The journey of Israel to the Promised Land included times of grumbling and of outright rebellion against the Lord. The Lord’s response was often dramatic as Israel endured the consequences of sin. One example is Numbers 16, describing the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram. The Lord opened the earth and they were consumed. When the Israelites protested, plague broke out. In Numbers 17 the Lord provides a long-term solution to the situation. Consider Numbers 17:1-13 The Lord’s chosen priest.
1. The challenge
There has been judgment on those at the centre of the rebellion (16:31) and on those who objected (16:49). Serious issues are at stake. More is needed: ‘I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites’ (17:5). The Lord is going to deal in a lasting way with the root issues underlaying the rebellion. At one level the opposition was against Moses and Aaron, claiming all God’s people are equal (16:10), refusing to accept his ordained order. The focus is on the priesthood (16:10). The deeper issue – ‘these men have treated the Lord with contempt’ (16:30). Sinners must approach him in the way he commands – by sacrifice offered by his chosen priest.
2. The solution
The Lord decrees precisely what will happen -v1-5 -Staffs are provided from the leaders of every tribe (v2) along with Aaron’s staff (v3). All are placed ‘in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony (the Ark)’, probably in the Holy Place. It is the Lord’s presence that is crucial – the result of the test will show who may approach his holy presence on behalf of Israel. God will bring life out of dead wood (v5) and he works a miracle – ‘Aaron’s staff had not only sprouted, but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds’ (v8). The Lord makes clear only Aaron may function as priest to represent Israel in offering atoning sacrifice, a unique role in the Lord’s provision of salvation and forgiveness. The staff is kept as ‘a sign’ (v10) – a warning, but above all a testimony to God’s grace in forgiveness. Tragically many of the Israelites react in terror (v12), with no sense of the grace of God.
3. The fulfilment
At best the OT sacrificial system was a God-ordained temporary provision – ‘it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4). It was never suggested that it could – the blood of an animal could remove ceremonial uncleanness but could not cleanse the human heart. But just as the Lord set apart Aaron, so he set apart the final, perfect High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). Christ is the chosen priest (Hebrews 5:5) prophesied in e.g. Psalm 110:4. Our Priest is the sacrifice – ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The Father designated Aaron by bringing life from dead wood – he designated Christ by bringing life (the resurrection) from death (the cross). In Christ we have the essential priest who provides the salvation that sinners need, the salvation that no animal sacrifice could secure.