The verses we’re looking at in this post seem to many to be an excessive punishment for a relatively minor offense. They’re found in Numbers 15:32-35 (NKJV):
“Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ So as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.”
“Whoa!” these folks say, “That’s harsh!” And, in truth, perhaps a case could be made for the man, as is done in modern trials during the “penalty phase,” where men and women convicted of the most heinous crimes have folks testifying about what wonderful persons they really are at heart. Perhaps this man was just trying to gather some sticks to help feed his family. Perhaps, with so many Israelites, firewood was in short supply, and so the man was taking advantage of a time when fewer people were looking for it. Perhaps this was the only time he could do it. Etc., etc.
All this misses the point. The man broke the Law. Yeah, but “sticks”? Such a minor thing!
There are no “minor” things. After all, wasn’t it a relatively “minor” offense that started this whole catastrophe in the Garden of Eden? Religious man may have divided sins into “venial” and “mortal,” but God knows no such distinction. He was the One Who gave the final judgment in this “minor” case.
There are no “venial” sins. Even a little thing like picking up sticks on the Sabbath, in defiance of His command against it, was a “mortal” sin. Any sin is “mortal.” Every sin is “mortal.”
Our world, even the “religious” one, has lost sight of most of Who God is and what He requires of us. I thought about different words for that last sentence: “wants,” “asks,” but that is just symptomatic of what the sentence describes. God is pictured as waiting for man to do something so He can act, patiently waiting on the sidelines of His own creation until we decide to send Him into the game. Wanting to bless us, but unable to unless we “let Him.” He must be amazed, if we can ascribe such a feeling to Deity, at our arrogance.
There is such an unScriptural emphasis on “the love of God,” and such a humanized definition of it at that, that we have lost sight of what Paul called, “the goodness and severity of God,” Romans 11:22, something Paul told his readers to “consider.” He’s calling attention to what he says in the verse, that is, that we’re not to forget the two sides of the Divine character: “goodness” and “severity.” When was the last time you heard a sermon that mentioned “the love of God”? Probably the last one. When was the last time you heard a sermon on “the severity of God?” Ever?
In the Numbers account, God is emphasizing what it means to follow His Law. Even the least infraction merits death. The Law is a unit. Break even one part of it, and the whole thing is gone – so far as making it to Heaven, or being “pleasing” to God, James 2:10. I was in a Bible study class that was discussing the attributes of God. Someone mentioned His immeasurable love. The teacher wrote that down on the blackboard. I mentioned His inflexible justice. The teacher said, “Ooh, I don’t like that,” and would only write down “justice.”
If you want to know something of the severity of God, consider Who It was on the Cross. There’s only ever been one Individual Who could truthfully say, “I always do those things which please” the Father, John 8:29. And God put Him on a Cross. Preachers always emphasize the love of God in the death of Christ, and that is true. If God hadn’t had a love for mankind in general, He wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble He did to save it. The Lord Jesus wouldn’t have suffered as He did, if there were no “love for His own,” cf. John 13:1. At the same time, was that all the Cross was: a demonstration of “love”?
Not at all. It was also a demonstration of the “severity” of God. Paul put it in a nutshell when he wrote, “For He has made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Corinthians 5:17. The Cross was as much a matter of justice as it was of love, or grace. We’ll never get the bottom of that verse. God put the Only One Who ever pleased Him on a Cross, to pay for our sins, who never please Him, in and of ourselves, don’t want to please Him and couldn’t please Him even if we tried. There’s just nothing in us responsive toward God apart from His grace.
Some churches talk about the “merits of the saints,” as if there’s some sort of heavenly bank where all their extra good stuff is stored up, ready to be taken out by those who don’t have enough good stuff. I’m sorry, but there’s only been One Who had any merit, any “good stuff,” to begin with, let alone having any “extra.”
Jesus Christ did on that Cross what none of us could do – satisfy God’s justice, His “severity.” He did that to the extent that not a single person for whom He died can ever perish. Their sins have been paid for. Their debt has been cancelled.
You’ll never appreciate the goodness of God if you don’t have at least a little understanding of His “severity,” that is, that He can, will, and does, judge “sticks”.