February 13, 2008
Numbers — With God in the Wilderness:
“The Offerings of the Seventh Month”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Numbers 29. We’re making our way closer and closer to the end of this great book, part of the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. The Pentateuch is the technical name for those books; or, as the Hebrews called them, the Torah, the law of God, the instruction of the living God. Last week we started into a section of this book which contained detailed listings of the requirements of the priests in the various laws of sacrifices, and that really continues in the passage we're going to study tonight.
Many things come to mind to explain what is going on here. The children of Israel are not yet in the land of Canaan. They’re not yet in the Promised Land, they’re out in Midian. They’re getting ready to make their final approach into the land. There will be many battles to be fought before they are resting in their land. What in the world is the Lord stopping here in the middle of this wandering story to tell them what their church calendar is going to be like when they get in? When they’re going to be celebrating this, when they’re going to be celebrating that?
Well, there are a lot of things going on there. One thing surely is this: God is reminding His children again that they are going to be in the Promised Land. He's promised that they’re going to be there. They’re not there yet, but He's so committed to making sure that they get there that He wants to tell them what the calendar of their church year is going to be like when they get there. And so here, before the children of Israel are yet in the Promised Land, they’re already being told what they’re going to be celebrating in praise and worship of the living God, at what time of the year. There's not only instruction about the weekly sacrifices and the monthly sacrifices, but there are instructions here about the sacrifices that occur at the time of the Jewish New Year, and the sacrifices that occur at the time of Pentecost, and the various feasts of Israel are being described in this passage.
Of course, in the passage before us tonight it especially deals with the sacrifices that are associated with the Feast of Trumpets, which was in the time of Aviv, or of Nissan, as it was called after the time of the captivity, in which the Day of Atonement occurs and the head of the year, and all of these things very significant in the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar. And there is a great deal of instruction in the passage we're going to read tonight about the Feast of Tabernacles, and that's significant because the Feast of Tabernacles itself was going to celebrate the beginning of the wilderness wanderings of Israel! And where are they? They’re in the wilderness! And God is telling them about a ceremony, a ritual, a feast that they are going to observe every year to remind themselves of what they’re still in the middle of as Moses records this in Numbers. So it's a very interesting passage that we're going to be looking at tonight.
Before we read God's word, let's pray and ask for His help and blessing as we hear it and heed it.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. You have reminded us over and over in this book that no matter how “first glance obscure” a passage may be, that in every word of Your word there is a word of nourishment for Your people. So again tonight nourish us by Your word. We’ll give You all the praise, all the credit, all the glory, all the honor for it. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Numbers 29:
“‘On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to the Lord: one bull from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish; also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for the bull, two tenths for the ram, and one tenth for each of the seven lambs; with one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you; besides the burnt offering of the new moon, and its grain offering, and the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offering, according to the rule for them, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord.
“On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation and afflict yourselves. You shall do no work, but you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma: one bull from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old: see that they are without blemish. And their grain offering shall be of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for the bull, two tenths for the one ram, a tenth for each of the seven lambs: also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the sin offering of atonement, and the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings.
“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days. And you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, thirteen bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old; they shall be without blemish; and their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for each of the thirteen bulls, two tenths for each of the two rams, and a tenth for each of the fourteen lambs; also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the second day twelve bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings.
“On the third day eleven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the fourth day ten bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the fifth day nine bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the sixth day eight bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the seventh day seven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.
“On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly. You shall not do any ordinary work, but you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord: one bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish, and the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bull, for the ram, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.
“These you shall offer to the Lord at your appointed feasts, in addition to your vow offerings and your freewill offerings, for your burnt offerings, and for your grain offerings, and for your drink offerings, and for your peace offerings.’
“So Moses told the people of Israel everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, inerrant and profitable word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There were more sacred assemblies in the seventh month of Israel's calendar year, which was the beginning month of their ecclesiastical year… there were more sacred ceremonies in that month than any other month of the year. It was the month that had been the beginning of the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, the initial start of the wilderness journey. And it was reckoned as the beginning of months in all ecclesiastical computations in Israel. It was the month where Moses had ordained for the civil jubilees to be celebrated, when freedom was being declared to captives and to land. It was a time of vacation. It was between harvest time and seed time. Harvest was over, and the time to get back out into the fields and start sowing the seed had not yet begun. But it was most significant because of the history that it recorded. Yes, it was a harvest festival, but more importantly than that, it was the anniversary of the beginnings of the wandering in the wilderness which marked both the liberation from Egypt and the entering into of the Promised Land.
And there are many, many lessons in this passage. We won't be able to do justice to it tonight, but let me draw your attention to four things in particular.
I. God is more important than your work or your time.
The first thing that we learn in this great passage in Numbers 29 is that God is more important than your work, and God is more important than your time. Have you calculated how much time in this month of Aviv, the seventh month later called the month of Nissan…have you calculated how much time they would have spent in fulfilling these feasts to the Lord? There wouldn't have been much time for anything else! And a huge message is being sent: God is more important than work; He's more important than your time — in fact, all time belongs to Him; and He is to be woven into the fabric of our calendar, and He is to take priority over our work.
Now I am fully aware that this feast time makes sense in an agricultural society in which after the time of harvest and before the time of seed sowing the farmer has less to do than any other time of the year. And I fully appreciate that many pagan agricultural societies have these kinds of festivals. And I fully appreciate that one motive of God's appointing these festivals for Israel in this time frame is precisely so that they don't get involved in the pagan festivals going on around them (which were also often wrapped up into the worship of false gods), and that He is directing their attention to the true God.
Nevertheless, the chapter before chapter 29 not only speaks of the festivals that are going to be held during the seventh month, which is between harvest and seed time, but speaks to the various weekly and monthly Sabbaths that are to be observed, so that in chapters 28 and 29 we have a grand demonstration of a God who weaves Himself into the time frame of the whole of Israel's year; that He is to be worshiped in the framework of all of their time, and that He is more important than their work.
Boy, is that a message that we need to hear today! Agricultural societies at least had this going for them: there was a natural rhythm that helped them take a break every once in a while. There was only so much that could be done in certain parts of the year. It is not so today. Today if you want to, and if you are physically capable of it, you can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, 365 days a year. You can work all the time.
J.C. Ryle once said, “There are but a few steps down from no Sabbath to no God.” Do you know what he means by that? That if there is not a regular pattern in which you are devoting yourself in worship and praise with the whole of who you are to the living God, He will cease to be a living reality in your life. You will have moved from no day of worship to the true God, to no God.
And you see what Israel is having done here in the very schedule of their yearly calendar? God has woven himself into that schedule, and alongside of all the weekly Sabbaths, He has woven in these other ceremonies and festivals to remind them that He is more important than their work and more important than their time. And that is a truth that is just as real for us today as believers.
Even though we don't have anything corresponding to their harvest festivals, we do have something corresponding to their weekly Sabbaths. We call it the Lord's Day. And on that day as we gather and worship the living God morning and evening, we declare to the world, to the families, to our friends, and to ourselves: God is more important than our work, and He's more important than our time.
Do you realize you’re sending that message to young people? If young people come into the meeting house and sit through a sermon and they don't understand anything that is said, and they hear songs sung that they don't understand a word of, yet nevertheless do you know what young people are able to look around and see? They are able to look around and see adults through their actions declaring that God is more important than anything in this world. And by the grace of God they will not miss that message if we're here, if we're gathering on the Lord's Day to worship the living God. That's what we're doing on the Lord's Day. We’re declaring that God is more important than our work and more important than our time.
II. Your worship requires sacrifice, because you are a sinner.
There's a second message that we see in this passage, and that message is simply this: Your worship requires sacrifice, because you’re a sinner. Did you see how many times in the Feast of Tabernacles that the phrase was repeated about the “male goat for a sin offering”? And in fact, the instructions about the burnt offering pertain to this as well. Over and over in the repeated language of this passage it is emphasized that in worship we are declaring God to be more important than anything in this world–more important than our work, more important than our time. But we can't actually enter into that worship without sacrifice, because we're sinners. And so the very act of worshiping God for the Israelite required that the Israelite acknowledge that he or she is a sinner.
Now we've got something that parallels that at First Presbyterian Church. It's called “the first question of membership.” Do you know what the first question of membership at First Pres is?
“Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope except in His sovereign mercy?”
And what I love to tell our young people is this: that that means that you can't be a member of First Presbyterian Church if you’re good. We don't allow good people to join First Presbyterian Church. We only allow sinners to join First Presbyterian Church, because the very requisite for worshiping the true God aright is that you acknowledge that you are in need of His saving grace because you’re a sinner.
And the very sacrificial system of Israel was designed to reinforce that truth, that their worship required sacrifice because they were sinners. And our worship requires sacrifice because we are sinners. This is huge, especially in our culture.
I think I shared with you the remarkable statement that our friend Al Mohler, who was here with us not long ago, shared with us as we gathered for the Gospel Conference in 2006, when he said,
“In our culture, most people think that their problems derive from something that has been done to them, that their big problems in life result from something that has been done to them. That is, something from the outside of them has done something to them, and that is the origin of their problem. And the solution to that problem is to do something inside of themselves in order to cope with what has been done to them from the outside.”
And he went on to say that makes it really hard for them to understand the gospel, because the gospel disagrees 180 degrees with both that diagnosis and that prescription. The gospel says your problem is not outside of you, your problem is inside of you; and the answer is not inside of you, the answer is outside of you.
So whereas the world says there is an alien problem and there is an inner solution, the gospel says, no, there is an inner problem and there is an alien solution: the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to you.
And the whole sacrificial system–isn't it glorious?–is designed to make sure that Israel gets that! The problem is you, it's your sin. The answer is not you, the answer is something else. The answer is a sacrifice. And that's just woven in the fabric of how Israel thinks, because of the sacrificial system. And it's woven into how we ought to think as Christians because every Lord's Day one of the things that we do is — what? We confess our sins. And we joyfully announce that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only mediator, He is the only one who can bring about our reconciliation with the heavenly Father and can bring about the forgiveness of our sins. And it's woven into the fabric of what we do every Lord's Day. And there's a reason for it, and we see that even in the passage tonight. Worship requires sacrifice because we're sinners.
III. God is in charge of how He is to be worshiped.
Third, very quickly. One thing that's so obvious in this passage with all its detail and all of its repetition is this: God is in charge of how He is to be worshiped.
God is in charge of how He is to be worshiped. One of the ways that I learned that my mother was in charge when I was growing up is that she would repeat several times the instructions that she had given to me that I was to follow in fulfilling certain tasks that were part of my weekly chores. And she demonstrated her authority and sovereignty over me by feeling free to mention two, three, or seven times exactly what it was that I was going to do.
Now how many times do we have to be told in this passage that at the time of the offering of the thirteen bulls that there were to be three tenths of an ephah for each bull, two tenths for the rams, and one tenth for the lambs? But it's repeated over and over and over again. And what message is sent? God is in charge of how we worship. He's the one who is in charge here, and He doesn't just say it once. He says it twice, and He says it again, and then He starts saying, ‘Yeah, and you remember the prescribed quantities that I gave you earlier in the chapter. You do it this way.’ God is in charge of how we worship.
And why is that important? It's important because of the previous point. It's important because of point two. Everything that God has appointed in worship is designed to work deep into our hearts a truth about Him, about ourselves, about Christ, and about salvation that He does not want us to miss. And therefore, it is vital that we worship the way that God says. We worship by His word. We read His word, we proclaim His word, we sing His word, we pray His word. We see His word publicly manifested in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. And all of these things teach us who God is, what our need is, what the answer to our need is, who Christ is, how we are saved. Over and over and over in God's word He teaches us these things, and that's why it's so important that we worship the way that God has said in His word. And that's why it is so important that God is in charge of how He is to be worshiped.
IV. Perfect fulfillment.
One last thing: Does it blow you away when you get to Hebrews 9 and 10? I really wish that I could read the whole of those two chapters for you tonight. Doesn't it blow you away when you get to Hebrews 9 and 10 how the author of Hebrews quietly steps up to the microphone of his little church in Palestine [I'm speaking anachronistically…it was 2,000 years ago]…He quietly steps up to the microphone of his little congregation in Palestine, and he clears his throat and he says, “Ahem…None of all those sacrifices forgave one single sin. None of all those sacrifices forgave even the part of one single sin.” In one sentence he says it. Do you remember what he says? “For the blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sins….” And therefore these sacrifices, because they accomplish nothing by way of our forgiveness, pointed to the one sacrifice that did.
Think of it, friends. All the sacrifices that the Jewish priesthood ever offered resulted in the forgiveness of no sins. But the one sacrifice offered by the Lord Jesus Christ resulted in the forgiveness of all the sins of all those who believe on God's word for salvation who have ever lived. And that's what Hebrews 9 and 10 is about.
As we read about these sacrifices in intricate detail, in mind-numbing repetition, we're being pointed to “the one sacrifice which was once for all,” the author of Hebrews says–the Lord Jesus Christ.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament, but most of all for who it pointed to. We pray in His name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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