A warning against rebelling against God appointed leaders

Text Numbers 16 Time 16/09/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church
I want us to return tonight to our studies in Numbers. We have now reached the midpoint of the book and the emphasis is here on the worship of God and its centrality. Therefore it must be done in the right way.
We left off last time at Numbers 15 and in Numbers 16 we return to the storyline. Here we find a Levite called Korah and certain Reubenites, Dathan and Abiram and On, rebelling against the God appointed leadership of Moses and Aaron. This is not the first rebellion reported. Back in Chapter 12 we were told how Aaron and Miriam also rebelled and some of the points we made then we will be making again. In Chapters 11 and 14 the people also grumble and complain.
We are not raising this subject because I have heard that someone has been complaining or criticising. Indeed, the years I have been pastor here have, on the whole, been happy years when opposition from within the congregation has been almost unheard of. No, we raise this subject because it is here in God's Word and there is a need for us to at least be familiar with the subject even if we never have any close personal knowledge of it. Only this last week Robert and I were with a minister who has sadly had to tender his resignation because of opposition to his ministry. He has been patient and has tried to resolve the issue but now feels he is left with no choice but to resign. It does happen.
There are a number of points to make from the passage.
1. Expect opposition to God appointed leaders to arise from time to time
The rebels are named as Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi and a cousin of Moses and Aaron who conspired with certain Reubenites - Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth. It says that they became insolent but this is a bit of a guess. What it actually says is that they took something. Perhaps it is best to translate “they took action”. What they did was they rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. So here is a minor but significant rebellion against the God appointed leader Moses. Such a rebellion was no doubt fuelled by jealousy and is really a rebellion against God himself.
What happens is that they come
as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron saying You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD's assembly?
At the end of Chapter 15 God says that the people are holy. These rebels seem to have taken this truth and twisted it so that they are prepared to argue that Moses and Aaron have somehow done something illegitimate by acting as leaders.
It is typical of such people that they will take a biblical truth and twist in such a way that it is made a pretext for rebellion. The examples are obvious. People say all God's people are holy so the church should be run as a democracy. Or they say all God's people are holy so why shouldn't women be preachers and ministers as well as men? Or they say all God's people are holy so why should there be ministers at all? (as was said by the Plymouth Brethren in the nineteenth century).
Such so called arguments may appear to have some logic but in fact they are not logical at all but an excuse for rebellion. We must not be taken in by them. God appoints men to lead his people. It is our duty to accept their leadership not to rebel and make it difficult for them.
2. Learn the correct way for leaders to react to such opposition
In verses 4-11 we see how Moses reacts to this rebellion. There are three elements to note.
1. There must be humble prayer
The first thing Moses does on hearing this is to fall (4) facedown. Some think he is simply overwhelmed and merely crumples at this new onslaught. It is much more likely that be is in fact expressing his humility and looking to God in prayer. That is certainly the first thing any leader should do if he is under attack.
2. Such men must look to the Lord for their vindication
No doubt it was God's leading in answer to Moses's prayer that led him to then say to Korah and all his followers what we read in verses 5-7
In the morning the LORD will show who belongs to him and who is holy, and he will have that person come near him. The man he chooses he will cause to come near him. You, Korah, and all your followers are to do this: Take censers and tomorrow put burning coals and incense in them before the LORD. The man the LORD chooses will be the one who is holy ….
One of the duties of the priesthood in those days was to offer incense in metal censers designed for the purpose. Here is a simple test then of who is authorised to do this work.
The Tabernacle and Temple have now been replaced and perhaps tests are not so easy to arrange but the Lord will vindicate his servants either in the immediate of the long term future. We need not doubt that.
You may know the name of Jonathan Edwards. He was one of the greatest preachers whoever lived. Nevertheless he was dismissed from his church in eighteenth century New England because for conscience' sake he refused to comply with the will of the majority and give communion to people who did not profess to be converted. It was no easy thing to leave his church at such a time but he was willing to do so and in due time has been vindicated many times over.
Something similar could be said of C H Spurgeon who felt compelled to resign from the Baptist Union when it continually refused to do something about the false teaching that was riddling Baptist churches up and down the country in the nineteenth century. He said at the time “I am quite willing to be eaten by dogs for the next fifty years but the more distant future shall vindicate me” and he was right, of course.
This year sees the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of what is called the Great Ejection when 2000 ministers were forced to resign from the Church of England because they refused to submit to the terms imposed on them by the government. It is another example of opposition to God appointed leaders where the situation looked hopeless at the time but in which such men in time saw their vindication in due time so that churches like this one are perfectly within the law and are tolerated by the state.
God will vindicate his own no matter what men may say.
3. Rebels must be rebuked
Moses also rebukes these people. He says some interesting things. At the end of verse 7 he says You Levites have gone too far! The rebels had said to Moses You have gone too far! But now he says “No. It is you who have gone too far”. When he says to Korah, Now listen, you Levites! He is concentrating on the ring leader and his companions. He says in verse 9
Isn't it enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the Israelite community and brought you near himself to do the work at the LORD's tabernacle and to stand before the community and minister to them? He has brought you and all your fellow Levites near himself, but now you are trying to get the priesthood too. It is against the LORD that you and all your followers (you congregation) have banded together. Who is Aaron that you should grumble against him?
They are bidding to go higher than God had placed them and are forming a new little congregation of their own. It often happens like that.
3. Expect opposition to God appointed leaders often to continue among God's people
One might have thought that the humble prayer, the looking to the Lord and the rebuke would have had an effect but no. When Moses summons them, they refuse to come (12) Isn't it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? they say referring to Egypt (13, 14) And now you also want to lord it over us! Moreover, you haven't brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Do you want to treat these men like slaves? No, we will not come! They add then to the former argument that Moses is leading them to death and wants to enslave the people all over again. There is no substance to these statements but are a simple act of rebellion against God and his rule.
Attempts to bring such rebels under some kind of discipline are often resisted. It is tempted then to say “Why bother?” Rather we should do what we can to maintain order while recognising that if God does not act then we will make little formal progress.
4. Learn how to test and sift the opposition
In verse 15 Moses is angry and says to the LORD in self defence "Do not accept their offering. I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them." Leaders ought to defend themselves before God as Paul does in the New Testament when he needs to.
Moses then says that Korah and his followers are to appear before the LORD the next day with Aaron.
17-20 Each man is to take his censer and put incense in it - 250 censers in all - and present it before the LORD. You and Aaron are to present your censers also. So each of them took his censer, put burning coals and incense in it, and stood with Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Korah had gathered all his followers in opposition to them at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the glory of the LORD appeared to the entire assembly and then said to Moses and Aaron Separate yourselves from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.
Again, a situation like this cannot be engineered anywhere near as easily in our day. However, the principle of separation and of making clear that there is a division must be followed. There is Korah and his followers and there is also the entire assembly who might side with them or with Moses and Aaron. At this point Moses and Aaron are on their own but no doubt the possibility of the assembly joining them is there. We must make such distinctions today where necessary. We try at first to work with the existing structures but where that is not possible then separation is necessary. We must come apart from those who seek to oppose God appointed leaders. It is often not easy to make a judgement but some sort of judgement needs to be made.
5. Remember that God will oppose those who oppose God appointed leaders therefore separate from such
The next thing we read is that faced with the imminent death of the assembly (22) Moses and Aaron fell facedown and cried out, O God, the God who gives breath to all living things, will you be angry with the entire assembly when only one man sins? Their argument is that it is only Korah and his followers who have rebelled, therefore the people should not all be killed at once.
It is always a very difficult issue when there are rebels. It is often difficult for the people to know who to side with, who is right.
And so God tells Moses to tell the people to separate themselves from the tents of the rebels. The call to separation from such rebellion is always there in Scripture. Move back from the tents of these wicked men! says God Do not touch anything belonging to them, or you will be swept away because of all their sins. So the people move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. It describes very movingly how Dathan and Abiram had come out and were standing with their wives, children and little ones at the entrances to their tents.
It comes then to a test of Moses authority before the people. Moses says (28-30)
This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.
And what happens?
31-33 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.
At their cries, we read all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, The earth is going to swallow us too! How frightening it must have been especially as we read too that fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
Now again we do not expect such displays of divine wrath today. There are cases where temporal judgements appear to follow acts against God leaders. An obvious example would be the way the ejection of the 2000 in 1662 was followed by the plague of 1665 and the great fire of 1666. Sometimes it is difficult to know what to think of certain happenings. Back in 1984 many were struck by the way a lightning bolt hit York minster two days after the consecration there of the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, a notorious denier of basic Christian truth.
These things are difficult to judge but what we can be sure of is that God will judge all those who dare to oppose leaders that he himself has appointed.
6. Recognise the importance of remembering such judgements
In verses 36-42 we read interestingly how Moses was instructed to tell
Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, to remove the censers from the charred remains and scatter the coals some distance away, for the censers are holy - the censers of the men who sinned at the cost of their lives. Hammer the censers into sheets to overlay the altar, for they were presented before the LORD and have become holy. Let them be a sign to the Israelites. So Eleazar the priest collected the bronze censers brought by those who had been burned to death, and he had them hammered out to overlay the altar, as the LORD directed him .... This was to remind the Israelites that no one except a descendant of Aaron should come to burn incense before the LORD, or he would become like Korah and his followers.
It is right that we remember God's judgements. Anyone who looked carefully at the alter in years to come would have seen the signs of those censers hammered into the very fabric. It would have reminded them vividly of the danger of rebellion and the judgement of God. We too ought to remember God's judgements – not just this one but others such as Sodom and Gomorrah and the sending of his people into exile and things too like the plague and the great fire.
7. Expect opposition to God appointed leaders to rumble on despite God's judgements
And so one would expect with this great judgement that would silence the grumblers and mark a new found respect for Moses and his leadership. But not at all. We read in verse 41 that The next day the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. You have killed the LORD's people, they said. Again this is typical when there has been a split or discipline has been exercised.
But again God intervenes (42-45)
But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned toward the tent of meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the tent of meeting, and the LORD said to Moses, Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once.
History is repeating itself so soon. But again Moses and Aaron fell facedown. Moses tells Aaron
Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started. So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them.
What a graphic picture we see (48) He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. However, 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah but Aaron returned to Moses at the entrance to the tent of meeting, for the plague had stopped.
We think of grumbling as a little sin but it is not really and unless our great High Priest atones for this sin and others like it then there is no hope for us.
Spurgeon relates Aesop's fable “A heavy wagon was being dragged along a country lane by a team of Oxen. The axle-trees groaned and creaked terribly, when the oxen, turning round, thus addressed the wheels: Hallo there! Why do you make so much noise? We bear all the labour, and we, not you, ought to cry out.”
He saysThose complain first in our churches who have the least to do. The gift of grumbling is largely dispensed among those who have no other talents, or who keep what they have wrapped up in a napkin.

Honouring and remembering the Lord

Text Numbers 15:32-41 Time 08/07/12 Place Childs Hill Baptist Church

We have now looked at most of Numbers 15 but we still have verses 32-41 to look at where we find two things that in different ways are not easy to look at and see what relevance they have to our lives today.
In the first section (32-36) a man is found deliberately desecrating the Sabbath by collecting firewood. The people are unsure what should be done to him at first but God directs that the man should be stoned to death, which is what happened.
The other section (37-41) is a ceremonial instruction about wearing tassels on the corners of their clothing. You will often see Jews with tassels hanging out. Often when I see them I think to myself Jesus must have worn them too. The idea is to remind them of God's laws.
The passages themselves are fairly straightforward. The question for us, of course, is what to do about them. Should we be putting Sabbath breakers to death or perhaps something less severe? Should we be wearing tassels on the corners of our clothing?
As we have often said before, this is the Old Testament law for God's people and now Jesus has come and brought in the new covenant in his blood then many things have changed. It would be foolish then to jump to conclusions about why God wants us to know these passages. Rather, we need to consider carefully what is said and how it applies today.
So let's look at the two sections and ask both what happened and what that has to teach us.
1. The ancient Sabbath and honouring the Lord
The context of verses 32-36 is important. In verses 30 and 31 we read these words, following on from what is said about dealing with inadvertent or unintended sins, But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the LORD and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the LORD's word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them. What we read in verses 32-36 appears to be an example of this law being put into practice. What happens is that
While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.
It is a Saturday then, the day of the Jewish Sabbath, the day when there was no manna, a double supply having fallen the day before. Nevertheless one man decides to go out and search for firewood. He cannot have not realised it was the Sabbath. This must have been deliberate. In Exodus 35:2, 3 God specifically says
For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death. Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.
As for what to do to a deliberate Sabbath breaker the law was again quite clear. In Exodus 31:14-17 God says
Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.
The only doubt was over exactly how this should be done. Perhaps this was the first time such a thing had happened and so there was some hesitancy. In verses 35 and 36 it is made quite clear what must be done.
Then the LORD said to Moses, The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp. So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.
The incident shocks us a little as in modern terms it sounds a little harsh. A man gets up one Sunday morning and decides to go to Sainsbury's or Tesco and buy a box of matches or some firelighters. He is arrested by the police and hanged the next day.
However, that is not really a perfect match. For a start, it is not as though a Sabbath in the desert was much like any other day or as though the man had to jostle with many others looking for firewood that day. He also knew that death was decreed for Sabbath breaking. Further, as we have seen, there was no forgiveness for deliberate sins under the old covenant and stoning was expected.
Then there is the fact that the Sabbath was a gift to Israel and one of the things that was meant to set them apart from other peoples as God's chosen.
Therefore, in modern terms it is not simply a man getting up one Sunday morning and deciding to go to Sainsbury's or Tesco to buy matches or firelighters but using those matches to burn a portrait of the queen and making hate speeches against her, against the country and its leaders and calling for people to rise up against the current regime. Even then the new covenant would not necessarily call for his death.
Further, there is no real detail in the New Testament about exactly how to keep the Sabbath. Buying matches is probably wrong unless one is doing it out of necessity or in connection with some act of piety or charity, when it certainly would not be wrong.
So the thing to learn here is to be thankful for the New Testament Sabbath, the Lord's Day, the day over which he continues to preside. Rather than wasting the day on things that are either wrong or questionable, be determined to give the day over as far as possible to honouring God and worshipping him. This is one way to really honour God and to grow in grace. One reason that we have two services on the Lord's Day is to help us keep the whole day to the Lord.
2. Ancient tassels and remembering the Lord
In verses 37-41 we read how the LORD spoke to Moses and told him to
speak to the Israelites and say to them: Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.
Having spoken of breaking commands inadvertently or on purpose God now speaks of how to remind oneself not to do such things. This was one fairly simple way the Israelites were able to honour the Lord. It meant that they had a constant, conscious reminder of God's commands before them. Every time they saw the tassels it would remind them of God's commands and the need to obey them. Like the single blue cord, they were to be different to others and serve the Lord, the God of heaven above, where the blue sky is seen. Wearing such clothing made them different in itself, of course. (The Jews later declared that even the blind were to wear tassels for the sake of others). The Pharisees, of course, later made the whole thing a source of sin as they made the tassels on their garments long.
Now under the new covenant in Christ although we are under an obligation to set one day in seven apart to God we are not under any obligation to wear tassels on our clothes. This is because in Christ the ceremonial and civil law has been fulfilled and it is only the moral law that continues to stand. This does not mean that we ignore the law about tassels entirely. The general point still stands and we need to find ways of reminding ourselves to keep God's commands. For most Christians that is going to be the daily reading of the Bible and prayer and similar Christian disciplines. Sometimes we can use certain items such as ornaments or pictures in the same way or songs that we sing or listen to. Whatever happens we must not forget God's commands or the need to obey them. We dare not fall into idolatry of any sort.
In John 14:26 Jesus speaks of the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, who will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. That verse applies firstly to the disciples and the commitment of Scripture to writing but it has a secondary meaning – it is a promise that the Spirit himself will help us to remember the commands of God. This does not mean that we need to make no effort but that our weak efforts will be aided by the Spirit himself.
The Lord's table of course, in which we are commanded by Jesus to remember him acts as a reminder specifically of the Lord's death and also proclaims (like tassels) his death to all. If we remember the Lord and his commands we can be sure he will always remember us.
Our God is a gracious God he offers us all kinds of helps to walk with him – the Lord's day, the memory of his Word. Let's make full use of all he has provided and serve him.