Psalter Numbers: 251, 116, 337, 229
Beloved saints in Christ,
Our text is sobering. If picking up sticks on the Sabbath made this Israelite worthy of death, do not our transgressions of the fourth commandment make us worthy of death? Do we, who see society and nominal Christians desecrate the Sabbath every week, allow ourselves to think that Sabbath desecration is no longer sin? Or that, even if it is sin, God will not judge us with death?
Paul teaches in I Corinthians 10:1-14 that the history of Israel in the wilderness was written for the admonition of the New Testament church. So also with the event recorded in our text. Israel in the Old Testament was the church; her history is our history. How God dealt with sinners in her midst, He will deal with impenitent sinners in our midst. We will not be stoned to death by others in the church for desecrating the Sabbath, but we will be excommunicated from the church for it, and bear the wrath of God to all eternity, if we continue impenitently in our sins!
So let us not say that this man’s sin was small. Let us not say that we are glad to live in the New Testament, so that we can commit this sin with impunity. Let us not decide, if we are going to desecrate the Sabbath, to do so privately, so that we need not bear the consequences. Rather, let us see from our text that God hates all Sabbath desecration; and, positively, that the Sabbath must be kept holy to God, in the way of doing which, we shall enjoy His blessing.
1. His Presumptuous Sin.
The man of whom our text speaks desecrated the Sabbath day by gathering sticks.
Apparently his purpose in gathering the sticks was to make a fire to cook or bake. The text does not give his reason in so many words, but it is the only conceivable reason. Being in the wilderness, he did not need to build a house, nor engage in a carpentry project. And for such one would not gather sticks, but would cut down a choice tree. This man is simply gathering sticks to build a fire. Is not this a small matter? Could he not even argue that it was an act of necessity - who does not need to eat on the Sabbath?
But God classified this act as presumptuous sin - that is, a deliberate, wilful act of rebellion.
That God considered this man’s sin presumptuous is evident first from the context. Numbers 15:17-31 sets forth God’s law regarding sin offerings. In the case of sins of omission (failing to do what God required), and sins of ignorance, God required the Israelite to bring offerings to make atonement, with the promise that these sins would be forgiven (verses 26, 28). But verses 30-31 require that if one sinned presumptuously, he must be cut off from his people, and bear his iniquity - no atonement will be made for him. To sin presumptuously is, literally, to sin with one’s hand raised up or stretched out - it is “high handed sin.” It is, as it were, to raise one’s hand toward God, as if to command Him to withhold judgment, and to permit the sinner to do as he pleases. Our text follows these requirement, as an illustration of it. This man sinned presumptuously; he must be killed.
That God considered this man’s sin presumptuous is evident secondly from the fact that God had made His will regarding the Sabbath clearly known to Israel. In the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-10), He forbad all work on the Sabbath day. And we read in Exodus 35:2-3: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day.” The man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath must have known these laws. His sin was not ignorant, but wilful and deliberate.
That this sin was presumptuous is clear, thirdly, from the text itself, in how those who saw his sin dealt with it. They dealt with it, as heinous sin! They brought the man to Moses and Aaron for judgment. Moses and Aaron, in turn, waited for God to render His judgment. After all, perhaps the sinner could argue technically that although he knew it was wrong to kindle a fire, he did not know it was wrong to gather the sticks for the fire. Perhaps he would argue that his motives in this matter were pure. Moses and Aaron let God be the judge. And God judged - He determined the man to be worthy of death.
This sin was so serious for two reasons. First, by it the man showed that the law of God did not matter to him. He knew God’s law, but did not care about it. He knew the judgement which God pronounced on those who violated it, but was ready to put God to the test.
Second, this particular sin was serious not only because it expressed a certain, sinful view of God’s law, but also because it expressed a certain, sinful view of God’s Sabbath. God had given the Sabbath to Israel as a sign of His covenant (Exodus 31:12-17). It was a reminder of being delivered from Egypt’s bondage and toil; it was a day to rejoice in being the people of God, and to draw near to Him in fellowship. Why was it wrong to pick up sticks and to kindle a fire on the Sabbath? Because it showed that one cared more for earthly things than spiritual, and that one had little or no interest in God and in religion. By picking up sticks, he showed that he was uninterested in the salvation God had given!
If God judged the picking up of sticks in the Old Testament to be presumptuous sin, consider how our desecrations of the Sabbath are also presumptuous.
We cannot claim we do not know what God requires of us on the Sabbath; His Word makes it clear. We cannot argue that we did not fully realize how important this matter was to God - we do.
So what little earthly tasks do you do on Sunday, which you think are so little to be of no concern to God? What small chore do you feel compelled to do on Sunday, because you did not have time on Saturday, or are afraid you will not have time on Monday? A load of laundry? Some extra cleaning or cooking? A little yard work? A house decorating project? But if these tasks, seemingly small to us, are of great concern to God, then what of the more apparent ways in which we are prone to desecrate the Sabbath - attending a class or seminar which our boss requires us to attend; traveling for business; traveling for vacation; buying and selling, whether in the store or on the internet, and even if it is only because “we just ran out of coffee”? Do not argue for the moment that works of necessity and mercy are permissible to do on Sunday. Picking up sticks was not at all a work of mercy; and, even if the man thought it was a work of necessity, God thought otherwise. Let us not so quickly convince ourselves that God is pleased with our Sabbath desecrations.
Even more, let us take care not to desecrate the Sabbath in our hearts. The Sabbath is a day in which we are to delight in fellowship with God, both at church and in our homes. We desecrate the Sabbath in our hearts, when we do not desire such fellowship with God; when we go to church grudgingly; when in our homes we turn to do our own pleasures; when we consider Sunday boring; when we do not rightly prepare for it. We desecrate it in our hearts, when we spend the day wishing we could be busy in earthly things!
How do we avoid desecrating the Sabbath in our hearts? By loving God above all; delighting in the salvation He has provided us in Christ; desiring to draw near to Him in fellowship; praising Him for all He has done; and looking to Him for renewed strength and zeal to live unto Him.
These things God does not consider small or trivial. In this He delights!
2. Israel’s Righteous Intolerance.
Of this seemingly small sin of one of her members, Israel was intolerant. That is, she did not overlook or ignore this sin. This was true of the individual members of the nation who saw him commit this sin. How easy it would have been to turn the other way as if they did not see him, or to argue that they were in no position to judge because they also were sinners, or to defend him and his motives, or even to join him in his act. But they did not. They brought him to Moses for judgment and justice. At this point, the whole nation expressed its intolerance of this sin; when the Lord made known His will that the man be stoned, we read in verse 36, “all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones . . . as the LORD commanded Moses.”
This intolerance of Israel was righteous. It was righteous in that it manifested a hatred of sin - specifically, sin against the fourth commandment. It was righteous in that it showed a readiness to deal with the sinner according to God’s will, visiting upon him the punishment which he deserved. It was righteous in that it showed a desire to conform to God’s law.
Why did Israel not overlook this sin? First, note that it must have been a public sin, for a number of people saw it. Defiance usually manifests itself publicly. Those who do not truly love God’s law and covenant are not ashamed to transgress publicly. As a public sin, it must be dealt with in a public manner. Second, Israel loved God’s law. Of course, they were sinners also. Of course, they were guilty of transgressing this law too - who is not? But in their heart they loved God’s law, and God’s covenant, and God’s honor, and they fought against this sin. Third, Israel feared God’s judgment. They had seen the evidence of His anger enough, during their journeys in the wilderness. And they knew that if they tolerated this sin, God would judge them all!
This intolerance tells us something lovely: God was preserving in Israel His elect remnant, and causing some to live in obedience to His law by faith. How often the story of Israel in the wilderness is one of sin by the nation as a whole, and judgment upon the nation as a whole! Here is a welcome change - people in Israel stood up against sin, and condemned it!
Are we, both as congregation and as individual believers in the church of Jesus Christ, ready to manifest the same righteous intolerance of sin? Are we ready to rebuke the Sabbath desecrater in our midst?
This does not mean that we stone them, of course. It does not even necessarily mean that we go immediately to the elders of the church. If we know of one who has desecrated the Sabbath in a way that is not public, we must go to that person personally and privately, meekly and prayerfully, calling him to repentance. This is what Jesus tells us to do in Matthew 18:15. The fact that we are sinners, and that we also do not keep the Sabbath perfectly holy in our hearts, must not stop us; rather, acknowledging our sins to God in prayer, we must find forgiveness first, then go to the brother with this word: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). Only if the brother’s sin is blatantly public, or if he will not hear us the first time nor when we return with one or two witnesses, must we bring the sinner to the consistory of the church, as the Israelites brought this one to Moses and Aaron.
But are we ready to do that? Do we so love Jehovah’s covenant, and the special day of the week which is a sign of that covenant, that we insist it be kept holy, and judge those who do not? Parents, do you instruct your children how to keep the Sabbath holy, and punish them if they do not? Fellow believers, do you encourage one another to keep the Sabbath holy, and admonish each other if you do not? Church of Jesus Christ, do you support your elders when it is announced that they are working with a sinner in your midst, who is impenitently continuing in sin against the fourth commandment? Such is not the time to defend the sinner, or to fault the consistory; such is the time to manifest a righteous intolerance of sin!
If we do not do these things, what does that say about our attitude toward Jehovah’s law, toward Jehovah’s special day, and toward Jehovah Himself? Do we not care about Him? The true church of Jesus Christ is distinguished from the world of ungodly unbelievers around us, to show forth His praises, and live unto Him. Are we ready to do so, in the area of Sabbath keeping?
By God’s grace, let us!
3. Jehovah’s Holy Justice.
As He did so many other times during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, so here also, Jehovah manifested His justice.
He did so by pronouncing the death sentence upon the sinner - death by stoning! Stoning in the Old Testament was the sign of God’s curse being poured out on the sinner; of one dying in his own sin, and bearing the wrath of God! It reminds us that some who are outwardly in the sphere of God’s covenant, are sentenced to hell for impenitence in their sin! Particularly just was the stoning of one who desecrated the Sabbath: having manifested his lack of interest in God’s covenant and in the rest which God promised, God clearly showed that he was excluded from that covenant, and that the rest had never been promised to him personally.
God manifested His justice also by requiring Israel to carry out this death sentence. All the congregation must testify against him, in order to make plain that his sin was not a small matter, and not a matter of ignorance. Accordingly, God in the Day of Judgment will, through Jesus Christ, testify to every one condemned to hell of the greatness of his sin, and the justice of God in sentencing him to hell.
Notice that, in carrying out this command of God, Israel actually had to do two things. First, she had to bring the sinner without the camp - that is, she had to excommunicate him, to set him apart from the people. By that act already, God was passing judgment on him, through Israel, by saying that he was not truly an Israelite. Second, Israel was to stone him - inflict on him the evidence of God’s everlasting curse.
The severity of this punishment had as its effect that God glorified Himself. The sinner did not glorify God, but dishonored God by his sin. God will glorify Himself. He does so by punishing sin. And He punishes sin, because He is holy. He will not have and cannot have fellowship with sinners.
And yet, marvel of marvels, He would have fellowship with Israel! And He does have fellowship with His church in the New Testament! How can He? For we also are sinners!
In prescribing this just sentence, God was showing Israel then, and us today, just what was necessary in order for Him to have covenant fellowship with us - the carrying out of His justice, in the way of death!
Our sins demand our death. Our desecrations of the Sabbath day demand our death. And yet, if we were to die and bear our own guilt, we could never satisfy God’s justice, and never emerge victorious, to have fellowship with Him!
Therefore, that He might receive us into fellowship with Him, God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, into our flesh; caused Him to bear the guilt of our sins; poured out on Christ the infinite horror of His wrath as Christ hung on the cross; caused Christ to be stoned, as it were, for us; and then declared Christ to have borne God’s wrath against our sin in full, to have satisfied the justice of God, and so ceased pouring out His wrath upon Christ, and raised Him from the dead again!
In the death and resurrection of Christ is found the only possibility, the only basis, for our enjoying covenant fellowship and rest with Jehovah! The next time, beloved, you are tempted to perform some seemingly small, carnal task on Sunday, remember what such sin required Christ to endure, in your stead! And then spend your time meditating on the grace of God in Christ!
Not only did Christ bear our punishment so that we are spared, but He also lives in our hearts, and empowers us to keep the law anew. This alone explains how Israel could have dealt as she did with this sinner. Only in the power of her Lord could she do it.
So the power of the risen Jesus Christ, who lives in us, is sufficient to cause us to keep the Sabbath day holy. Look to Him to receive that power!
And the power of the risen Jesus Christ, who dwells in His church, is sufficient to cause the whole congregation to insist that the Sabbath is kept! In this power, we can deal rightly with the impenitent sinner!
This power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who dwells in each of His own, is sufficient to turn that sinner from Sabbath desecration to Sabbath keeping, in true repentance!
When we trust that in Christ all our sins are taken away, and that we possess His power to live a new and godly life, then we will honor the Sabbath. Then we will desire to keep it rightly. Then we will delight in spending time in covenant fellowship with God. Then we will enjoy great blessings from God Himself! For He said, through Isaiah, in Isaiah 58:13-14: “If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, and honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”
Is this not a promise of heavenly blessing? Indeed, in the way of keeping the Sabbath rightly, we experience already in this life joys which earthly activities do not give us, and which make us long for heaven all the more. We experience the blessings of God’s covenant! No wonder, then, that God requires us to keep the Sabbath holy, as a sign between Him and His church forever, that He will maintain and preserve His covenant with us in Jesus Christ! AMEN.
- Passage: Numbers 15:32-36
Rev. Douglas J. Kuiper (Wife:Teresa)
Ordained: November 1995
Pastorates: Byron Center, MI - 1995; Randolph, WI - 2001; Edgerton, MN - 2012; Professor, PRC Seminary - Sept. 2017
Address1055 Lumina Dr.
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