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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:The Protective God
Text:Leviticus 24:10-23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Law is Good
 
Preached:2018
Added:2018-03-11
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 101:1,2,3                                                                               

Ps 139:11,12,13                                                                                                         

Reading – Leviticus 24; Matthew 5:38-48

Ps 4:1,2,3

Sermon – Leviticus 24:10-23

Ps 34:1,5

Hy 37:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, if there is something that’s dear to us, we’ll often make rules to protect it. Say you’ve got a brand new fishing rod with a high quality reel, and lots of good tackle. Your son wants to borrow it—or maybe your younger brother does—and out of the goodness of your heart you’re inclined to let him. But first you want to lay down several rules: when he can use it, and where, and how—so that he’s not careless and he doesn’t break it. You even mention some consequences of what’ll happen to him if he doesn’t abide by your commandments. Your rod is precious to you, so you protect it.

We do this with things that are dear to us, and God does it too. The LORD is protective of his name, so He makes rules about how we can use it. God is also protective of his gift of life, so He guards this too, with his law. He doesn’t want us to harm or neglect his good gifts, but to employ them properly. This is what we see in Leviticus 24.

If we step back and look at our text in its context, we see that the LORD is still teaching his people about holy things. In Leviticus God has been doing this all along, explaining the holy sacrifices and the holy priesthood, together with giving guidance for holiness in your daily diet, and the life of a family and society, and in the ministry of the priests. Earlier in this chapter, God speaks about the holy lamps that burn in the tabernacle, and the loaves of holy bread placed before the LORD every Sabbath. God draws a circle around many things, and calls them holy.

Our text is a continuation of that, because now God reveals his will about the holiness of his name, and the special character of life itself. We can read our text with much benefit as the LORD teaches his ways to us, his covenant people in Christ. I preach God’s Word from Leviticus 24:10-23 on this theme,

God upholds the honour of his Name and the sanctity of life:

  1. the law forbidding blasphemy
  2. the laws protecting life   

 

1) the law forbidding blasphemy: Did you notice something different about our text? Compared to many of the chapters that come before it, even compared to the nine verses just preceding, our text is unusual, because it’s a story. So far, much of Leviticus has been in the form of legal material, God giving his laws and commandments for Israel’s life.

One of the only exceptions to this is chapter 10. In that chapter Moses recounts what happened when Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, present unholy fire before the LORD. There was a lesson in that for everyone. But since then, it’s been more commandments and regulations and possible punishments for disobedience. Until our text, which again tells a story.

When we look at it closely, though, we see that it’s not just a story; it too, is giving a lesson and laying down a commandment. You could call it an example of case law, when a specific legal decision is used as basis for a rule that applies more broadly. That is to say, these verses aren’t just telling about an event when a man blasphemed God’s name and was killed for it, but these verses teach everyone about the importance of honouring the LORD.

In itself, this story shows something important about the nature of God’s Word. When God speaks, it’s never just words on a page, empty phrases and hollow commands. The Word is relevant! It’s always for real life, and it connects to our own stories. It addresses the actual situations that we find ourselves in, day by day. “God’s Word is living and active,” Hebrews says. When we read Scripture with eyes opened by the Holy Spirit, we see God’s will for our own specific circumstances. We learn his wisdom for that particular place He’s put us.

It’s not the only time we find this sort of thing in God’s law. For example, in Numbers 15 the story is told about a man who was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. There too, the people bring him to Moses for judgment, and there too, God reveals that the man must be put to death. That story too, seems strange because it also takes place in the middle of a chapter full of laws and regulations. But there’s a pattern: a question is raised about a particular situation, and then God reveals his will, recorded as a guide for the future.

OK, that’s the legal bit. So what happens? Verse 10: “Now the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and this Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought each other in the camp.” The story begins with some kind of fight, maybe a verbal argument, or a physical clash. This fight involves an Israelite and someone who was part-foreigner. When this fellow is brought to trial, we don’t learn his name; however, his mother’s name and connections are mentioned, probably because he owed his presence in the camp to her. It could be that his Egyptian father has already passed away.

A mixed marriage like this probably wasn’t so uncommon. After God’s people had spent hundreds of years in Egypt, it says in Exodus 12:38 that when they left, “a mixed multitude went up with them also”—other people, hangers-on, and foreigners. This mixed multitude could’ve been made up of slaves from other countries, and Egyptians who wanted to serve the true God, and also Egyptians who had intermarried with the Israelites.

In his grace and goodness, God allowed these “strangers” and “foreigners” to become part of his people. He even protected them in his law. Think of the fourth commandment, which says that on the Sabbath day even “the stranger within your gates” shall be given a day of rest (Exod 20:10). Even so, this son of an Egyptian was not considered a full citizen, but an outsider.

He comes into a part of the camp—perhaps where he wasn’t known by his neighbours—and a fight breaks out. And as it heats up, something terrible gets said: “The Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the name of the LORD and cursed” (v 11). Let’s understand what’s happening here. If you happen to see two people fighting, and one of them blasphemes God, you’d probably think that it’s “simply” a person’s rage coming out in their words. They might swear and say “God damn you,” but they don’t really expect God to do anything against the other person. It’s still offensive to the LORD, but in some ways it’s just a saying, because the person likely doesn’t believe in God and his power.

For an Israelite to say this meant much more: a curse was considered a real and potent weapon to use against someone. The fellow in this story knew the LORD, and used his name to curse his opponent, calling down on him God’s wrath and judgment. It’s the ultimate arrogance to suppose that you can simply enlist God Almighty to take your side in a fight. It expresses great contempt for the LORD, because you’re using the holy God to back up your own evil deed.

When this happens, people are around to hear the man’s blasphemy. So, verse 11 says, “they brought him to Moses.” Now, God’s law about blasphemy was direct. The third commandment says God’s name must not be used “in vain,” and He won’t hold anyone “guiltless” who does. Still, God had not revealed a penalty for sins against this commandment. He had for some of the other commandments, but not for this one. So what to do? And it gets more complicated, because the blasphemer is not fully Israelite. The question is whether a foreigner should be held to the same standard?

Moses and the people don’t rush to judgment, but “they put him in custody, that the mind of the LORD might be shown to them” (v 12). And God reveals his will: “Take outside the camp him who has cursed; then let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him” (v 14). In God’s view, the person is guilty and must bear the penalty.

Notice how this act of blasphemy has produced contamination. In the laws of Leviticus, uncleanness is caused by things like skin disease, blood flow, impure animals and death, but here’s an example of how sin produces filth. We see it in how the person is taken outside the camp, because to kill him inside would spread contamination.

We see it also in how those who heard him curse have to lay their hands on him. There’s other hand-laying ceremonies in Leviticus, like when the high priest puts both hands on the head of the scapegoat, to transfer Israel’s sin (Lev 16). Here, the bystanders have “caught” some filthiness by hearing the blasphemy. Sometimes we have that too, that just happening to see something evil, or to hear about it, makes us feel dirty. In a real sense, the contamination of this blasphemy has spread, so by laying their hands on him, the bystanders transfer it back to the offender. The evil of this curse and its consequences belong to the blasphemer alone.

The story is then interrupted with the law that God wants to reveal, “Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land” (vv 15-16). In verse 16, it’s made explicit: this is a law both for foreigners within Israel, and for native born. Then in verse 23, there’s the story’s conclusion: the people obey the LORD by stoning the man to death.

This story is one of those places where we notice the great distance between Leviticus and today. It’s hard to relate to this, because in our country today there is no death penalty—not even for murder, let alone blasphemy. That someone in Israel could die for cursing God seems very severe. But there were quite a number of sins that were punished with death in the Old Testament—just look back at chapter 20 to see this. And in Israel, sins against family and against the LORD were considered the most serious.

So why does God protect his Name so fiercely? Why punish blasphemy the same way He punishes murder? It shows the enormity of the offense, the value of what God is protecting in his Name! There’s an inseparable link from God’s person to his name. God’s name is the way God wants people to view who He is. To bring his name down is to bring God down—dragging him into our sin, into our anger or hatred or whatever else.

And isn’t that still the case for how some people use God’s Name? We know how ordinary it’s become to use God’s name when a person is really serious, really surprised, or really excited. It’s a regular part of TV shows, or movies, or songs. Using God’s Name has simply become a way to emphasize your point. One of the things we struggle with is what to do when we hear this blasphemy. Sometimes it doesn’t shock us anymore, or offend us. It doesn’t make us upset.

I think our text shows a good response when the people put their hands on the man who sinned. Remember what that means: they’ve heard his blasphemy, but they don’t want to have a part in what he’s done or share in this filth. They put this blasphemy far away from them! Now, we don’t have control over what people around us say. But we do have control over what we listen to, and what we choose to watch. God is zealous for the holiness of his name, so we must separate ourselves from the pollution of this sin. For his glory, don’t let it infect you!

In terms of our own speaking, blasphemy is rare among us. Yet don’t we still need a warning here? I think we do. For even in the church, people can use God’s name in an entirely thoughtless way. In a discussion at Bible Study or at school, we might speak about God with hardly a thought for his heavenly majesty: “God this… God that…” In prayer, we might speak to the LORD casually, like He’s our friend from school, “God, I just want to say thanks…” Or we ramble through prayer without really a thought for who we’re addressing: “Lord… Lord… Lord…” Are we really using his name with reverence, then?

Or what about our songs of worship? When we sing in church, we say God’s name probably every other line. We sing about his heavenly glory, about his mighty works on earth. Yet do we consider the words that we’re singing? God’s holy name is on our lips, but we might be gazing around the auditorium, or wondering why we have to sing so many stanzas. Do we think of the holy LORD we’re singing to? Every time we handle the name of God, we must be careful, for his name is holy.

And yet here’s a wondrous thing, that God lets us know his name. In the Scriptures, the LORD told us his name. With his name, He’s given us a precious way to call on him in prayer, to confess him with our words, and to praise him in song. It’s a great privilege, for the LORD pays attention when we take his name on our lips. Let us use his name, and treat it as holy!

It’s ironic that when Jesus was condemned to death, one of the charges against him was blasphemy (Matt 26:65-66). The religious leaders thought that He brought dishonour to God’s name by putting himself on the same level as God. But this wasn’t blasphemy—it was true. Because He is God, and through him we can know the LORD in an even more close and intimate way. We can know him as Father, as Saviour. We deserved the death penalty for all our sins too,  but Christ gave himself in our place. The stones fell on him, not on us, so that we might live!

 

2) the laws protecting life: In the second half of our text, Moses moves on to something else that God carefully protects. We might wonder what connects the two halves of this text, but verse 22 is a clue. After God forbids murder, or killing an animal, or causing disfigurement, He says, “You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country.” That was the question in the blasphemy case: Does this law apply to foreigners as well as to native-born? The answer is yes, God wants everyone to honour his will.

And here God is protective of his gift of life. This is because God created life in the beginning, calling everything into being, then breathing into man “the breath of life.” This is the reason that God defends life with severe penalties for those who kill: “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death” (v 17).

We find this principle more than once in God’s law—it’s even in the Bible’s book of foundations, the book of Genesis. There God says in chapter 9, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (v 6). Human life is so valuable that God demands from a murderer his own life as compensation. This has always been God’s standard for those who would take the life of another by violence.

Of course, someone can harm the life of his neighbour in less severe ways. Maybe a fight leads to a broken bone or a head injury, or someone’s fit of rage ends with his neighbour being short a few fingers. God protects life with this law: “If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him— fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him” (vv 19-20).

These verses establish an important guideline for justice in Israel. In Latin it’s called the lex talionis, or the law of retaliation. We know it by the short form: “an eye for an eye.” And what did it mean? It meant that if a person has caused injury or loss, he has to bear a suitable punishment. And God gave this law to prevent people from getting revenge. When someone is hurt by another person, he can be carried away with anger, and he can overreact and cause even more harm than he received. There should be punishment, but it should be fair. So God said: if you hurt someone, you’re going to be hurt to an equal degree.

Once again, this is a law that can seem harsh—where’s the spirit of forgiveness? Firstly, when we compare it to the laws that were in force in other countries, it’s more lenient. For example, in the law code of the Assyrians, simply injuring another person was often punishable with death. By contrast, God’s law seeks to keep things in balance, and it promotes a sense of order and justice. 

Secondly, this kind of law was required in Israel (and other ancient countries), because there was no system of prisons. Those who broke the law would not be sent somewhere for a jail term, so if justice would be done they needed to be punished almost immediately.

We should also remember that in Israel, losing an eye or permanently injuring a hand could have a huge impact on a person’s life. There was very limited medical treatment, so a person with a damaged eye or hand probably would never be able to do his work to the same extent as before. God wanted to protect people from such a fate, so He gave this law to uphold the value of a life.

Now, in most cases it seems this law wasn’t applied literally, that if you knocked out your neighbour’s tooth, you’d get one knocked out too. Instead, it simply meant that if you caused a loss, you had to pay a proper compensation. For example, if an owner hit his slave in the face and damaged his eye, the slave was given his freedom (Ex 21:26). The price for breaking God’s law had to be fair, whether you hurt a person, or killed someone’s animal. Only in the case of premeditated murder did God say that compensation was not allowed (Num 35:16). Then the principle of life for life had to be enforced.

So how do we read this law today? We read Matthew 5, Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (vv 38-39). It seems to be saying that we shouldn’t seek punishment if someone hurts us—in fact, we should let the person hurt us again. So is Jesus saying that Leviticus doesn’t apply anymore?

We need to distinguish between applying this law in a civil setting, and applying it in a personal setting. In the civil setting—in the law courts—if someone has been hurt or even killed, the focus is not on getting revenge, but on doing justice. What is an appropriate punishment? What will deter the person from doing it again, and also deter other people from committing the same crime? With his words, Jesus doesn’t restrain judges and rulers from doing their work. Think of how the New Testament speaks of the punishment that is rightly given out by human judges (Rom 13:4; 1 Peter 2:14). Good laws and punishments for those who assault and murder and rape are part of God’s protection of life.

That’s the civil setting. But in the personal setting, we have to be ruled by the command to love. Like He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches the spirit of the law. He knows that if has someone hurt us, we’ll almost always have an urge for payback. Maybe someone has ridiculed you at school in front of everyone. Maybe someone has attacked your reputation. Maybe a competitor is being nasty and undercutting your business. We can have this urge to get them back, to repay them, “an eye for an eye.” “They did this to me, I’m going to give it right back.”

The desire for revenge can be very strong. We don’t always get our opportunity, but even if we never act on it, this desire can burn fiercely on the inside. And, of course, it can mutate into other things: bitterness, long-term anger, resentment. Sadly, this sort of thing can get into the church and cause division. It can ruin families: “They did this, then they said that—they never paid the price for it—so now I can’t forgive them, and I won’t talk to them.”

Instead, Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek. Don’t insist that every personal injury or insult has to be paid back. Don’t let grudges breed in your heart. Realize what you pray whenever you pray the fifth petition: you are called to forgive your debtors, just as God in Christ has forgiven you. Remember that vengeance is the LORD’s; God is the ultimate judge of all people and whatever they do. And that means we can lay all these problems before him. If someone has spoken to you unfairly or treated you badly, strive to put it into God’s hand. Pray to Him that your bitterness doesn’t grow. Pray for an ability to move on. Don’t make revenge your project, but make peace your project, and wait for the LORD.

More than just giving up on the idea of revenge, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you” (v 44). This is the way of selfless love. This is the way to uphold God’s holy gift of life, by truly valuing the people around us.

And it’s the model that Christ himself showed. He put others ahead of himself, and He loved even those who were his enemies. He took God’s curse upon himself, and He accepted God’s just punishment on his own back. He gave, and He gave, and He gave some more. And now Christ calls each of us to live in that same spirit.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/

(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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