Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect

Have you ever heard the expression, “Make your best deal going in”?

That means that before you take a new job, make sure that you will be getting the pay and benefits you want or need.  Don’t settle for less and then try to get more later – because then your employer will then have the upper hand in negotiations.

This is not to say that God is negotiating with the Israelites in Numbers 28 before they enter the Promised Land – but God is making sure they understand what He expects of them once they get there.  And if they don’t accept God’s terms, they won’t get there at all.

Before I left on vacation, we talked a bit about the second census – when God had Moses and Eleazar count the people who were born in the Wilderness or who still alive after the forty years’ journey from Egypt.  

Now, God is giving those people a refresher course in His Law – along with some updates – so that they will thrive in their new home physically, socially, politically, and most of all, spiritually.  

As James Philip put it in his commentary on Numbers, “God began again.” God was done with the whining and the longing for the good old days back in Egypt.  Once the people crossed the Jordan to their new home, everything would be different.

In each command concerning the sacrifices, God emphasized three elements: 

Appointed Times, Acceptable Gifts, and Aromas that Pleased.

Let’s look first at Appointed Times.  God makes sacrifice part of the rhythm of their lives.  He gives clear instructions for daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly sacrifices – so their lives are marked by the shedding of blood for their sins.  The daily sacrifices were to be offered in the morning and in the evening – making a connection with the Creation story.  Every day would be a new day with its own sins, and with its own sacrifices by which the people would be made new.

The weekly sacrifices were offered on the Sabbath – in addition to the daily sacrifices that would have been offered anyone.  This was an additional reminder that the Sabbath was a day of rest from their labors and a day to rest from the guilt that accompanied their sin.  They could enjoy the day knowing that God had accepted their sacrifices and forgiven them.

The monthly sacrifices were offered on the first day of each month – which in the Hebrew calendar coincided with the New Moon.  The New Moon was a sign of a new start, a clean slate, 13 times per year.  

Then there were the sacrifices at the times of the annual feasts: Passover, The Feast of Weeks (also known as Pentecost), The Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

The entire calendar was built around the sacrifices, because keeping up with the sin of God’s people was a never-ending task.  And a bloody one.  During the course of a year, 113 bulls, 32 rams, and 1086 lambs would be sacrificed – along with more than a ton of fine flour and a thousand bottles each of olive oil and wine.

That brings us to Acceptable Gifts.  God was very specific about what kinds of animals and how much grain, oil, and wine were to be offered.  The flour was to be “fine flour” and the animals were to be “without blemish.”  

Lame animals, blind animals, animals that had been injured were not to be offered.  Coarse flour was not acceptable.  Neither was rancid oil or sour wine. Only the best was acceptable to God. But none of them was perfect – because nothing in God’s creation is untouched by the effects of sin.  But it was to be the best.

And when they were burned – God was pleased with an aroma that He describes as sweet.  The act of burning turned something very physical into something more ethereal – smoke, which floated upward toward heaven.

Here are Verses 1 & 2 in another translation – the New American Standard Bible – that gives us a better sense of just how pleasing the sacrifices were to God:

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying:

“Command the Israelites and say to them,

‘You must be careful to present to me my offering,

My food of my offerings by fire, my soothing aromas, at the appointed time for each.’”

Notice all the first-person personal pronouns in this translation: to me, my offerings, my food, my soothing aromas.  They really help us to grasp how involved God is in this process.  God does not sit up in heaven and merely sniff the smoke from the altar, then turn away.  God truly enjoys them.

And the reason why is not that God likes barbecue.  It’s because these are sacrifices that come from His people’s love and fear of Him – their respect for Him – their obedience.  And yet, they were still not perfect sacrifices.

We understand why not from our passage today from Hebrews 9:

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.

The sacrificial animals were part of God’s creation – which had been corrupted by sin – so they could never been the perfect sacrifice.  And the priests were human – and therefore sinful – so they could never offer the perfect sacrifice.

But God’s own Son was perfect – and offered Himself as the sacrifice for the sin of all His people – so He both made and was the perfect sacrifice.  As we sang in our hymn of praise this morning, “Crown Him, crown Him, prophet and priest and king!”  

The writer of Hebrews explains just how perfectly Jesus’ sacrifice covers our sin:

14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

Not only are we forgiven – but we have assurance that we are forgiven completely, for all our sin: past, present, and future.  This gives us a clean conscience, freeing us to serve God without fear that we are unworthy.

This is the New Covenant – which Jesus referred to as the “new covenant in my blood” at His last Passover supper with His disciples before His crucifixion.  The writer of Hebrews elaborates on what Jesus said:

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.

The elaborate system of sacrifices that God established for the Israelites – and updated before they entered the Promised Land – was a sign of the new life they would have in their new homeland.  But it was perfectly imperfect – because it relied on imperfect people and imperfect sacrifices.

The sacrifice of Jesus, however, is the perfect sign of the perfect life that we will have in our eternal homeland – as well as the new life we have in this life.  Praise God for our Lord Jesus – who could offer the perfect sacrifice because He was and is and will always be perfect.

Amen.