Numbers 19, Isaiah 8:1-9:7, Psalm 124

Read Numbers 19, Isaiah 8:1-9:7, Psalm 124.

This devotional is about Numbers 19.

Some of God’s commands in the OT law are easy to understand. “Do make any graven images, do not kill, and do not covet” are a few examples.

Some others make sense if you understand their purpose. The sin offering, for example, taught people that (1) every sin was worthy of death (as Romans 6:23a says) (2) they could be forgiven if a substitute died for them. When Jesus died on the cross, he came as the true, final sin offering so we now understand the symbolism of the animal sacrifice known as the sin offering.

Other commands of God are harder to grasp and Numbers 19 is one of those. Verses 1-6 describe the recipe for making the “water of cleansing” from the ashes of a red heifer. Verses 7-22 describe the regulations and uses of this water of cleansing. But what good did it do anyone to be sprinkled with this water?

The “water of cleansing” did nothing. It didn’t make anyone physically clean, it didn’t remove sins, nor did it have magic spiritual powers that removed demons or something else bad from someone’s life. It was truly and only a ritual, a ceremony with no tangible benefit. So why did God command it?

Verse 9 said this water was “for purification from sin” but the only instances where God commanded it to be used were when someone touched a dead body (vv. 11-13, 16-21). So “purification from sin” must mean from the purification from the consequence of sin, namely, death. Death was not God’s original plan for humanity; it was his curse on us for our sins. Since God is life and death is a curse, God gave them this ritual to set them apart from the consequences of sin. If someone were to touch a dead body without this ritual, they would “defile the Lord’s tabernacle” (v. 13b, see also verse 20c).

The point of the red heifer purification water, then, was to teach Israel about the holiness of God. God was not to be approached and worshipped by someone who had been in contact with death. Instead, they were considered defiled and unacceptable to approach the Lord until they went through this ritual. The ritual was a teaching tool to show God’s people, and us, that God is completely separate from sin and death and one must not approach him to worship without being set apart.

In Jesus we have been set apart. There is no need for this kind of ceremony any longer because God has credited to us the perfections of Christ. When we come to God in worship–prayer, singing, whatever–we know that we will be accepted because Christ’s death has been applied to us and we are declared clean, worthy, set apart, washed, sanctified, holy, and perfect in him.

Have you ever considered how a passage like this one shows how utterly holy God is? As you think about this offering, do you get a greater appreciation for all that God has given to us in Christ? He not only cleansed our sins; he has removed every unacceptable trace of sin, death and defilement from us, not because of anything we did but because Jesus did it all for us. That is something to praise the Lord about!

Leviticus 10, Proverbs 25, Psalm 97

Today’s readings are Leviticus 10, Proverbs 25, Psalm 97.

This devotional is about Leviticus 10.

The previous chapters in this book explained the various offerings God had commanded his people to bring (Lev 1-7), the dedication of Aaron and his sons as priests (Lev 8), and the beginning of their service to the Lord on behalf of Israel (Lev 9). Their ministry had just begun and, here in chapter 10, two of Aaron’s sons broke the Law of Moses and displeased God with “unauthorized fire” (v. 10).

What exactly they did wrong is not explained to us. It could have been incorporating some pagan worship element in the offering. It could have been that they were drunk when making the offering (which maybe why verses 8ff are in this chapter). It could have been that they entered the Most Holy Place even though it was not the Day of Atonement. We just don’t know specifically what they did but whatever it was, it was done in willful disobedience to God’s word. This is why God acted as swiftly as he did. Instead of fearing the Lord and doing their ministry in that spirit, they attempted to worship God in an unholy way.

Moses responded swiftly and told Aaron and all the other priests exactly what to do next. This was to re-enforce that Nadab and Abihu were completely in the wrong and to keep the other priests from compounding the sin by disobeying God’s commands in other ways while they served as priests.

Still, despite Moses’s best efforts to keep the priests on an obedient path, they broke God’s law in verses 16-18 by not eating “the sin offering in the sanctuary area” (vv. 17-18). Moses was angry about this, too (v. 16) and confronted the priests about this violation. Aaron spoke up for the others and asked, given the fact that “such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” That satisfied Moses (v. 20) and no punishments resulted.

But what exactly did Aaron mean by, “such things as this have happened to me…”?

To answer that question, we must remember that Aaron was ordered not to grieve the death of his sons while he was on duty as a priest (vv. 6-7). These orders were directed at the outward signs of mourning; they were forbidden from tearing their clothes or allowing their hair to become disheveled which was a common way of showing mourning.

Although Moses commanded them not to mourn externally, they were of course sad and distraught on the inside, both due to the sin of Nadab and Abihu and due their deaths. So Aaron’s response to Moses in verse 19 seems to have meant something like, “We fulfilled our duties to the Lord as priests despite the sorrow we have. The only part we didn’t complete was the part that benefited us, eating the meat from the offering. Because we are mourning, none of us felt like eating. Since the meal is supposed to be for our benefit anyway, is God really displeased that we didn’t eat it? Would God have been glorified if we feasted away while our hearts were breaking?” If that’s what Aaron meant, it is a compelling argument and, therefore, not surprising that Moses was satisfied by it.

The most important part of what Aaron said, however, is totally clear: “Would the Lord have been pleased…?” His motives for allowing the sin offering to be consumed like the burnt offering instead of eaten were to glorify God. In every other circumstance, he would have obeyed God’s directions completely but, given these circumstances, it would be more glorifying to God for them to fast rather than eat the meal as if nothing were wrong.

The truth of this passage, then, is that the motives behind what you do for the Lord matter more than what you do for the Lord. This is something the Old Testament prophets emphasized and Jesus spoke about often as well. It is never right to disobey God because of your feelings; but there are times when it is not totally clear what the best way to glorify God is. In those times, one should seek to honor God and act in a way that is consistent with trying to honor God.

From time to time people in our church ask me about various ethical dilemmas they have. Things like:

  • Should I attend a baby shower for a baby conceived out of wedlock, especially if the mother is unrepentant? It isn’t the baby’s fault, but does it send a wrong message?
  • Should I attend the wedding of someone who professes Christ but is marrying an unbeliever? What if I’m not really convinced that the professing believer truly knows Christ?

These and other situations call for wisdom and they bring stress (and distress) to many conscientious believers. Whenever I’m asked a question like this, I try to reason aloud with the person asking the question from clear Scriptural truths and see if any seem to apply in the situation they are asking about.

Often, though, it ends in a judgment call. A passage like this gives us some comfort. If we are seeking to please the Lord–not to justify or excuse a sin that we really want to do but earnestly seeking to please him–then that matters more to God than scrupulous obedience to his commands from a cold heart.

Are you facing any tough decisions where the right thing to do is not 100% clear despite the fact that you’ve sought counsel from the Lord and from godly people? Take comfort that God knows your motives and that he is gracious and merciful to us, especially when we want to please him.