Dr. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Numbers 5; and if
you don’t, there should be a sheet somewhere near you on one of the tables that
has a copy of the whole of the chapter of
Numbers 5. I want to say ahead of time that though I began
today expecting to preach on this whole chapter, I’m only going to preach on the
first ten verses, because the final verses of this chapter have so many
complicating and perplexing concepts in them that they deserve to be treated in
a full sermon on their own, lest I leave you with more questions than you came
here asking. And so we’ll come back the next time and we’ll look at that whole
section as a part unto itself. I am going to read into the eleventh verse
because I want you to hear three phrases in this chapter.
If you want to outline this chapter, it’s pretty
easy. You go verses 1-4, verses 5-10, and then verse 11 to the end of the
chapter. The way you know that is because of this repeated phrase that you’re
going to see three times, in verses 1, 5, and 11: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses
saying….” Moses didn’t have chapters and he didn’t have verses when he wrote
down the Scripture for us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The people
of God knew how to outline this passage because he had phrases that he repeated
in order to distinctly break up the material and explain to us something of the
logic of the passage.
Notice verses 1-4 deal with physical impurities
that cause the people of God to have to be removed from the camp and the near
proximity to that physical, visible symbol of the presence of God with His
people, the tabernacle. They had to be removed from the camp because of these
physical impurities. Then verses 5-10 deal with moral offenses. And then
finally, in verses 11-31, interestingly even domestic tensions are a
concern with regard to dwelling in the presence of God. Now, that we’ll come
back to next time we’re together in this book, God willing.
But tonight we’ll look especially at verses 1-10.
We’ll read into the eleventh verse just so you can see those three phrases
together, but we’re going to concentrate on these physical impurities that
require exclusion of even members of the covenant community from the camp, the
presence of God; and, the moral offenses that also constitute defilement in the
people of God. And we’re going to see not only lessons for Israel, but lessons
In this book so far we have seen God faithful in His
answer to prayer, taking a group of people that went down into Egypt numbering
only seventy and bringing them out with 603,000-plus fighting men. We have seen
Him number them; we have seen Him arrange them; we have seen Him count the
priests; and He has taught us great spiritual lessons in all of these things.
Now He is going to teach us about sin, and what a lesson it is.
Let’s pray before we read God’s word.
O Lord, thank You for this book. Thank You for
its practicality. Thank You for its inspiration – that these words are
God-breathed and they are given to us for our teaching, instruction, reproof,
correction, training in righteousness. We thank You that these words are
profitable, that they are sufficient to equip us for every good work. And we
thank You, O God, that these words teach us about You and they teach us about
Your Son. And so, O God, exalt Yourself and Your Son in our hearts tonight, even
in the reading of Your word. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the sons of Israel
that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge
and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. You shall send away both
male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not
defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.’ And the sons of Israel did so
and sent them outside the camp; just as the Lord had spoken to Moses, thus the
sons of Israel did.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel,
‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully
against the Lord, and that person is guilty, then he shall confess his sins
which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong, and
add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. But if the
man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the
restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest,
besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. Also every
contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they
offer to the priest, shall be his. So every man’s holy gifts shall be his;
whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.’’
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying….”
Thus far, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy,
inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
A strange passage. A passage about physical
impurities. It seems a little harsh at first, doesn’t it? You have a physical
impurity, you’re excluded from the camp. You’re part of God’s chosen people.
You’re part of God’s covenant people. You’re a true blue-blood Israelite, and
yet you are sent out of the camp. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? What’s the message?
There is a message in this passage, and it’s a message about defilement and how
it excludes us from the enjoyment of communion with God and with His people. And
even in these ceremonial defilements that are spoken about in verses 1-4, there
are great theological and Christological messages for us; that is, there are
things for us to learn not only about the practical purposes of these
commandments on defilement, but there are things to learn about who God is and
what He is like, and who Jesus Christ is and what He has done in these
instructions about defilement because of physical infirmities and exclusion from
But it doesn’t stop there, does it? It goes on to
address in verses 5-10 moral offenses, and there we learn that unlike so often
our stereotype, the Old Testament is not merely concerned with the external. The
Old Testament is not merely concerned with the ceremonial and the ritual. No,
God is concerned with our hearts, He’s concerned with our lives, He’s concerned
with our behavior, and moral offenses are just as defiling as these ritual
offenses, as these defilements that are occasioned because of ceremonial
impurity brought on by physical infirmities. So, God cares about our character.
He cares about our lives, our actions, our deeds, our words; and we’ll learn
that in verses 5-10, and then we’ll come to these domestic tensions next week
and give some focused attention on this strange and perhaps perplexing adultery
test that is recorded in verses 11-31. I warn you ahead of time, the reading is
I. Physical impurities.
Well, what are we to learn from verses 1-4?
Physical impurities are listed there, things that defiled an Israelite, things
that required an Israelite to be removed from the camp. And you’ll notice three
things in particular that are listed. This is not the first time that we’ve
heard of this. We’ve heard of it some in Exodus and some in Leviticus, and we’ll
hear of it again in the Book of Deuteronomy. But here we see three categories of
physical impurity that render a person ceremonially or ritually defiled, and
require that they be removed from the camp (at least for a period of time) until
their period of impurity has passed. Then they are tested by the priest (we find
out elsewhere in the Pentateuch) and they are allowed back into the fellowship
of the community. What are we to learn from this?
Well, let me suggest three things that we’re to
learn from this. There’s a practical significance, of course, to
these actions. The kinds of diseases that could have easily been spread in
the heat of the wilderness because of contact with people with leprosy, people
with hemorrhages or discharges, or even from a dead body, could have ravaged the
people of God. There’s an obvious kind physical provision of God for the
well-being of His people simply in their day to day lives by removing those who
could spread contagion within the camp. The diseases could have run like
wildfire, unchecked, without any of the benefits we have today from the powers
of these new generations of antibiotics and all the glorious treatments of
medicine. No, quarantine was the best way to make sure that devastating outbreak
of disease which could have killed thousands upon thousands as it spread…it may
look harsh, it may look hard, but it is actually a very kind provision of God
for the well being for the totality of His people.
There’s a practical significance. People who had
come into contact with leprosy, or someone with a discharge or uncleanness were
a physical danger to the camp. This is God pastorally and paternally looking out
for the physical well being of His people.
But there’s much, much more to it than that,
isn’t there? There’s a great theological significance to this.
The people of God are meant to learn something about God. In fact, I’m going to
suggest to you that they’re meant to learn three things about God.
They’re meant to learn that God is holy; they’re meant to learn that God is
present; and, they’re meant to learn that God has spoken. God is holy, God is
present, God has spoken.
They’re meant to learn that God is holy. The
whole point here, isn’t it, is that God is in the camp and therefore the defiled
cannot be there. Look at verse 3:
“You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp
so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst.”
“I am holy”…and God does not dwell with that which is
defiled. What a powerful way of driving home the truth of the holiness of God!
When you are in a state of defilement, even physical impurity constituting
defilement, you may not dwell in that place where God manifests His special
presence. And so you learn that God is holy, and that the defiled cannot dwell
We’re reminded of that again, by the way, at the end
of the Book of Revelation. John goes out of his way to say — what? — who will
not be in heaven. Liars. Adulterers. Thieves. Those who are defiled will not
dwell with God in heaven, because He is holy.
Secondly, though, we learn that God is present.
This is the flip side of God’s dwelling in the midst of the camp. It is a
blessing that God is present, but His presence requires purity on the
part of those with whom He dwells. It’s frankly a pain to have to live in the
camp with God, because you have to take extra care because God is in the house.
And they learn that along with the blessing of His presence, there are very
important obligations and responsibilities that have to be fulfilled. It
requires purity on the part of those with whom He dwells because He is present.
But we also learn here that God has spoken.
His command rules the community. He has said this is how it’s going to be, and
Moses goes out of his way to remind you of this: that everything He had spoken
to Israel, the sons of Israel did. Look at verse 4:
“The sons of Israel did so and sent them
outside the camp.”
Now, friends, understand that the people that they’re
sending out of the camp are their own mothers and fathers, their own sisters and
brothers, their own sons and daughters, their own husbands and wives. But God
said so. And Israel did. God’s people live by the book.
Do you live by the book? Even when the book asks you
to do something that cuts against your grain? That goes against your desires?
That you question in your mind? The people of God lived by the book, because God
Now we learn lots of things about God, don’t we?
He’s holy, He’s present, He has spoken. But, my friends, the most glorious
thing of all that we learn about in verses 1-4 is about our Lord and Savior
Let me just remind you that Luke read the Book of
Numbers. Good ole Dr. Luke, friend of the Apostle Paul, companion on missionary
journeys, author of The Gospel of Luke, read the Book of Numbers, and he goes
out of his way to tell you something extraordinary. You see, in Luke 5:12-13,
Luke is telling you that Jesus is going through various cities. And of course He
is being accompanied by faithful Bible-believing Jewish people, people who had
been trained under rabbis who were very much influenced by the movement of
Phariseeism…and when you hear that word Phariseeism, don’t bow your back
up quick, because if we had been living then we would be in a Pharisee
synagogue, not at the liberal Sadducees’ temple services! You see, the Pharisees
were the Bible-believers in those days. The Sadducees were the liberals. They
believed the Scripture, and they believed that one reason that Israel was in
captivity to these pagan Romans was that ‘we have not obeyed the Law.’ And so
they were absolutely committed to making sure that the people of God obeyed the
Law. And suddenly in Luke 5:12 they see — what? A leper approaching Jesus. And
every blue-blooded Jewish boy there is saying, “Jesus! Get away from him! You
will be defiled!” What does Jesus do? He stretches His hand out and He touches
the leper. But something strange happens. Jesus doesn’t become unclean because
He touched the leper, as in Numbers 5; the leper becomes clean because Jesus has
And then you turn forward to Luke 8, and a godly man
has come to Jesus and he said, ‘My twelve-year-old daughter is dying, Master.
She needs Your help. You’re the only one who can help her. Would You come, Lord,
and help my daughter?’ ‘Yes, I will.’ And on the way, as He’s passing through
the crowd, Luke tells us a woman who had had a hemorrhage for years reaches out
her hand and she touches the hem of His garment, and something really strange
happens. He doesn’t become unclean; she becomes clean. She’s healed.
Instantaneously! Just like the leper!
And He goes on to the house, and by the time He gets to the
house the child is dead. And what does He do? He goes into the house, Luke tells
us, and He touches the child. And He does not become unclean, she is raised from
the dead. You see what Luke is telling you: all three of these categories of
defilement — the leper; the one with the hemorrhage, the issue, the discharge;
and the one who is dead — those who once defiled the camp of Israel and thus
were excluded are now made clean and healed by Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.
He’s the answer to our defilement.
You see, all Luke is doing is expounding the Book of
Numbers for you in light of the powerful work of Jesus Christ, and he would
never have been able to appreciate the profundity of what Jesus had done, had
not God in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit written the Book of Numbers by the
hand of Moses. You see this powerful testimony to the work of Jesus Christ right
there in Numbers 5:1-4.
II. Moral offenses.
But then come verses 5-10, and these are harder
verses on us, because these verses speak to the various kinds of moral offenses
that we commit. Notice how generally it’s put in verse 6:
“Speak to the sons of Israel, ‘When a man or woman commits any of the sins of
mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty….”
All kinds of sins are included under this. All manner of
breaking [especially of the second table] of the Law, especially sins against
our brothers and sisters are included here. And you notice how sin is defined,
and how its effects are described in this passage:
“When a man or a woman commits any of the sins
It’s assumed that these sins are primarily sins
committed against your neighbor, and so the effect of your sin is that you have
violated the fundamental principle of the law of love for your neighbor. Instead
of loving your neighbor, you have used your neighbor out of self-love, and thus
sin entails a horizontal dimension. It entails a fracturing of your relationship
with your neighbor.
But then notice how it puts it: “…acting
unfaithfully against the Lord.” Does that remind you of anything? David
masterminds the murder of Uriah; he fornicates and then commits adultery, and
then takes illegitimately into marriage Bathsheba; he lies to the best of his
household; he puts his general and his army in a situation of aiding and
abetting his immorality; and what does he say in Psalm 51? “Against You and You
only have I sinned….” Because even my sins against you and even your sins
against one another are unfaithfulness to the Lord. They have a vertical
dimension. There is no sin without a vertical dimension.
And then there is a personal dimension, because
what is the end result? What is the last phrase? “That person is guilty.”
Not just by declaration of a court of law, but intrinsically according to his
heart. And so there’s a horizontal and a vertical and a personal dimension of
sin, and we learn that from this passage.
We also learn how we’re supposed to respond to this,
because one of the things that God makes so clear in this passage is that there
is a need for repentance here that goes way beyond simply saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I
don’t know how it is when you’re teaching your children to repent, but I know a
couple of children who have a tendency, when confronted especially with their
sins towards one another, to say with great pathos, and meaning welling up in
their eyes to one another, “I’m sorry!” and turn away. And we have to turn them
back around and say, “I’m sorry for what? And would you forgive me?” And so on….
But you know, we adults in our dealings with one
another are sometimes no different from our children (except that maybe we’re a
little more hard-hearted), and our reaction very often when we have been caught
red-handed is “I’m sorry!”
And in this passage, you see, God is saying, that’s
not how repentance works in My household. You’re My children, and here’s how
repentance works: (1) You’re going to recognize your sin. You’re going to admit
that it was unloving to your neighbor, it was unfaithful to Me, and it brought
personal guilt upon you. You’re going to recognize your sin. (This is what my
brothers and I referred to as “the eat-it principle.” When we were caught in
red-handed sin by our mother, she recounted to us, no matter how fully and
sincerely we had expressed to her our deep regret and remorse for the action
which we had just done, she recounted to us in greater detail the depth of the
wickedness that we had committed so that our only choice was simply to eat her
words. And we were thinking all along, ‘Mom, I just said to you I’m sorry for
doing this; you are recounting it in triplicate to me what I’ve done.’ What was
she doing? She was impressing upon us our recognition of our sin, because sin
loves to repent generally as opposed to specifically, so that
we can skirt the full effect of the damage that it has wreaked. And so she made
sure that there was no generality left in the particular sin that had been
committed, because it begins with recognizing your sin — verse 6.)
Then, secondly, he says confess the sin. Not
just “I’m sorry.” But “This is what I’ve done against You, and it’s wrong. It’s
horrible. It’s inexcusable.”
I’ve told you the story before of a friend of mine
who was the chief ethical policy advisor to the President of the United States,
our current President George Bush. And a year or so ago he resigned from that
position, and a few weeks later it was discovered why he had resigned from that
position: because he had been going to Target stores and stealing. He was a
Christian, however – a godly man in so many ways. And he went through a period
of specific dealings with his pastors and elders in repentance. And one day he
stood before the Judge, and, much to his lawyers’ chagrin, confessed in detail
without plea for mitigation everything that he had done, and then simply said to
the Judge that he cast himself upon the mercy of the court. And the Judge was
flabbergasted. He said, “You know, in some thirty years on the bench, I have
never heard someone confess to a crime like this.” Well, he did, because he was
a Christian, and it was important for him to confess his sin. There’s more to
that story. I’ll tell it to you some other time.
But then it doesn’t stop there, does it? It goes
on to restitution, and notice how this restitution works. If the person whom
you have defrauded is not alive, restitution still must be made to a family
member. If a family member can’t be found, that restitution goes to the house of
the Lord to further the services of the priests of God. And what do priests do?
They make atonement. That’s their business. They make atonement.
And then of course that’s the last step of it,
isn’t it, an atonement offering? Atonement must be made by the priest for
the guilty party. You see the fullness of this repentance? There’s recognition
of sin, confession of sin, restitution for sin, atonement for sin. No easy
forgiveness here, you understand. This repentance recognizes that dealing with
sin is hard — very hard.
And of course the last lesson in this is simply
this: moral offenses defile the camp of God just as surely as do physical
impurities; indeed, more so, because God has called us to be holy as He is holy.
But this, too, points us to Christ, doesn’t it? Because in the end none of
those sacrifices — none of those sacrifices — can touch the depth of the sin in
my heart. And that’s why when we’re redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, we love
to proclaim it.
O God, forgive us for thinking that this book is
anything less than manna from heaven for hungry hearts, and make us to believe
it and feast on it and live it by Your grace alone, for Your glory. In Jesus’
Let’s sing The Doxology.
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