Wilderness years

Numbers 14

The journey from slavery to the Promised Land should have been straightforward.  If the Israelites had kept the Mediterranean on their left they could have arrived within a fortnight.

The LORD took them a different route, through the Red Sea.  The LORD is glorified – seen for who He is – when He saves through adversity.  This was part of the reason for the Israelites’ wilderness time.

But even with the LORD’s slight detour it should have taken a matter of months to get to Canaan.  In the end, it took Israel 40 years.  Why?

Because of their mistrust.

The Israelites did not trust the report of the good spies – Joshua and Caleb bearing the firstfruits of the land.  They let fear hold sway.  They shrank back and the LORD did what He is always doing in judgement – He gave them what they wanted.  (For more examples, see this post on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart).

The LORD confirms their decision and resolves never to let this faithless generation see the promised land:

How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me. 28 Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the LORD, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you: 29 Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, 30 Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. 32 But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:27-33)

This is a fearful judgement but it’s poetic justice too. If the people don’t want the promised land, they don’t get the promised land. That’s completely fair.

Not even Moses would get into the land of milk and honey.  Not even Mr Law himself could make it across the river Jordan.

Only Joshua, whose name means “Jesus”, and Caleb, whose name means “man after his heart”, would make it.  This “Jesus” figure would have to lead a new Israel into Canaan.  The old must die, only the new can enter glory, and only with “Jesus” at their head.

This preaches to us today. The law won’t get us to heaven.  All the trappings of religion and ritual will leave us short.  We must not trust in Moses.  He falls short of glory.  Therefore let all our natural abilities and efforts die.  Trust in Jesus, He leads a new Israel into rest – an Israel of faith, not of works.

While we await our true rest, we too endure a wilderness time.  In between our salvation from sin and our entrance to glory, there is testing and hardship.  The Lord does not teleport His saved people into His ‘holy habitation.’  He moves us, step by step, through wilderness years and tells us to trust in Jesus our Forerunner.  Christ has ‘entered within the veil’. That is, He has gone into God’s dwelling place as our Forerunner and Priest.  So then, as the book of Hebrews implores us, let us:

lay hold upon the hope set before us: 19 Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth… within the veil; 20 Whither the Forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an High Priest for ever.  (Hebrews 6)

Spy out the land

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Numbers 13

What will the future bring?  Blessings or curses?

Wouldn’t it be nice to send someone on ahead to make sure the future’s bright?

That’s what the Israelites do in the book of Numbers.  Let’s catch up with the story so far…

In Genesis, Israel begins as the seed of Abraham then, with Joseph, they head down to Egypt.

In Exodus they are saved out of slavery and brought to Sinai to receive the law.

In Leviticus, aspects of that law (especially the priests and sacrifices) are explained.

Now in Numbers the Israelites travel on from Sinai to the desert of Paran.  They come to the brink of the promised land – the land flowing with milk and honey.  And the LORD tells Moses to send out spies…

to spy out the land of Canaan, and Moses said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain:  And see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many;  And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds;  And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.  (Numbers 13:17-20)

Moses sends a leader from each of the 12 tribes.  And he makes a point of renaming one of the spies. His old name was Hoshea, his new name would be Joshua, and in the fullness of time he would lead the Israelites into the promised land (Numbers 13:16). “Joshua” and “Jesus” are the same name (they are different ways of translating the one Hebrew word).

Another spy is from the kingly tribe of Judah and is called Caleb, which means “after the heart” (as in a man after the LORD’s heart).  So these 12 men head off to spy out an area of about 200 miles. It takes them 40 days.

As they spy out the land there’s good news and bad news.  Joshua and Caleb emphasize the good news, the others emphasize the bad.

Here’s the good news: the land is every bit as fruitful as the LORD had promised. They take a massive cluster of grapes back with them, carried on a pole, and also some pomegranates and figs.  These are described as the ‘firstfruits’ from the land, just as these spies were the forerunners into the land.

So the good news comes: the promised land is wonderful.  In Numbers 14:7 Caleb calls it “exceedingly good.”

But the spies bring back bad news too:

Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there…  all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.  And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.  (Numbers 13:28, 32-33)

The land is good but the inhabitants are giants.  The question for the Israelites is this: will they move forwards in faith, or shrink back in fear?

To press forward in faith they would need to look around them and be captured by the right vision:

They should look back with remembrance and see that returning to Egypt is no life for them.  It’s slavery.

They should look around with gratitude and see that the LORD is with them.  As Moses says in Numbers 14:14

thou LORD art among this people… thou LORD art seen face to face, and… thy cloud standeth over [us], and… thou goest before [us], by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.

They should look forwards with imagination to the “exceedingly good land”.  Whatever they risk will be worth it!

They should look up with faith and see that the LORD had “sworn” to bring them in (Numbers 14:16).  He who had brought them thus far could be trusted to finish the job.

Most of all, they should look to Jesus!  This forerunner called “Joshua” was the one who would bring them into the promised land.  And he was there in their midst bearing the firstfruits of the future. He has seed the good land and he brings them a foretast. If only they would come to Joshua and listen to him, they could see, touch and even taste what was coming.  If they trusted him, the firstfruits would loom larger in their vision than the giants, and they would move forwards.

But as we’ll see tomorrow, the Israelites feared the giants more than they trusted the firstfruits.  So they turned back from the LORD’s will for them.

How about us?  In the short-term, we too face scary prospects.  Consider now what giants might be putting you off from forging ahead in God’s will.  How will we press forwards?

We too need to remember that our past in sin is nothing to return to.

Our present is a present with the Lord Jesus.

Above us is a heavenly Father who has promised to see us home (Philippians 1:6).

Ahead is an exceedingly good future.

And our Forerunner Jesus can be trusted.  He has returned from the far country and appeared among us.  His resurrection was a firstfruits of new creation life.  Let’s look to Him who has appeared among us as a pledge of the future. Then we can move forwards, trusting that the best is yet to come.

Christ is risen from the dead… the firstfruits of [those who have died]… Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.  (1 Corinthians 15:20, 58)

God bless

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Numbers 6:22-27;
2 Corinthians 13:14

Some people have only two uses for the name of God.  Either to carelessly curse, or to carelessly bless.  In either case the speaker “knows not what they do!”

In its biblical setting, “God bless” was never said lightly.  In fact it was a distinct privilege of the priests.  In particular, the High Priest, Aaron.  From him would come the divine blessing.  It’s taught so beautifully in Psalm 133.  As you read the Psalm, enter into the imagery:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!   It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;  As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

The LORD commands a blessing through the High Priest, Aaron.  And that blessing is like oil poured on the head, running down to the body.

The High Priest was modelling the LORD Christ to the people.  The “brethren dwelling together” is His body.  And the oil, as throughout the Bible, represents the Spirit.  So the Father blesses the world by pouring out His Spirit onto His Son.  That blessing overflows to the people.

And so it is particularly Aaron who is commissioned to pronounce God’s blessings on the people.  Here is that famous instruction from Numbers chapter 6:

Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:  The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.  And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.  (Numbers 6:23-27)

To speak this blessing is to put God’s name onto the people.  Just as a bride takes the name of her husband, so this pronouncement from the High Priest brings the people under God’s protective care.

And, naturally enough, this one blessing (which bestows God’s one name) comes in a three-fold movement.

First: The LORD bless thee and keep thee.

Here is the fountainhead and foundation.  The word “bless” is not mentioned again in the blessing, it all comes from here.  And it is secured here.  The LORD will keep His people.

Second: The LORD make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee.

We have seen the “Face” of the LORD as another title for the Son of God (see here and here).  The blessing of the LORD involves revealing the radiance of God’s Face.  This is grace.  God’s merciful initiative is expressed in this: He makes His Face shine upon us.

Third: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

“Countenance” is, simply the word “Face.”  So in this third movement we have the gracious Face not simply shining but turned upon us.  This gives us our subjective feeling of peace.

So the blessing flows out, is mediated through the shining Face, and is enjoyed and experienced as peace when that Face is turned to us.

No wonder when Paul sought to bless the church in Corinth he identified the same three-fold encounter.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.  (2 Corinthians 13: 14)

With the Father he associated the term “love”, with the Son he uses the word “grace” and with the Spirit he speaks of “communion.”

It has always been this way.  The one blessing of God comes from the loving Father, through the gracious Son and He’s communed with by the peace-giving Spirit.

Here is the very name and nature of God.  It is His true character to bless – to open out His life in His Son and Spirit and to shine upon us.

Today, may the Spirit lead you into the peace of Christ.  Or in other words, “God bless.”

Love thy neighbour

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Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34-46

What’s the law all about?  A supposed expert in the law asked Jesus that very question.  Jesus boiled it all down to ‘love’.  He quoted from two places in the Old Testament:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)   This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it,“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Leviticus 19:18) On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 22:37-40)

Here are six observations.

1. Jesus homes in on a part of the Bible we rarely study.  For Him the very essence of the Law and the Prophets (i.e. the whole Old Testament), is contained in Leviticus 19!  What we often skim over as irrelevant, Jesus highlights.  Let’s value every word of Scripture.

2. “Love thy neighbour” shows that we can’t play off law and love against each other.  The law is not simply about harsh externals moved by the will.  The law describes the life of love.  Its very heart is love.

When people say “Let’s not be legalistic, let’s remember to love” they commit a triple-error.  Firstly, this entreaty is itself a law!  Secondly, the law is already calling us to love.  But most crucially of all, such thinking makes us believe we’re avoiding legalism simply by talking about love.  In reality, the most legalistic preaching in the world is preaching that simply commands my affections.  Being told to work up external acts is bad enough.  Being ordered to whip up internal emotions is impossible.

The difference between the law and the good news of Jesus is not that law is about dry duty and Jesus is about heart-felt affections.  They are both about love.  It’s just that the law only describes the life of love.  The good news of Jesus, when trusted, actually produces it.

3. When the law says “Love thy neighbour as thy self” – ‘loving self’ is not the command, it’s the assumption.  God knows we love ourselves. We naturally spend vast tracts of time, money and energy on ourselves (even when we claim to be hating ourselves).  The LORD says, “Spend that time, money and energy on others.”

This law is not an excuse to spend more time focussing on me.  Very often I’ve heard Leviticus 19 as the launching pad for this grievous error: “How can I love my neighbour without first loving myself.”  And off they go, taking leave to dive into the deep, dark waters of “Lake Me.”  That is the last thing the law is urging me to do.

It’s true that we can’t love others without another love coming first.  But that initial love is not self-love, but divine: “We love because He first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19)  That is the love that must come first.  And then we love others.

As Martin Luther would say, we are to live far above ourselves in God by faith, and far beneath ourselves in our neighbour by love.  In this way we are turned outwards from ourselves.  The last thing we should do is turn in on ourselves.

“Love thy neighbour” is actually about being self-forgetful.  It’s about refusing to shut ourselves off from others.  It means extending our self-preserving impulse to those around us so that we treat them as our very selves.  I no longer treat you as an outsider because I’ve turned to you entirely.  I don’t even love you as you any more, I love you as myself!

4. Jesus was only asked to highlight the greatest commandment in the law (Matthew 22:36).  But it He can’t limit Himself to “Love God.”  “Love God” must spill over into “Love thy neighbour.”  This is because of the nature of God.  As we’ll see…

5. Once we see this summary of the law, it’s plain to see how Jesus fulfils the law.  Jesus is the One who loves God and loves His neighbour.  From all eternity that has been His life.  He has always loved His Father and His Neighbour (the Spirit).  In fact, each of the three Persons live this other-centred life.  They are completely turned out from themselves.

Since Israel is God’s son (Exodus 4:22), it’s no wonder that they are given Christ’s life to live.  The Good Life does not consist in random hoops for humanity to jump through.  The Good Life is the loving life of the Son of God.  It is described in the law, lived out in His flesh, then given to us by the Spirit.

6. Because the law is a description of Christ’s life, let’s be astonished at His love.  Leviticus 19 begins with these words:

Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The holy life of Leviticus 19 is the LORD’s life.  The LORD loves us as Himself.  He is turned outwards to His beloved to spread His love.

And who could doubt this when we look to Jesus.  There He is on the cross, offering Himself utterly to the Father.  And there He is, offering Himself utterly to us.  At the cross, we have seen the love described in the law.   But more than that.  We’ve been its recipients.

To experience His love is to be released into His kind of life.  When we see Christ’s love we find ourselves loving our neighbour.  And such love, as Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10)


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Leviticus 16:1-10, 20-22

We don’t like the word “scapegoat”.  It sounds like bullying.  A group picks on a weakling, identifies all its maladies with this one individual and punishes the scapegoat for the sins of the community.

That’s horrible.

But it’s horrible because of the power relationship.  The strong sacrifice the weak.

The original scapegoat was modelling something quite different.

One day a year Israel held the day of atonement.  It was a multi-media dramatisation of how the Ultimate High Priest – Christ – would get into God’s presence.  The High Priest would enter into the inner sanctum on our behalf – carrying us on his heart.  And he would do so on the basis of blood.

Here is the key blood sacrifice which opened the way:

And [the high priest] shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.  And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.   And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the LORD’S lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering.  But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:7-10)

One goat is treated as a scapegoat.  The other goat is treated as the LORD!  And it’s “the LORD” whose blood is shed.  What a fearful dramatisation!

These two goats will tell us of the work of the LORD Christ on the cross. On the one hand Christ is the scapegoat, taking our sins upon Himself and carrying them away.  On the other He is the LORD sacrificed in our place.  But because He is your sacrifice, therefore He can be your scapegoat.

So if you want to understand the atoning work of the cross according to the day of atonement, imagine this:

From the Most Holy Place – the inner sanctum – you hear the LORD’s own voice.  “Get out!”

The priests hitch up their robes and start running, they usher you quickly away from the altar where you were just about to sacrifice your lamb.  As you all run to a safe distance, the LORD climbs down from His throne, walks through the Holy Place and out into the courtyard.  He lays down on the altar and is slain for our sins.  As His blood runs down, you know that your sins are well and truly dealt with – removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

When the LORD takes on the role of Scapegoat it’s not the oppression of the weak.  It’s the willing sacrifice of the Strong.  The LORD Almighty has chosen to become so meek.  He stoops to identify with us on every level.

And when we identify with His sacrifice, we can know our sins to be cleansed, once and for all.

That was the experience of Charles Simeon.  He became a wonderful preacher in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  But before this, he was wracked with guilt and weighed down by a heavy sense of sin.  Where could he find relief for his soul and forgiveness with God?  When he looked to Christ his Scapegoat he was born again!

“My distress of mind continued for about three months, and well might it have continued for years, since my sins were more in number than the hairs of my head. . . In Passion Week, as I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect—‘That the Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering’. The thought came into my mind, What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His Head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus.”

Have you laid your sins on the sacred head of Jesus?  He died to bear them.  Don’t carry them a moment longer.  Call out to Jesus and give Him your sins.  It is His glory to take them and to give you His righteousness in return.

For God hath made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.   (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Unclean! Unclean!

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Leviticus 13:45-46; Mark 1:40-45

I’ll never forget when Mark told me he was HIV positive.  The two of us were in a cafe in London and had just ordered all day breakfasts.  Many people had tried to help him off the streets and off the drugs but he’d finally succumbed to a dirty needle.

He had quite a few scabs on his face that were red raw.  Some of them were bleeding.  As drops of blood formed on both cheeks, I croaked, “Hey mate, you might want to mop up your blood.”

I managed half a mouthful of breakfast that morning.

Unfortunately in our culture AIDS carries social as well as physical implications.

This is nothing new.  In the Old Testament there was one disease that, for the purposes of the law, was invested with massive social and even spiritual consequences.  Leprosy.

As we’ve seen, the Old Testament law was a dramatization of spiritual truths.  The tabernacle, priests and sacrifices didn’t actually “do the trick” but they pointed to the future work of Christ.

In amongst all these laws were regulations about surface level realities.  So, for instance, walls that were infected with mildew were a big deal (Leviticus 14:35-57).  They were a sign of a creation that is deeply flawed.

Similarly, skin diseases were highlighted in the law not because the skin is more important than the rest of us.  In fact it’s the opposite.  The law concerns itself with external uncleanness as a sign of deeper issues within.  The leper, with unclean skin, reminds us of ourselves with unclean hearts.

And so it is chilling to be reminded how our uncleanness deserves ostracism from both God and man.  Here is what the priest was to declare about the leper:

He is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head. And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.  (Leviticus 13:44-46)

This is what we deserve on a much deeper level.  Outer darkness and shame.  And just as with the leper, there is nothing we can do about it.

But there is hope for the leper.  There is nothing that the leper can do, but there are things that can happen to the leper for his cleansing.


the priest shall go forth out of the camp  (Leviticus 14:2)

Here is the beginning of it all.  The priest would meet the poor wretch in his wretchedness.

Secondly, sacrifices.  There is a ritual involving two birds (Leviticus 14:4-7): one bird is sacrificed, the other is sprinkled by the blood of the first bird, then released.  The leper is being taught that his freedom costs the blood of another.

Thirdly, the leper goes away for a week and shaves off every hair on his body.  He returns on the eight day looking like a newborn baby.  In a deep sense he is born again.

This is a picture of our own spiritual cleansing.  Christ meets us in our depravity, dies for us, cleanses us with His blood and raises us in His resurrection to new life.

And when He met a leper in Mark chapter 1, Jesus was able to effect this reality in person:

And there came a leper to Jesus, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.  And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.  And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. (Mark 1:40-43)

The Jews, I’m sure, feared that Jesus would have become unclean by contact with the leper.  But instead Jesus gives the man a good infection.  He is “moved with compassion” for the man’s plight, reaches out to touch him (unthinkable in Jesus’ day) and His cleanness passes over to the leper.

Let me take you back to my friend Mark.  Imagine the same scenario.  He confesses to this infectious and fearful disease.  But imagine the person opposite is not like me.  They don’t shrink back, they reach out.  Imagine them touching his face, getting their own hands bloody.  And imagine them healing the sores, cleansing the blood, curing the illness, removing the shame, restoring Him to health and wholeness.

This is what Jesus does to the leper.  It’s what He does to all the spiritually unclean who run to Him.

In Mark 1, the healing seems so effortless.  But just as the freed bird was only released at the cost of blood, so the leper’s cleansing had a price tag attached.  To cleanse the leper, Jesus had to die the death of the unclean.  He was strung up outside the city and accursed by all.  He became despised and rejected, but He did it to bring the outcasts in.

The bad news is, we’re all spiritual lepers.  The good news is, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.  We can run to Christ – our Priest and Sacrifice.  We can say “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  And with that same heart-felt compassion, His response will be, “I am willing, be clean!”

Peace offering

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Leviticus 3:1-17

When we think of a “peace offering” we picture guilty husbands hastily purchasing flowers.  Or meek penitents bringing gifts to their fuming friends.  The one giving the peace offering feels dreadful.  The one to whom the offering is made is tapping their foot saying “This better be good.”  And maybe, just maybe, they can be bought off by the peace offering.

But that’s a world away from the biblical sense of a “peace offering”.  (See Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-21)

The peace offering was the crown of the five offerings laid out in Leviticus.  It wasn’t like the burnt offering, grain offering, sin offering or trespass offering.  In this offering, sins weren’t on the table. Only food.

Our guilt had been resolved through the blood-atonement which the LORD provided (Leviticus 17:11).  When the worshipper came to the peace offering – sins were far behind them.  No-one is buying off God here.  This is about cleansed worshippers wanting to draw near to the LORD.  It was a completely voluntary offering.  If they liked, the Israelites could pull up a chair to eat with the LORD.

You see this was the one offering in which the offerers shared.  It was a meal with God.

And that’s where the work of atonement is always heading.  God does not simply want to acquit sinners.  He wants to feast with them.  He doesn’t want to endure us on the outskirts of His presence.  He invites us to sit at table, to laugh and share and talk and eat.

The peace offering is not about us guiltily earning our way into God’s good books.  It’s about enjoying our at-one-ment.

If you’re a Christian, do you realise that you are not simply forgiven, not simply tolerated but actively loved and pursued by the LORD?  He did not give His own blood in order for us to remain strangers.  And He does not want ‘coffee buddies’.  He wants dinner guests.  He adopts us into the very heart of His family life.  The face to face for which we’ve been made is not any old intimacy – it’s table fellowship.

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (Romans 5:1)

Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”  (Revelation 3:20)


For more on the “peace offering” and other highlights from Leviticus, see these excellent talks.


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Leviticus 1:1-4; Ephesians 2:11-22

Can an ex-offender atone for his crimes? Can a sportswoman atone for her blunder?  Can a husband atone for his callous remark?

If we answer ‘yes’ it’s usually because we think that the guilty party can make amends. But the Bible has a fresh angle on the question of atonement.

Atonement is a word that was invented by William Tyndale for his 1526 New Testament translation.  It means exactly what it looks like – it’s about re-uniting God and man, so that they are “at one”.

So, what does it take to be “at one” with God Almighty?

We have already seen an early description of “atonement” in the Golden Calf incident.  Moses ascends the mountain saying,

“now I will go up unto the LORD; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.”  (Exodus 32:30)

There he asks to be blotted out of the Father’s book so that his people will not (v32). Perhaps now is the time for that long-promised sacrifice from Genesis 22.  Perhaps Moses will be the sacrificial Lamb of God dying for his people.  But no.  It was not time for the mountaintop atonement.  And Moses was not to be the sacrifice.

The next time we read of “atonement” is in Leviticus, the book detailing the regulations for tabernacle worship.  49 times the word appears in Leviticus and almost always in the context of blood.  The tabernacle was many things – a portable tent, the dwelling place of the Glory of the LORD, a multi-media gospel presentation, a working model of how God and man can meet.  But there’s one thing the tabernacle definitely was: it was a slaughterhouse.

How many millions of gallons of animal blood were shed at the altar, as Old Testament worshippers were shown the cost of atonement?  But here is a key verse about that bloody atonement:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.  (Leviticus 17:11)

In these dramatizations of the future atonement, the LORD makes it clear that He gives the blood to make atonement for their sins.

And this is what is so different about the LORD.  Our sin does indeed demand blood.  We, who dwell in sin and death, cannot be at one with our God.  There is a reckoning for our sin.  But the LORD does not demand our blood.  Instead He provides blood.  The blood of a substitutionary sacrifice which He gives to us.  It’s the blood of another that makes atonement.

So over and over again the Israelites are being shown what atonement means.  I am guilty.  I am worthy of death.  But the LORD wants to be at one with His people.  So He provides the blood.  He pays the cost.  And every worshipper at that tabernacle should have looked forward with awe and gratitude to the Real Atonement.  All of this was pointing them to the time their LORD would come as a Lamb – the Lamb of God to atone for the sins of the world.

In the book, Atonement, by Ian McEwan, a girl makes a dreadful mistake for which she longs to make amends.  She desperately wants a happy ending where her sins are made up for and everyone can be “at one.”  But in McEwan’s vision, this ending is a fairytale, not reality.  Atonement just doesn’t happen in real life.  We make mistakes, people drift apart, things disintegrate and then we die.  That’s life… apart from Christ!

With Christ, however, atonement is a reality.  Not simply atonement with others – we can be “at one” with the living God!  None of our sins can ever prove too great an obstacle for this union.  At the cross, the ultimate offering has been made – not simply the blood of animals, not simply the blood of men, but the blood of God! (Acts 20:28)  If Christ stands between you and God, then nothing else does – no sins, no guilt, no shame.  Christ Himself is your peace, He makes you one with the Father of lights:

Now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.  (Ephesians 2:13)

High Priest

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Exodus 40:12-16

Federico Fellini has been called the ‘High Priest of Italian Cinema’.  Bill Hicks, ‘the High Priest of Stand-up Comedy’.  And Prince, ‘the High Priest of Funk, Soul and Rock n Roll’.

It’s the idea of being an authority.  One who mediates the genre out into the world.  They are the go-to person when it comes to their own speciality.

Well in the Bible, Aaron is appointed as High Priest of God. What an awesome honour!  What human being could possibly fulfil the role??

Surely not Aaron.  Not the one who presided over the Golden Calf debacle.  But astonishingly, this sinner is dressed up in the special robes and consecrated as God’s go-between.  How should we understand this?

Well it’s part of the elaborate, multi-media dramatizations of Old Testament worship.  When the Israelites were saved out of Egypt and brought to Mount Sinai, they received all sorts of representations of heavenly truth.  First they received the ten commandments – the Good Life intended for God’s son.  But that’s just a part of this model of ultimate reality.  Next come instructions about building a tabernacle.

This tent would be a portable model of heaven and earth in which spiritual truths are acted out.  Again and again Moses is told that these things are not the spiritual realities themselves – they are copies and patterns of heavenly things. (Exodus 25:9,40; 26:30)

Through the tabernacle, the people would see many things dramatized – the nature of God, heaven and earth, the problem of our estrangement from God, the cost of atonement and just how we get back into His presence.

Presiding over this earthly model was Aaron – the High Priest.  Of course, sinful Aaron was in no position to be God’s ultimate go-between.  But He was play-acting the role of One who the Israelites already knew.  Just as the divine Angel of the LORD – Christ – had brought the people from slavery to God Most High, so Aaron would perform the role of go-between.  And he would point the people to the future work of Christ when He would effect the ultimate mediation.

Let’s just think of one way that Aaron did this.  Consider his clothing, in particular his breastplate.  On his breastplate were precious stones which were engraved with the names of the children of Israel (Exodus 28:9).  Aaron carried the people on his heart.

Then, on the day of atonement (which we will consider shortly), Aaron made blood sacrifices, foreshadowing the cross.  He moved through the tabernacle to the inner sanctum, representing heaven.  And while he stands before the throne of God, he displays the blood and prays for the people.  Crucially, throughout this mediating work, he bears his people on his heart.

And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place, for a memorial before the LORD continually.  (Exodus 28:29)

Everything he does, he does while carrying his people with him.  So it is with Christ.

Through all of Christ’s work through incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, even on into all eternity He carries His people on His heart.

Jesus didn’t just blaze a trail into heaven.  He took us with Him.  Whatever you are facing today, know this – you have a Friend in very high places.  And He has you on His heart.

As Charitie Bancroft has written so wonderfully:

“Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.”


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Exodus 34:1-14

“Describe yourself” says the interviewer, with a glint in their eyes.

You really want the job.  How to sound humble but also omni-competent? “What to reveal about myself?” Probably the less the better.

“Why is he asking?” you wonder.  “Doesn’t my track record speak for itself?  Won’t he see pretty quickly who I really am?”

It can be a very awkward question.

But Moses has the nerve to ask it of God Most High.  Still on the top of mount Sinai, he asks the unseen LORD:

Please show me your glory (Exodus 33:18)

Glory eh?  What should we expect that to look like?  Dazzling special effects?  Breath-taking displays of raw power?  No, here is how God reveals His glory.  He responds,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”  (Exodus 33:19)

This is the LORD’s glory.  Goodness, grace and mercy.  And it’s all summed up in His “name”.  His name is His divine character and it’s what the LORD promises to proclaim next time He visits Moses.

Well in Exodus 34 it happens.  The unseen LORD comes down to describe Himself – to proclaim His name.  He descends again to the top of Mount Sinai in a cloud,

and stood with Moses there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.  And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.  (Exodus 34:5-7)

Right there at the heart of God’s name – His character – is that lovely word “longsuffering.”  We have William Tyndale to thank for its entrance into the English language.  In translating Galatians 5:22 he rendered the Greek word makrothumia as “longsuffering” – a word that previously did not exist.  This “longsuffering” is one aspect of “the fruit of the Spirit” – that life that is birthed in the believer by the Spirit of Christ. Makrothumia means patiently bearing heat without disintegrating.  And it’s the same word that the ancient Greeks used when translating Exodus 34.

The original Hebrew phrase is actually two words: “long” and “nose”!  The nose (or nostrils) are associated with anger.  And so, as often as not, the phrase is rendered “slow to anger.”  But as someone with a considerable proboscis of his own, I think we should return to biblical roots and proclaim the great godliness of big noses.  I digress.

The Most High describes Himself as “long-nosed”.  Or, idiomatically, “longsuffering”.  He is merciful, gracious, forgiving.  The phrase “abounding in goodness and truth” might be translated “full of grace and truth.” These traits give us confidence.

But He also mentions His justice.  He won’t clear the guilty.  He will pay back iniquities.

So how do we put all this together?  What does it look like to be longsuffering but also to punish wickedness?  How do we know if we are recipients of His patience or His punishment?  And, more fundamentally, how do we know that God’s not doing what we do in job interviews?

There are plenty of gods out there and they all claim to be kind.  Plenty of religious texts speak of a merciful deity.  How can we believe this one?

Well Moses knows the name of the LORD.  He hasn’t just heard God speak His name.  He has seen the name in action.

Back in Exodus 23, God tells Moses about His Angel who He will send ahead of the people.  The Angel leads, commands and forgives the people all because the Father’s “name is in him.”  (Exodus 23:20-22)

The character of God Most High is perfectly expressed in His Son.  And Moses has seen that character because he has witnessed, first-hand, the saving acts of Christ. So after hearing the Father proclaim His name, Moses is overjoyed:

Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord I pray thee, go among us.  (Exodus 34:8-9)

Moses tells the Lord (the Father), he wants his Lord (the Son) to continue leading them.  The name he has heard, is the name he has seen in salvation, and he gladly bows to the gracious God he has met in Christ.

This, then, is how we can be assured of the character of God.  We see it in the saving acts of Christ.  God does not merely describe Himself, He sends Christ among us to ‘walk the talk.’

When we look at Christ crucified how can we possibly deny the longsuffering mercy of God. There on the cross, Jesus is patiently bearing the heat Himself. And at the same time He is revealing His determination to judge.  The name of God makes sense as we look to Christ.  The punishment and the patience come together.  And in the words of the Apostle John:

we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Jesus is the very Character of God taking flesh.  And if we see Him for who He is, we too will bow to the ground like Moses and desire His company all our days!

Plenty of gods claim to be glorious.  But their glory doesn’t look like this.  Plenty of gods claim to be merciful.  But we’ve never seen the evidence.  With Jesus we get something very different.  In Jesus we have seen the character of Almighty God.  When we see His arms outstretched to the guilty, who can doubt the depths of His divine longsuffering?