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The Nazarites

Series: Numbers

Sermon on Feb 28, 2007

Numbers 6:1-21

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Wednesday Evening

February 28, 2007

Numbers 6:1-21

“The Nazarites”

Dr. Ligon Duncan III

This passage from Numbers 6 that we're going to study tonight…and we're not going to go through the whole chapter, because as some of you may know, maybe because you've read ahead, maybe because you remember the different contents of the books of the Bible and you know that Numbers 6 has a very important thing in it. Well, some of you know at the end of this passage is what is called The Aaronic Benediction. It's a benediction that you hear many ministers use. We use it here very frequently, different ones of us:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face to shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.”

Well, that benediction is commanded by God, is introduced by God, at the end of this chapter. It deserves treatment all its own, and so we're going to reserve that part of this chapter for the next time that we're together in Numbers.

And so tonight we’ll spend all of our time looking at this rather strange vow that is established by God in Numbers 6:1-21. It is the Nazarite vow. Now, vows are very, very important in the Old Testament. They indicate the importance of God to the person making the vow; they indicate to us the very great significance of personal sacrifice and commitment in religion, in the service of God. That's something, very frankly, that's lost on our generation. The idea of making binding commitments to God is somewhat alien to us in our easy day and age.

Nevertheless, we have here an extraordinary vow that is established by God, the vow of the Nazarites. I want you to notice two or three things about this vow as we begin to look at it tonight.

First of all, recognize that this vow allows for lay people, both men and women, to voluntarily serve the Lord. The priesthood was by conscription. If you were in the tribe of Levi, you were a priest or you were a Levite. That's it. I mean, when you were born into the tribe of Levi, your destiny, your vocation was settled. You couldn't grow up and say, “You know, I want to be an engineer…I want to be a milkman.” No, if you were a Levite you were either serving the Lord as a priest or you were serving the Lord as an assistant to a priest in the tabernacle service of the people of God. And so the priesthood was by conscription, and only men from the tribe of Levi could serve as priests. But this Nazarite vow allows for both men and women (lay people, as it were) in Israel to voluntarily commit for a period of time to serve the Lord in some special way.

Secondly, notice as we look at this passage tonight that these Nazarite vows allow ordinary Israelites to express their love for God and their gratitude to God practically. The Israelites who made these vows were, among other things, acknowledging how much God had done for them, and consequently their love for God and their gratitude to God was expressed in making a binding commitment to God.

Thirdly, as we look at this passage tonight notice that these Nazarites are separated to the Lord. The phrase used of them, they were “holy unto the Lord,” a phrase that is similar to what is said of the priests and of the high priests in Israel. They were holy unto the Lord. They were separated to the Lord. They were separated to the Lord from the world. They were separated to the Lord from their families. They were separated to the Lord from funerals. They were separated to the Lord from haircuts. They were separated to the Lord from the world for a specific work. In this passage their work is not outlined, but we do have examples in the Bible of some pretty extraordinary Nazarites. Menoah's wife was a Nazarite, and what an extraordinary work she did. Samuel was a Nazarite, an intercessor, a judge, a prophet of Israel. Samson was a Nazarite. John the Baptist may have been a Nazarite. He has some of the characteristics of a Nazarite as we read about him in the gospels. Eusebius, that early church historian who gave us one of the first complete histories of the era of the early church leading up to his time, says that John was a Nazarite. Paul even once made a vow that sounds a lot like a Nazarite vow, and so looking at them we can see some of the kinds of work that the Lord might have used a Nazarite for. So bear this in mind as we read this passage.

Let's look to God in prayer.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Open our eyes to behold wonderful truth in it, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's word:

“Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazarite, to dedicate himself to the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink; neither shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grapevine, from the seeds even to the skin. All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.
“ ‘‘All the days of his separation to the Lord he shall not go near to a dead person. He shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.
“ ‘‘But if a man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his dedicated head of hair, then he shall shave his head on the day when he becomes clean; he shall shave it on the seventh day. Then on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, to the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him concerning his sin because of the dead person. And that same day he shall consecrate his head, and shall dedicate to the Lord his days as a Nazarite, and shall bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering; but the former days shall be void because his separation was defiled.
“ ‘‘Now this is the law of the Nazarite when the days of his separation are fulfilled, he shall bring the offering to the doorway of the tent of meeting. And he shall present his offering to the Lord: one male lamb a year old without defect for a burnt offering and one ewe lamb a year old without defect for a sin offering and one ram without defect for a peace offering, and a basket of unleavened cakes of fine flour mixed with oil and unleavened wafers spread with oil, along with their grain offering and their libations. Then the priest shall present them before the Lord and shall offer his sin offering and his burnt offering. He shall also offer the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, together with the basket of unleavened cakes; the priest shall likewise offer its grain offering and its libation. The Nazarite shall then shave his dedicated head of hair at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and take the dedicated hair of his head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace offerings. And the priest shall take the ram's shoulder when it has been boiled, and one unleavened cake out of the basket, and one unleavened wafer, and he shall put them on the hands of the Nazarite after he has shaved his dedicated hair. Then the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the Lord. It is holy for the priest, together with the breast offered by waving and the thigh offered by lifting up; and afterward the Nazarite may drink wine.’
“ ‘This is the law of the Nazarite who vows his offering to the Lord according to his separation, in addition to what else he can afford; according to his vow which he takes, so he shall do according to the law of his separation.’”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The vow of the Nazarite, the laws of the Nazarite, provide an Old Testament picture of what every New Testament disciple should be. Now I hope that that sentence has your curiosity peaked! Am I suggesting that we all forego haircuts and funerals, and tee-totally abstain? No, that's not what I'm getting at, but let me say it again: The Nazarite provides an Old Testament picture of what every New Testament disciple should be. The Nazarite is a picture of someone who is kingdom-minded, someone who is concerned for the things that concern God, someone who is concerned to advance God's kingdom. The Nazarite is a picture of someone who is consecrated to God, devoted to God, handed over in His service. And, a Nazarite is a God-treasuring person–someone who loves God above everyone and everything else–and these are qualities of discipleship that we see spelled out in the New Testament.

As you look at the Nazarite vows, especially in 1-13 in Numbers 6, you’ll notice six features or qualities.

First of all, you’ll notice that the Nazarite vow is unique. This is a very special vow. It's even called a special vow. Look at verse 2: “When a man or woman makes a special vow….” This is a unique vow. There are elements to this vow that are found in other parts of the Old Testament. Priests, for instance, were not allowed to partake of wine while they were serving in the tabernacle. We've already seen provisions that the children of Israel had to be very, very careful around dead bodies. But there's nowhere where all three of these things that are included in the Nazarite vow are combined together in the same way in any other vow in the Old Testament: abstinence from anything from the fruit of the vine; this refusal to cut the hair; this avoidance of the dead. These three things in combination make the Nazarite vow singular, or unique.

Secondly, notice that this Nazarite vow is voluntary. We've already mentioned that the priests were priests by conscription and by birth. If you were a child of Levi, if you were in the tribe of Levi and if you were a male, you were either going to be serving the Lord as a priest or as a Levite. It's just as simple as that. But this is a voluntary vow. It's not required, and so the person who takes this vow does it entirely because of his or her own desire, his or her own will. (By the way, doesn't that remind us that religion is so much a thing of the desires because religion is so much a matter of the heart? And even in the Old Testament with its outward forms and its shadows and its types, there was a recognition that religion is in its very essence a matter of the heart, the will, the desires, the affections.) And here the Nazarite has an option. He or she does not have to take this vow. The desires of the Nazarite impel him or her to take this vow.

Thirdly, notice that this Nazarite vow is personal. It's not just personal in the sense that it's voluntary, but it's personal in the sense that it allows for any Israelite to express personally his or her devotion to God. It's something which the individual alone decides, and in which the individual personally expresses his or her devotion to the living God.

This Nazarite vow is also public. Everyone would have immediately recognized a Nazarite male in the camp of Israel: “Hey, who's the guy who looks like Tom Hanks on Castaway? Must be a Nazarite.” Every Nazarite male would have been easily identifiable in the camp of Israel, so this is a very public vow. It's one in which literally the physical appearance gave you away. It's one of the things that's remarked, of course, about John the Baptist. There were external things which set him apart from the people in his time.

Fifthly, this Nazarite vow was costly. The Nazarite vow did not allow you to attend a family funeral, no matter how close the relative. The Nazarite vow involved bringing very expensive offerings or sacrifices to the Lord. And, if in the course of your service as a Nazarite someone drops dead next to you, you are defiled. All of the time that you have served according to your vow up to that point is nullified. You must present yourself to a priest and go through an eight-day purification process, and then start your time over again.

There is a story in one of the ancient Hebrew books of rabbinical commentary on the Old Testament of a queen who took a Nazarite vow, and in the last week of a seven-year Nazarite vow, a courtier of hers died in her presence. Her whole six years and 51 weeks of Nazarite service was nullified. She went through the purification ritual, and then had to serve another seven years as a Nazarite. This is a very, very costly thing. It comes with great commitment. There's a lesson in that for us, too, isn't there?

And sixthly, this Nazarite vow was usually temporary. That is, you see especially in verse 13, the person making the Nazarite vow can indicate the length of the service that he or she is ready to commit himself or herself to, although in the Scriptures there are some who are Nazarites for life. Samson, although a fickle Nazarite, was a Nazarite for life. Samuel was a Nazarite for life, and apparently John the Baptist was a Nazarite for life. So it was usually temporary, but occasionally in the Bible this is a permanent commitment.

Well, there are three things I want you to see tonight as we look at this vow of the Nazarite. Again, the Nazarite is a picture of a kingdom-minded, God-consecrated, God-treasuring disciple, and we see this in three ways.

First of all, look at verses 1-4. In the Nazarite vow, the Nazarite is called to forebear the fruit of the land. Notice what it says, beginning in verse 3:

“…He shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink; nor shall he drink any grape juice, nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin.”

What in the world is going on with that?

Well, it's simply this. For a vine to go from being planted to bearing fruit in Israel would have taken about three years or so, so the growing of the grapevine symbolized the occupation and the domestication of the land. It symbolized that you were a permanent resident. No nomad could plant his own vine and expect to benefit from its bearing fruit, because the process would have taken three years, and he would have moved on. But once the children of Israel were in the land of Canaan, they could plant vines, wait out the time before those vines became fruitful, and then use them for all sorts of things — everything from wine to grape juice to everything else. And so forbearing to eat or drink of anything from the vine is an indication that the Nazarite is affirming that “this world is not my home.” This land with its wonderful vines and all their fruitful bounty is not my ultimate home. The Nazarite is, by the very abstention from any aspect of the fruit of the vine or anything produced by the grapevine, evidencing tangibly that this world is not his home, is not her home.

And you see, my friends, for believers there too should be an evidence in our lives manifest in our choices, in our thinking, in our conduct, that this world is not our home. We ought to be saying in the things that we choose and think and how we behave, “I want the life to come, O God, more than anything in this life.” That's what the Nazarite was saying by refusing to take anything produced by the grapevine: “I want the life to come, O God.”

And what did Jesus say in Matthew 6:33?

“Seek first His kingdom [God's kingdom] and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

The disciples were all concerned about food, clothing, shelter…and Jesus says the heavenly Father knows that you need these things, but you seek first His kingdom. God will take care of those things. In other words, you live as if this world is not your home. You want God's kingdom more than anything that this world has to offer.

Secondly, the Nazarites were not only kingdom-minded, they were consecrated to God, and they were visible in their consecration to God, and the visible evidence of their consecration to God was the lack of haircuts. You see it in verses 5ff:

“All the days of his vow…no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.”

So there was a visible evidence of their consecration. Anyone in the camp of Israel could have said, “Aha! That man has taken a Nazarite vow. That man is marked out for God.”

Well, we may not be called to wear a distinctive hairstyle…that's really good for me!...but we are called to be marked out for God. There should be visible confirmation that we are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives, and it ought to be manifest again in our choices, in our thinking, in our conduct. All these things should show not only that this world is not our home, but that we belong to God. The Nazarite, by refusing to cut his hair, is saying ‘God, I belong to you, and I don't mind anybody seeing that.’ It says something, doesn't it, about the discipleship that wants to blend into this culture and not look anything different from it. And, my friends, that is so pervasive today, isn't it? We want to blend in to our culture, and we don't want to be any different from it. The Nazarite is not unwilling to publicly say ‘I belong to God and I don't care who sees it. I'm His.’

You remember the Apostle Paul saying in Romans 12 that we are to put our bodies on the altar as the living sacrifice. What a powerful picture that is of saying publicly, “I belong to the Lord.” By the way, it's Paul, Luke tells us in Acts 18:18–I can't wait till Derek gets to this passage!–who has made something like a Nazarite vow, because you remember in Cenchrea, the seaport of Corinth, we're told that Paul shaved his head. Why? Because he had kept a vow. He was keeping a vow. So it seems as if in Cenchrea he came to the end of a period of having taken a Nazarite vow, and so his head was being shaved in token of his completion of that commitment. And so when the Apostle Paul says to you, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” even as he had at some point presented his hair as a sacrifice. In the presenting that hair on the altar for the Nazarite was a picture: “Lord, I've kept that vow. I kept that vow for one year…for two years, for three years, for seven years…and that hair on the altar is a picture of me. I kept my vow for You, Lord. I'm Yours.”

And of course the Lord Jesus Christ said to His own disciples, “It is my food to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work.” And so every disciple should be marked out to God, consecrated to God, devoted to God, living out and out for God. And so the Nazarites give us a picture of a kingdom-minded, God-consecrated disciple.

But they also give us a picture of a God-treasuring disciple. Look at verses 6 and 7:

“All the days of his separation…he shall not go near to a dead person…not his father, or his mother, or his brother, or his sister…because his separation to God is on his head.”

The Nazarites must avoid the dead during the whole time of their vow because separation to the living God is a witness to the living God, and therefore they are not to be around the dead. My friends, do you realize what this means? This means if the Nazarite's son dies during the time of his vow, he cannot go near his son's body. He cannot attend his son's funeral. If the Nazarite's wife dies, he cannot go near the body of his wife. He cannot go to the funeral of his wife. What in the world is the point of that?

The point of that is saying that God is more important to me than anyone, anything, in this world. I treasure God. I treasure God above everything. And, my friends, there should be an evident priority of God in our lives manifest in our choices, in our thinking, in our conduct, that shows that we treasure God above everyone; that God is more important than anyone or anything in this world.

You know, it's so interesting that there are at least two components to being a Nazarite: you must have a desire to honor God, or you couldn't do these things. But that desire to honor God is required to be expressed in an epic display of self-denial. All of these things, you see, involve self-denial. You see, the point is that you cannot honor God without self-denial, and that's a lesson you see for New Testament disciples as well as Old. That's why Jesus will say to His disciples in Matthew 16:24:

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself.”

But, my friends, let us never forget that the Nazarite devotion to God does not precede, but responds to God's devotion to the Nazarite. The Nazarite in the Old Testament is making this vow because of his or her awesome awareness that God has devoted Himself to him, to her, in some extraordinary way, and thus the vow flows out of gratitude to God for a prior devotion that He has shown to the Nazarite. And it's the same, of course, in the New Testament.

The New Testament disciples have seen the Lord Jesus Christ pray the prayer, ‘Lord, if it's possible, take this cup from Me. Nevertheless, I am so committed to My people that I'm ready to take this cup.’ The New Testament disciples have seen the Lord Jesus Christ from His cross look down at His mother and say, ‘Mother, I'm not going to be there at your funeral. I'm not going to be there in your hour of need. I'm not going to be there when other grandchildren are born, because I am totally devoted to God, and I am totally devoted to the salvation of all My people.’ And so when the New Testament disciple devotes himself, herself, to Christ, it is out of an overwhelming sense of gratitude of the complete commitment that Christ Himself has already made to God, and to you.

Let's pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this law of the Nazarite, and grant that we would by Your grace live as kingdom-minded, God-consecrated, God-treasuring disciples. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.