There’s a story tucked away in the heart of the writings of Moses, which describes a man gathering sticks in the wilderness. He is apprehended and eventually condemned for his actions – stoned by the entire community. What’s the big deal? Why was this man really treated so harshly? On the face of it, doesn’t seem like malevolent. So, what’s the big problem?
The account is found in Numbers 15:32 – 36: “While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
What’s the big deal? There are several things to consider:
- The man was gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.
The Sabbath day, was the seventh day of the week. This was the day, set apart by God as a day of rest since his creation of the world. It was also the day especially emphasized by God through Moses in the 10 Commandments. The Sabbath was “holy” – distinct from all other days. (Since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, this day of rest for people and worship of God, has changed from the seventh day to the first day of the week – as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.)
- Those who apprehended him recognized his actions as a violation of God’s law. This, the fourth commandment, is not only the longest but has the most rationale and explanation of any of the commandments. While Exodus 20 focuses the rationale on God’s pattern of creation, Deuteronomy 6 emphasizes God’s redemption.
- The Congregation of the people of Israel concurred that his actions were rebellious and recognized his need to be punished. The writings of Moses repeatedly stress the sanctity of the Sabbath day. In fact, Exodus 20 prohibited all work on the Sabbath. While Exodus 35 forbids the lighting of a fire on the Sabbath. All of Israel knew of the prohibition. His rebellion is aggravated by the fact that the law was recently received by the people of Israel.
- The LORD personally pronounced the guilty verdict, but also the severe sentence. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” Taken by itself, this penalty may seem arbitrary. But a closer look reveals a different story. Much of the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are taken up with the details of God’s law. These laws are usually classified as moral (having to do with God’s moral character and his will for his people), ceremonial (having to do with the ceremonies of the tabernacle prescribed by God) and civil (having to do with the community of God’s people). In this section of the book of Numbers, unintentional sins are being contrasted and compared to intentional sins. Intentional sins are referred to as “high-handed.” These are brash, deliberate acts of defiance against God.
Now consider V.30 and the words God uses to describe this sort of rebellion. “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”” (Numbers 15:30–31)
These are strong words: reviles the LORD, despised the word of the LORD, broken his commandment. They describe personal animosity and rebellion against the LORD. Do you remember what the rebellious Israelite was doing? He was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. The activity itself does not seem particularly heinous, at least in our culture. So, we are back to the original question: what’s the big deal? Why is this activity so pernicious that it requires a penalty of stoning?
Essentially, what makes this action wrong is that it is prohibited or forbidden by God. God declared that it must not be done. So, doing something God forbids is against the will of the LORD. At the heart of it is defiance and rebellion. Consider the words, God uses to describe it: revile and despise.
- Revile – the Hebrew word is usually translated blaspheme or slander.
- Despise – the Hebrew word means to disdain, hold in contempt, literally, to regard as having no value – worthless.
Further, notice the personal aspects. These actions are against the LORD and against his word. The actions are against his person. These actions are personally against him. And he takes personal offense at this rebellion. Defiance is against him! They are in his face. Not only so, but they are committed by one who is considered among God’s people – a member of God’s covenant community, one who knows better, but is bent on rebellion against the LORD.
Consider the consistent action of God against such rebellion: Aaron sons who offered strange fire to the Lord (Numbers 3), immediately after receiving instructions about proper worship. Saul the first King of Israel, who was told to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). He disobeyed and forfeited the kingship for himself and family. In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira, tested the Holy Spirit and lied to God. Both were individually struck down.
To some, this punishment may seem harsh. But God is holy and just; he takes obedience and disobedience to his word seriously. In each of the above-mentioned instances, the rebels were “in God’s face.” God takes rebellion against him as vehement anger, insubordination and insolence, especially from those who claim to belong to him. Although he might not administer immediate justice, he will call to account those who resist him.
At this point you may be thinking that these truths apply to someone else – to flagrant offenders, to anyone but yourself. And you would be correct. They do apply to deliberate wrongdoers. However, the universal problem of all people is that we are those belligerent rascals.
Scripture paints a dismal portrait of us: “… as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3: 10 – 18, ESV)
We don’t have to look very far to see a self-portrait – we are accurately described by these words. Left to ourselves, we do not seek after God. We turn aside from him. Our speech is full of curses and bitterness. We run after things which bring ruin and destruction. There is no fear of God in our eyes. Paul goes on, “… The whole world will be held accountable to God.” (Romans 3.19)
Fortunately, God has provided the way for our guilt to be forgiven:
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:23–26, ESV)
Observe two things regarding God’s forgiveness:
- Propitiation by his blood – propitiation is the appeasement of God’s anger against sin. God’s righteous rage against sin is satisfied by the blood of Christ Jesus. Jesus paid the guilt which sinners owe to God. He has taken our penalty – he died in our place.
- Forgiveness is received by faith in Christ. God’s gift of grace – our justification – is received by trusting in Christ alone for forgiveness. God no longer holds guilt against those who are trusting in the death of Jesus for pardon.
God takes disobedience seriously. He regards it as defiance and insolence. To us, sin might not seem like such a big deal. But it is. If it were not for Christ we would be hopelessly condemned to face God’s righteous indignation. But, because of God’s great grace and love for us, he has provided a way of forgiveness. Jesus died to pay the guilt of rebels like me and like you. He was punished in our place. This forgiveness must be received by trusting in Jesus and in him alone.
Our rebellion and defiance against God might not seem like much to us. It’s heinousness is seen in the cost of our forgiveness – the awful death of Jesus Christ on the cross.