and gratefulness. Gratitude expressed back to God is described in a couple of different ways in types of sacrifices. And verse 3 through 16 speak about several types of those sacrifices. The burnt offering to fulfill a vow, a free will offering, to name a few. But in each case, the offering to God becomes a pleasing aroma. But in order to do that, one needs follow God’s recipes for offerings. As we look at this text, there’s a couple of things to notice. First, the offerings are scripted in the same basic way. The type, the size of the animal that you are offering dictates the amount of oil and grain or flour that you offer with it. The ratio changes slightly with the size of each animal offered. And then following that prescribed ratio, what we realize is that it is obedience to God that is the pleasing aroma. That phrase, repeated phrase of pleasing aroma ought to get our attention. How can we retrain our desires? How can we refocus our attention or our priorities to truly give a sacrifice of obedience to our God as a pleasing aroma?
God loves the obedience of his children because he loves his children, his laws, his rules, the details, even down to these sacrificial ratios. They are good. They are balanced. They are right. And God is delighted when instead of living life on our own terms, we follow, we surrender, we choose his terms. Old Testament scholar, Ian Dugood notes that when we read and therefore set the laws of God in their proper context, that is of a good God giving good laws, they then, challenge our instinctive notion that obedience to God is bondage and that doing whatever we want brings freedom. We naturally think that way. It wasn’t very difficult, you may remember, for the serpent to turn Eve’s attention away from the good law of our good God into thinking that God was really withholding something good for her. That God was stifling Eve’s best life now. That to really live life, one needed to reach out and take what one desires. Think for a moment of all the advertisements that bombard you each day. Most of them are designed first to unsettle you, to move you into a state of discontent, and then offer relief and fulfillment when you reach out and take their promised product or cure.
The natural man speaks the same lies to us. Has God really said, You shall not eat of this fruit? The implication, of course, is that God is denying us good when in reality God is only and always good. Everything about him, every act, every movement, every intention can only be good. It is his nature. It is part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to retrain our minds to think first of the blessing of God’s Word, how his words are good. And those words call us to excellence, excellence in how we love our neighbors, excellence in how we serve our families. This is the beauty of God’s law, a pleasing aroma to the Lord. The second thing you might notice is that three times in our passage, the rule is given that one law and one rule shall be for both you and the stranger who sojourns with you. There are several principles here. The first and most obvious is the simple principle that God is a just God. He is not a respecter of persons, and therefore, in the case, at least in these cases of bringing these offerings before the Lord, his standard is the same for both his children and for the sojourners who are choosing to dwell and identify with God’s people.
Ian Dugald also notes that this rule hints to a future when the gospel will go forth to all the nations, when all will hear that there is only one name by which men may be saved, and that the expectation is that men and women from every nation will be saved by that one and same standard of Jesus’ blood and righteousness applied to their lives. Dugit also notes that, and here again, there’s an encouraging word as verse 13 speaks of the native Israelites implying that children will be born in the promised land. Even as the elder generation dies off, again, they are given hope that their children will bear children in the promised land. And when they get there, when they finally enter in, there will be much to celebrate. As the land brings forth its yield, as the grain is brought into the homes from the harvest, the offering of the first dough is to be given. You see the elements of all these sacrifices, livestock, grain, oil, they all represent the major elements in the agricultural life of that day. And so too it is with the offering of the first dough. We see that this opportunity to sacrifice and offer comes into the domestic everyday family life as well.
Here, the woman works the flower, ground from the grain of the first harvest. The first loaf of bread that she makes is given to the Lord. Verse 21 states, as a contribution throughout your generations. The picture is beautiful. In similar fashion to the wine, a drink offering that is poured out in verses 4 through 7, which can symbolize that the worshiper must pour out his whole life before the Lord. Paul uses that imagery several times. Philippians 2.17 is an example of that. Their life is poured out as a drink offering. So here, the baker of the family, typically the wife, the mother, she’s included. Her best work, the first loaf of the new harvest is offered to God. First fruit offerings can help us keep our priorities straight. You can give first each month to the Lord’s work, or you can take care of all those necessary bills and secondary bills and even a few discretionary items and see what’s left to give to the Lord. And it may be that the amount ends up being the same. But I think you know that the attitude and the opportunity to trust the Lord is very different whether you give a first fruit offering or from what’s left over.
The first fruit offerings also speak in promise of the more to come. The giving of the first loaf is a declaration of trust and of surrender to the good God to continue to provide our daily bread. The first fruits of a harvest, like the first leaves of spinach or that first ripe flathead cherry, they all speak to a coming harvest. The giving of this offering cultivates a life of trust. And more than that, for the believer, the first fruit offering, the believer knows that Christ is the first born of the dead. And they know that his resurrection speaks of the promised resurrection for each of us. So trust in a life lived and trust in a death to come. We know that life awaits us still. But until that day in the everyday life for the Israelites then, even after they entered the promised land. And for us today, we know that it’s not always free will offerings and first dough offerings, offerings of celebration and joy. Sometimes we need guilt offerings and burnt offerings and sacrifices for our sin, pleading with a gracious God for the forgiveness for our sins. We see that next set of sacrifices listed in verses 22 to 31.
There is a set of instructions for sins unintentionally committed either by the leader and therefore incurring guilt in the whole congregation or by an individual. These appear to be some of the same types of sacrifices that Leviticus 4 speak of. And there is some debate on what is meant by unintentional sin. Some scholars seem to suggest that it might be the difference between sins of commission, things we’ve done, and sins of omission, that which we have left undone. But the important thing to note is that God has provided a remedy for our sin. There is a sacrifice that satisfies God’s justice and averts his judgment. And to those who believe in the Lord, to those who trust in his good rule, who offer that prescribed sacrifice, that trust in God’s word, they find forgiveness. We see this repeated need for these sacrifices. And as we do, we might look into our own lives and notice how regularly we sin. The constant need for them to offer sacrifices again and again highlight their dependence upon God for his regular and renewed forgiveness and that extension of grace. Of course, it also points to the perfect sacrifice that Christ offered where once and for all, he offered the sacrifice that washes away all sin.
And yet, verse 30 and 31 note that not everyone is forgiven. Here we read that if anyone does anything with a high hand, that person is cut off. The warning against this high handed sin and its consequence go equally, again, to the native and to the sojourner. God’s justice, again, in both his acts of mercy and his acts of discipline. What is this high handed sin? It seems that what’s being communicated here is the deliberate sin of someone who knows better and is intentionally and arrogance choosing his or her own terms. They have decided not to care about what God has declared, and they fought that decision for others to see. We know in both the Old and the New Testament that there are many examples of God promising forgiveness for truly heinous sins. Sinners truly are saved. But like the warning in Hebrews 10 26, which tells us if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin. Mark 3 29 lists blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the unforgivable sin. In John 5, verse 16, in a call to prayer, John seems to tell us that we need to differentiate how we pray or even if we should pray for those who might have committed or who have committed this type of sin.
All of this is to drive home a warning to those who have heard the gospel and are choosing to arrogance and blatantly defy it. And it’s to drive home the point that it is God’s grace that is shown forth in the fact that obedience to Him and pleading with Him, that’s what brings freedom and life. It is disobedience that brings death. But the story of the sabbath breaker in verses 32 to 36 represents that. It’s likely an example of that high handed disobedience. Instead of benefiting from the life giving blessing of resting on the sabbath day, this man chooses his own way. He chose to reject rest, reject God, and instead gather sticks, presumably to break another of God’s law in kindling a fire on the sabbath, knowing that in that community all would see his fire. It was a flagrant sin, a true contempt of God’s good law. And in his rebellion, God gave the sentence of death. Now, we may choose to think the sentence is too harsh. Perhaps that’s because we see ourselves as more just than God. Or perhaps we would dare think we are more loving than God. Or maybe we just roll our eyes at this primitive and barbaric practice.
But the simple fact is sin brings death. This Roman 3 23 reminds us all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And all these older Israelites were under the sentence of death for their repeated disobedience, for their refusal to trust and believe God. And so were we before Christ. That’s the point of Romans 6, verses 20 and following, reminding each of us that living life on our terms, choosing our way, taking what we want. We read, The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord. And immediately after this short example, which leads to death, our text moves back towards life, life within the covenant promise. And here we’re given a counter example. Instead of one who openly defies God’s laws, refusing to be defined by them, refusing to identify with them, we see God’s direction to those who would desire to be defined, to those who would identify with God’s good word.
And to them, they were to tie tassels on their hems. This is an identifying symbol. It serves to show the world their identity. The hem of the garment was attached to the person. Think of David when he cut the hem of King Solomon’s robe in the cave. He felt he had sinned, not just simply by cutting the robe, but against the King. He raised his hand in violence. This tassel serves as un identifying symbol. It also served to remind them of God’s good covenant. The purple dye used, the most costly of all colors, as it’s taken from a rare and small nail, each yielding a single drop. And yet in God’s grace, only a single thread of that distinctive purple was needed, which allows even the poorest to show their determination to be a covenant keeper. The color purple is the color of royalty, and it was reserved for temple use, reminding God’s people of their role in the kingdom as a kingdom of priests and as a holy nation. While there’s no direct New Testament equivalent to this Old Testament requirement, we are wise to look for ways to remember God’s laws and his goodness, to erect, if you will, Ebeneasers or monuments in our life that can testify to his faithfulness, his goodness, and provide opportunities for discussion.
Gordon Venom remarks, for instance, that perhaps this is why some Christians wear cross as a reminder to take up our cross daily and to follow Jesus. Ian Dugid remarks that the sacrament of baptism can serve this function as well. While it’s true that one’s baptism doesn’t make us look any different on the outside, it does provide opportunities for parents to speak to their children about their baptism. Baptism reminds us that we have been likewise set apart. We’ve been purified by the waters. We are a people holy unto the Lord. Dugit writes, B aptism reminds them and us that the way to life is not through following our own wisdom, but in submitting ourselves joyfully to the commandments of God, which bring true freedom. It reminds us that real life comes through dying to ourselves and rising to a new and holy life in Christ. The chapter may have seemed out of place, but it is a glimmer of hope in between two stories of disobedience and rebellion. And it serves, therefore, as the necessary reminder that the good life can only be found in a good and lifegiving God. And that is why our lives must joyfully conform to God’s gracious demands.
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you for Your Word. It is life giving, and we thank you for your law. It is good. And we especially thank you that even though we cannot keep your law, you have provided a way. You have provided a sacrifice which has washed us clean once and for all. Even the precious blood of your own son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, teach us to trust in his perfect work and his willing sacrifice. And teach us to live a life that is a gracious response to that as we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves and care for our family. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
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