We are taking two chapters together this evening but will read only representative selections. As we have noted previously, these final chapters of Numbers are concerned with the preparation of the people for life in the Promised Land. The two chapters concern the calendar of Israel’s ritual life once established in Canaan. A good bit of this is found already in Leviticus, though there are some additional regulations added here. But putting this material here is a powerful confirmation of God’s assurances that Israel will take possession of the Promised Land and will enjoy prosperity there. If you add up the sacrifices stipulated in the following two chapters you come up with this.
“Every year in future the priests will have to sacrifice 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1086 lambs and offer more than a ton of flour and a thousand bottles of oil and wine. Clearly Israel is destined to be a prosperous agricultural community. These laws about sacrifices then contribute to the note of triumph that grows ever louder as the border of Canaan is reached.” [Wenham, 197]
It would not have been possible for Israel to maintain this schedule in the wilderness. They wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to supply all the sacrifices necessary. But soon she will be settled in a fertile country and will have assumed ownership of large herds and large areas of cultivated fields, orchards, and vineyards.
Read: 28:1-3; 9-10; 11; 16-25; 26-27; 29:1-2; 7-8; 12-17; 39-40.
What we have in these two chapters is a list of the stipulated sacrifices, by type and number. That is, these are the sacrifices that must be offered by the priests on every day of the year. Sacrifices that were initiated by laymen due to a man or woman’s sense of sin, or due to ceremonial impurity however contracted, or due to an Israelite’s making of a vow, or for any other reason would be in addition to these. These sacrifices, offered by the priests according to the ritual calendar, are the foundation of Israel’s ritual life. Indeed, the main burden of these regulations in Numbers 28-29 is the obligation of the priests: what sacrifices they are to offer. The worship of the lay people, highlighted in Leviticus recedes into the background here. For example, in the regulations regarding the Passover near the end of chapter 28 nothing is said about the Passover feast celebrated in Israelite homes. We know about that from elsewhere, nothing here. We hear only of the sacrifices the priests are to offer.
There is a logical arrangement to the material. The sacrifices are arranged according to their frequency. So the daily burnt offerings come first (28:2-8), then the weekly Sabbath offerings (28:9-10), then the monthly offerings (28:11-15), and then the annual offerings arranged in chronological sequence: Passover in the first month of Israel’s year, our early Spring (28:16-25); Weeks (later known as Pentecost; 28:26-31) was celebrated seven weeks after Passover at the time of the barley harvest; Trumpets introduced a ten-day penitential season leading up to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur); the Day of Atonement ritual is described in greater detail in Lev. 16; that solemn ceremony is followed five days later by the most joyful of all the feasts of the Israelite calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles, also called the Feast of Ingathering, a week long celebration at the time of the Autumn harvest of the vineyards and orchards. It was a remembrance of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, the Lord having cared for her and supplied her needs and bringing her through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and a celebration of the bounty with which God rewarded his people when they had taken possession of Canaan. Camping out, of course, would have been great fun for Israelite children; perhaps we should think of Tabernacles as something akin to our Christmas, the happiest and most anticipated time of year.
In any case, it is perfectly clear from this and many other texts that Israel’s life was a ritual life by the direct commandment of God. There are many people nowadays who will tell a survey taker that they are spiritual, but not religious, by which they mean that they have some belief in God but don’t go to services at a church. Well you can be spiritual, whatever that means, but you can’t be a Christian and not participate in the ritual life of the church. The Christian life, the biblical life is a life of ritual, of ordered worship with the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day. It is from the beginning of the Bible to its end.
Rituals express and preserve the deepest values of a society and continue to preserve the memory of them even when the society may well have long since forgotten those values. The offering of prayers, the singing of hymns, kneeling for prayer, and the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper preserve the memory of the Christian faith in churches where that faith was in fact long ago abandoned. We know what those rituals mean because we are familiar with them and with their biblical theological justification. But it is precisely because these rituals were so basic to Israel’s self-understanding, their meaning so well understood by Israel’s worshippers, at least in the times of her spiritual health, that their meaning and purpose are not elaborated in any detail in Scripture itself. There are few texts in the Old Testament that actually set out to explain what the various sacrifices meant, the meaning of their differences from one another, and precisely what the worshipper was to expect from participation in them. The rituals are described in some detail; their explanation is only hinted at. We know some things, of course: in the animal sacrifices there is the transfer of guilt and substitutionary death. But much more has to be guessed at.
We are aware, for example, of certain differences between the sacrifices, between, for example, the burnt offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the peace offering (three of the four being mentioned in these two chapters [only the guilt offering missing]). They differed both in how much, if any, of the sacrifice might be eaten by the priest or the worshipper and his family or both the priest and the worshipper and his family and they differed in what was done with the blood, how it was applied to the altar. The peace offering or fellowship offering, for example – which seems to be the OT precursor of the Lord’s Supper – was the only sacrifice in which the layman and his family shared in the meat – was the most festive of the sacrifices. At great national events, such as the dedication of the temple or the tabernacle before that or renewals of the covenant peace offerings were offered in great numbers, making these events great celebrations, festive and joyful. Why certain sacrifices were appointed for different occasions is not entirely clear. The Israelites would have understood instinctively, but it is hard for us to recreate the distinctions. It is, I think, a fair question to ask whether the modern, Spartan evangelical worship service—some singing, an offering, and a sermon—conveys much of anything regarding the deep structure of the basic beliefs of the church. One of the liturgical realities of the church’s history is that worship was important enough to be controversial precisely because it was understood powerfully to convey so much about belief and life. I wonder if anyone would think that about the new evangelical Sunday service.
For example, every one of the sacrifices – the burnt offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, and the peace offering – began with a worshipper placing his hand on the animal’s head, transferring his sins to the animal that then was killed in his place and its blood in some way sprinkled or poured on or about the altar. In every one of these acts of worship, and they are called worship, the matter of human sin and God’s provision of atonement is front and center. But it is precisely this reality that has largely disappeared from much of evangelical worship today. This concentration on human sin and guilt and the need for atonement – atonement provided by the death of a substitute – long since disappeared from liberal Christianity, but until recently, it was a defining characteristic of the evangelical Christian church service. Christ was our Savior from sin and from death which is the punishment of sin and that fact was central to our worship services. I am using the term evangelical in its ordinary sense, to describe those who still believe in supernatural Christianity – the incarnation, atoning death, bodily resurrection, and Second Coming of Jesus Christ – and in the gospel as the offer of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Nowadays, few of the songs that are sung in evangelical services focus attention on our sin and God’s remedy for our sin, preaching only rarely trades in those subjects, and the liturgy itself is utterly devoid of anything that might be fairly said to be the New Testament equivalent of laying one’s hands on the head of the bull, the lamb, or the goat. What we have in these two chapters in Numbers is liturgy: the liturgy of the individual service and the liturgy of the entire year of services.
Liturgy is the ordered contents of a corporate worship service. Liturgy is the regularly repeated and predictable order of a church’s worship. Many evangelical Christians associate the word “liturgy” with Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches. It suggests to them a highly structured, formal, perhaps superstitious and probably lifeless ritual. But the truth is every church has a liturgy. The liturgy is simply the order of things in a worship service. If a church only sings a hymn, takes an offering, offers a prayer, and hears a sermon it has a liturgy. Too often the difference between churches thought to be “liturgical” and those imagined to be “non-liturgical” is simply that liturgical churches have thought carefully about corporate worship and non-liturgical churches haven’t. The lack of hard thinking, especially by evangelical ministers, is hardly a surprise. Seminaries provide little in the way of serious and learned academic preparation in liturgics and churches show little interest in assessing a candidate’s liturgical convictions. They have been taught to care about other things even though it is easy to demonstrate from the Bible that the Sunday worship service of the Christian church is the primary means of a Christian’s growth in grace. As her worship, so the life of the Christian church; as her worship, so the life of individual Christians.
The Bible does not prescribe for us a Sunday liturgy. There is no Book of Common Prayer provided the church in Holy Scripture. Even the Old Testament sacrificial services, such as are mentioned here, certain rituals of which are described in some detail, are not reproduced from beginning to end. We know, for example, that there were hymns appointed to be sung in connection with the burnt offering – certain psalm titles include the rubric “For the Burnt Offering” – but we do not know where they were sung in the order of the service. We do not know where the preaching of the Word fit into the sanctuary services of the ancient epoch, but we know that preaching was a regular part of the Lord’s Day worship of God’s people in that time (Deuteronomy 33:10; 2 Kings 4:23). But that hardly means that we are to attach little importance to what things should be done in Lord’s Day worship and in what order they ought to be done. By direct instruction and commandment, by illustration, and by implication the Bible teaches us that the church’s worship should begin with a call to worship, should contain hymns, certain kinds of prayers, offerings, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and should conclude with a benediction. Certain of the actions in this worship are reserved to ordained ministers and there is considerable freedom in the arrangement of others (e.g. both choir and congregation sang in the worship service of the temple; both ministers and people prayed in the worship service of the church in Corinth). In such a service the worshipper is emphatically a participant and not a spectator. Like the worshipper in Leviticus 1, he is active throughout. He stands or kneels, he sings and prays, he says the “Amen,” he attends to the Word of God, and he participates in the sacramental meal. And there is an order to the parts of worship with which he grows increasingly familiar.
In certain formative texts we find word and sacrament, in that order, or confession, absolution, and commitment, in that order, as ingredients of the congregation’s worship (e.g. Exodus 24:1-11; Acts 20:7-11; Leviticus 1:3-9; cf. Isaiah 6:1-9). Attention to order in the Bible’s liturgical instruction should not surprise us. It is a reminder of how worship is, or ought to be, a concentration of life. The man or woman, boy or girl, who comes to the worship of the church should find his or her own life, its meaning and its purpose, its history and its future, embodied and recapitulated. Someone has described the worship of the congregation as the story of our lives in sixty or ninety minutes! For that very reason the order of events is important in worship because order is crucial to the meaning of things in life. Indeed, it is not too much to say that order can be everything in life. Sex before marriage is the way of death; sex after marriage is the way of life. The difference between life and death is only the order in which things are done. In Leviticus 1:3-9, for example, there is scrupulous attention paid to the order of events in the burnt offering. Why? Because it is one religion, paganism, if the worshipper kills the animal and then puts his hands on its head and by so doing identifies the gift as his own. It is another religion entirely, Christianity, if the worshipper puts his hands on the animal’s head and then kills it, thus symbolically transferring his guilt to a substitute. The acts are the same, only the order is different, but the order determines the meaning of the act. It is because of the powerful way in which the order of events conveys the meaning of those events that in the history of Christian worship there have been many arguments over the order in which things should be done in a worship service.
As Paul often made a point of demonstrating in the very structure of his letters, in what we might call the “liturgy” of his letters, it is legalism if ethics (God’s law and our obedience to it) come first and salvation second. It is Christianity if salvation comes first and then ethics. And so his letters always betray that order: first the exposition of God’s work in saving us from sin and death through Christ (Rom. 1-11; Eph. 1-3; Col. 1-2), then a “therefore,” and then, and only then, his exposition of the Christian life (Rom. 12-15; Eph. 4-6; Col. 3-4). We must obey God’s law, but it matters mightily whether that obedience is put before or after our salvation; that is, whether we obey in order to be saved or because we have been saved!
It is precisely the arrangement of the acts of worship in a gospel order that conveys to a lively conscience, reinforces in a willing heart, and impresses upon a child’s mind the fundamental truths of life. It is in this way that worship is the engine of the Christian life, impressing upon the soul the deep structure of the substance and meaning of our faith. Every Lord’s Day the sacred ground is covered once again, the gospel and our embrace of it are recapitulated, and our lives are re-centered in the covenant. And, as here in Numbers 28 and 29, every year as well the great historical events that define our life are remembered in great celebrations and festivals: Advent and Christmas, Lent, Good Friday and Easter; and Pentecost. There is a sacred ordering of time. Our lives, our weeks, our months, and our years belong to the Lord and stand beneath his presence! We embrace the Lord once more in a way rendered so much more powerful and meaningful because we do so not only as individuals but among the communion of the saints and because of the Lord’s presence promised and brought near when God’s people gather in his name. We re-enter the everyday world having had our minds cleared and our spiritual senses animated. We know again that we are God’s creatures – he made us and not we ourselves –, that Christ has redeemed us by his blood, and that we are soon to be in a world where everlasting joy rests on everyone’s head. We know and we feel that our lives are not our own, that we have been bought with a price, and that it is our sacred calling and highest privilege to love others as we have been loved. In other words, a Christian’s very identity, his understanding of himself and the meaning of his life – as a forgiven sinner, an heir of everlasting life, a child of God, a servant and soldier of the King of Kings – is affirmed in every well-ordered worship service. The accumulated weight of such worship renders that explicitly Christian self-consciousness powerful against the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Jean-Jacques von Allmen famously put it:
“Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification of their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and the despair of the world than that implied in Christian worship.”
In the worship services of my upbringing the service was frequently described by both ministers and people as “preliminaries and the sermon.” We knew what we were there for, everything else was warm-up. Obviously it is not necessary to spend too much time with “preliminaries” and ministers didn’t. They gave little thought to the front half of the service which was characteristically a jumble of elements in no particular order, serving no express purpose, and certainly without any clear intention to renew our covenant with the Lord or to recapitulate the gospel and our embrace of it with all its mighty implications for our lives. The Lord’s Supper was rarely a part of our worship. But beginning a service with the Lord’s own invitation to enter his presence, to sing a great hymn that enables us to see the Living God high and lifted up before us, to fall to our knees before him to confess our sins; these are no mere preliminaries. Having your sins forgiven is no mere warm-up to the sermon! We live out of these things, or at least we should! When we are without them, when we lack the living sense of the majesty of God or the forgiveness he has granted us in Christ, our souls wither; when we have them we thrive! And even the sermon and our hearing of the preaching of the Word, the most time-consuming piece of a well-ordered liturgy, takes on a different meaning when it is in right relationship to the other parts of worship. It is only in this way, for example, that the preaching of a sermon becomes genuinely divine revelation and our hearing of it becomes genuinely the submission of our lives to God and not simply the hearing of an address, even a very helpful address. It is altogether a different thing when the Lord of the covenant comes with his Word when you have already had the coal from the altar touched to your lips and have heard the Lord say to you, “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
The congregation’s confession of sin, often in years past either omitted or reduced to one of many petitions in the pastoral prayer, remains missing in much of American evangelical Sunday worship. Some wonder whether it is even appropriate for forgiven Christians to confess their sins as if they still needed forgiveness. Others think it unnecessarily gloomy and inevitably a distraction from the upbeat atmosphere they are intending to create in the Sunday service. But we are reminded here in Numbers 28 and 29 that in biblical worship there should be confessions of sin. We find them in the Psalter, the hymnbook of the ancient church and for most of two thousand years the hymnbook of the Christian church. Every one of these various sacrifices required the confession of sin. The psalms include confessions of sins that were used in public worship in Israel. Interestingly, the worshippers together often used prayers of confession that were born in intensely private and personal circumstances. Psalm 51, for example, originated in the crisis of David’s repentance after his sin had been exposed by Nathan the prophet. But in the Psalter, as its title indicates, it has become a prayer for the use of the congregation. The private and the corporate merge in a rightly constructed liturgy; individuals worshipping God and becoming the congregation that is worshipping God. And, once again, this part of worship also is of great benefit to Christians and the engine of their life, and so in the N.T. We are commanded to confess our sins; the Lord’s Prayer includes such a confession, and so on.
Thomas Halyburton, the great 18th century Scot theologian and minister, reminds us that “the most effectual inducement to obedience is, a constant improvement of the blood of Christ by faith, and a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul.” Do you want to be a very obedient Christian? Then have a living sense of how much you owe to God in Jesus Christ. Halyburton’s next sentence was: “Lord, bear home truth!” A more perfect description of the spiritual effect of right worship on the Christian soul is hard to imagine! “Lord, bear home the truth! Bear it home!” Not only does the Bible tell us to confess our sins and show us congregations doing so, conscious that they are in the presence of the holy God; not only do we see confession and absolution as regular parts of biblical worship, but Halyburton’s wisdom is lost if Christians do not confess their sins and especially in that most formative, paradigmatic, and powerful expression of their faith and life: the worship of the Lord’s Day. Where will the joy in reconciliation be if there is no confession and prayer for pardon, if there is no sense of the alienation that sin created between ourselves and God? Where will be the renewal of our gratitude if we do not know ourselves to have received anew and afresh the forgiveness of our sins? As in so many other ways, there is a Christian liturgy because life itself has a liturgy and vice versa. Husbands and wives do not cease declaring their love because they are married. We joke about that but I hope nobody really means it when they say, “I told you I loved you when I married you. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.” Or “You don’t keep running after you have caught the bus.” I hope nobody means that. On the contrary, marriage remains holy and happy on the same terms in which it was created in the first place. In the same way, they do not neglect to confess their sins to one another because they feel free simply to assume their spouse’s forgiveness because, after all, they have made a life-long commitment to one another. Love and confession go together. Confession and forgiveness, asked for and received, renew, strengthen, express and preserve love.
And so it is with our love for God. Forgiveness is the great thing God gives us in Christ. All of these blood sacrifices in the worship of the ancient epoch ring the changes on this fact. Without forgiveness there can be no peace with God and no communion with God. God himself must remain our enemy! Jesus Christ came into the world to save his people from their sins! We have sinned. We’ve sinned against him all week long. How can we come into God’s presence without acknowledging that fact, seeking his forgiveness, and being renewed in a right relationship with him as our Father? Are we going to come into his presence and say nothing of what we have done and failed to do? You parents know how much it bothers you when you know your children have misbehaved and when they say nothing about it! It bothers you even more when you know they know they have misbehaved and they still say nothing about it. They don’t apologize, they don’t confess, and they don’t ask for forgiveness. Are we going to act as if it didn’t matter to us or to God? Are we so indifferent to our sins that even in his holy presence we feel no need to confess them and seek his forgiveness? Is it a matter of little consequence to us that we should be forgiven and know ourselves to be clean once again? It was not a matter of little consequence in Israel’s worship, as we are reminded here: day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, confession and atonement were the structure of Israel’s worship! I have often reminded you that were you somehow able to see your sins being lifted off your soul at that moment in the Lord’s Day service, if you could somehow see your soul go from black to white, you wouldn’t doubt that moment was the most wonderful and the most vitally important moment of your week and you would scarcely ever leave church without a spring in your step and the love of God and Christ filling your heart. You would sit eagerly, attentively listening to the sermon precisely because you felt anew and afresh your great debt to God and you wanted to know how to discharge it. You would come to the Lord’s Supper, not to receive the forgiveness of your sins – you already had received that – but to be nourished in the life of faith, to sum up the entire offering of yourself to God that has taken place in the service, and to conclude the whole with your thanksgiving. Such a service must do the worshipper very great good and participation in such a service must sanctify one’s life in innumerable ways.
Every part and dimension of a biblically thoughtful liturgy ought to contribute its share to the holy impressions to be made upon the mind and heart. Even the postures assumed – in the Bible standing and kneeling are the approved postures for prayer – are themselves a powerful reinforcement of the conviction that the congregation has gathered in the very presence of the unseen Almighty. There is something wonderfully impressive when a congregation stands on purposeas before the Lord God or falls to its knees before him. The hidden is in such powerful ways made visible, audible, and palpable. And what does the soul require more than the living and powerful sense of what cannot be seen or heard or touched with the senses of the body?
And what is above all else the unseen reality that is experienced and known and felt? It is God himself, the Triune God drawn near to his people. It is God whom we meet in worship, who speaks to us, to whom we speak, who grants us forgiveness, who fills our hearts with various good things: from conviction to joy, from love and gratitude to inspiration and commitment. Did you see this in our text? “See that you present to me the food… as an aroma pleasing to me…” “This is the offering you are to present to the Lord…” You have this language over and over again in these two chapters. These services are nothing less than an encounter between the people and Yahweh himself! That is why they must take the form they do. That is why they must contain the parts stipulated in the liturgical regulations. That is why Israel must come with faith and expectation and why she must so strictly observe the ritual order. This is Yahweh’s house; she is entering his presence, and must do so in that way that he has ordered. To approach the Lord on your own terms is the rankest disrespect toward the Almighty and bound to fail to produce the blessing one seeks when he or she comes to church. It is akin to a person wanting to have a meaningful sexual relationship with a person but not willing to make the life-long commitment of faithfulness first. [Duguid, 310] One must seek the blessing in the way it may be found; otherwise he condemns himself to failure.
Mark Twain reminds us in Tom Sawyer that “church ain’t shucks to the circus.” Many Christian churches and congregations nowadays seem bent on proving him wrong. But what Christians need is not to be amused or even “helped.” What they need is to find themselves in the presence of God and be renewed in faith, hope, and love in that encounter with God himself. The Lord has appointed the worship of the church on the Lord’s Day as the principal means of such an encounter and that is why that worship is supremely important to the Christian life and why every effort must be made – from the minister’s study, preparation, and superintendence to the congregation’s expectation, concentration, and participation when at worship – to conduct that worship in the most biblically faithful, interesting, beautiful, serious, and joyful way. Someone has said, “The main thing in life is to keep the main thing in life the main thing in life.” Properly ordered divine worship, offered to God from the heart, is the most important means to do just that: “keeping the main thing in life the main thing in life.”