Israel is making preparations for leaving Mount Sinai, traveling through the wilderness, so that they may come to the promised land. As preparations are made in dividing up the camp and counting the people, the first message to the people is that God must be in the center on this journey. But there is another important message God gives to the people throughout this passage as preparations are made to depart. The message is dangerous holiness. Let us spend our time looking at this important message regarding the holiness of God.
Holiness Pictured (1:47-54)
Before we look at Numbers 5-6 we need to come back to chapter 1 to see the beginning of this message about God’s holiness. In Numbers 1:53 God instructs that the Levites will camp around the tabernacle so that there may be no wrath on the congregation. The Levites are pictured as a buffer between the holiness of God and the unholy people of Israel. God continues to proclaim a message that was shown throughout the book of Exodus: people cannot approach God. Moses could not approach the burning bush. Israel could not approach Mount Sinai. Now Israel cannot approach the tabernacle. The picture continues to show the people’s need for a priest. The holiness of God is so high and so serious that in Numbers 1:51 a person will die if he or she comes near the tabernacle. The holiness of God is so extreme that the only result for coming near to God is death. It is a staggering picture. The precautions are the same as at Mount Sinai. God is so holy that people cannot come near to God. Only sanctified priests who have been approved by God can come near on behalf of the people. This brings us to Numbers 5-6 where holiness is taught to the people.
Be Holy (5:1-31)
There are three sections in Numbers 5 that teach about implications of God’s holiness upon the people. The tabernacle represented a holy God living in the midst of his people. To travel to the promised land it is absolutely critical for the people to understand how holy God is. This is the focus for Numbers 5-6.
In Numbers 5:1-4 we learn that people will skin diseases must be put outside the camp. Defilements must be placed the furthest away from the presence of God, as represented by the tabernacle. Not only this, if your body was having some kind of discharge or you had touched a corpse you had to also be put of the camp, away from the presence of God. It should be a shocking picture to us. In none of these instances had the people done something wrong. You cannot help if your skin begins to have some sort of discoloration or bumpiness. You cannot help if you are having a bodily discharge. For females this would happen every month. You also cannot help touching a corpse. If a family member died, you had to touch the body for burial. The body could not be left in the house. Joseph of Arimathea had to handle the body of Jesus after he was crucified. Defilement is not only a picture of sinning against God, but also just being human. The message is simple: humanity cannot approach the holy God. Further, defilements must be cast out of the presence of God.
This is a clear New Testament picture as well. In describing the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21 where there is no temple because the temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (21:22) we read:
But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27 ESV)
God is setting forward a critical message that because God is extremely holy, his people must be holy to be in his presence. Nothing unclean can be near God. Nothing detestable and nothing false can be near the presence of God. This picture of God’s holiness is not simply an Old Testament concept but a permanent concept about who God is.
God’s holiness not only immediately declares our defilement because we are human but also because we sin. But notice the way the Lord describes sin in verse 6. Sin is described as “breaking faith with the Lord.” Sin is pictured as an act of treachery against the Lord. But notice this idea more carefully. When we sin against another person, the Lord says we are breaking faith with him. We are dealing treacherously with the Lord when we sin against other people. There is no division between sinning against God or sinning against others. Sinning against others is being unfaithful to your Lord. God is telling the people that on this journey to the promised land, what you do to other people is what you are doing to the Lord himself. Jesus taught the very same message in Matthew 25:31-46.
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40 ESV)
Again, we see a picture that saying sorry is not repentance. The sin committed must be confessed and full restitution must be made (5:7). Not only must full restitution be made, but 20% must be added and given to the person wronged. Notice confession is not just words. True confession is a repentance of the heart that desires to put things right with God and with others. This is the picture Jesus gave in Matthew 5:23-24 that we would come to worship and think of a sin we committed against another, leaving our gift at the altar and reconciling with our brother. Worship and fellowship with God is only sincere and acceptable to God when sin has been faced, confessed, and fully dealt with. Saying sorry is never good enough in the scriptures. Sinning against a person is sinning against the Lord and confession along with restitution must be made.
The third picture of the problem of adultery. If there is a sin that violates the trust of another person greatest, it may be the sin of adultery. Adultery is described in verse 12 as breaking faith with one’s spouse. Highlighting adultery now communicates the seriousness of marital unfaithfulness in God’s sight. Adultery is a lack of holiness and a pollution of the camp. A procedure is given by God to protect the innocent against unfounded charges as much as it brought the guilty to justice. This shows that sin problems need to be dealt with. Further, God knows your sin, even if the one offended cannot prove it. God knows your innocence, even if the one accused cannot prove it. The procedure is put forward to prevent the idea of sneaking around and hiding your adulterous sins. Suspicion of adultery could be brought before the Lord. Let us not forget God’s view of adultery as declared in Leviticus.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 ESV)
Through these commands God is calling for a holy people. God is extreme holiness. His holiness is dangerous to humanity if we try to approach him. God’s extreme holiness demands a holiness to be in the camp. To go to the promised land with the Lord in our minds, we must be holy as the Lord is holy.
Set Apart For God (6:1-21)
The next instructions may seem out of place, yet fit perfectly with the holiness of God. In Numbers 6:2 we see that a person could make a special vow called a Nazarite vow. Notice that the purpose of the vow was to separate oneself to the Lord. In fact, you will notice that this is the repeated phrase in this paragraph. A person who takes this vow is separating himself to the Lord (6:1,5,6,7,8,12). The person took this vow because it was the person’s desire to be set apart for the Lord. It was a vow that was completely voluntarily, coming from the desire for the Lord from the heart. A person had to separate himself from wine, grape products, and the dead (6:3-4,7). Further, one would not cut the hair while under the vow to indicate one’s separation to the Lord (6:5).
The message of the vow is that the individual is saying that God is more important than anyone or anything in this world. The person is making the declaration that they treasure God. God is treasured above everything. But I want to observe that this vow had two important components. The person had the desire to honor and that honor of God was expressed in self-denial. The point is that you cannot honor God and set yourself apart to the Lord without self-denial. It is a clear, important message of Jesus. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself” (Matthew 16:24). We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). Honoring God requires self-denial. Holiness requires self-denial. Separating ourselves for God requires self-denial.
The big picture is the dangerous holiness of God. No one can approach because God is so holy. Further, we cannot begin to comprehend how defiled we are. We are defiled because we are human and God is divine. We are defiled because we have sinned repeated and broken faith with God while God is perfect and is always faithful. We are defiled because we break faith with other people, even those we have committed ourselves to be in a lifelong marriage covenant. But God keeps the marriage covenant with us though we are defiled. As much as we try to set ourselves apart for service to God and to be holy, we fall woeful and dreadfully short.
This is what makes what Jesus did so amazing and precious. Jesus comes and touches the unclean and makes them clean. Jesus comes to touch the unholy to make them holy. Jesus touches lepers. Jesus touches a woman with a flow of blood. Jesus gives life to the dead. Jesus is the one who heals and cleanses us from our defilements and yet does not become defiled like us. Jesus is reversing the curse. Jesus is erasing our defilements.
This is the beauty of what is pictured in Jesus. Turn back to Revelation 21 and let’s look at that passage again. Look at Revelation 21:22 as the new Jerusalem and the new temple are described.
22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 21:22–22:5 ESV)
Because of the cleansing of Jesus, we are no longer separated from the presence of the Lord, with no ability to approach because of our unholiness. Notice that the gates are never shut. The glory of the nations (the Gentiles) enter it. Now look at verse 4. “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” Because of Jesus we can do the impossible. We come near and stay in his presence. We can worship in his presence. We will see his face. This only happens because Jesus has cleansed us. Remember at the beginning of the lesson we noted that only sanctified priests who have been approved by God can come near. That is us! We can approach the extreme, dangerous holiness of God because Jesus has made us clean. Jesus has changed everything. Let us praise Jesus, worship Jesus, and give our lives to Jesus for he has given us so much.