Communion with God and His People through Sacrifice

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Scripture Readings: Numbers 28-29 (Text) • 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
Download Order of Worship here.
November 29, 2009

Introduction

priestsacrifice275Chapters 28 and 29 of the Book of Numbers continue the story of Israel’s long encampment in the plains of Moab from Chapters 22-36, just before they entered the Promised Land of Canaan. The events in these chapters were situated 40 years after Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

You might recall that in Numbers 15, God detailed before Moses the various sacrifices and offerings required for different reasons, which included performing vows and atoning for sins. These two chapters differ from Chapter 15 in that God instructed Moses on what offerings to give during the Hebrew calendar year. He gave Israel instructions about what sacrifices—and in what quantities—they had to offer daily, on the Sabbaths, monthly, and on their annual festivals. These sacrifices were to be offered in the tabernacle in the wilderness  and then in the Jerusalem Temple by the priests on behalf of a sinful people.

Someone had calculated the enormous amount of sacrifices during the year: 113 bulls, 1,086 lambs, over a ton of flour, and 1,000 bottles of oil and wine! If you think this was an excessive amount of sacrifices to God, read 2 Chronicles 7:5, when King Solomon dedicated the newly-built Jerusalem Temple. The king offered as a sacrifice 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep! Projecting from the number of lambs sacrificed, the Temple dedication could have cost Solomon over 100 tons of flour and 100,000 bottles of oil and wine!

The sacrifices were burnt offerings, sin offerings, and peace offerings. In addition to the animals being sacrificed, a grain offering of flour and oil, and a drink offering of wine had to be made. All of these sacrifices were established by God all throughout the old covenant redemptive history so that his people may have communion and fellowship with him. And this communion is summarized in the covenant formula, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

All of these ancient bloody sacrifices were just shadows of the reality that was yet to come: the first coming of Christ when he came down from heaven and offered himself up as a Lamb upon the altar to atone for the sins of his people. Today, we do not offer bloody sacrifices in our worship because our sacrifices are of praise and thanksgiving in the form of Scripture readings and exposition, songs, prayers, material gifts and consecrated lives. And when Christ returns a second time from heaven, all of the sacrifices in Biblical history and our communion with God would be perfected.

This afternoon, we will study the theme, “Communion with God and His People through Sacrifice”

1. Yesterday’s Promise
2. Today’s Fulfillment
3. Tomorrow’s Perfection

Yesterday’s Promise

Two significant things can serve as a preface to the explanation of Israel’s calendar year and its accompanying festivals and sacrifices.

The first is the Reformed regulative principle of worship: we are to worship God only in the way that he prescribes in his word. In all of our studies through the Book of Numbers, notice that God’s instructions to Moses on how Israel must worship him were given down to the last minutest details: the precise number of animals, what kind they were, how much flour, oil, water and wine must be given, and how all of these offerings were to be prepared.

To summarize all the instructions by God to Moses, Numbers 29:40 says, “So Moses told the people of Israel everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (emphasis added). In the matter of corporate worship, God did not leave anything to the discretion of his people. Our confessions affirm this principle:

Heidelberg Catechism 96: Q. What does God require in the second Commandment? A. That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1: The acceptable way of worshiping the true God has been instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations or innovations of men, or the suggestions of Satan, or under any visible representation, or any other way not commanded in Holy Scripture.

We are not to invent rituals, songs, prayers, drama, or any other gimmick not found in God’s word to worship him, however sincere we may be in using them.

Second, God was also reminding his people that his promise stands, and nothing can change or resist what he was going to do: give the land of Canaan to his people. Even before they entered the land, the people were prepared for a Word-driven life in the Promised Land. How the people must have been assured of God’s promise when God gave them instructions on how to worship him after they inherited the land!

The main thrust of Chapters 28 and 29 is Israel’s calendar year of worship. God gave them specific days, weeks and months in which to celebrate the different events in their life as a nation, from the time of their exodus from Egypt until they arrived in the Promised Land and settled there.

First, the priests were to offer morning and evening sacrifices daily, because day by day, his people sinned. In many Reformed churches, there are morning and evening worship services on Sundays, and this is partly due to this Old Testament pattern.

Second, weekly Sabbaths were also occasions for worship sacrifices. The Sabbath was a special day of worship and rest from all of their labors at home and in the field.

Third, the first day of the month—every new moon—was also a holy day marked by sacrifices, rest from work (Amos 8:5), and family worship (1 Sam 20:5-6).

Fourth and last, Moses also gave instructions as to the various annual feasts in Israel. During the first month, they were to perform three Feasts: Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firsfruits. The Passover feast, which begins on the fourteenth day, was a commemoration of the redemption of their firstborn sons on the night that the angel of death destroyed all the firstborn sons of Egypt. The Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which began on the fifteenth day, also commemorated how the people ate unleavened bread in haste during the Passover meal. The Feast of Firstfruits was a thanksgiving to God for the harvest of the field when the people brought a sheaf from the firstfruits to the priest which he waved before God.

On the third month, on the day after seven Sabbaths—fifty days—after the Passover, Israel was to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. On this day, the people would bring two loaves of bread, “a grain offering of new grain to the Lord” (Num 28:26). Later Jewish tradition ascribed this festival to the day that God gave the old covenant laws to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:12-13).

The seventh month was Israel’s holiest month of the year, when three solemn festivals were celebrated: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Trumpets marked the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), when trumpets were sounded, a holy assembly was held, and sacrifices were offered. The blowing of trumpets was also symbolic of the people’s plea to God to remember Israel (Num 10:10).

The first ten days of this month were the most holy days of the year,which culminated on the tenth day, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in Israel. Once a year, on this day, the high priest entered the holy of holies and offered bloody sacrifices for his own sins and for the sins that the people have committed during the past year.

Then on the fifteenth day of the month, the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles began. On these days, the Israelites dwelt in booths or tents to remember their wilderness wanderings after they escaped from Egypt, during which they dwelt in temporary camps for 40 years. Then on the eighth day of the festival, they gathered for a holy assembly before God with their offerings and sacrifices.

In all of these, bloody animal sacrifices, grain and wine were involved. What were the sacrifices and offerings for? They were offered so that the people may be forgiven of their sins and therefore be allowed to come to worship and commune with God. Without the sacrifices, they would be consumed by God’s wrath if they came close to God (Exod 19:21).

God commands us to worship him regularly and continually. His word is the standard by which our worship would be acceptable to him. We are to offer sacrifices to him to be able to come before him in worship and thanksgiving.

But what kind of sacrifices are we to offer to God today?

Today’s Fulfillment

Today, we offer sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving and consecrated lives, not bloody animal sacrifices, in our worship. This is because Jesus Christ is our True Sacrifice whose blood atoned for all sin forever, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26).

When we think of Christ’s bloody offering of his life on the cross, we see many similarities and contrasts, as well as fulfillment of Old Testament sacrificial laws and ordinances.

First, just as the Old Testament sacrifices always involved the blood of sacrificial animals, Christ’s sacrifice was also a bloody offering of his own life. Throughout the whole history of God’s redemptive work, beginning from the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and finally to Christ, God instituted bloody animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. This is why the writer of Hebrews says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22).

Second, Christ’s sacrifice was offered only once, “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). But unlike the sacrifices offered repeatedly by Old Testament priests daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, his sacrifice was sufficient to atone for all the sins of all his people. On our Day of Atonement, our merciful and faithful High Priest did not offer sacrificial bulls and goats, but instead willingly offered his own body and blood to atone for our sin, knowing that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4).

What then of the Old Testament saints: how were they saved if the bloody sacrifices could not take away their sins? If this was so, why would God command them to perform a useless thing? It is because the bloody animal sacrifices only point to Christ’s bloody sacrifice, and his sacrifice was what made the Old Testament sacrifices effective in taking away sins. What Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17, 19—”And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… we are of all people most to be pitied”—is not true only for us on this side of the cross, but also for them on the far side of the cross.

Third, unlike the sacrifices offered by sinful priests, Christ’s sacrifice was offered not for his own sin,  because he had no sin: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). This is why the sacrificial lambs were to be “without blemish,” a theme repeated in Numbers 28 and 29 fifteen times. When John the Baptist introduced Jesus at his baptism, he proclaimed to the world, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). So Paul calls Christ our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7).

Fourth, Christ’s sacrifice was a “pleasing aroma to the Lord,” another great theme in these two chapters, repeated eleven times: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). His “burnt offering” sent such a fragrant aroma to heaven that God’s anger against our sin is soothed and appeased.

Fifth, there is a connection between Christ’s sacrifice and the eating of unleavened bread at Passover. Leaven in Scripture frequently signifies sin, disobedience, and false teaching. For example, Jesus warned his disciples, “’Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” referring to their false teachings (Matt 16:11-12). For us, eating unleavened bread is symbolic of resisting and fleeing from sin that comes into our lives. This is why Paul exhorts us, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8). Thus, whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that as a people already redeemed from slavery to sin, we are to avoid all kinds of disobedience and sin, and instead be obedient to God’s word of truth.

As God’s people, we have communion with him only when we offer our lives as “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” So Paul exhorts us not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” because a holy life is the only life that is “good and acceptable and perfect” before a holy God (Rom 12:1-2). All our human striving and wisdom, quiet times, worship services, and various ministries, when done outside of God’s revealed will and with selfish motives, would all be unacceptable to God, as shown in his condemnation of Israel’s sacrifices without repentance and obedience, “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.” As he called Israel to repent, he also commands us today, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil” (Isa 1:14, 16).

Sixth and last, since Christ has already freed us from slavery to sin, we are to rest from all of our labors. Notice that the number seven is a key word in these two chapters: seven male lambs, seven days, seventh day, seventh month. God commanded Israel to make the seventh day holy, to set it apart from other days, because on it he rested from all his work of creation. Christ is our rest, this is why he calls us to cease from our labors to gain heaven, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-29).

Notice also that the Feast of Tabernacles was to be celebrated for seven days as Israel dwelt in tents for seven days, commemorating their hardship in their wilderness wanderings. But on the eighth day, they would mark the end of the festival by a holy convocation. At the end of their wilderness travel, the Israelites entered the Promised Land and rested from their pilgrimage filled with hunger, thirst, disease, rebellion, plagues, and wars.

We too celebrate our day of rest every Lord’s Day. And the day that we use is the day that Christ resurrected from the grave—the day after the seventh day, the eighth day. Because Christ gave us rest from sin and temptation on the day that he rose from the grave, we commune with God on this day, offering him our sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, and consecrated lives.

Because he is our resurrected Sacrifice who went up to heaven bodily before us, Christ is also called the Firstfruits. We who belong to Christ will also be raised from the dead by our Firstfruits when he returns to take us to our heavenly Promised Land (1 Cor 15:20, 23).

Tomorrow’s Perfection

As the Feast of Trumpets announced the arrival of Israel’s New Year, so will the trumpet of God announce the return of your King and the beginning of your rest in the new heaven and new earth. In that heavenly city, there will be no Temple, because God Almighty and the Passover Lamb is the Temple. And because there will be no Temple, there will be no feasts with animal sacrifices.

As you are gathered before God in heaven, you are called as people who “have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev 14:14). You are also firstfruits of Christ, because he will gather all of you from all the four corners of the earth.

Your festivals will not be like the ancient Jewish festivals, because the festivals in heaven will be for eternity. They will not be solemn memorials but joyful assemblies, because Christ will be with you there, face to face, with all his saints. You will commune and fellowship with him without end. He will dwell with you there, because he is your God, and you are his people.

You will celebrate the eternal enthronement of your Lamb without blemish, singing a new song of praise, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12) This Lamb is also the conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, who will finally make all his enemies his footstool as his throne and kingdom is established forever.

On that day, after he treads all his enemies underfoot, the Lamb without blemish who is also the Lion of Judah will present you to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [you] might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). You will “com[e] down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2). On that day, there will be a wedding feast prepared by the Bridegroom to honor you the Bride of Christ, “for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7). This is the only festival that will be celebrated in heaven, because all the other Biblical festivals, together with their bloody sacrifices, would have been fulfilled and perfected by your True Sacrifice.

Finally, when that day comes, you shall enter God’s rest in the heavenly city, after your pilgrimage in this barren wilderness is over, because all of your former mourning, crying and pain will have passed away. All your sufferings would finally come to an end, “for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:10).

You who rest from your good works to get to heaven will find rest in Christ and have full communion and fellowship with God and his people. But to those of you who depend on your own good works to get to heaven and have communion with God, you will never find your rest, because Christ is your only True Rest. Trust only in Christ, because he is the Passover Lamb who will redeem you from your slavery to sin and who will give rest to your weary souls.

Amen.

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