Scripture Readings: Numbers 5:1-31; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 â— Text: Numbers 5:1-31
February 22, 2009
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A few days ago, the Philippine government released the names of over 39,000 nurses who passed the nursing board exam. In the Philippines, results of government exams are released to the public via the newspapers, and personal notifications are sent later. So if you took the nursing exam, it could be embarrassing if family and friends do not find your name among those who got into the official list of registered nurses.
Life is often a series of “entrance” exams to determine whether you are in our out of an organization, a team, or a church. From elementary grades to high school to college and after college, an aspiring athlete goes through a series of tryouts to determine if he is in or out of a team. In Presbyterian churches, a newborn baby is officially initiated into God’s covenant community in baptism.
Chapter 5 of the book of Numbers also has a list – a backwards one – of those Israelites who did not pass the test for entrance into the camp of God’s people. Going back to Chapters 1 and 2, we learn of a census of the people and how they were to be arranged in camp and on the march. Chapter 3 has a census of Levites and firstborn sons and a list of the duties of Levites as to the care of the tabernacle at camp, while Chapter 4 assigns the duties of Levites during their march to the Promised Land.
The outline of Chapter 5 is seen in a formula which introduces each section, starting with verse 1 and repeated in verses 5 and 11, “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” Which ones were excluded from the camp? Those who were unclean were excluded, and the chapter lists people whom God deemed as unclean: those who had certain physical impurities (verses 1-4); and those who committed moral offenses (verses 5-10), specially adulterous wives (verses 11-31).
Since God is holy – clean – nothing unclean will have part in his holy chosen people. Only those who were clean were allowed to enter the camp. Anyone inside the camp who became unclean defiled God’s holiness and therefore had to be sent outside until he was purified. If anyone unclean entered the camp, he will be destroyed by God’s holiness.
And who were allowed to be in the camp? The ones who were not on the list – those who were clean – were included in the camp of God’s people.
Our theme this afternoon, then, is In the Wilderness:
1. Who’s Out?
2. Who’s In?
Verses 1-4 lists three kinds of people who could not be in the camp: (1) lepers; (2) those with a discharge from their bodies; and (3) those who came in contact with the dead. In our day, this list seems to be arbitrary and unfair. Why only lepers? What about husbands and wives who have sexual contact? What about doctors, nurses and police officers whose duties include touching dead bodies?
Continuing in verses 5-10, moral sins against God and other people are dealt with, and how a person who had sinned could be restored to God’s people. Later in verses 11-31, God dealt with the problem of adultery within a marriage relationship – specifically, an adulterous wife. God then laid out a detailed procedure on how to validate a husband’s suspicion of his wife’s commission of adultery.
In this chapter, God’s commandments deal with sins that can cause disorder and division within the community. Each section of the chapter deals with specific cases of sins.
The list of three kinds of unclean people was related to having close contact with death, visible or implied. Lepers had their skin wasting away, leading into death. Blood, connected with women’s monthly periods, and fluids connected with sexual contact are both related to life. So the loss of both fluids are symbolic of death. And obviously, touching a dead person directly defiles a person.
So here, the problem is not health and sanitation, as we might think. The real problem is the problem of sin and death. All mankind is separated from God because of sin, and death is the result of sin (Rom 6:23). Paul indicts all sinful mankind as people who are dead and who cause others to die, “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips” (Rom 3:13). And even our best deeds are unclean in God’s sight, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment [filthy rags]” (Isa 64:6). The Bible speaks of sin as defilement or uncleanness, and we are defiled, not only by our own sin, but also by the sin of others, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5).
The apostle Paul has a grim conclusion of our state, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph 2:1). We who are sinful are all walking dead, and everyone around us is walking dead. Worse, there is nothing anyone can do to solve this problem of sin and death. God himself is the only one who can deal with our sin and its resulting death penalty. This is why Paul agonizes, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And his answer is, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24, 25)
God himself provides the answer to our problem of uncleanness: Jesus Christ our Savior. He healed lepers, and told them to go before the priests in the Temple. He healed the woman with a discharge of blood after she touched Jesus and said to her afterwards, “Go and sin no more” (Luke 8:43-48). And he raised a girl and his friend Lazarus from the dead.
The Pharisees must have avoided Jesus like the plague, because he violated God’s commands to stay away from unclean people! But Jesus countered the Pharisees’ self-righteousness, telling them that they were defiled, not by the food they ate and by being in contact with unclean people and things, but by the character of their own inner sinful nature, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:18-19). He proved to them that the ceremonial laws of Moses were only outward signs of inner realities. Uncleanness pointed to all kinds of real sins, and sacrificial and purification rites were mere foreshadows of Christ’s sacrifice for redemption from sin and death.
Jesus will not stay away from you, no matter how unclean and sinful you think you are. No sin is so great that he cannot forgive. As he healed lepers and the woman with a blood discharge, he also heals your sinful hearts. As he raised people from the dead, he also gives you a new spirit, creates in you a clean heart, and breathes into you a new life, making you a new creation.
Verses 5-10 not only deal with sin against God and neighbor, it also lays out steps in the restoration of the sinner. The offender first confessed his sin (v. 7), then restored everything that was stolen or ill-gotten, plus 20 percent of the value of the stolen goods. Remember Zaccheus the shortie? After Jesus confronted him, he repented of his dishonest taxation and promised to restore – not just 120 percent, but 400 percent – what he stole from the people!
Ultimately, sin against others is sin against God. In his confession of his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, David affirms, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psa 51:4). This is why after the confession and restitution, a sacrifice of a ram was required, because the sin is first of all sin against God. But, was the problem solved with animal sacrifices? No, because Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
From creation, forgiveness of sin is always through the shedding of sacrificial blood, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). But the Old Testament animal sacrifice did not in itself atoned for sin. They were only types and shadows of the last sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Without Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, all Old Testament sacrifices would be useless and meaningless:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls… sanctifyÂ for 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 ourÂ conscience from dead works to serve the living God ” (Heb 9:13-14).
Only through Christ’s shed blood are we able to gain entrance into God’s kingdom. Our entrance examination consists in answering a resounding “Yes!” to the question, “Do you believe and trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and love him as the one who saves you from your sin, and do you with repentance and joy embrace him as Lord of your life?”
Chapter 5 continues in verses 11-31 where God dealt with another specific sin – a wife suspected by the husband of committing adultery. The husband was not to take matters into his hands, but presented his case before God for him to decide. The decision was made through a “trial by ordeal” ceremony that would end in absolution (innocence) or condemnation.
The detailed procedures for the “trial” were as follows. The suspected woman was brought to the priest by the accusing husband, who first made a grain offering of jealousy to bring iniquity to remembrance (v. 15). The priest then prepared a cup with a mixture of holy water and dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (v. 17). Next, the woman was made to stand before the priest with her hair down as a twin symbol of shame and mourning over her sin (v. 18). Â Remember Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth about head coverings? He says that it is disgraceful for a woman to appear in public with her head uncovered (1 Cor 11:5-6). And remember also the story of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, who were destroyed by God after they used unauthorized fire at the Tabernacle? Aaron was told by God not to let his hair hang loose in mourning (Lev 10:6; cf. Lev 21:10).
While the accused woman stood before the priest, he placed the barley offering on the woman’s hands. The priest then wrote and pronounced a curse on the woman if she was guilty, and made her take the oath of cursing. In taking her oath, the woman responded, “Amen,” saying in effect, “may it be to me if I were guilty” (vv. 19-22). After this, the priest washed off the written curse with the water in the cup, and then the woman was made to drink the water (vv. 23, 24). If she was guilty, her abdomen would swell and her thigh would waste away. One scholar believes that the swelling abdomen proved that she was pregnant from her adultery, and the rotting thigh was evidence of a sexually transmitted disease. Another proposes that these two ill effects are symptoms of a disease that would ravage her reproductive system. Whatever these two harmful reactions meant, the consequence of guilt was the same – the curse of barrenness.
The cup was said to be bitter. Perhaps the water was not itself bitter, but the results were. In the Old Testament, barrenness was a curse of death – of the womb, and of the woman herself (Deut 7:12-14; Isa 49:21). The bitter cup also recalls the bitter water at Marah early in the Israelites’ march to the Promised Land (Exod 15:23). God warned the people then: if they were obedient, they would not suffer the plagues on Egypt; but if they were disobedient, they would suffer covenant curses, one of which is barrenness (Exod 23:26).
For the modern reader, all of these would seem to be superstition or magic. They are not, because God is the one who knows everything that is hidden, and therefore he is the one who judges. We are warned by Paul about “secret” things we do, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Eph 5:11-12). God exposes the secret things by the Light of his Truth (Eph 5:13). Adultery and other kinds of sexual immorality are the clearest examples of sins done in secret, but it is known by God and eventually exposed by God’s Light.
While most of us are not sexually immoral or adulterers, we are all spiritual adulterers. In their history, Israelites repeatedly committed spiritual adultery and rebelled against God, provoking God to compare them to unfaithful wives (Hos 3:1), prostitutes (Judg 8:33) or adulterous husbands (Num 25:1-2). This Old Testament trial by ordeal is in reality also a warning to us against serving other gods and rebellion against God. Like the adulterous wife, when we commit spiritual adultery against Christ our Bridegroom, the penalty is spiritual barrenness – spiritual death – loss of fellowship with God and Jesus his Son.
How did Jesus deal with these sins of uncleanness, rebellion, and spiritual adultery? He became our substitute. The one who had no blemish or defilement, who was perfectly obedient, and who was eternally faithful became our defilement, our rebellion, and our unfaithfulness, to be offered as a sacrifice for our sake on the cross. Instead of us being thrown into the outer darkness, he was the one who was removed from the camp of God and executed, “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb 13:12).
And while he was outside the camp of God’s people, he sought after outcasts, lepers and adulterers. He invited the poor and crippled and blind and lame to his great banquet in the kingdom of heaven. He healed lepers whom no one would touch. He answered the persistent prayer of a “stray dog” – a Gentile woman – to heal her demon-oppressed daughter. He offered Living Water to an adulterous woman from the disfavored Samaritan race, and he rescued another unfaithful woman who was about to be executed.
The unclean, the rebellious, and the spiritually adulterous: they are shut outside the camp of God. But who are the ones inside the camp?
Those who did not do the things mentioned in this chapter were allowed inside the camp. Those who were clean, those who were obedient, and those who were faithful to God’s covenant laws gained entrance to God’s covenant community on their pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul repeats the list in Numbers 5 of those who cannot inherit the kingdom of God – the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. These are those who break God’s covenant.
Surely, there are unbelievers – pagans, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists – who are not these kinds of people. But even with all kinds of good works, why will they not inherit the kingdom of God? Because the kingdom of God is a register of all those who believe and trust in and are united to Christ. No amount of good works by those who are not in union with Christ can gain citizenship in God’s kingdom.
But if you are united to Christ by faith AND you show evidence of this union with him in word, deed or thought, you will surely inherit the kingdom of God, for as James says, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26). We have seen what deeds disqualify a person from entering God’s camp. What then are the deeds and qualities of those who will inherit the kingdom of God?
- Righteous: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Do you trust in Christ’s righteousness instead of your own good works and self-righteousness?
- Obedient to God’s will: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Our entrance pass is not going to church, giving offerings, or being an active member of a church. Is your motivation for good works to please yourself or others, or to glorify the name of God by doing his revealed will?
- God-centered life: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:23). Does God, not money, jobs, family, or friends, take the primary seat in your lives?
- Sacrificial life: “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell” (Mark 9:47). Are you willing to give up all the important things in your life to gain heaven?
- Child-like attitude: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). Do you hunger to know Christ with the humility, zeal and honesty of a child?
- Faithful in spite of suffering: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, Paul encouraging believers in Lystra). Do you give praise and thanksgiving to God whatever your circumstances are?
- Regenerated heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Because of our totally depraved nature, none of the above qualities is possible without a regenerated heart.
These are the qualities of those who inherit the kingdom of God. If you are one of these, you have been counted with Noah and his family who gained entrance into the ark of salvation. You have joined the second generation of faithful Israelites who inherited the Promised Land of Canaan after suffering for forty years in their wilderness wanderings – you too will inherit the heavenly city after much suffering in your pilgrimage in this fallen world.
Dear friends, do you believe that you are not one of those who are unclean, or rebellious, or spiritual adulterers? To be sure of your calling and election, you must see evidence in your doctrine, worship and life. Mere words are not enough, for faith without works is no faith at all.
If you doubt your entrance into the kingdom of heaven, trust God’s Word: “If you confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive you of all your sins, and cleanse you from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). You are forgiven. You are clean. You are in the kingdom of heaven if you have faith in Christ. He fills your cup until it overflows with God’s blessings. You have already gained entrance into the camp of God, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.