Tongue-lashing

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As I've been reading through the Old Testament, there is one thing that stands out among many important principles. God's holiness pervades all the pages of Scripture but never more than it does in the Old Testament. That holiness was offended in Genesis at the fall of Adam and Even, driven to its limits in the flood during Noah’s time, and tested time and time again by a disobedient and the rebellious people. It demanded that no one touch the mountain of God, and established a priesthood, a Tabernacle and a system of sacrifices that were set apart to be as holy as the One Who had established them. God’s people were given commandments to follow and told to be as holy as the God Who was forming them into a nation. That command to be holy carried over into the New Testament, providing the bridge between the Old and the New (i.e. Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:16).

As I was reading Numbers 3 this morning, I was reminded again that God had set apart His priests to maintain the holiness of His sanctuary and the sacrificial system. In the early verses, the author remembers how Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, had died when they had offer “unauthorized fire” before the Lord (Numbers 3:4). God took what His servants did and what happened in the Tabernacle seriously.

In this chapter I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before. It was the custom that the eldest son in every family be dedicated to the Lord (Numbers 3:13). But in this passage it appears that the Levites were to become substitutes for these firstborn as far as the service to the Lord was concerned. “I have taken  the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine,” said the Lord (Numbers 3:12). As it happened there were 273 more firstborn than there were Levites (3:46) and these had to be “redeemed,” or money paid, to release them  from service (3:47, 48).

The Levites were set apart to carry out the duties of the Tabernacle and as we saw in the case of Nadab and Abihu, God’s holiness was to be respected and they themselves were to maintain high standards in their service for the Lord.

Yesterday I heard something from the pulpit that I have never heard before, and honestly hope to never hear again. The word “crap” was shouted at the congregation as a rebuke for some inappropriate behaviour. It’s a word commonly used even among believers. We think of it as meaning “garbage” but in fact, the primary meaning of “to crap” is, you guessed it, “to defecate.” Following that line, what was said from the pulpit yesterday could (and I trust you will pardon the language) be translated as “shit.” To give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think he thought about what he was saying.

I suspect that Nadab and Abihu didn’t think about what they were doing either when they offered inappropriate fire before the Lord. On this side of the cross, grace means that the judgment of God is usually not immediate, though Ananias and Sapphira in Acts are an exception.

Oddly enough the message yesterday was on Isaiah 6 where the prophet sees the holiness of God and realizes just how sinful he is before God. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory…’Woe to me!; I cried, ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:3, 5). Ironic, isn't it?

The passage from James 3 came back to my mind. The writer warns us about how we use our tongues and ends the passage with a lesson vital to all of us: “With the tongue we praise our God and Father and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (James 3:9-12). This particular passage begins with a warning that not many of us should attempt to be teachers of the Word because we are held to a higher standard and God will judge us accordingly for what we say (3:1). A rein has to be kept on our tongues.

None of us escape fault here, including me, but for those of us who have been set apart to vocational service, the warning is very clear. Watch that tongue.

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