Numbers: The Nazarites

Sermon by on February 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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