“If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer…..a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person…..when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven….But the person who does anything with a high hand….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.” Numbers 15:27-28, 30-31
I don’t know about you but passages like this scare me. Why? Because I know that I am not only guilty of unintentional sins, but intentional, high handed sins. Yes, there are sins I commit without even realizing it: a wandering heart, an anxious, untrusting nervousness, mindless and careless words, etc. And, I am so thankful that God’s forgiveness is sufficient for these. But, what about the sins I willfully determined to commit? What about when I have clearly seen the choice of holiness or sinful pleasure and have opted for sinful pleasure? Have I then become cut off from the covenant community? Is there any atonement for my iniquity? Can I be forgiven?
When we read the Law of God and passages like this one in Numbers, we must remember Paul’s warning in Romans 9:31-32, that “Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…”
Unlike Israel, we must approach the Law of God from faith not works. So, when the ear of faith hears the Law of God it responds in humble pleas for mercy not self-resolve. It cries out in repentance not self-defense. And, God delights to show mercy to the broken and contrite (Ps. 51:17, Lk. 18:9-14). King David is a wonderful illustration of God’s forgiving mercy to a high handed sinner. He willfully committed adultery and planned a good man’s death. 2 Samuel 11 & 12 reveal that David was guilty of Numbers 15:31: despising the word of the LORD and breaking His commandment. Yet, David was not “cut off,” rather, the prophet declared, “The LORD….has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13). Why? Because David responded in humble, repentant faith and God granted him mercy.
This is good news for intentional sinners like me and you! God does extend His forgiving mercies to us. We can be forgiven. Yet, the question remains: How can God forgive high handed sinners when His Law clearly says that they should be cut off? The answer is Christ. One of the deficiencies of animal sacrifice is that it wasn’t a voluntary or intentional sacrifice on the part of the animal. It had no say in the matter, but was brought by the will of the offerer. Christ, however, willingly laid down his life (Jn 10:11, 18), freely offering it as a “fragrant….sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). In our place, He intentionally suffered outside the camp, cut off from the presence and people of God, so that we may be sanctified “through his blood” (Heb 13:12). The gospel declares that intentional sinners deserving to be cut off may be forgiven through the intentional sacrifice of the once cut off, now risen Christ. He was cut off, so that we may be brought near! (Eph 2:12-13; Col 2:11-12)
Thanks be to God: In Christ mercy triumphs over judgement!
Chuck Cook is the pastor of Grace Bible Church - Rolla.