Most people would skip Numbers 19 to get to the part where Moses lost it with God’s people and struck the rock. But while there’s nothing to immediately grab your attention, two words in verse 17 contain the Gospel in a nutshell.
The course of action for cleansing oneself from defilement is summarized and while nothing seems outside of the customary procedure, the fact that running water is called for seems both peculiar and significant.
In Old Testament times, just like today, it was unavoidable and inescapable that people would occasionally become defiled. Such occurrences prevented that person from entering God’s presence and would even go as far as defiling the sanctuary. Because sin was so commonplace, God made provision for any undefiled person, not just a priest, to be an agent of reconciliation for the person who sinned.
The problem of continual and ongoing sin in the life of the believer is not often fully addressed because many do not know what to do about it. Some preachers are afraid that if they preach too much grace, they’ll have an outbreak of sin in the church, but if they likewise preach too much law, the results will prove worse. While most of us believe that once we accepted Christ, our past sins were forgiven, our present and future sins remain an entirely separate matter before God. When a Christian sins, there are differing opinions inside and outside of the church as to the implications.
I might as well paint a target on myself for opening the discussion on the believer’s sin, but what happens when a Christian sins is seen as a far weightier matter than when an unbeliever sins. Because believers have accepted Christ, we feel we should not only know better, but do better. And while that is true, we are still prone to failure despite our good intentions.
While the Church has been known for shooting its wounded, the world can sometimes be even harder on the Christian who sins, using it as an excuse for why they should never take that step of faith to trust God (which btw, they weren’t planning on doing anyway). But the point of Christianity in the first place is that we are fallible people trusting in an infallible God.
I’ll never make an excuse for myself or others who have missed the mark as Christians. In each case, a conscious choice has been made. The reason we get so angry and judgemental when someone fails, other than the fact that it discredits God and His people, is that most of us secretly know we too would have fallen under the right circumstances. We hate in others what we see in ourselves and accuse others of what we’re guilty of in our own hearts, whether it’s lust for money, sex or power.
Whatever conditions led up to the failure might have been prevented in its early stages before sin gained momentum. But when you distance yourself emotionally from others, you’re skating on thin ice. The fact is, we need others and others need us to encourage one another to stay on track.
For years after committing my life to Christ, I still had too many unanswered questions about how to deal with sin as a believer. My natural mind reasoned that when I did something wrong, there was a cooling off period with God. Depending on the nature and degree of my sin, I would give Him a few hours or a few days until I felt He was no longer mad at me. If it was only a “white lie” to avoid hurting someone, it could be as soon as an hour before I could once again enter His presence, but if it was something more serious, it could mean days or even weeks before I would feel totally forgiven. Caught in the cycle of self-punishment, I was doing my own penance. Human nature is to be self-dependent, independent, other-dependent…anything but God-dependent.
It’s a common misunderstanding to think we should try to make up for our wrongdoings. The apostle Paul observed this trend in his day and addressed in his letter to the Galatians. Putting his usual tact and diplomacy aside, he said it bluntly in Chapter 3: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Paul goes on to teach in Chapter 5, verse 4 that, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace…” It’s interesting that in Numbers 19, the running water is referred to as the water of separation, not from Christ, but from the world. This running water has the power to separate us from sin and separate us unto God.
God knew that we would be easily defiled by the world we are in, but not of. But instead of throwing us into the vicious arms of the law, He threw us into the merciful arms of Christ where our past, present and future sins would be covered. This kind of extravagant gift is hard to accept, but anyone who has a son or daughter understands the love of a Father that would make such provision for their wayward child.
The continuous waterfall of God’s love and forgiveness is available to all of us, yet many still insist on paying their own debt. The problem is, we don’t have the required payment. The bill is far too high for even the richest or most righteous person on earth to pay it themselves.
The truth is that when we sin as Christians, our debt has already been paid in advance, just like it was for unbelievers. Jesus addressed sinful people as though they were already forgiven. He did not withhold from them what they needed. From the prostitute who washed His feet to Peter when He denied Christ, Jesus’ response was the same: no condemnation. Just forgiveness.
Jesus got angry with the Pharisees and teachers of the law who pretended they lived perfect lives and then condemned those who did not, placing burdens on men’s backs instead of lifting them. When a person who sins sees themselves as dirty, they will act accordingly, but when God gives you a revelation of your true identity as a son or a daughter, likewise, you will also act accordingly.
Unfortunately, too many Christians see themselves as slaves instead of sons, working for their Master’s approval instead of walking in their royal lineage. They cannot be agents of reconciliation because they don’t have forgiveness for themselves.
The running water in Numbers 19 is just that – always running. No matter what you’ve done as an unbeliever or a believer, you don’t have to endure a waiting period to come back into right relationship with the Father. Jesus paid your debt, once and for all so that you don’t have to avoid your Creditor. Can you accept the fact that, even in your greatest sin, you are still the righteousness of God in Christ?
What was true at the moment of your salvation is also true now that you’re a believer. I’m not taking sin lightly or advocating behaviour that displeases God. What I’m saying is that God has made available to you righteousness or right standing with God that is ongoing: forgiveness, justification, and continual cleansing from sin. How you respond when you sin indicates what you really believe about who Christ is and what He came to do.