Moses has recorded for us three great rebellions by the people of Israel in the wilderness. First of all, Miriam and Aaron complained about Mosses because they believed they were equal to him and anything he could do, they could do as well. That was in chapter 12. Then, in chapters 13 and 14 we read how the people listened to the spies instead of to the word of the Lord and they believed the spies who said the Promised Land was no good and that the people in the land were too strong. And so, the people talked about choosing another leader to lead them back to Egypt.
And the third rebellion was in chapter 16 when Korah and some others rose up against Moses and Aaron. Korah was a Levite and therefore was chosen by God to help the priests. It was a great honour and privilege. But Korah wanted more: he wanted to be a priest. Dathan and Abiram rebelled at the same time: they complained about Moses’s leadership. But the Lord vindicated Moses and Aaron and he caused the ground to open up under Korah, Dathan, Abiram and their families so that they went down into the grave alive together with everything they owed. And fire came from the Lord and killed another 250 men who sided with Korah. And the rest of the people were terrified.
So, there have been three great rebellions when the people rose up against Moses and Aaron and against the Lord who had appointed them to lead his people.
You’d think that the people would have learned their lesson and would no longer complain or rebel against the Lord and his leaders. But what do we find in today’s reading? Well, verse 41 tells us that the very next day the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. They said:
You have killed the Lord’s people.
They saw how Korah and the others died; they saw that the Lord opened up the ground under them and swallowed them up; they saw how fire came from the Lord and killed the others. They saw those things clearly; and so they must mean by this complaint that Moses and Aaron had encouraged the Lord to do these things to Korah and those who sided with him. They blamed Moses and Aaron for what happened to Korah and the others.
But, of course, Korah and the others were blameworthy, because — when they rebelled against Moses and Aaron — they were rebelling against the Lord who appointed them. Furthermore, the people had forgotten that if it were not for Moses and Aaron — who had interceded with the Lord on behalf of the people — they would all have perished. God was about to strike them all dead, but Moses and Aaron pleaded with the Lord not to punish the for Korah’s sin. And the Lord listened to them and had mercy on the people. But the people forgot this and grumbled about Moses and Aaron once more and rose up against them.
Verses 42 to 50
The Lord heard their complaint and he appeared before them once again in the glory-cloud which symbolised his presence. And once again the Lord threatened to destroy the people. He said to Moses and Aaron in verse 44:
Get away from this assembly, so that I can put an end to them at once.
He was saying to Moses and Aaron:
Get away from them, so that you won’t be destroyed along with them.
And we read that Moses and Aaron fell down before the Lord. Presumably they fell down before him to pray to him and to intercede for the people once again.
And look what happened next: wrath came out from the Lord and a plague broke out among the people. God’s wrath is depicted here as if it were a person who came out from the Lord to strike down the people. But Moses instructed Aaron the High Priest to take his censor; and to put incense in it along with fire from the altar; and to make atonement for the people. This is an unusual procedure, because normally incense was offered in the Tabernacle; and normally atonement was only made with the blood of a sacrifice.
However, on this occasion, when Aaron stood in the midst of the people, between the living and the dead — between those who had already died and those who were still living — he was able to make atonement for them so that the plague was stopped. 14,700 had already died by the time he offered the incense. But the rest of the people — the vast majority of them — were delivered from God’s wrath. The people had complained about Moses and Aaron, but Moses and Aaron saved them from the wrath of God.
Verses 1 to 7
In chapter 17 the Lord proposed a test to make clear once and for all that Aaron and the Levites alone are to serve him in the Tabernacle. Moses was to gather together twelve staffs from each of the twelve tribes. The names of each tribal leader were to be written on each staff: one name per staff. And so, each staff represented one of the tribes. Then there was to be an extra staff to represent the tribe of Levi; and Aaron’s name was written on this one. The Lord then commanded Moses to place the thirteen staffs beside the ark of the covenant in the Tabernacle. And the Lord announced that the staff of the man he chooses to serve before him will sprout. By means of this test, the Lord would rid himself of the constant grumbling against Moses and Aaron. And in verses 6 and 7 we read that Moses did what the Lord commanded.
Verses 8 to 13
The next day, when Moses entered the Tabernacle, he saw that Aaron’s staff hadn’t just sprouted, but had budded and blossomed and produced almonds. Overnight, flowers and almonds had grown on this staff. Well, the Lord couldn’t have made it any clearer, could he? Here was a clear sign from the Lord that he had chosen Aaron and the tribe of Levi to serve before him in the Tabernacle. And since it was such a clear sign, the Lord commanded Moses to leave Aaron’s staff in the Tabernacle as a sign for future generations so that there would be an end of all their grumbling and complaining.
And look at the reaction of the people in the final two verses: They were terrified. They said:
We shall die! We are lost. We are all lost. Anyone who even comes near the Tabernacle of the Lord will die!
At long last they understood that only Aaron and Levites could come near the Lord in the Tabernacle. If anyone else tried to draw near to the presence of the Lord, they would die. Only those chosen by the Lord and set apart by him for this holy work could approach the Lord in his sanctuary. And so, so long as the people remembered this and did not try to draw near to God themselves, they would be safe. But if any of them — apart from Aaron and Levites who were called to serve the Lord in this way — if any of them disobeyed the Lord and tried to draw near to the Lord in his holy sanctuary, they would die.
Let’s think about the first part of today’s passage, when Aaron made atonement for the people so that the wrath of God was stopped and the people were saved. Aaron was the High Priest and he therefore points us to Christ who was anointed by his Father in heaven to be our Great High Priest. And our Great High Priest made atonement for our sins when he offered himself on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins. By offering himself on the cross, he has paid the price to set us free from the condemnation we deserve for our sins; and his blood cleanses us from all our guilt.
Like the Israelites, we too are sinners who sin against the Lord continually. We deserve to suffer the wrath of God and to be struck down and destroyed by him. But Christ our Great High Priest has made atonement for us and therefore we are not condemned, but are pardoned by God and reconciled to him. Though we deserve to die and to be eternally punished, the Lord Jesus Christ died in our place and offered his life as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And as a result of his priestly work on the cross, we receive God’s forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life in the new heavens and earth.
Let’s think now of the second part of the passage when God made clear once and for all that he had chosen Aaron and the Levites to serve before him in the Tabernacle. Afterwards the people said:
Anyone who even comes near the Tabernacle of the Lord will die!
You see, under the Old Covenant — under the covenant which the Lord made with them at that time — the people were kept away from the presence of the Lord. Though he lived in their midst, the lay people could not come into his presence in the Tabernacle. In fact, if you recall an earlier chapter, one of the jobs of the Levites was to guard the Tabernacle and keep the people away for their own good, so that they would not die. Furthermore, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies which was God’s throne room; and he could only enter there once a year on the Day of Atonement. So, under the Old Covenant, the people were kept away from the presence of the Lord. They were not able to come before the Lord in his holy sanctuary; and the High Priest could only enter the presence of the Lord once a year.
But now — under the New Covenant which was put into effect by the blood of Christ — believers may come before the Lord with confidence and at any time, because through faith in Christ we are pardoned and accepted as righteous in God’s sight. Christ’s perfect righteousness covers our own unrighteousness; and we’re able to come before the Lord with confidence, knowing that we have been pardoned by God; and we’ve been washed and cleansed by Christ’s blood; we’ve been accepted in Christ the Beloved.
Under the Old Covenant, the people had to keep away. But under the New Covenant, we may come near to God to worship him; and one day we will come into his presence in glory and we shall see him face to face. And so, God’s plans and purposes for us will be fulfilled. In the beginning — when God made Adam and Eve — he placed them in the Garden where he came to visit them from time to time. And God placed in the Garden the Tree of Life which held out to them the promise of something even better than the Garden of Eden. It held out to them the promise of a greater, unchangeable, eternal life with God, which they would enjoy if they remained obedient to him. But when they sinned against God, they were sent out of the Garden; and the way to the Tree of Life — and the way to that greater, unchangeable, eternal life with God — was closed off to them. And so, afterwards, the whole system of worship in the Old Testament made clear that fellowship with God, communion with God, life with God, was impossible for sinners. Everything said:
Anyone who even comes near [the Lord], will die!
But now — because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ — the way into God’s presence has been opened to us; and we look forward with hope to the day when Christ comes again and we’re brought at last into the presence of the Lord to enjoy that greater, unchangeable, eternal life with God which Adam forfeited by his sin, but which the Last Adam has won for us by his perfect obedience. On that day, when Christ comes again, we’ll come into God’s presence and we’ll see him face to face; and we’ll never have to leave. Our blessedness will be perfect; our joy will be everlasting; nothing will ever happen to diminish or reduce our happiness; and we will be with the Lord for ever and for ever.
And until that day comes, we’re to watch out lest we’re hardened by sin’s deceitfulness and begin to grumble and complain against the Lord or turn away from him as the Israelites did. Instead we’re to encourage one another to remain faithful to the Lord and to walk in his ways and to do his will, standing firm in the faith and letting nothing move us from the Lord who has promised us greater things to come at the appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.