In case you haven’t been here for a while and haven’t heard what I’ve said about the book of Numbers in previous weeks, let me provide an introduction.
And to introduce the book of Numbers, I need to go back to the book of Exodus where we read how the Lord Almighty delivered the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt; and he brought them to Mount Sinai where he established a covenant with them, whereby he bound himself to them to care for them; and they promised to obey him and to do all that he commanded. And at Mount Sinai the Lord gave them instructions on how to build the tabernacle, which would be the earthly replica or the earthly representation of heaven and the place which symbolised his presence with his people at that time. And having received those instructions, Moses directed the people to build the tabernacle, which was a tent which could be taken down and transported from place to place, because the Lord’s people were a pilgrim people, and the Lord was leading them through the wilderness to the Promised Land of Canaan.
And at the end of the book of Exodus, the Lord’s glory-cloud — which signified his presence and which up to that time had been on the summit of Mount Sinai — the Lord’s glory-cloud moved from the top of Mount Sinai to cover the Tent of Meeting in the tabernacle to show that the Lord would now dwell among his people.
But how could God’s chosen, but sinful people dwell in his presence? And how could a holy God dwell among a sinful people? That’s what the book of Leviticus was about, because the book of Leviticus is all about answering the question which the psalmist asked:
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
And in the book of Leviticus, we read about the various offerings which the people had to bring to the Lord when they wanted to meet before him to worship him; and we read about the priests and the work they had to do on behalf of the people to deal with their guilt of their sins; and we read about various things which made the people ceremonially unclean and unfit to come into the Lord’s presence; we read about the things they needed to do in order to become ceremonially clean again; and at the centre of the book of Leviticus there were instructions for the Great Day of Atonement, when the High Priest took the blood of an offering and he brought it into the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle to cleanse it from the guilt of their sin. The people needed to be cleansed, and the tabernacle needed to be cleansed, if the Lord was going to continue to dwell among his people.
And we saw how all of those instructions and ceremonies and offerings and everything else we read about in the book of Leviticus point in one way or another to the good news of Jesus Christ, who is our Great High Priest who has entered — not an earthly replica of heaven — but heaven itself to appear before God the Father on our behalf and to intercede for us; and he did not enter by means of the blood of bulls and goats, but by means of his own blood, which he shed on the cross as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins; and through faith in him, we’re cleansed, not from ceremonial uncleanness, but from moral uncleanness and from the guilt and shame of our sins, so that having been cleansed by his blood, we can come with confidence before the Lord in this world to worship him; and in the world to come, we can come with confidence to be with him for ever and ever in glory.
That was the book of Leviticus: How can God’s chosen, but sinful people come before him? And how can a holy God dwell among his chosen, but sinful people? The book of Numbers begins at Mount Sinai; and the Lord is still addressing Moses and giving him instructions about things he wanted Moses and Aaron and the people to do. It’s called the book of Numbers, because it contains lots of Numbers.
In the opening chapters, the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron to take a census of all the men who are aged twenty and over who can serve in the army. It was a reminder that the Lord’s people were an army; and he was going to lead them into battle against their enemies in the land of Canaan. However, the Levites were not included in that census, because the Levites were set apart by the Lord to serve, not in the army, but in the tabernacle. A separate census was taken of them and they were called by God to assist the priests with the work in the tabernacle. More specifically, they were responsible for transporting the tabernacle from place to place as they made their way through the wilderness; and, with the priests, they were to guard the tabernacle to prevent any unauthorised person from approaching God’s holy dwelling place. If they did not guard the tabernacle and its furnishings, God’s wrath might break out against the people and God’s holy dwelling place might become contaminated with their sin.
The Lord also provided instructions about the arrangement of the camp: the tabernacle was at the centre of the camp; it was surrounded by the priests and Levites who were positioned to guard it; and then the rest of the tribes were located on the outside. The rest of the tribes — all 12 of them — were to form a square, with three tribes on the east; three on the south; three on the west; and three on the north. And we saw how the camp of the Lord’s people at that time was designed by God to resemble the church in glory, because in the book of Revelation we read that the new Jerusalem, the holy city, was a square; and the walls of that city had 12 gates, named after the 12 tribes of Israel, with three gates on each of the four sides of the city wall. The reason the Lord instructed Moses to arrange the camp in that way was because the Israelite camp was an earthly replica or representation of the church in glory, And so, the details of this book point us to the good news of Jesus Christ and the great hope he gives to his people of eternal life in his presence.
The book of Numbers contains lots of numbers: there are the censuses of the people and Levites in the opening chapters; but then, there’s another census of the people in chapter 26; and this second census was necessary because most of those counted in the first census fell in the wilderness and died. They fell in the wilderness because of their unbelief and rebellion; and instead of going in to enjoy rest in the Promised Land of Canaan, they perished on the way; and the next generation — who trusted the Lord’s promise — were able to cross the Jordan river and enter the Promised Land. And so, the book of Numbers provides a warning to us all that we must not harden our hearts when we hear God’s word, as they did, but we must believe God’s word and all his promises, because only those who believe the good news will come into God’s presence in the new heaven and the new earth in the life to come.
Verses 1 to 4
In Numbers 1 to 4 the Lord’s people were counted; and there were instructions about how the camp was to be arranged. In today’s chapter we see that some of the Israelites were to be excluded from the camp; they were not allowed to be part of it. And in today’s chapter there are also instructions about what to do when the people in the camp sinned against one another or when they were suspected of having sinning against one another.
In verses 1 to 4 there are instructions about excluding certain groups of people from the camp. You see from verse 1 that the instruction comes from the Lord and he commanded the people to send away from the camp anyone who has an infectious skin disease or a discharge of any kind or who was unclean because of contact with a dead body. Whether it was a man or woman, whoever it was, had to be sent out of the camp. And the reason for their exclusion is given in verse 3: they had to be sent away so that they will not defile the camp, where the Lord dwells among them. The Lord is holy and nothing unclean can come before him; and anything unclean will only defile his holy dwelling place.
And following the Lord’s instructions, we read that the people did what the Lord commanded; and they sent those groups of people out of the camp.
From our studies in the book of Leviticus, we know that the Lord is gracious and he provided a way for such people to be cleansed from their uncleanness. So, this was not a permanent ban, but a temporary ban which lasted so long as they remained unclean. But these instructions are important, because the ceremonial uncleanness which we read about here — caused by skin infection, bodily discharges and contact with death — symbolises our own sinfulness. The laws about ceremonial uncleanness and impurity speak to us about the sinfulness of our hearts and how sinners cannot come before the Lord.
Think back to the Garden of Eden, which was another earthly replica of heaven, where God would come and meet with Adam and Eve. However, whenever Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord and became sinners, they were sent away from the Garden and away from the presence of the Lord. Furthermore, in the book of Revelation — and John’s great vision in Revelation 21 and 22 of the new Jerusalem, the holy city, where God dwells with his people forever — we also read how various classes of sinners will be shut out from the presence of the Lord forever.
Sinners cannot come before the Lord; and they cannot stand in his presence. Adam and Eve were sent away from his presence in the beginning. Those who persist in their sin will be sent away from his presence in the new heaven and earth. Here, in Numbers 5, we read how those who were ceremonially unclean were sent away from his presence and they were not allowed to remain among the people of God. Throughout the Bible, the lesson is clear that sinners cannot come before the Lord and we will be sent away from his presence forever.
But the good news of the gospel is that through faith in the Saviour, we are cleansed from the guilt of our sin and pardoned by God, because Christ’s blood is able to wash away the guilt of our sin. And as a sign of the inner cleansing and the forgiveness which only Christ can provide, we read in the gospels how he healed those with skin diseases; and he healed that woman who had a discharge of blood for 12 years; and he himself touched those who died and he raised them to life. He cleansed them from their ceremonial uncleanness; and he cleanses us from the guilt of our sin, so that we can come before God and worship him now; and we can look forward to coming into his presence in the life to come.
Verses 5 to 10
In the next part of today’s reading — verses 5 to 10 — the Lord gave instructions to Moses about what to do when members of his people sin against one another and the fellowship of the people was spoiled by sin. According to verse 6, these instructions are for those occasions when anyone wrongs anyone else in any way. It’s very general, isn’t it? However, similar language was used in Leviticus 6 to refer to those occasions when one Israelite deceived or cheated or tried to extort another Israelite. And look: according to verse 6 the person who sinned in this way was being unfaithful to the Lord. So, when we sin against our neighbour, we also sinning against the Lord who commands us to love our neighbour. Well, such a person is guilty. And what should he do?
According to verse 7 he must confess his sin. Confession is always first, isn’t it? We must confess our sins to the Lord; but we must also confess our sins to one another; we must acknowledge when we have done wrong and confess it to the person we have offended.
But confession by itself is often not enough. If you have children, you remember those times when we asked them to say sorry to one another. And while they might have said ‘sorry’ to their brother or sister, we know they did not mean it. Anyone can say they’re sorry; so the Lord went on to instruct the guilty person to provide restitution. They were to make up for their sin, by repaying what they had taken and adding an extra fifth as compensation. We’re familiar with this from the book of Leviticus, where there are instructions about making restitution after wronging someone.
If there’s no one to whom restitution can be made — so the person you wronged has died and left no relatives — restitution must still be made, but on those occasions it belonged to the Lord and should be given to a priest.
And you’ll see from verse 8 that not only must confession be made and not only should restitution be paid, but an offering should be made to the Lord so that the guilty person is cleansed from the guilt of their sin.
Since the people were to live together, and since they were sinners who would offend one another from time to time, it was important that there was a way to restore broken relationships. So, when anyone offended another Israelite, the guilty person was to confess it, not hide it, and they were to make up for what they had done; and they were to seek forgiveness from the Lord. And believers today must love one another and we must be careful to preserve the peace and unity of the church. If we offend one another, we’re to confess it and seek to put right what has gone wrong and to mend broken relationships. One of the purposes of this pre-communion service is to give us time — before we gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday — to put right what has gone wrong and to confess our sins to one another; and to forgive one another so that our fellowship on Sunday is not spoiled by resentment or bitterness or unconfessed sin.
But, of course, the instruction about restitution speaks to us of how the Lord Jesus has paid for our sins by his death on the cross; and he has made up to the Lord for all that we have done wrong. All of us have robbed the Lord of the glory and the honour and the obedience he deserves. We’re in debt to him, because we haven’t given him the obedience that is rightfully his. But Christ our Saviour has paid for our sins by his death on the cross so that, through faith in him, we have peace with God forever. And so, what we read here in Numbers 5 speaks to us again of Christ our Saviour and the good news of the gospel.
Verses 11 to 31
In the long section which follows — verses 11 to 31 — we have instructions from the Lord about what an Israelite man should do if he suspects his wife of being unfaithful to him. So, you’ll see from verse 13 that her sin is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected; but nevertheless — according to verse 14 — he suspects she’s been unfaithful. Well, on those occasions, this is what he’s to do. He’s to bring her to the priest along with a grain offering. But if you look at verse 15, he wasn’t to add oil or incense to his offering, which they did normally, because those were signs of joy, and this was an occasion for sorrow. And the offering is called a reminder offering: an offering to remember or to acknowledge her sin.
According to verse 16, the priest was to make her stand before the Lord, because he’s the judge who will determine her guilt or innocence. No one else knows whether she is guilty, for there were no witnesses, but the Lord knows all about us. And the priest was commanded to pour some holy water into a jar and add some dust from the floor of the tabernacle. The water therefore became bitter water. The priest was then commanded to loosen the woman’s hair, a sign perhaps of sorrow and mourning. She was to hold the offering, while he held the jar of bitter water. The woman was then put under oath; if she is innocent, then no harm will befall her; but if she is guilty, the bitter water will cause her thigh to waste away and her abdomen to swell. It’s not clear exactly what those words refer to, though the commentators believe it means she’ll no longer be able to bear children. Clearly though the bitter water will bring a curse on her. And by saying ‘Amen’ at the end, the woman accepts her fate.
The words of the curse were then written on a scroll which are then washed off into the jar, so that the words of the curse — in a sense — are washed into the bitter water. The woman was then made to drink the water; and her offering was presented to the Lord. If she was guilty, it would become clear, for she would suffer bitterly. If she was innocent, that too would become clear.
This kind of ceremony perhaps reminds us of similar things we read in the history books of the kinds of trials people were made to endure in Medieval times. But whereas those Medieval trials were invented by men, this trial was one which was commanded by the Lord; and whereas most trials are determined on the basis of the testimony of eye-witnesses or on the basis of the evidence, this kind of trial was determined solely by the Lord, who would ensure that the innocent were not harmed, whereas the guilty were punished. And by means of this trial, the purity of the camp was preserved, for not only was the guilty party punished, but the rest of the people were warned not to give in to temptation, but to remain faithful to one another and to the Lord.
But as we turn to think about how this trial applies to us today, we need to remember that in the Bible the church of Jesus Christ is very often compared to a bride. We are the bride of Christ; and yet we have to admit that the church is so often unfaithful to our Saviour, and we do not love him as we should, with all of our heart; we do not obey him as we should. We so often doubt his love for us; and we trust in other things apart from him. The bride of Christ, the church of Jesus Christ, is so often unfaithful and we love him poorly. If we were to stand trial and were made to drink the bitter water, then our guilt would only be brought out into the open, our shame would be exposed, our unfaithfulness would be made clear, for every one of us has gone astray and we have dishonoured our Saviour.
But do remember the Garden of Gethsemane and how our Saviour prayed? Remember how he asked his Father in heaven to take the cup away from him? Yet not my will, he prayed; yet not my will, but yours be done. And so, since it was the Father’s will, the Lord Jesus Christ — in a sense — took that bitter cup in his hand and he drank it to the bottom whenever he suffered and died on the cross in our place. He died, taking the blame for us; he died, suffering the punishment that we deserve for our unfaithfulness; he died, suffering the curse of God in our place, so that we might receive the blessing of God. And on the cross — do you remember? — he cried out:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
He was cast out of the presence of the Lord so that we might be brought in to God and added to his kingdom, to enjoy peace with God forever, and the hope of everlasting life in God’s holy dwelling place in the new heaven and earth.
And so, in Numbers 5 we read of those who were excluded from Lord’s camp; but through faith in the Saviour we are washed and cleansed and brought near to God. In Numbers 5 we read of the compensation which the Israelites had to give one another; and Christ our Saviour died to pay for our sins and to make up for all that we have done wrong. And in Numbers 5 we read how unfaithful wives were made to drink the cup of bitterness to expose and punish their shame; but Christ our Saviour took the cup and suffered in our place so that we — his sinful bride — might be pardoned; and one day, we’ll be presented before our Saviour as a radiant bride, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless forever. And so, let us give thanks to God for the love with which he has loved us and his grace to us in Christ Jesus.