Numbers 9:1-14

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The Passover, as you remember, together with the Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed it, was the great festival celebrating Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It began on the 14th day of the first month of Israel’s calendar – about April – and lasted eight days. This paragraph, therefore, concludes the digression that began at 7:1 relating events that took place before the census described in the first chapter and before the nation set out from Sinai toward the Promised Land. This particular Passover was the second ever observed, a year after the Passover that was part of the 10th plague and accomplished Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

We learn in Exodus 40:17 that the tabernacle was set up and began to operate on the first day of the first month. So for this Passover and all subsequent Passovers the sacrifices would be killed in the sanctuary and the meat taken home for the Passover meal.

The phrase the NIV has rendered “at twilight” is literally “between the two evenings.” It is taken by some to mean between sunset and darkness, hence twilight. Later Jewish tradition took the phrase to meet between mid-day and sunset and hence in Jesus’ day they began to slaughter the Passover lambs at about 3 p.m. [Wenham, 98]

The mention of Aaron, when he does not figure at all in what happens next, is an eyewitness touch. Aaron happened to be there at that moment. [Cf. Milgrom, 68]

Sacrifices could be offered and eaten only by those who were ceremonially clean; that is, free from defilement caused by discharges, skin diseases, or contact with the dead.

So this regulation now being given will apply when Israel is settled in the Promised Land. Obviously no one was away on a journey at that moment, but that would happen in subsequent years and the regulation anticipates that situation.

So this second Passover, a month later than the first, would be celebrated a week before Israel left Mt. Sinai (cf. 10:11).

The fact that none of the Lord’s bones were broken at his crucifixion is one among a great many ways in which he was identified as the lamb that takes away the sin of the world, the sacrifice of which the Passover sacrifice was an anticipation and an enacted prophecy (John 19:36).

The meaning of the phrase “cut off from the people” has been much debated. Did it mean excommunication, or execution, or was it a promise that God himself would visit upon the offender some destroying punishment? In various contexts in the Pentateuch it seems to have each of these three meanings. The addition here of “that man will bear his sin” has suggested to some that it will be the Lord himself who will impose the punishment.

I have spoken to you many times about the Bible’s dialectical approach to communicating its doctrine. That is, Scripture’s truth is regularly presented in terms of its polarities and little effort is made to achieve some sort of synthesis between those polarities. We get both the unity of God and his triple personality but never in the Bible are we given an explanation of how to reconcile these two facts with one another or how to synthesize them into some kind of simple mixture. We are left having simply to hold on to both truths at the same time, an effort that has always proved very difficult. I think that nowadays we do not feel the impossibility of really understanding at the same time the oneness and the threeness of God primarily because we don’t think very carefully about the subject. We have become inured to it. We think we understand more than in fact we do. Dorothy Sayers once remarked that to the average churchgoer today, the mystery of the Trinity means “the Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the whole thing is incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult…” Long ago in the 4th century, when the bishop and theologian Gregory of Nyssa visited Constantinople, he says that he heard debates about the Trinity on every street corner, though the population was by no means entirely composed of Christians.

“Garment sellers, money changers, food vendors; they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about whether the bath is ready, they express the opinion that the Son was made out of nothing.” [Cited in R.J. Neuhaus, First Things (Nov 2004) 74]

We are not likely to hear debates about the Trinity in the grocery store but it is not because people have figured it all out. They have simply ceased to care. As soon as they begin to care again and think the matter through they come to realize how impossible it is fully to grasp the reality. And that is why there have always been different views about the Trinity in Christian theology and why those views are always criticized by others as in some way or another giving insufficient emphasis either to the Oneness of God or to the triple personality. Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa’s friend, said in that same 4th century,

“I cannot think of the One, but I am immediately surrounded with the splendor of the Three; nor can I clearly discover the Three, but I am suddenly carried back to the One.”

Or, in other words, we have to think of both, remember both, and reckon with both, but we will never be able to combine the two into a simple unity of truth. Our minds are not capacious enough or powerful enough to hold so much truth describing such different aspects of reality together in unity.

And what can be said about the Trinity can be said as well about the Bible’s emphasis on both the absolute sovereignty of God and the freedom and accountability of human beings. There is no way to harmonize these truths without diminishing one or the other. Believe me, a great many clever people have tried over the past several thousand years to do just that and no one has succeeded yet. All we can do is to say something like what Gregory said about the Trinity: I think of the divine sovereignty and I remember human freedom; I think about human freedom and I remember divine sovereignty.

I have pointed out to you many times that this dialectical or polar presentation of the truth is characteristic of the Bible. Virtually every subject is taught in this same way: the truth is given in its polarities and little or no effort is made to synthesize them. And we have another instance of this tonight in Numbers 9.

Usually the Bible also teaches its doctrine in what scholars call a meristic fashion. The term comes from the Greek word meros which means part and refers to the practice of giving part of the truth here and part there. That is, we get sovereignty in one place and human responsibility in another; we don’t usually get the two together in the same place. But sometimes we do and here in Numbers 9 we do. We get the two poles in the same place. But what are we talking about? What is the doctrine or teaching of this chapter?

Well, of course, on its face it concerns the observing of Passover. The deliverance from Egypt was still fresh in Israel’s mind, of course, this being but one year later. But imagine their experience as they celebrated that feast, recalling as they surely did in family after family how it had been that night a year before and what had happened, what they had seen, and what they had done. Some children being a bit older than they had been the year before and now able to hear the story with understanding, heard it for the first time. What an amazing evening that would have been for them! And then, of course, the interesting meal, the lamb – which was too expensive for most Israelites to have except on very special occasions – and all the rest. It was Christmas and Easter all rolled into one.

It is, I think, a wonderful kindness of the Lord to have appointed for us such things as we nowadays call sacraments. This is not to be our subject this evening but let us at least take note of what sacraments are: physical embodiments and ritual enactments of God’s mighty love and salvation. Oswald Chambers, the Scottish preacher and author of the spiritual classic My Utmost For His Highest, once referred to his wife Gertrude, whom he called Biddy, as a sacrament. “God conveying his presence through the common elements of an ordinary life” was how he described both her and a sacrament. It’s a wonderful definition. But, of course, while we may immediately see our wives as sacraments and understand in that way how sacraments work – how they make the invisible, visible – it is harder for us to get the full impact of the Lord’s Supper than it was, say, for the apostles who must have thought back to the Upper Room and all that had been said and done that sacred night of the Last Supper every time they participated in the sacrament in following years. The bread and wine must have been for them potent symbols of the most wonderful and powerful remembrances. We, however, must work harder to bring to mind all that the Passover meant and the Lord’s Supper means and to appreciate what happy and powerful and wonderful things they are.

But the emphasis falls in this chapter not on the nature of a sacrament or its spiritual use or effect when believers observe the Lord’s Supper.

Here in this chapter the emphasis falls on obedience to the regulations that governed the observance of the sacraments, in this case, the Passover. Things had to be done a certain way. This is clearly the burden of these 14 verses. These verses contain law and regulation. But two very different things are said about the law of the Passover and, in this way, we have two very different perspectives given on the Law of God in general. True enough, this law concerns the Passover, but this law is just like any other divine law in this respect. There is always this double aspect to the Law of God. And, once again, these are two perspectives that we often find difficult to maintain together; two perspectives that want to fly apart in our thinking and our living; two perspectives that we are very likely to choose between rather than hold at once.

  1. In the first place we have God’s law as demand and requirement to be strictly obeyed.

This is clearly the emphasis of the opening verses of the chapter where Israel was told to observe the Passover at the appointed time and to celebrate it in accord with all its rules and regulations. We have that same necessity of strict obedience stressed again in vv. 11-14. Even those who observed the Passover a month later had to observe it precisely as instructed in the Law of God. They had to observe it on the right day, they had to eat the specified food, they couldn’t leave any of the food uneaten, they couldn’t break any of the lamb’s bones, and so on. What is more if they violated these stipulations they received not a slap on the wrist, not a “tsk, tsk” from the unIsrael activities committee, but they were to be kicked out of the community: that is, executed, or left to fend for themselves in the desert, or made subject to the judgment of the Lord.

Then, in the final verse, Israel was reminded that an alien could participate in the Passover but only according to the laws governing such things, including, as we read in Exodus 12:48, the demand that he first be circumcised.

Passover was a gift Yahweh gave to his people, a wonderful gift celebrating and remembering a still more wonderful gift. It was Christmas for the Israelite family and how much poorer our lives would be without Christmas! But no matter how happy the gift and the celebration, it still had to be done in the prescribed way! There is a strictness here that is undeniable.

Many larger churches nowadays offer a Saturday evening service to their parishioners to make it more convenient for them to attend church. If they have Sunday obligations a Saturday evening service makes it possible for them to attend church. What is wrong with that? Well, what is wrong with it is that God has appointed the Sabbath as the day of Christian assembly, the day for the worship of his house, the day of the remembrance of his great salvation. The day of Christ’s resurrection has become the new Sabbath and the new holy day. We aren’t free to alter those regulations. God has spoken and we are obliged to obey his law. So the answer to the man who has Sunday obligations is that unless they are of the sort that God allows to keep a man from worship – and there are very few such activities – they must be cancelled and he must be at worship no matter the inconvenience. It is never an inconvenience to be called into the presence of the Almighty!

Other large churches, especially evangelical mega-churches are virtually eliminating the sacraments from their Lord’s Day public worship. Heavily skewed to the unbeliever and to reaching him for the gospel as their Sunday service is, a Lord’s Supper at the end would be counter-productive. It would advertise the difference between the Christians and the non-Christians in the service, exactly what the church does not want to do. They want the unbelievers to feel welcome and comfortable; precisely what a strange ceremony that they could not participate in would not make them feel. So why don’t we do the same thing and take the Lord’s Supper out of our Sunday morning worship and observe it instead on Wednesday night or perhaps only in the Sunday evening service when unbelievers are less likely to attend? Well, the reason is that we are not free to alter the regulations laid down for our worship. The Lord’s Day worship of the Christian Church is supposed to be sacramental and the Lord’s Supper is supposed to be, as John Calvin once put it, the central act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day.

The point is: there are laws and regulations that we are obliged to observe; obliged because God has laid them down in his Law. We are not free to alter that law no matter the reason. Now fallen human beings do not like to take orders, still less to take orders from God. It is a fact of life that goes a long way toward explaining what we observe in the world every day. As one wise man has put it,

“Man’s self-centeredness, aware that it is being attacked and called in question by God’s claim to man’s [obedience], seeks feverishly to defend itself and to assert its inviolability.” [Cranfield, “Paul and the Law,” as printed in New Testament Issues, 151]

That is man. He has a passion to disobey God, no matter how harmful, how unreasonable that disobedience. But we are reminded in no uncertain terms in v. 13 that God will enforce his will and man cannot keep him from doing so no matter his arguments, his excuses, or his justifications. The Lord has published his law and because he is the Lord, the King, and the Judge, he demands that his law be obeyed. Failure to obey will bring his punishment. That is a brute fact of divine revelation that we encounter on virtually every page of Holy Scripture; it is also a brute fact of human reality, clear enough now, but to be made so much clearer at the end of the age. The way of the transgressor is and will be hard.

And lest anyone think that this strictness in demand and the threat of judgment for disobedience is peculiar to the OT, as if the Lord were harsher in the ancient epoch than he is today (an idea that continues to find supporters no matter how clearly it violates the teaching of the Bible), the same emphasis is found in the NT. There are a great many texts I could cite, but since we are talking about the sacraments let me remind you of 1 Cor. 11:27 and 30 where Paul tells the Corinthian church that some among them had already suffered the judgment of the Lord because they had profaned the sacrament. Some were sick and some were dead because they had not carefully observed the requirements the Lord had laid down for the proper observance of the sacrament – sickness and death just as in Numbers 9. They also had been cut off from the people.

But that is not the whole story. There is another pole on the continuum of the Bible’s teaching about the law. The Bible tells us something else about God’s law that is not easily reconciled with this emphasis on its strict and inflexible demand, the requirements that cannot be broken, and the forbidding of all deviations.

  1. In the second place there is in God’s Law a wonderful accommodation and concern to meet the real-life situations of human beings. Requirements are tailored to help, not to hinder the life of God’s people.

This is the real interest of this passage; verses 1-5 really simply set the scene. The question concerns people who couldn’t observe the Passover because they found themselves ceremonially unclean at the very time they would have had to offer their sacrifice. Most of the chapter concerns instructions God gave to Moses in regard to such cases. And, while we might have supposed that the Lord would simply have said that the Passover, being a commemoration of an actual historical event had to be observed on its proper date, the Lord in fact bends to meet the need of his people to ensure they would not miss his blessing. He doesn’t want anyone left out. He wants everyone to have the blessing of the feast. Before this, of course, the Lord in effect had as much as said that if his people could not participate because they were providentially hindered, he would not hold it against them. There is a great deal of difference between the person who doesn’t go to church because he doesn’t want to and the person who can’t because he is sick or infirm, or a soldier in the field, or, like Robinson Crusoe, marooned on a desert island. The Lord knows the difference! Some, for no fault of their own would not be able to participate but the Lord would not for that reason accuse them of a fault.

But he goes still further. He makes an accommodation for those who couldn’t participate.
He allows this group of people – and all subsequent folk like them – to take the Passover a month later. That is a remarkable concession when you think about it; when you think about what Passover commemorated and about how strictly it was to be observed according to the regulations laid down, one of which stipulated the date on which it was to be observed. But the law is an expression of God’s goodness and his love and so it should not really surprise us that he makes even his law to accommodate the difficulties of his people’s lives. In fact there are other evidences of this in the material. In the regulations governing Passover given in Exodus 12 we are told that the people were to take the blood of the Passover sacrifice and smear it on the doorframes of their homes. No one had a home in the wilderness when the second Passover was eaten. The people were on pilgrimage; their lodgings were temporary. So presumably they smeared the blood on the flaps of their tents or the posts that held them up. The Lord didn’t intend for his laws to be impossible to keep. And he was happy to leave quite a bit up to his people to arrange according to their situation. He was happy with whatever they did so long as it honored the interest of his Law. He paid his people the compliment of giving them freedom to operate within the outline of his will.

In all these ways the Law bent to meet human beings where they were. The Lord was happy to accommodate real life situations. The Lord by his Law was after something in us and didn’t necessarily care how that thing was got if only it was got. There is a spirit to these laws, a basic interest, and it is this spirit that matters most.

C.S. Lewis gave expression to this principle that we find everywhere in the Law of God when he wrote:

“The order of the divine mind embodied in the divine law is beautiful. What should a man do but try to produce it, so far as possible, in his daily life?” [Reflections on the Psalms, 59]

This is the thought behind all of those expressions of delight in God’s law and desire to keep it wholly and sincerely that we find in the Bible. Think of life as a dance and the law as the steps of that dance, the rules of that dance. Think of one of those dances in one of the movies made recently from Jane Austen novels. Think of them dancing some minuet. The dancers – both men and women – want to get it “just so.” The beauty of the dance, the pleasure of it is only complete when the partners dance it correctly: they don’t step on one another’s toes, they don’t get turned in the wrong direction and clumsily have to find their way back, they don’t move too fast or too slowly for the music or the movement of others, and so on. Perhaps in this life we will never dance perfectly, but the law teaches us how to dance and the more closely we obey its rules the more beautifully we dance. God gave us his law not to make us miserable, not because he’s a spoilsport who doesn’t want us to enjoy life, but because he loves us and as our heavenly Father he knows what makes for a good and noble life. To live by his law is the right way to live, the best way, the happiest way.

The reason people break God’s commandments is because they don’t believe that. They do not trust the Lord’s goodness in giving us his commandments. It is that mistrust that lies at the root of man’s transgression of God’s law. They turn away from trusting God for their good and, depending upon themselves, they seek happiness in some other way, which is to say, they seek their happiness by doing what God forbids and not by doing what he commands.

This is exactly how we ought to think about so much of what is happening in our culture today. We are watching people attempting to find happiness in every possible way except that way the living God, the creator of all these people has published in his Law. And it is inevitable that they will fail. The law of God is proved by the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed. But so determined has the culture become to find another way to happiness and fulfillment, or, better, to permit every man or woman to find his or her own way, that it is now adamant in refusing to allow anyone to press upon society enduring standards of human behavior, the sort of standards one finds in the Law of God. To admit such a law is to let a divine foot in the door and human beings recognize instinctively that once the foot is in the rest will come in behind. So, even at the cost of their own unhappiness, they refuse to bow to the law of God, refuse to permit God to regulate their lives, refuse to follow the steps God has ordered for the dance of life.

But, the fact is, there is a Law for human life. It is a law published by man’s creator and enforced by man’s judge. And, the fact is, every human being knows it. Every human being knows that right and wrong are realities; inflexible, undeniable moral standards woven into the very fabric of human life. But it is impossible to justify that knowledge without God; without both a giver and enforcer of that right and wrong. Those standards come from somewhere and mean something and that is true and can be true only if the law is God’s Law.

Florence and I, together with Bob and Kathy Case, came home from a trip to Georgia last week on the private jet of a Christian businessman who generously offered to go out of his way to bring us to Seattle. Let me tell you, that is the way to make a cross country trip: sitting in the cockpit jump seat on take-offs and landings, having lunch with friends around a table, stretching out on what is virtually a couch to take a nap, no checking and collecting of luggage, and no security lines. While we had lunch at 40,000 feet our host told us the story of his founding his company and something of his principles that govern his management of that company. And chief among them is this: operate with the intention of making your customer a success. Don’t worry about being a success yourself, or making money; just provide your customer with honest, faithful service and the best product you can make. That principle, simply a form of the golden rule and the law of neighbor love, has worked wonders for him and his company.

I read the other day that the founders of Google have a corporate motto: “Do No Evil.” They obviously believe there is such a thing as evil and that it is right not to do it. They also believe that treating others justly and honestly works in this world. And obviously it has for them. They have not only built a great company and made billions, but have changed the habits and even the language of the entire human race.

Whether in the case of a Christian businessman or non-Christian entrepreneurs, there is a Law that governs human life. Unbelievers know it as well as Christians. It is something we have in common with all human beings; very important knowledge that we share. They may resent the fact that it is God’s law that is written in their hearts and in the common life of the world. They may fear to admit that this law must come from the Living God. But that law is the foundation of everything that makes human life human life; everything that makes it meaningful, important, and gives us hope that our life will last beyond the grave. There is a moral order, and in such an order, in the nature of the case, there is both punishment and reward.

And to help them see this, to help them to embrace the law of life as the Law of God, it is important for us to see ourselves and help them to see that the law is both firm and flexible, both demanding and understanding, both hard and gentle, both the expression of God’s holiness and of his love and tender affection for his people. The law said that Passover must be held on the fourteenth day of the first month because it was on that day the event itself occurred that the feast was created to commemorate. But the law also said that if someone couldn’t make that date, he or she could observe it on another. Remarkable and so important to a true understanding of the very nature of God’s law. True as it is that unbelievers need to hear about the blessing of living under God’s law, of having reliable direction for our lives, and knowing that that direction comes from the heart of a God who loves us so much he gave his Son for our salvation; I say, as important as it is for unbelievers to know this, it is also important for Christians – who can also chafe against God’s law, for they have the spirit of rebellion still living in them – to remember themselves how blessed are the people who love God’s law.

Remember the Lord making allowances, even in his law, for the needs of his people. Remember how flexible he was. Remember how he wanted blessing for all his people and was perfectly willing to adjust his commandments so as to make it possible for them to receive that blessing. Remember this when you think about those commandments that are hard for you to keep. You know what commandments those are and what a struggle you have with them. Who gave them to you and why? What was in his heart when he ordered you to live in that way: to do that thing or to refrain from doing the other? God’s commandments are not burdensome, John reminds us. They are intended to be as much of a burden to us as wings are a burden to a bird! How true Augustine was when he wrote to God in his Confessions:

“He is your very best servant who looks not so much to hear from you what he himself wants to hear, but rather wishes to do himself whatever he hears from you.”

We can trust God not to give us bad commandments! We can trust his commandments to be always the wisest and the best thing to do. We know that because God was always thinking of us when he published his Law.