We started studying the book of Numbers in May; but then we took a break from it over the summer; and we resumed our studies in this book at the beginning of September. It’s called ‘Numbers’ because it contains a lot of numbers. Right at the beginning of the book, the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of all the men — apart from the Levites — who were over the age of 20 who were able to serve in the army. And so, Moses counted them all and recorded the total number.
And then in chapter 3, the Lord commanded Moses to count the Levites who were to serve, not in the army, but in the Tabernacle. And again, he counted them all and recorded the total number. And then in chapter 26, the Lord commanded Moses to take another census of the people. And so, Moses counted them once again and recorded the total number. The book of Numbers contains lots of numbers.
But this book has another title, which was used among the Jews. They knew it by the title ‘In the Wilderness’. And that’s perhaps a better title for the book, because the book of Numbers tells the story of the things that happened once the Israelites left Mt Sinai and began their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
So, if you look at the beginning of the book, you’ll see that Moses is at Sinai; and if you look at the end of the book, you’ll see that the Israelites have reached the plains of Moab by the River Jordan, across from the city of Jericho. So, the book begins at Mt Sinai; it ends near Jericho; and in between, it tells the story of what happened in the wilderness as the people made their way to the Promised Land. So, ‘In the Wilderness’ is a fitting title for this book.
What have we seen so far in this book about what happened in the wilderness? Well, in chapter 1, we read about the census which the Lord commanded Moses to take. Then in chapter 2, we read how they were to arrange their camp: three tribes were to be on the east; three tribes were to be on the south; three tribes were to be on the west; and three tribes were to be on the north. And so, they formed a square.
In chapter 3, we read how the Lord choose the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle. In chapter 4 we read about the special work the Levites were called to do. And in chapter 5 we read about the purity of the camp and how anyone who was unclean had to be sent away from it; we also read about what the people were to do to compensate anyone they had offended. In chapter 6 we read about the special rules for the Nazirites: those people — like Samson — who took a special vow of separation to the Lord.
And chapter 6 also included the Aaronic Blessing which Aaron the priest pronounced over the Lord’s people, calling on the Lord to bless them with protection and grace and peace. And in chapter 7 we read about the way the tribes brought their gifts and offerings to the Lord whenever the Tabernacle was set up. And in chapter 8 we read about the lampstand which was set up in the Tent of Meeting; and we read about the ceremony to set apart the Levites for their work.
Those are the things we’ve read about so far. And we’ve seen how they all speak to us in one way or another of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great hope of the gospel. So, we saw in chapter 1 how the Israelites had become a multitude; and the Lord is right now building his church on the earth, which in the end will comprise a multitude of people from every nation, who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ the Saviour.
The arrangement of their camp in chapter 2 — which was arranged to form a square — points forward to the heavenly Jerusalem, the glorified church, which is depicted in the book of Revelation as a square. The work of the Levites according to chapters 3 and 4 was to guard the tabernacle and to keep any unclean people away; and that speaks of how sinners cannot come before God, because he is holy; however, the good news of the gospel is that Christ the Saviour has died to bring sinners to God.
In chapter 5 we read about those who were excluded from the camp, but through faith in Christ, we’re washed and cleansed and brought near to God. Furthermore, the Israelites had to pay compensation whenever they did wrong; but the good news of the gospel is that Christ died to pay for our sins and to make up for all that we have done wrong. The Nazirites in chapter 6 point to Christ, because just as the Nazirites were separated from the rest of the people and stood alone, so Christ was set apart from us and all by himself he went to the cross and died for us.
The Aaronic Blessing speaks to us of Christ, because he is our Great High Priest in whom we are blessed by God with one spiritual blessing after another.
The gifts and offerings of chapter 7 point forward to Christ’s once for all, perfect sacrifice for sins. The lampstand was shaped like a tree and represents the Tree of Life which holds out the promise of everlasting life in the presence of God for all who believe the gospel. And the Levites represented their fellow Israelites and point us to Christ who represented us when he suffered and died on the cross as the ransom to set us free.
Everything we’re read so far in the book of Numbers speaks to us in one way or another of the good news of Jesus Christ and the hope he gives to all who believe in him, because even in this book, the Lord was revealing the good news of the gospel.
And so, we come to today’s passage which is about the Passover meal which God commanded his Old Testament people to celebrate, because it points forward to the work of Christ, who is the true Passover Lamb who died in our place so that we might live. And it’s fitting that we study this passage this evening at our pre-communion service, because the Passover meal was the Old Testament equivalent of the Lord’s Supper.
Verses 1 to 5
We read in verse 1 how the Lord spoke to Moses when the Israelites were still at Sinai. It’s now the first month of the second year since they left Egypt. So, a year has passed since the Lord delivered them from their captivity. And the Lord commanded Moses to make the people celebrate the Passover at the appointed time. What was the appointed time? Well, we’re told in verse 3: they were to eat it at twilight on the fourteenth day of that first month. And they were commanded to celebrate it in accordance with all the rules and regulations for the Passover.
And in verse 4 we read how Moses obeyed the Lord and he told the Israelites what they had to do; and in verse 5 we read how the Israelites celebrated the Passover as they were commanded. Indeed, they did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses. One of the features of the early part of this book is the way the people obeyed the Lord and did all that he said. Later in the book, they’re more disobedient and rebellious. But for now, they’re obedient.
This was the second time they celebrated the Passover. The first time they celebrated it was on the night when the Lord delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. On that night — which was the fourteen day of the month — they took a lamb and killed it and put the blood of the lamb on the door-frame of their homes; and then they were to roast the lamb and eat it along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. And they were to eat it with their cloaks tucked into their belts, and with their sandals on, and with their staffs in their hands, because they were be to packed and ready to leave the land of their captivity.
And later than night, the Lord passed through the land of Egypt; and he struck down and killed every firstborn male in every home, both human and animal. And so, on that night, he punished the people of Egypt for their sin and unbelief and for their refusal to let his people go. However, the Lord passed over every home where there was blood on the door-frame. He passed over those homes so that the firstborn in those homes were spared and did not die.
And after the Lord passed through the land, Pharaoh finally gave in and let the Israelites go free. And so, on that very night, the Lord delivered his people from their captivity; and they began the journey to the Promised Land.
At that time the Lord commanded his people to celebrate the Passover and the associated Feast of Unleavened Bread on the same night every year as a memorial to it. And so, every year on the same night they were to eat bitter herbs to remind them of the bitterness of their slavery; and they were to eat unleavened bread — bread without any yeast — to remind them how the Lord had rescued them so that they could begin a new life, a life without sin. And every year, they were to kill and eat a lamb, to remind them how they were kept safe from God’s wrath because of the lamb who was killed and whose blood was put on their door-frames.
The Israelites were commanded to celebrate the Passover every year. And so, here in this passage, we read how they celebrated it together a year after they left Egypt. But, of course, God’s people no longer celebrate the Passover; instead we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which has superseded the Passover and which speaks to us of Christ’s body and blood and the redemption he accomplished for us on the cross. In Egypt, the people were spared because of the lamb whose blood was shed. And all who believe in Christ are spared because Christ’s blood was shed for sinners and it covers over all our sins. Christ suffered the wrath of God in our place; and through faith in him we’re spared from the wrath of God and receive the free gift of eternal life. And just as the Israelites ate unleavened bread to symbolise how they were beginning a new life without sin, so all who believe in Christ are called to live a life without sin.
And so, what we read here about the Passover points forward to Christ and to the redemption he accomplished for us. And just as God commanded the Israelites to celebrate the Passover to proclaim how God redeemed them, so he has commanded his people today to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to proclaim to one another how God has redeemed us by his Son.
Verses 6 to 12
But let’s move on, because in verses 6 to 12 we read about some of the Israelites who couldn’t celebrate the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month because they were ceremonially unclean. And we’re told they were unclean because of a dead body. In other words, they’d come into contact with a dead body. Perhaps someone had dropped dead in their presence. Perhaps a member of their family had died and they had to bury the remains. Whatever happened, they were now unclean; and according to Numbers 5, anyone who was unclean because of a dead body had to sent away from the camp until they were clean again. But these people wanted to celebrate the Passover. Could anything be done? Was there anything they could do? Well, they went to Moses and Aaron and said to them:
Why should we be kept from presenting the Lord’s offering with the other Israelites at the appointed time?
Moses went to inquire from the Lord; and, according to verse 10, the Lord commanded that anyone who was unclean, or anyone who was away on a journey would from that time on be permitted to celebrate the Passover a month later than everyone else. So, instead of celebrating it on the fourteenth day of the first month, they could celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month. And when they celebrated it, they were to follow all the normal regulations.
This shows us the kindness of the Lord, because he was prepared to make a special arrangement. But it’s interesting — isn’t it? — that the Lord didn’t command them to abandon the laws about purity. His response was not:
Sure, forget about those purity laws. They’re not really important.
He didn’t say that. Instead he insisted that the purity laws must be kept in place.
And that’s because the Lord is holy; and all of those Old Testament laws about ceremonially uncleanness were designed to teach the Israelites — and us — that sinners cannot come into the presence of the Lord. Sinners cannot come into the presence of a holy God and hope to live. None of us is fit to come before him, because all of us have sinned; and if it were not for Christ the Saviour — whose blood cleanses us from our guilt and shame — we would never be able to come before the Lord to worship him or to be with him for ever and ever in the life to come. All of us would be sent away from his presence forever, if it were not for Christ whose blood alone is able to cleanse us from our guilt and shame.
God did not say:
Sure, forget about those purity laws. They’re not really important.
He didn’t say that, because we need to know that he is holy — infinitely and eternally and unchangeably holy — and we cannot come into his presence unless we’ve been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
But since we’re thinking about the Lord’s Supper this evening, we should also remember that we need to come to the Lord’s Table in a worthy manner. Now, none of us is worthy to come, because we’re all sinners. But I’m not talking about being worthy to come; I’m talking about coming in a worthy manner, which means we understand that this sacrament speaks to us of Christ who died for sinners; and it means we’re trusting in Christ for salvation; and it means we love the Lord and want to live a life of obedience to him; and it means that before we come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we must confess our sins before the Lord and turn from them.
The Apostle Paul warns that whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the Lord’s body and blood. Just as those unclean Israelites would have sinned against the Lord if they had celebrated the Passover in the wrong way, so we will be sinning against the Lord unless we come to the Table in the right way. And so, we need to confess our sins, and turn from them, and trust in Christ for forgiveness.
Verses 13 and 14
But then in verse 13 the Lord warned that if a man who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, then that person will be cut off from his people. Since he did not bring an offering to the Lord at the appointed time, he will bear the consequences of his sin.
The commentators debate what ‘being cut off’ means: some think it means being ex-communicated, so that they were sent away from the camp; others think it means the guilty person will be killed, either by the Lord himself or by the hand of his people.
Whichever it is, the point is that whoever did not take part in the Passover will be condemned by God. Though he’s an Israelite, and a member of God’s covenant people, if he was unwilling to take part in this special meal — which speaks of God’s salvation — he was to be cut off. You see, this person was really saying that they wanted no part of God’s salvation.
And all who refuse to trust in Christ — the true Passover Lamb — will be condemned by God even if that person is a member of the church. Even if they have gone to church all their lives and if they’re heard the gospel all their lives, they will still be condemned if they refuse to believe in Christ. The person who comes to church, but who says in their heart that they want no part of Christ’s salvation cannot be saved, unless they repent and believe.
However, look now at verse 14, because here we have instructions for the alien who lived among them. Do you remember? When the Israelites left Egypt, some of the Egyptians went with them. And here in verse 14 we learn that those aliens, those foreigners — who lived among them at that time and who wanted to celebrate the Passover — were invited to come and to join the Israelites to celebrate God’s salvation. Though they were outsiders, they weren’t to be excluded; and they could come and take part and celebrate and give thanks to God for his salvation.
And this therefore speaks to us of how God’s grace extends to the whole world; and the whole world is invited to come to Christ for salvation. The Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He’s the only Saviour; and he invites everyone to come to him for rest and for peace and for salvation. And just as he invites everyone to come to him for salvation, so all who love him and believe in him are invited to come to his Table and eat the bread and drink the cup and to proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus, who died for sinners and who was raised to give us life.
And so, from now until Sunday, let’s get ready to come to the Lord’s Table, because the invitation has been given. Let’s get ready by remembering and believing and rejoicing because Christ the true Passover Lamb has died so that we might be spared the wrath of God. Let’s get ready by confessing our sins to God and asking for his forgiveness. If we need to, let’s get ready by confessing our sins to the people we’ve offended; and by asking for their forgiveness. And let’s come to the Lord’s Table on Sunday, and rejoice before God, because of his grace to us in Christ Jesus, the Lamb who was slain for us.