“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. 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”
Numbers 15 v 32 – 36
For many of you reading that, both non Christian and Christian, you were probably shocked that a man be stoned to death just for breaking the Sabbath rule about not working. It’s unfair you say; how could God be so petty? Surely God should have forgiven him? Indeed by if that happened in a human justice system we would call it an over reaction.
And Numbers 15 is not the only passage by any means: in Genesis 19 v 26 Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt just for looking back. In 2 King 2 v 23 -25 we have God summon two bears to maul to death forty two young men who had been mocking Elisha, one of God’s prophets. In Joshua 7 v 11, 25 we have an entire family put to death because one man stole a false idol he was meant to destroy. In 2 Samuel 6 v 6 – 7 God kills a man for steadying the Ark of God with his hand to stop it from falling. And in Acts 5 v 1 – 10 God strikes down a man and his wife for lying.
There are many other examples I could mention but let me just mention one more: God’s condemnation of the entire human race because Adam ate a fruit he shouldn’t. The infliction on the human race of pain, suffering and death because Adam and Eve ate a fruit God commanded that they shouldn’t.
By human standards all these examples seem a gross over reaction, the actions of some cruel and heartless God, not the deeds of a God of love but the deeds of a malevolent deity with a bee in his bonnet.
How does the God described above also fit the following description?
“'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.”
Number 14 v 18
How does the above God fit in with the biblical statement of fact that God loves the human race? That God loved us all so much he sent his Only Son to die on the cross for our sins.
Our problem, as usual, lies not in God’s revelation of himself but our understanding of God. Specifically, what we all struggle to grasp is the sheer sinfulness of sin. For what all sin eventually boils down to, what all the above examples boil down to is breaking a direct command of God. All sin is rebellion against God. As David writes:
“Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.”
Psalm 51 v 4
All our sins are sins against God. Even our crimes against our fellow men are sins against God.
Let me ask you a question: why is plotting to kill an ordinary man murder whereas plotting against a government or ruler is called treason? Because killing someone of authority, say a President, is considered to be a worse crime than murdering an ordinary man. The higher the status of the person involved the worse the crime. Even the most ardent advocate of equality would recognise the element of truth in that.
So then, when we examine sin we must examine who exactly God is. For to truly understand the sinfulness of sin we must truly understand the godliness of God.
“And they were calling to one another:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Isaiah 6 v 3 – 5
Any sin against God is a sin against a thrice holy God, a God of righteousness, a God of perfection and glory. When we sin against an infinite God we commit an infinite transgression. There is no such thing as a ‘little sin’ for there is no such thing as a ‘little God’. There is only the Lord God Almighty, creator of this universe and sustainer of all things. You cannot expect to sin against the Most High God and get a ‘light’ punishment.
Logically then it must follow that an infinite sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment. Now sometimes God punishes sin in this life – think of sexual transmitted diseases as a punishment for fornication (sex outside marriage/multiple partners), the justice system is a human instrument God uses to punish some sins (crimes), everyone is going to die – the final consequence in this life of our sinfulness.
So God’s action in killing a man for picking up sticks is perfectly just. For the man was breaking a command of God not to work on the Sabbath. The man committed an infinite sin against an infinite God.
But death is finite how then can any punishment be infinite? After we die we go either to Heaven or Hell. In Hell people will receive an infinite punishment for their infinite sin. By default this is where we’ll end up for who among us has not sinned? Yet there is hope. For God in his mercy and love provided a way to salvation. The only way to be saved from Hell is through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. For God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to die on the cross in our place! And if we put our trust in him and repent of our sins then God will both forgive and forget our infinite sins!
"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Hebrews 8 v 12
God in his infinite love will forget our infinite sin for God placed upon Jesus the punishment our sins deserved.
So now we have a full picture of the mercy and justice of God we can see the truth in Numbers 14:
“'The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
Numbers 14 v 18
It is not God that is at fault when we cannot understand why he punished someone who broke his law with death as he did in all the cases mentioned above. Rather it is our fault for not understanding, for not wanting to understand, the seriousness of sin. Every single sin, no matter how humanly insignificant, is committed against a God of infinite holiness, goodness and love. As such every sin is fully deserving of an infinite punishment for this sin and every sinner will receive such punishment. Or would receive such punishment except by the grace and mercy or God in providing his Son Jesus Christ as our salvation. So that all those who repent and believe might not perish but have everlasting life!
So we see that when God proclaims his mercy he isn’t lying – no! Rather let us recognize the salvation God offers to us all freely and let us say: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”