Wednesday Evening

August 29, 2007

Numbers 17:1-13

“Aaron’s Rod Blossoming”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Numbers 17, as we continue to make our way through this book together.

I’ve been able to say this over and over the last few weeks because of the material that we’ve been in, but all the way from chapter 11 to chapter 16 has been a story of Israel grumbling and complaining and murmuring and rebelling against Moses and Aaron–and ultimately, of course, against the Lord. The Lord says that explicitly in the passage tonight. Moses and Aaron are discouraged at the rebellions against them, but the Lord says, ‘Brothers, it’s not against you that they are rebelling; it’s Me that they’re rebelling against.’

And last week in Numbers 16, we saw yet another account of rebellion, and it was of the most astonishing sort. First we saw the Levites come up and say, ‘You know, we think we’d like to be priests. Who are you who gets to decide who gets to be the priests? We want to be priests in this outfit.’ And then along with that rebellion, within the very camp of the sons of Levi comes this congregation-wide, nation-wide, people-wide revolt against Moses and Aaron. And they start complaining: ‘Moses, you’re a bad leader. Moses, you brought us out of this wonderful, lush, posh, comfortable, exciting, free situation that we were in in Egypt, and you brought us here in the wilderness to die.’ And so all of these charges are being leveled against Moses and Aaron. Even as they have been right on the cusp of going into the Promised Land, things have fallen apart, and of course the results we saw were absolutely disastrous for Israel.

Last week one of the things that happened was that those leaders of the various clans of Levites who wanted to have the right to be priests were consumed by fire. The Lord said, ‘You want to be priests for me? That’s fine. Go ahead, make some censers. Come on back and we’ll see who’s going to be priests.’ And all of the ones who had illegitimately claimed a right to the priesthood were consumed by fire. And then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, basically, ‘Back up. I am getting ready to destroy the congregation of Israel.’ And though–and we’re going to see in a very dramatic way–though Moses and Aaron intervened and interceded and mediated for the people of God, still 14,700 Israelites died of the plague. So it’s a very, very grim story, this Numbers 16.

Well, tonight in Numbers 17 we see God encourage these discouraged servants, and He does it by displaying a miraculous sign, attesting to all of Israel the God-appointed, God-given role that Moses and Aaron have. God appoints a miracle to visibly, and tangibly and publicly, certify that He has chosen Moses and Aaron; and, He’s chosen the priests to serve Him in the temple, to give leadership to the people, to intercede and to atone for the people; and, that this is not something open to anyone just to appoint themselves. And in the course of this passage the Lord teaches us much about the way that one can approach the living God for fellowship with Him.

Let me just briefly outline the passage for you in four parts. We’re really only going to have two points tonight, but the passage has four parts to it, if we just work logically through it.

First, in verses 1-5, if you’ll look at those verses you’re going to see this miracle which is designed and commanded by God; a miracle designed and commanded by God in order to show the children of Israel whom He has chosen to be the leader and the priests of Israel. The Lord Himself designs a sign. It’s really a remarkable thing, isn’t it? Sometimes in the Bible the Lord says to His people, ‘You choose a sign.’ But in this case the Lord Himself thinks, ‘This is the sign that I’m going to give to Israel in order to show them who My leader and who My priests are.’ So He himself designs it, and then He commands Moses to carry out the various parts of His responsibility in what God is going to do in this miracle. So you see this in verses 1-5. That’s the first part–the miracle designed and commanded by God. And it’s going to serve as a test and proof of Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership and priesthood.

The second part is in verses 6-9. There the miracle occurs. God tells Moses what to do. He tells Moses what He’s going to do in verses 1-5, but in verses 6-9 God performs the miracle and then displays the miracle. He does the miracle, and then He makes sure that Moses shows everybody the miracle. So first the miracle is designed and commanded; secondly, the miracle is performed and displayed.

Thirdly, in verses 10-11, the miracle is preserved and explained. The Lord says, ‘Ah… we’re going to keep this around, so that just in case anybody forgets the message, they can look at this miracle that I’m going to perform again, and remember whom I have appointed as leader and priests over My people.’ And then the Lord actually explains His intention for what that miracle is going to accomplish amongst the children of Israel.

And then, fourth and finally, in this passage in verses 12-13, here we see the people of God understand the significance of the miracle and begin to apply it to their own situation. So, the miracle understood and applied. And as usual, the people sort of get it right and they sort of get it wrong. So we’ll come back and explain that later.

But here’s all I want to do tonight. I want to look at what this passage teaches you about how one approaches the living God for saving fellowship with Him, and why it is that only God can provide the way for a person to approach Him in saving fellowship. Those are really the two things that we’ll look at tonight. Now let’s pray before we read God’s word.

Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Thank You for the truth of this word, and even in the context of this depressing story of grumbling, murmuring, complaining and rebelling, You have recorded a glorious instance of grace in which You point to Your work of salvation and Your appointment of the One who will accomplish that salvation alone. So help us to get that message. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Hear the word of God, Numbers 17, beginning in verse 1:

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each father’s house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name onto the staff of Levi; for there shall be one staff for the head of each father’s house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from Me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.’ Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and all their chiefs gave him staffs, one for each chief according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. And the staff of Aaron was among their staffs. And Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord in the tent of testimony.

“On the next day Moses went into the tent of testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Then Moses brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the people of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his staff. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against Me, lest they die.’ Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did.

“And the people of Israel said to Moses, ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone! Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. Are we all to perish?’”

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Do you see what’s going on here? In Numbers 17, God is encouraging His discouraged servants, Moses and Aaron.

They are absolutely beside themselves at the shocking, at the bold, defiance of the words of the living God that had been manifested by the Levites, and by the whole of the people of Israel, in rejecting God’s appointment of the sons of Aaron to be the priests, and in rejecting the leadership of Moses over the people of God. And God in this passage is giving encouragement to these two faithful, discouraged servants by displaying a miraculous sign. And that miraculous sign is designed to attest God’s giving of their responsibilities to them. In other words, the sign is to show the people that Moses and Aaron did not take their roles, did not take their leadership, did not take their priesthood unto themselves, but they were called to those roles, called to that priesthood. They were appointed by God. They were chosen by God. They had been given this task, this duty, this responsibility by God. They had not taken it to themselves, but God himself had called them.

Now this story — yes, it’s true — is about God vindicating the ministry of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, but it also has a much broader (and one might even say a much deeper) significance for us. It teaches us that all true ministry comes from God, and it teaches us why this is necessary. And it’s those two things that I want to look at with you tonight.

I. In verses 1-11, we learn that all true ministry comes from God; and, in verses 12-13, we’re reminded why this is necessary. So with that in mind, let me just look at those two things with you.

The whole point of this chapter–and at least two incidences that occur in chapter 16–the whole point of those two incidents and this chapter is that ministry comes from God. God appoints His ministers. God appoints the servants who usher His people into His presence, and this is emphasized in at least four ways.

First, in Numbers 16, in verses 36-38, God had explained vividly with a picture to the people of God that only the priests could serve in the priestly role…only the sons of Aaron, appointed as priests, could serve in the priestly role. How? You remember the men who showed up in Numbers 16 with their censers, who were not priests. What happened? They were consumed. And what did God command Moses and Aaron to do? Go out, pick up all of those censers, melt them down, hammer them flat, and put them on the altar. As a sign of what? As a sign to the children of Israel: ‘By the way, every time you see the bronze at the altar, remember only My appointed priests can approach Me. I decide how it is that you approach Me. You don’t decide how it is that you approach Me.’ And so the very covering of the altar with the bronze melted from those censers of those people who had appointed themselves to be priests was to be a reminder from God that ministry is appointed by God. The ministry comes from God.

Then, if you look at chapter 16 and verses 45-48, but especially verse 48, there’s another example of God’s giving testimony that Moses and Aaron are indeed His ministers, and that ministry comes from Him. And it’s a glorious story, of course. You remember in verse 45 the Lord tells Moses and Aaron, ‘Back up. Get away from the congregation, because I’m getting ready to come down in judgment on them.’ And what does Moses say to Aaron? ‘Aaron, quick! Get your censer and run into the middle of the congregation.’ And don’t you love what verse 48 says? What does it say?

“And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.”

Now after that display, do you think there could be any question about whom God had appointed to be the intercessors, the mediators, the priests in Israel? Here’s this scene of 14,700 people having died of plague, and Aaron runs right out in the middle of the camp. And those on one side of him are dead, and all of those behind him are alive. What has he just done? He has interceded as priest for the people of God, and turned away the just judgment of God against the camp of Israel. And by that, God does what? He certifies all these people who were questioning whether Aaron had appointed himself, and questioning whether it was necessary that Aaron and his sons would be the priests, were now watching Aaron be the one man between them and death. So that’s the second way that God shows that He’s the one who appoints ministry. He’s the one who appoints the priesthood. He’s the one who determines how we approach Him.

Thirdly, in this passage are these beautifully encouraging verses — verses 1-2 of chapter 17 — we see God certify Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership, Moses’ and Aaron’s ministry, by God speaking to Moses and once again telling Moses to speak to the people. The people have questioned whether Moses is God’s man, or whether he’s just appointed himself and is totally out of control, and has usurped all the appropriate authority. And yet when a message has to be delivered to Israel, who does God speak to? Moses. And then He tells Moses to speak to the people of God. So if they’re going to get a word from God, they’re only getting it through Moses. So God again, in that third way, shows who is His hand picked, hand selected, divinely chosen and appointed leader: Moses. He speaks to Moses again (even though the people of God have been questioning whether Moses is the rightful leader), and then He has Moses speak to the people.

And then, fourthly, you have this miraculous test of the rods. ‘Write the names of the heads of the families of the tribes of Israel on rods. Write Aaron’s name on the rod for the tribe of Levi. Put them in the tent of testimony. Put them in front of the arc of the testimony. Come back tomorrow morning, and the one that has sprouted, that will be the tribe from which My priests are to come.’ And of course Moses comes out the next morning and he holds up Aaron’s rod, and it has blossomed into an almond bush; and there are not just almonds, but ripe almonds on the almond bush.

Now that’s very significant for Israel. If you’ve ever heard any sermons on the minor prophets, if you’ve ever heard any sermons, maybe, on the prophet Jeremiah, you’ll know that the almond tree has a very tremendous significance for the children of Israel. It is used over and over in different prophecies. It’s pictured in some of the carvings that they have done in their religious art. But one of the reasons for that is it was the first of the flowering plants after winter. And they even had a name for it: they called it the watcher, because it was the first of the plants to break its flowering after the cold days of winter. It was a beautiful flower, and it indicated God’s watching over them even during the course of the cold winter. So the prophets would sometimes use it to talk about how God was watching over the children of Israel. Even in their bleak winter of disobedience, God was watching over Israel. And so this rod flowers, and it’s designed again by God to show that Aaron is His chosen man and that the sons of Aaron are to be the priests of Israel.

And so in all four of these ways, God attests that He is the one alone who appoints the ministers of Israel. He is the one alone who determines the way that you approach Him to fellowship with Him, to be reconciled with Him, to glorify and enjoy Him.

And let me just stop right here and say this is something that was also part of Jesus’ ministry. If you will remember, the Gospel of John makes a point of saying two things about Jesus. One, that He was sent from God, or sent by His Father. It was the Father who sent Him. It was the Father who gave Him authority. He did not, Jesus said, take it upon Himself, but the Father gave Him that authority. And, furthermore, the Gospel of John emphasizes that ultimately Jesus does not bear witness to himself, but the Father bears witness to Jesus, and the Spirit bears witness to Jesus, and John bears witness to Jesus, and the miracles bear witness to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is attested that He is sent from God not simply by self-claiming it, but by God confirming it with signs. And one of the points of the signs of the Gospel of John is to establish precisely that point. In John 5:31, 36-37, this point is made. Jesus is sent by God. He’s called, chosen, given authority by God. And that calling, that having been chosen, that having been given authority by God, is attested by God. And so when the Apostle Peter stands up to preach on the Day of Pentecost, what is the very first thing that comes out of his mouth to the sons of Israel that are gathered? “Men of Israel, this man…” [and what is it?] “…attested by God with signs and wonders….” In other words, Peter is following up precisely on that point which has been established by the Gospel of John that it’s not just that Jesus made these audacious claims; it’s that He has been attested by God to be who He claimed to be, just as Aaron was attested to be God’s priest by God’s miraculous sign, revealing and showing publicly that He had chosen Aaron. And this same point again is made in Hebrews 2:3-4. Now keep that in the back of your mind, because we’ll come back to it in just a minute. But there’s the first thing. You see very clearly here God showing that the ministry is appointed by Him, it comes from Him. The way into fellowship with God is appointed by God. It’s almost as if at the end of chapter 17, God says, ‘Ministry comes from Me. I appoint the ministry. Any further questions? Anybody out there want to appoint themselves to this again? Or do you understand now thoroughly that I am the one who appoints the way into My presence?’

II. Now here’s my second point. It’s very short, but it’s very important, and that is simply this: This passage reminds us why the ministry must come from God…why God must appoint the way into His presence. And the answer is very simple: Because only He can save.

The reason that God alone appoints the way back into His presence is because only He can save. We cannot save ourselves. If we are going to enjoy God, if we are going to engage with God, if we are going to have fellowship with God, if we are going to have communion with God, it is only going to be on the terms which He alone proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible. Why? Because we are the problem! We’re the problem! God is not the problem. And we have a problem that we can’t solve, because we’re the problem! And so if the problem is going to be solved, guess who’s going to do it? Not us! And this whole picture of the people not being able to decide how they approach God, but only being able to approach God through the means that God provides — in this case, in the way of following the priestly rules that have been given to the house of Aaron — this is a huge picture to the children of Israel that only God can provide the way for you back into His presence.

Some of you have been watching this sad and awful spectacle of the Michael Vick trial. And some of you watched the public statements that were made just a few days ago. But one of the most striking public statements was this one, when Mr. Vick announced at his press conference, “I will redeem myself.”

Now. Totally apart from whether Mr. Vick will do anything of the sort, let me just say that theologically nobody can do that. And that is the whole point of this passage: You can’t redeem yourself. Only the person that God has appointed for your redemption can redeem you. You cannot do it yourself. And who is that person of whom Aaron and his priests were only a faint foreshadowing? The Lord Jesus Christ. So when anyone else says, “There are many ways to God. All different roads lead up the mountain,” what’s God’s answer to that? “No! I appoint the way back into My presence, because you are the one who has broken the fellowship. You’re the sinners. You can’t solve this problem. Only I can for you, and the way I have chosen to do that is only through My Son, Jesus Christ’ so that the apostles can say, “There is no other name under heaven whereby a person can be saved.” Only through Jesus Christ. And where Jesus can say in the Gospel of John, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” That is the huge lesson that is displayed in all of those obscure priestly laws in the first five books of the Bible. Why is it that only the priests can go and offer the offerings, and take in the incense, and serve in the capacity as intercessors and mediators for the people of God? Because the only way into God’s presence is in the way that He has proposed. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves.

And how do we learn that from this passage tonight? Well, look at what the people of God say. When they find out that they — because their staffs didn’t blossom — when they find out that they are not going to be allowed to be priests and come before God, what do they say?

“We’re undone! We’re all undone! Everyone who comes near, everyone who comes near the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. Are we all to perish?”

Now, as I said, they get it partly right and partly wrong, don’t they? They’re right that if they decide of their own selves that they’re going to go and approach that tabernacle and serve as priests, they’re going to die. They’re absolutely…they are spot…A+, guys! You got that one down! But they get an F on the second part of this, because God has appointed someone to approach the tabernacle for them. In fact, it’s going to be a beautiful thing. In the very next chapter, God is going to give some instructions to the priests. And you know what He says? He says, ‘You’re going to bear the sins and offenses of the people before Me in the tabernacle.’

They’re right. If they approach the tabernacle on their own, they’re going to die. They’re going to end up like the guys that were carrying the censers, like the 14,700 that were consumed by the plague. But God has appointed priests to go there for them and bear their sin.

And of course the whole middle section of the book of Hebrews (from chapter 4 to chapter 10) is to tell you that God has appointed a Priest for you who goes within the veil, into the very Holy of Holies, into the heavenly presence of God; and if you trust in Him, He can bring you into enjoyment, engagement, fellowship and communion with God. But if you try and go yourself on your own, apart from Him or any other way, you’re in trouble.

That’s the great message of this passage. God appoints the way that we come into fellowship with Him. Why? Because we can’t redeem ourselves. We can’t enter back into His presence. Only He can provide the way in Jesus Christ.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this glorious truth, and for the way it’s displayed in this passage that, very frankly, is obscure to us. How many times have we read the Bible and scratched our heads at this passage? And yet, You have wonderful gospel truth for us in store. Thank You for this word. Grant that we would believe it, to the saving of our souls. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[Congregation sings The Doxology]