Sticks

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”.

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Not My Kid!!

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are things in the Old Testament which are contrary to our modern way of thinking.  The portion of Scripture for this post is perhaps at the top of the list.  It’s found in Deuteronomy 22:18-21:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city.  And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear.”

In Yahoo Answers, it’s usually referred to along the lines of “killing my kid”, implying a young child.  It can’t mean that, because then there would have been no next generation.

There is an idea that there weren’t any instructions after the Fall, that God left Adam and Eve to the leading of their conscience, an idea popularized by the Scofield Bible.  It is true that there is no record as such of any revelation from God between Adam and Moses, yet there are indications of it.  To name just one, cf. Genesis 26:5, where God talks about Abraham obeying “My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” Moses wouldn’t be born for centuries.  So it’s clear that there was something to which men were responsible before the giving of the Law at Sinai.  We just don’t have any record of it.

We’re not told a great deal about the instructions God may have given Adam and Eve, but we are told enough.  He set some precedents.  There is, for example, marriage, Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  Our Lord referred to this in Matthew 19:4-6, “…He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’.  So then, they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together. let not man separate.”  

When God created Adam and Eve, He told them to “multiply,” that is, to have children.  This introduces “the family.”  The family is the basic unit of society.  Marriage is the glue that’s supposed to hold the family together.

God told the first couple to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth….”  Unlike most of the animal world, bringing human offspring into the world isn’t just a matter of preservation of the species.  It means much more than just bringing the next generation into the world.  It has more to do with the idea that the next generation is raised in such a way that it doesn’t destroy the species.  We see this all around us.  Where the Biblical idea of the so-called “traditional” family has been destroyed or distorted, the younger generation often grows up in such a way that if they don’t literally destroy, that is, kill, each other, then they engage in “destructive life-styles” which just take longer to accomplish the same thing.  The concept of family as it’s found in the Bible is the foundation of society; if the family goes, society goes.

Human children require far more care than any other offspring in the world.  Most animals are able to carry on by themselves after just a few days or weeks.  Not so, children.  Not only is there the protecting of them because they are helpless, there is the nurturing and teaching which takes several years.  While it may be true that in their first three or four years children learn most of what they will ever learn, no five year old is ready for his own apartment.  Even teenagers struggle with the change from child to adult.  Parents are to be there, indeed, “the family” is there, to be a support system.

In addition, it is here, in the family, that we first learn to interact with others: our parents, and perhaps brothers and sisters, and then, to the society and world in which we live.  As we grow, our circle expands until, as adults, we enter society on our own, away from home and family.

It’s in the family that we first learn about authority and sharing.  It’s a shame and tragedy when youngsters grow up without ever learning these lessons.  The first thing a baby demonstrates is that he or she is completely absorbed in himself or herself.  I grant that the baby has a very limited understanding of what is going on around him.  At the same time, all he knows is that he is wet, hungry, thirsty, tired, or in some other way uncomfortable.  He wants immediate gratification; it doesn’t matter what needs his mother,  usually, might have – his are more important.

The state license plate that says, “kids first”, sounds good, but the thought is too often misplaced.  I understand that children are important and in many instances they do come first.  With God’s blessing and help, my wife and I raised four children to mature and responsible adulthood.  What I’m concerned about is the idea that the kids run the family, and that parents have no real say.  What the kid wants, the kid gets.  Unfortunately, he grows up with this attitude and those around him are the ones who suffer for it.

The idea of learning authority in the home is that we might come to know that there is an ultimate authority:  God.  Parents are just the first link in the chain of command.  Too many people never get even to that point; for them, there is only one link in the chain: themselves.

It is these last thoughts that are emphasized in Deuteronomy 22:18-21.  The relationship of child and parent is very important in the Bible. One of the sins Israel later was judged for was they had “made light of father and mother,” Ezekiel 22:7.  In the New Testament, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for depriving their parents of necessary support by saying that what they should have used for that was “dedicated to God,” so was unavailable to care for their parents.

So important is this relationship that God considered it worthy of death for a child to defy his parents.  Again, we must point out that this doesn’t mean a young child.  It refers to one old enough to know better, one who is a drunkard and glutton, probably an older teenage, although the concept of “teenager” is relatively new.  Even in the history of the U.S., the first Secretary of the Navy was given command of his first ship when he was twelve.  It’s only relatively recently that “teenagers” have been consigned to the wasteland of the Xbox or X-rated activities. thereby wasting the tremendous energy and enthusiasm they have, and setting them on the path of wasting a great deal of their time and talents.

In our time, things have been turned completely around.  You see this everywhere, little children in a restaurant or at the supermarket screaming their heads off because they’re not getting their way.  Parents are at a loss to deal with this because children have “rights,” or so we’re told.  You see older kids swaggering down the middle of the street, their pants down around their knees, arrogance spread across their faces.  “Juveniles” commit the worst of crimes because they know that their “juvenile” records will be sealed, and they basically can get away with it.  High schools have become hotbeds of violence and terror, with things happening almost daily which were beyond imagining in my high school days (where, by the way, we had a rifle range in the basement for ROTC, with rifles and ammunition, locked away, of course, but still there.  Never a hint of any trouble with them.  I qualified as a marksman on that range).  That high school was in what is now “the ghetto,” but we had less trouble than preschoolers get into now.

Then, of course, there’s the complete absence of any teaching about “God.”  If anything, education is against the idea of God, or of absolutes, or of morality, which has been replaced by “political correctness”.

I’m not advocating a return to Old Testament practices, but heading in that direction would certainly take care of a lot of the problems caused by the “troubled youth” in our time.

“Bird blood”

I just visited Yahoo Answers Religion/Spirituality section, and just have to respond to something I read there.  I’m putting a response here because others might have similar questions.  One of the posters made a comment about Leviticus 14 and “bird blood” cleansing a house.  Clearly, he didn’t agree with the concept.

There were several OT sacrifices which involved the use of birds, sometimes because that’s all the offerer could afford, sometimes not.  In the case of Leviticus 14, there are at least two things to keep in mind.

First, it was a health issue.  The Israelites didn’t have the technology to discover whether any particular mold was toxic.  It’s better to be safe than sorry, so every mold was treated as toxic.  They didn’t have bleach – I don’t think Clorox was around back then – so the procedure prescribed was the next best thing: scrape away the infected material and replaster, then, if the mold came back, the house had to be destroyed.  Houses weren’t as complicated then as they are now, so rebuilding a house wouldn’t be so difficult.

Second, there was a moral component.  The house was considered “polluted.”  Even those who entered the house were considered polluted and had to go through ceremonial cleansing.  The sacrifice of a bird was to demonstrate that the house was “clean,” Leviticus 14:48-53: the procedure had worked.  Hebrews 10:4 (NKJV) says “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats [and birds] could take away sin.”  All the Old Testament sacrifices were merely symbolic of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus; they pointed forward to His death on Calvary.  It wasn’t just sacrifice for the sake of shedding blood.  It was to teach the people by picture and symbol the necessity of cleansing from pollution, whether for health, as in the case of Leviticus 14, or personally, because they were all sinners.  So are we.

There are no more sacrifices for sin.  The Lord Jesus died once for sin.  The Old Testament sacrifices were thousands of fingers pointing toward Him.

Abraham and Isaac

This is about one of the more “difficult” passages of Scripture.

Genesis 22:2 (NKJV), “Then [God] said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

This is perhaps one of the most controversial chapters in the Bible.  “What kind of God would demand that you sacrifice your son?”  I heard this or something like it a few years ago on a popular TV show.  I’ve mentioned that I spend a lot of time on Yahoo Answers’ Religion and Spiritual section.  Two or three times, I’ve seen the question, “What would you do if God asked you to kill your son?”  You can imagine some of the answers.

It is a perplexing thing to many.  Why DID God require this of Abraham?  Without going into a lot of speculation. let’s see if we can make some sense of all this.  Note that there are three main characters in this scenario: God, Abraham, and Isaac.

God.  What was God doing, asking such a thing of a devoted believer?  Genesis 22:1 says that all this was a “test”.  There are some who use this verse and others like it to claim that God isn’t omniscient, that is, all-knowing.  He was testing Abraham, so these folks say, so He could find out what Abraham would do, what kind of faith he had.  I submit that this test was so that Abraham could find out what kind of faith he had.  It’s easy enough to say, “I believe God” when the Sun’s shining, but not so easy when things go South.

And God didn’t make it “easy.”  Notice the language: “Take now – your son – your only son Isaac – whom you love….”  Making sure that Abraham understood what he was doing.  Besides all that, Isaac was the channel through whom blessings were to flow to humanity.  Yet God said, “Take him and sacrifice him.”  It’s true that God had no real intention that Isaac should die, but Abraham didn’t know that.

Abraham.  Genesis 22:3 has got to be one of the most amazing verses in the Bible: “So Abraham rose early in the morning….”  I wish I could underline this:  “early in the morning.”  No hesitation, no questions, just got up to go and do what God had told him to do.  Four men on a three-day journey.  I can’t help wondering what thoughts went through Abraham’s mind.  

Isaac.  I’ve seen pictures showing Isaac as a young boy accompanying his father on this journey.  Some have pictured him as such, helpless and unable to defend himself from a cruel and heartless father.  However, v. 6 tells us that he was able to carry the wood for the sacrifice.  This was more than just a couple of sticks.  Isaac would have been well able to refuse and prevent his father from laying him on the altar when the time came.  His father was probably 115, or older.  Isaac was probably at least an older teenager; I heard one preacher say that Isaac was 33 years old, like Jesus going to the Cross, but there’s no way to know that for sure.  He was, however, old enough that he had to be willing to go along with his father.

He was also an observant young man.  In verse 7, we read of his asking his father, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”    This brings us back to Abraham.

Abraham, v. 8.  We mentioned a moment ago the thoughts that must have gone through Abraham’s head.  I think that by morning Abraham had already settled his mind on this matter.  Note what he told the two young men who accompanied him and Isaac on this journey.  When they got within sight of their destination, “Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you’,” v. 5.

 “WE will come back to you….”  The Hebrew text is even stronger: “We are determined to go, we are determined to worship, we are determined to return.”  Was this just something Abraham said to cover a bad situation, or did he really mean it?  Or, perhaps he was  delusional, an old man overwhelmed by a tragic situation?  

We can’t be sure of the exact sequence of Abraham’s thoughts, but the New Testament gives us some insight into them.  Hebrews 11:17-19 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”

In other words, Abraham knew God, he trusted God.  Now, the rationalists of his day, like those of our day, might have said, “Now, wait a minute, Abraham.  Show us tangible, verifiable evidence that God can raise anyone from the dead.  No one has ever come back from the dead.  It’s not scientifically possible.  When you’re dead, you’re dead.”  Granted, in Abraham’s case, he could have pointed to Isaac, who had been born miraculously, and said, “Here’s my evidence.”  The point is, in this case, Abraham trusted God in spite of “the evidence,” that is, that he was going to have to kill his son, so far as he knew, and no one had ever, up to that time, been raised from the dead.  He knew that God had promised great blessing through Isaac.  Indeed, he was to be the continuation of the Abrahamic line.  Perhaps Abraham reasoned something like this:  if God were to be faithful to that promise, then He would have to raise Isaac from the dead.

Abraham didn’t look at the situation; He looked at God.  God knows what He is doing, even if we don’t.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, how can we know – really know – what God is doing?

But that’s not the focus of this story; it’s on Abraham’s answer to his son’s question; his response to the query about a lamb:  Abraham answered, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering,” v. 8.  This brings us back to God.

God.  God stopped Abraham at the last possible moment, humanly speaking.  He doesn’t always act when, or how, we think He should.  Leaving aside what God told him about his obedience, there was “a ram caught in a thicket by its horns,” v. 13.  God had indeed “provided”.

Centuries later, John the Baptist cried out concerning the Lord Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world,” John 1:29.  The incident of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing, a “type”, of the Lord Jesus.  This is how Paul, in Galatians 3:8, could say that “God preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand.”  Granted, Paul doesn’t specifically mention the death and resurrection of Christ, but it’s only through that death and resurrection that “all nations of the earth shall be blessed,” Galatians 3:8; Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4, where the promise is repeated and verified to Isaac himself.

As that ram became a substitute for Isaac, so the Lord Jesus became a substitute for sinners.  As the ram was sacrificed in the place of Isaac, so the Lord Jesus was sacrificed in the place of sinners.  The Gospel isn’t, “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  The Gospel is that God has provided a substitute and a sacrifice for those who believe on Him.  He has given the answer to our sin problem.  God imputed the sins of those who would believe to Christ.  As it were, those sins became His, even though He was sinless and perfect and holy.  Christ suffered the punishment due those sins.  Conversely, God imputed the righteousness of Christ to believers, though we are anything but righteous.  God looks at believers as being as righteous as Christ, because His righteousness has been credited to them.

When my firstborn son was just an infant, I was someplace where there was a crying baby.  He was having a fit about something, as babies know how to do! I had never liked crying babies, but as I looked at this red-faced little fellow, somehow I saw my own son – and it was alright.  God looks at believers and, instead of seeing our failings, sins, stubbornness and general all-around unworthiness, He sees His Son, in Whom He is well-pleased.  And it’s alright.  Not that we can live as we like, as some charge, or that we don’t have responsibility to live holy lives by the grace of God.  It’s that we’re accepted because of the Lord Jesus Christ, not because of what we do.  God has provided for Himself – and for us – a Lamb.

As I said at the beginning, this is a controversial passage.  I’ve tried to explain it Scripturally.  I hope it’s been a blessing to you.  If you still have any questions, I’d be glad to try to answer them.

“To the praise of the glory of His grace.”