Numbers 17:1-13

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If you remember, as we pick up the story Israel has now been condemned to wander in the wilderness, basically killing time, as punishment for her unbelief and rebellion at Kadesh Barnea. The Lord had refused to permit her to enter the Promised Land until that generation of Israelite adults, those who had failed at Kadesh, had passed away. In the larger narrative of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness we are now in a section that deals with the priesthood and its particular responsibilities and authority and especially the high priesthood, the office of Aaron. Most recently we read the narrative of a rebellion by certain Levites and Reubenites against the authority Yahweh had entrusted to Aaron and Moses and God’s peremptory and ferocious judgment of the rebels. We learned before this but now once again that man’s rebellion against God often takes the form of an unwillingness to submit to others, whether parents (God’s first vice-regents in any human life), the elders of the church, the government, teachers, bosses, or anyone else who exercises authority. And in that fact the nature of man’s rebellion, its vital principle is revealed: man does not want to be controlled! He wishes to rule himself; be his own god!

Following upon the rebellion of Korah and his associates and dealing with the same general subject – the Lord’s granting authority to some and not to others in his church – we have this next short narrative. Remember, the chapter divisions were added more than three thousand years later. Chapter 17 belongs with the material of chapter 16 and concludes the account of Korah’s rebellion and its aftermath. One commentator describes chapter 17 as a “symbolic reenactment” of the previous chapter. [Wenham] So much does the material of chapter 17 belong with what precedes it that in the Hebrew Bible the chapter division is actually different from what we have in the English Bible. Chapter 17 begins at our 16:36 and continues to the end of our chapter 17. So, take this final paragraph of this long section as the climax and summation of what has gone before. One commentator says, “Great issues are rarely decided by force alone. Reasonable proof is also requisite, if a decision is to be lasting.” [MacRae, NBC, 199] In chapter 16 the lesson was put negatively. Now God wished to provide a positive form of the same lesson. This repetition simply underscores the importance of what God was saying. He wanted to be clear.

Text Comment

Interestingly the Hebrew word for “tribe” and for “staff” is the same (matteh). The interplay between the two meanings is important. Only the staff of Aaron and so only the tribe of Levi had been appointed to represent Israel to God in the presence of the Lord in the sanctuary. What is more, the staff often served as a symbol of authority, so using the staffs to determine which tribe had authority in the sanctuary made a second kind of sense.

If Joseph were replaced in the list of the twelve tribes by his two sons born in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh (as is the case in the listing of the tribes for the census in chapter 1), then with Levi there would have been thirteen tribes and thirteen staffs.

If Aaron’s staff is among the twelve, and there are only twelve staffs, then we do not really know how the twelve was calculated. In all likelihood it would have been a restoration of Joseph to the tribes but then Ephraim and Manasseh would not be listed by tribe which seems unlikely at this point, they being listed in all other accountings of the twelve tribes in Numbers.

The fact that the staff had borne fruit is surely significant in itself. Aaron’s ministry was to bear fruit and bring blessing to God’s people. It was to be life-giving. Indeed, it had been in the previous paragraph, bringing an end to the plague that had killed so many Israelites. It would be through Aaron’s ministry and that of his sons that the people’s sins would be forgiven through the sacrificial worship conducted at the sanctuary. Through that ministry God would mediate his peace and blessing to his people.

Remember the lampstand in the sanctuary was shaped like a blossoming tree as well (Exod. 25:31-40). From the tree of life in Eden onward, the fruitful tree is one of the Bible’s great images of God’s blessing upon a human life.

Here is one more instance of the truth we encounter over and over again in the Word of God: that by God’s choice of one and use of one he intends the blessing of many. He chose Abraham, but in that choice he had in view the salvation of the world. He chose Aaron, but in that choice he had in view the blessing of all his people Israel. He chose David and supremely he chose the Lord Jesus Christ with a great multitude of others in view.

You will notice it was grumbling against you by the Israelites in v. 5 and it is grumbling against me by the Israelites in v. 10. They amount to the same thing.

After all that has happened we would expect the dawning of some understanding on the part of the people. That it does not happen is the dismal truth about Israel in unbelief that is the central fact of the narrative of Israel in the wilderness that we find in the book of Numbers. Even here Israel responded as an unbeliever. She did not welcome the news of Aaron’s rod blossoming but instead feared the demonstration of God’s power in making it do so. Instead of embracing the promise of blessing through the priesthood that God had appointed and the sacrifices that he had given to those priests to offer she feared what God would do to her with such power. Such is always the case with unbelief. It does not see the good that is promised; it fears the threat implicit in the fact that it comes from an almighty and holy God. God had Aaron’s rod blossom white and bear almonds but all Israel saw was a great power that it could not stand up against. When they should have been smelling the almond blossoms, they only saw the supernatural power it took to create them. Considering God more an enemy than a friend – no doubt the result of their guilty conscience – Israel feared the power instead of thanking him for his grace. [Cf. Duguid, 214]

There are various lessons here. Obviously key to the entire history is the sin of grumbling and rebellion, the sin that dominates this part of the book of Numbers and which sin is raised twice in this short chapter: first in v. 5 where the Lord explains that his purpose in the affair of the staffs was precisely to put an end to the people’s grumbling; and then again in v. 10 where the Lord commands Moses to preserve Aaron’s staff as a sign to the rebellious to warn them not to grumble against him. Real believers – which most of the Israelites in the wilderness were not – need to take this lesson to heart. We need to pull up by the roots the first fruits of discontent with God’s provisions and the first inkling of rebellion against his commandments when we find them within ourselves, lest such a spirit take root and produce in us or in our children the same fatal spirit of rebellion it produced in Israel. This is precisely Paul’s use of this material in 1 Cor. 10.

Then there is all that may be rightly learned from this episode concerning the government of the church, the oversight of its worship, and the nature and responsibilities of the Christian priesthood. That is, after all, the specific subject of the text.

But also directly related to this piece of history is the lesson that God’s blessing should be communicated to his people through the priesthood and particularly through a single priest. You are well aware, of course, that one of the offices that Jesus assumed upon his incarnation was that of a priest, even that of the high priest. That is, he was the true descendant of Aaron and holder of Aaron’s office, even if not of the tribe of Levi, and the one who fulfilled the great promise of Aaron’s office. It was prophesied in the OT that the Messiah would also be a priest, the king would be a priest, two offices that were kept strictly separate in the ancient epoch; and in the NT it is said explicitly that Jesus was a priest, as he was a prophet and a king. He did what the high priest did on a higher plane. He mediated God’s presence to his people; he offered a sacrifice of himself for the sins of his people and God’s blessing came upon all of his people as a result. That Jesus is a priest and that he did the work of a priest is, as you remember, a major theme of the book of Hebrews. And his ministry causes blossoms to bud in every life in which he and his priesthood are embraced in faith and love.

Most people today are prepared to think of Jesus as a prophet for we all need teachers, folk who can point out the right way to us. And many are even willing to think of Jesus as a king, someone who can lead us to better things (though, of course, most people expect this king to consult them and certainly do not imagine that he would lay down laws that they would be obliged to keep in any and every situation). But however malformed their idea of prophet and king might be, modern folk do not find it so difficult to see Jesus either as a teacher, a prophet, or a leader, a king. That is why Jesus continues to reappear in people’s views – no matter how widely different – as teacher, leader, or both.

But it is different with his priesthood. That he should mediate between them and God. That he should offer himself a sacrifice for them. That he should pray to God on their behalf. These are more alien ideas to the modern mind and more difficult for them to grasp and to embrace.
And for a number of reasons.

  1. Christ’s priesthood presupposes a radical breach between God and man that has to be somehow bridged. People don’t like to think that they are alienated from God. Your workmates and your neighbors do not think of themselves as alienated from God and the fact that they require a priest is the demonstration of that separation between themselves and God. Here the fact that only the priest could come into the sanctuary, only the priest could represent the people to God, and that anyone who presumed to arrogate those privileges to himself was taking his life in his hands, I say all of this is designed to demonstrate this distance that has opened between the holy God and sinful man and the difficulty of bridging that distance. An unwelcome truth to most.
  2. Christ’s priesthood also presupposes that men and women can be reconciled to God only through the offering of a sacrifice, a terrible and costly sacrifice. That is what priests do; they offer sacrifices for men. This too does not sit well with human beings. It requires them to accept that there is something terribly wrong with them that they cannot put right themselves. You have had enough conversations with unbelieving people to know that they do not think this; they are not troubled by a conviction that there is something terribly wrong with them and with their lives. They do not imagine that they absolutely depend upon what only someone else could do for them. The thought hurts their pride. It further requires them to believe that they are subject to punishment by God for who and what they are and how they live and that they can escape such punishment only if that punishment is borne by another in their place. This too offends them. It is a striking fact that even in the history of Christian theology it is Christ’s work as a priest offering himself as a sacrifice for sin that is most often positively ignored or denied. Rarely does anyone in the history of Christian theology dispute Christ’s kingship or his office as a prophet. It is his role as a priest offering sacrifice that people most often find reasons to deny. Why? Because it is an unwelcome truth for most.
  3. Christ’s priesthood further underscores their continuing dependence. It is a lesson for us in this same way. Even the most earnest, the most accomplished Christian still needs Christ to intercede for him or her. So great is man’s need that even when Christ had risen from the dead there was still work for him to do to secure our salvation! As Toplady has it in one of his hymns:

    And what he procured on the tree,
    For me he demands in the sky.

    Another unwelcome truth because it amounts to a verdict pronounced against man in his sin.

This was Israel’s real problem. They were religious people. They were not disposed to think the sanctuary was unimportant. They had, in fact, provided for its construction. They participated in its worship. But in grumbling over Aaron’s priesthood they gave themselves away. They demonstrated a fundamentally different theology of the priesthood than Yahweh had taught them. In their view the work of the priesthood was simply another human work that anyone should be able to do. The priesthood was in their thinking – as it was in the thinking of the ANE world generally – simply a form that human effort and human achievement before God took. It was not a divine gift; it was not a unique role that only one could fill; it was not the unique provision for reconciliation between God and man without which that reconciliation must remain impossible. These Israelites would never have thought to say

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die;
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.
[H. Bonar]

And the fact that they never thought that meant that they failed to see the need for such a strictly regulated priesthood as an embodied prophecy of that one priest and one sacrifice that alone could put sinners right with God. Again and again as a result they corrupted the priesthood; again and again they brought into it men whom God had not called or appointed to that work. There is one reason and one reason only why there is so much material in the OT about priests and sacrifices: salvation itself, eternal life, entrance into heaven comes through a priest and through the sacrifice he offers. Israel had to know that beforehand as certainly as we must know it after the fact. The fact that this material is repeated so often and takes up so much of the Bible’s space is a measure of its crucial importance.

Other religions have prophets and kings, teachers and leaders; and they have priests of the ANE kind. But it is a uniqueness of Christianity, the world’s only redemptive religion, the only religion that has a great sacrifice, a great atonement, a great redemption at its center, that it lays so much stress on the work of a particular priest and the sacrifice that he offered. There is a priest; there must be a priest – the right priest – who alone can reconcile God to man. That is the center of the Bible’s great message and the key to the Bible’s great interest.

The ancients used to say that all roads lead to Rome. English preachers used to say that from every village in Britain there was a road which, by linking with other roads, would take someone at last to London. Well there is a real sense in which it can be said that every text in the Bible can take an honest mind and heart to Jesus Christ. Sometimes, to be sure, unjustified exegesis and allegorical flights of fancy have been used to make a road from some OT text to Jesus Christ. I have often enough told you that I did not agree with the use to which a preacher or commentator had put some OT text to make from it a sermon about Jesus Christ. But even when the interpreter is careful and uses only the soundest methods, there will be some genuine connection between that text and the Lord Jesus Christ. All biblical roads do lead to Jesus Christ. And in a great many cases the connection, as here, is perfectly obvious. The OT priesthood was itself a prophecy of the priest who was to come and the sacrifice that was to be made for man’s salvation and the blessing that would come to those who embrace that Savior and his salvation. The NT is emphatic about that! We are incapable of representing ourselves successfully to God; we sinners cannot come into his presence without offense. But the right priest can bring us to God when we could not reach him ourselves. The Son of God put the blossoms on Aaron’s staff and by doing so he instructed us to put our faith in Jesus Christ who fulfilled Aaron’s office for our peace with God and for access to God’s blessing.

You see that clearly here. Notice all the uses of the first person pronoun in vv. 4-5. It is the Lord who draws near to his people through Aaron. It is the Lord’s sanctuary in which he serves and through which his presence is mediated to his people. These are his regulations and his will that are being flaunted by the people. They are rejecting him in rejecting Aaron. And notice again, as before in chapter 16, how clearly the point is made in v. 10 that the people’s grumbling against Aaron the Lord understood actually to be grumbling against him. It was one and the same. Aaron is only a front man here. The issue is what Israel thinks about Yahweh and his salvation and what Yahweh can and will do for those who trust in him. His is the priest and his is the sacrifice. Always this is the perspective of the Bible. Yahweh gave his people the blood that atones for their sins. It is Jesus Christ as offering himself a sacrifice and Jesus Christ as a high priest that stands in the very center of our faith. He is a prophet and a king to be sure. The Bible leaves us in no doubt about the Lord’s royalty or about his being the prophet But as our Savior he is first and foremost a priest. He came into the world not first to teach us or to rule us – though he does both – but to give his life a ransom for many.

You want, as I want, the almond tree to blossom in the New Year, in A.D. 2009. We want our lives to be fruitful and we want to enjoy God’s blessing. Even more we want for ourselves and our children to be kept in the salvation of God until we are at last safely in the kingdom of God forever. Because God’s favor is the key, the priest through whom that favor is mediated to us is the key; which is to say Jesus Christ is the key. Our focus must remain on him. We must keep looking to him and trusting in him, both in what he has done in the past and what he is doing for his people as their priest still today. God has given us a priest through whom he grants us his favor. We are to count on that priest and his work on our behalf.

As a preacher I recognize very clearly the difficulty of impressing that fact upon you. What can I say of Jesus Christ and the importance of your looking to him and trusting him and appealing to him that you have not heard a thousand times before? To remind you that the place where your life intersects with the blessing of God is at that place where you apprehend Jesus Christ your savior by faith is only to state once more what every Christian knows.

But then the most important things in your life are precisely those things that must be said and remembered and taken to heart a thousand times. It is not – it certainly should not be – boringly repetitious for a wife to hear her husband declare his love or for children to hear their parents declare their love for them. It is life itself for those sentiments and convictions to be said over and over again. And it is in saying such things over and over again that the relationships of marriage and family are preserved, purified, and deepened. And so with our relationship to Christ: it is to be renewed every day.

And this is all the more the case when the thing to be remembered and taken to heart is both so vital to everything in a Christian’s life and a conviction and a practice so much spoken and worked against by the world, the flesh, and our adversary the Devil.

A concentration on Jesus Christ, on the sacrifice he offered for our sins, on his constant intercession for us, his work as our high priest in other words, is a global principle of godly life. The same concentration, the same conviction, the same recollection leads to every good thing. And it leads to those good things whether we are thinking about them or not. It is a principle that purifies our joy just as much as it strengthens us and nerves us in our trials. It adds hardy determination to the pursuit of holiness just as it softens our hearts toward other people and their needs. Concentrate on Jesus Christ your savior in your daily life and everything changes for the better!

David Brainerd warns us in his diary against offering “dead, cold service” to our God. Most of us would immediately confess that we do that far too much of the time. Our Christian life is dutiful, it is obedient, but it is dead and it is cold, or it is deader and colder than it should be. The great awakening preachers spoke of their preaching and their congregations embracing a “felt Christ.” We know how different our lives are, even in the daily round, when the love of Christ is in our hearts, when gratitude for the cross is a living power in our lives; when we feel these things! And it is Christ’s priesthood – his bringing us to God through his sacrificial death – that in the Bible is the great engine of that love and gratitude. “Who loved me and gave himself for me…” “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “We love him because he first loved us.” In urging upon a worshipful and obedient life Paul reminds us that “There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” To the extent we keep his priesthood and the work of his priesthood before our eyes and upon our hearts, to that extent we will be more and more the Christians we want to be in the coming year. And to that extent the almond tree will blossom and the entire year will be spring for us.

Find a hymn of Christ’s sacrifice, of his being the mediator between God and man and recite it or, better, sing it to yourself every morning or every evening of this coming year. “My Song is Love Unknown,” or “When I survey the Wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory Died,” or “Arise my soul, Arise,” or “Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness,” or “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” or “My Faith Looks up to Thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary,” or one of a host of other hymns that exalt Jesus Christ as our sacrifice making savior.

Or find a verse or a poem that you will learn and recite over and over again through this coming year that will keep Christ before you as the object of your hope and expectation of God’s blessing. Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to China, used to recite this poem to himself every day:

Lord Jesus, make Thyself to me
A living, bright reality;
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen;
More dear, more intimately nigh
Than e’en the sweetest earthly tie.

Our faith is a great system of truth. We have much to believe, much to delight in. Our God is the creator of heaven and earth. He is the sovereign ruler of all that is. History is heading toward its appointed end under his absolute rule. So are our individual lives. That is truth to live by! We are given a coherent and consistent ethic in Holy Scripture as well. We are taught how to live a good and fruitful life. In the age of evolution, materialism, pornography, abortion, and gay rights, there are many points at which our faith is being openly contested by our culture and we are obliged to stand for the truth of God’s word with intelligence, forcefulness, and love. Jesus Christ is our prophet and our King and there is a great deal to believe, to do, and to rejoice in for that.

But above all of this, and before it, and behind it, is this: We have a priest who offered himself a sacrifice to divine justice to bring us to God. This priest lives to intercede for us. He is present to love and to be loved and to know and to be known. The only life that can be rightly lived is the life that is conscious of him from waking to sleep and that delights in him in all things. God gave us a priest as a means of giving us himself. As you think about your priest, as you love him, as you desire to be near him and to please him, so will your life be as a Christian and a child of God. Nothing else matters compared to this. Heand he alone makes the almond tree to blossom!