Numbers 15:32-36 (ESV)
32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Have you ever had someone tell you that they cannot imagine God being a certain way? Usually, that thing they cannot imagine involves the judgment and wrath of God. Most people who are making up their own picture of God in their minds cannot fathom a deity who would judge people, especially not one who would judge people for what we might consider the small stuff.
What then do we do with a passage like the one above. God had made a law of Sabbath rest. The people of Israel were not to do any work on that seventh day, including something as simple as gathering sticks for the cooking fire. And when a man broke this regulation of God’s, the Lord commanded the people to put that man to death. That’s right, he was stoned to death for stick gathering.
How in the world can this be right? It might help if we also knew the two verses which precede this passage, Numbers 15:30-31, which say, “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.” So, the context of the passage where the man was judged for stick gathering is the discussion of “high-handed” sin, choosing intentionally to rebel against God’s commands.
What we need to understand here is that Israel was at a formative time. The next two passages in Numbers will include two separate rebellions against the leadership of the nation. God chose at this point to show that he is in charge, and that his commands matter. So, when a man chose to ignore God’s clearly given law that he was not to go out and collect sticks on the Sabbath, his life was forfeit. He had, according to Scripture, reviled the Lord. It was as though the man said to God, “I don’t care about your rule. I will have my sticks.”
But the bigger question for us today is just what do we do with a God who would judge people for stick gathering on the Sabbath? Well, we can, I suppose, choose to say that the revelation of God is inaccurate. We can decide that this is somehow not God. But once we do that, we deny his word, we deny any source of authoritative revelation, and our experience of the divine becomes completely subjective. Such a move is unchristian, and will not work. It would leave us with no understanding of the real God, but will replace the true picture of God with a god of our own imagining.
We could, I suppose, try to sit in judgment of God and determine whether this move was really right or wrong, fair or foul. But to do so would be a dangerously arrogant position to take. Under no circumstances are you or I qualified to decide whether what the Creator of the universe has done is right. God has told us that his thoughts are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth. He has shown us that he is holy, and thus his ways are not ours. It is not our place to approve or disapprove his actions. He is God. We are not.
The alternative is to fear God, bow before him, and get under his mercy. This, of course, is the right move. When we see the man judged for stick gathering against God’s commands, we should see ourselves. How many times have we intentionally rebelled against the commands of God? Don’t be dishonest with yourself here. All of us, every last one of us, has done something easily as bad as what this man did in Numbers 15. We have all chosen at one point or another to throw off restraint and do things our way instead of God’s way. Now, we always think we have an excuse, but we have all chosen, at one point or another, to say to God that we will do things our way.
We deserve the kind of judgment that the stick gatherer received. We deserve even worse. We have sinned with a high hand. And yet God has already shown us grace and mercy. He has given us good things in our lives. He has chosen not to destroy us at the moment of our first sin. And he offers us the mercy and grace of forgiveness through faith in Christ.
The passage above is terrifying, and rightly so. But it is a portrait of us. We have sinned. We deserve death. But God offers us grace. He does not force us to die. He invites all people everywhere to turn from their sin and their self-reliance, to admit their sin, to believe in Jesus, and to ask him for mercy. Jesus took the death we deserve. Anyone who will come to Jesus in faith is counted as having died with Christ on the cross. Anyone who will put their entire hope for their entire eternity in Jesus will be raised with Christ to eternal life, eternal joy, eternal good.
Yes, the passage before is strange. We do not like seeing a man die for stick gathering. But death is the penalty for rebelling against the real God of the universe. We cannot avoid that truthThat God has, however, given us a choice. We my continue to rebel against him and attempt to redefine him and his law, or we can be placed under his grace. Thus, I urge you, turn to Jesus before it is too late. I also urge all of us to see that God is holy, we are sinners, and his grace is truly amazing.