I love reading the interactions of God and Moses and the people of Israel in the book of Numbers. It is a book that is filled with grace, as the Lord provides the tabernacle and the priesthood to make atonement for the people. It is also a book that shows just how committed the Lord is to his own glory, and how seriously he views his own word. Let’s consider a few brief passages from Numbers 15.
But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”
(Numbers 15:30-31 ESV)
God provided the sacrificial system to make atonement for sin, but not all sins could be atoned for. Those who deliberately, willfully, or arrogantly disobey the commands of God are to be cut off from the people. In the verses that follow this section, a man is brought to trial and stoned for collecting firewood on the Sabbath. Collecting firewood? What’s the big deal? Isn’t God overreacting just a little bit? If this is what comes to your mind, please consider the seriousness of saying that you are one of God’s covenant people, set apart from all the nations surrounding so that you can know and worship the One True God, and then going out bold-faced, deliberately breaking one of God’s most frequently stressed commands in full view of everyone else. The person who did this was spitting in the face of God – taunting the Lord in the sight of his people.
Notice in this passage how closely God aligns himself with his word. The “high handed” sinner is described as having “reviled the Lord”, and as having “despised the word of the Lord”. To choose to willfully disobey God’s revealed word not only says that we don’t take the word seriously, but also that we don’t take the One who spoke the word seriously because God so closely identifies himself with his own word.
There is a similar description of this relationship in Hebrews 10.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29 ESV)
I think the author to the Hebrews was drawing on Numbers 15 when he wrote this. He is not saying that to be a Christian means that you are instantly perfected, or that it is impossible for Christians to sin (sometimes grievously). However, he is warning against calling yourself a Christian, and living in bold-faced denial of the clear commands of scripture. As an example: if you call yourself a believer and are openly living in sexual sin, and rather than being broken and repentant, you are proud, this is a warning you need to take seriously. To treat the word of God as something that can be taken as a set of optional suggestions is to “trample underfoot the Son of God”, to “profane the blood of the covenant”, and to “outrage the Spirit of grace”.
Now, I don’t usually like to ‘speculate’ on things, but let me offer a suggestion about how these passages in Numbers and Hebrews come together. In Numbers, a sacrifice is provided for all kinds of sin, but there is no sacrifice for deliberate – “high handed” sins. In Hebrews, the whole book is based around an argument that Jesus, his sacrifice, priesthood, the New Covenant, etc. are totally superior to what was available under the Old Covenant. It seems that some of the people who were the recipients of this letter were considering abandoning biblical Christianity and returning to Judaism, which is why the superiority of the New Covenant is held so high.
This being the case, the author may be saying that if you are considering returning to Judaism, there is no sacrifice available for any willful sin, which we all commit. To abandon Jesus is to abandon the only sacrifice that can actually cleanse any sin. As I said, that is part of my personal theological speculation, and I would be happy to hear any other ideas on this one.
What is not speculation is that the Lord takes his word seriously, and it is no light thing to willfully toss it aside. More than that, it is something that must be embraced as the foundation for all our lives and thought. In the Old Testament, God used physical symbols to remind his people of the importance of dwelling continually on the word of God.
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.” (Numbers 15:37-41 ESV)
God’s word stands in contradiction to the sinful inclinations of our fleshly heart and the deceitful desires of our eyes. The Lord reminds his people that he “brought them out” – redeemed them from sin and slavery for the express purpose of being their God (v.41). That is, God saves people, not because they are obedient to him, but so that they will be able to genuinely love and obey him. To “be God” is to rightfully deserve all allegiance, honour, praise, obedience, and dedication. If you are one of his redeemed, that was his purpose in redeeming you. This is all of grace, and all proceeding from faith in Christ, the perfect sacrifice for sin. On top of this we have been given the grace of the word of God. The word is the grace that teaches us not to follow after the evil desires of our hearts and our eyes. It reshapes our inclinations, informs our consciences, and renews our minds. If you are a believer, this is a grace which you cannot function without. Take God’s word seriously, he certainly does.