Saturday, June 20, 2020
In a world of growing skepticism and atheism, there are many who mistrust Scripture and find fault with the God of the Bible. As an example, in his book, The God Delusion, popular atheist Richard Dawkins, using some of the most unflattering and blasphemous terms, says this of God:
We should pray for Dawkins, and people like him, that they would come to know the true God and not an extremely warped version of Him.
Skeptics will pick passages out of the Bible that they don’t like in order to try and “prove” that God is somehow flawed. One such passage is Numbers 15:32-36:
32 – “Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood [sticks] on the Sabbath day.
33 – Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation;
34 – and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him.
35 – Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’
36 – So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (NASV)
Many skeptics and atheists will jump on this passage and say, “See! Your God is evil! You Christians worship an unfair God. There is no reason for Him to kill this poor man simply for gathering sticks!”
Is God Loving?
The argument above is a very common one. But how should a Christian answer such an objection? It may sound like the objector has a valid point: Wouldn’t a warning have been enough? Why would God take such drastic measures against a seemingly innocent act when, according to the Bible, He is supposed to be loving and forgiving?
First of all, God is indeed both loving and forgiving. But you can’t put God in a box and confine Him to only those two characteristics. The nature of God is a “total package” and there is more to Him than just love and forgiveness. You can’t just expect to see those characteristics and never the others. He is also sovereign, holy and just (Colossians 1:16-17; Isaiah 6:3; Romans 3:26). He is a loving and forgiving Father, but He is also to be honored and obeyed, even feared (Joshua 24:14), since He must punish evil.
The truth is, God gave the command to keep the Sabbath day long before this event in Numbers 15. All Israel knew about this commandment. That’s why those who witnessed the man gathering sticks brought him before Moses in the first place (Numbers 15:33). So, it is not like he was innocent because of ignorance (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:13-16; 35:1-3). He was certainly aware of the commandment.
The second point is that if God tells us to do (or not do) something, we must obey. Mature Christians are fully aware, from experience, that they can trust Him in every circumstance. We may not always know why He wants us to do something, but God, being sovereign, is not obligated to tell us why He gives every command. But sometimes He does tell us, like in this very case. It is because the Sabbath is a special day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). It is holy and it stood for something. The Israelites would learn an important lesson that day: Don’t trifle with God and His commandments!
What It Points To
So, the question remains, why did God act so harshly toward this man? I firmly believe that it was because of what the Sabbath stood for, what it symbolized, what it pointed to. There are many symbols that point to things we respect. For example, if someone spit on the American flag (a symbol), many veterans who gave their blood, sweat and tears, experienced loss of limbs, and have friends who even gave their lives for this country - this act of spitting on the flag would be a serious insult to them.
If someone in the Old Testament would have defiled the temple and its ceremonies, or profaned the covenant of circumcision (both are symbols), this too, would have been an incredible insult to the Jews. The man gathering sticks violated the Sabbath, which is a symbol of the believer’s rest. We must remember that this rest has been purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ.
Ok, this blog is about Catholicism, so where do Catholics fit into this article? What does this topic have to do with what the Catholic Church teaches? Well, the Sabbath rest could be looked at in different ways, but I believe that the main thing it stood for was a salvation / justification based on Jesus’ work on the cross, and not on our own work mixed with it. This is a stinging reminder that trusting in your works of righteousness (Titus 3:5) to contribute in any way toward your justification, as the Catholic Church teaches, will find you in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:15).
The man gathering sticks on the Sabbath snubbed his nose at what would become the greatest and most important event in the history of mankind… Calvary. The Sabbath pointed to the cross, therefore, in essence, he was saying, “No thank you, Jesus. My work is sufficient to save me, and I don’t need your rest!”
Rest from the Merit of Our Works
Jesus promised rest to His followers:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30 - NASV)
But what kind of rest does Jesus give?
Is the “rest” that He gives us ONLY the rest we will have in Heaven, or does it include a rest from one’s works today? Must we try to live up to the Law so that we can merit our way to Heaven?
The continual answer from Scripture is no, we cannot live up to the Law. No one can. To make it to Heaven, we must put our absolute trust in Jesus’ work alone. Our works will never earn eternal life, nor do they contribute to our justification. As we have said many times on this blog, the right intent in doing good works is not TO BE saved by them, but we do them because WE ARE saved (Ephesians 2:10).
I believe that two basic lessons can be learned here. First, there is a great need for Christians to learn to respectfully, but adequately, address questions that atheists and skeptics will ask us, like the ones at the beginning of this article. To be fair, I have in the past seen some Catholics successfully answer some of the deep questions from skeptics. Kudos to them.
The second lesson is that Catholics, because of their training and their devotion to “Mother Church,” are unable to render a consistent biblical answer on the role of works in salvation. They are guilty of basically the same thing as the man in Numbers 15 who despised the true meaning of the Sabbath and violated the intent of this holy rest. The thing that this man had done was a special insult to Jesus, perhaps the ultimate insult. He failed to honor that to which it pointed. We can be assured that his punishment was just.