The Following thought for the day was written by Brother Richard Morgan and provides insight and encouragement for those seeking to serve the God of Israel.

The Evil Triangle!

Do you feel sorry for the man stoned to death in Numbers 15:32-36? All he was doing was “gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (v32). Sure, he disobeyed the Sabbath law, but still – does that deserve being stoned to death? Perhaps the preceding two verses, that tell us about those who do “anything with a high hand” (that is, intentionally) and have “despised the word of the Lord” give a hint to the attitude of this Sabbath breaker, but it still seems to be very harsh.

One thing this incident illustrates is the strictness of law. James says, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10) and we know that under law we are all condemned.

It’s interesting to consider the two other times in the Old Testament where people gathered sticks and stuff, each time using the same very unusual Hebrew expression. I think we’re meant to notice the connection. The first time is in Exodus 5 when, under the regime of the Pharaoh, “the people were scattered throughout all the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw” (v12). Egypt represents the bondage of sin. King Sin – Pharaoh – ruled over the people through his taskmasters, an analogy taken up by Paul in Romans 6.

The other time someone is gathering (again using the same Hebrew expression) is in 1 Kings 17 when Elijah met the widow of Zarephath “gathering sticks” (v10). She told the prophet, “I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” (v12). It was a pathetic situation. Here was a Gentile widow, at a time when there was no social security, and her fatherless son, about to eat their last meal during a time of famine.

Each of these three occurrences teaches us about the harsh realities of life in the flesh. The harshness of law with the Sabbath breaker, the harshness of sin in Egypt, and the harshness of death for the widow. We know these realities ourselves and the evil triangle of law, sin, and death. We struggle to keep up standards of law-keeping, the evil which we don’t want to do we find so natural, and the older we get the more we feel the power of mortality and eventual death. We human beings are in a bit of a sorry state.

Now, let’s see how the New Testament takes up the challenge of the human predicament.

Jesus tells us the story of the one-talent man in his parable in Matthew 25. He hid his talent in the ground because of how he saw his master – “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed” (v24). Notice the idiomatic expressions about reaping and gathering – the latter echoing with what we saw in our references above. The problem with the one-talent man was his view of God, as a harsh taskmaster, expecting too much of his servants. Perhaps you’ve had that kind of view of God at times in your life. As his servant it’s like the laborious task of gathering sticks or stubble. God is a taskmaster who expects too much of us, asking us to keep impossible laws, overcome the immense power of sin, and look forward to dying the slow death of our mortal frame. If we’re going to get stoned to death for simply gathering sticks on the Sabbath it’s just not worth the bother, and, having a law- and fear-based religion we give up and bury our talent.

That was the religion of Saul of Tarsus. When he met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus Jesus said to him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). That’s the same word “hard” as in the parable, a word that means harsh, or strict. Paul’s way of life as a Pharisee under the Law of Moses was just that – hard and strict. So strict that it motivated him to kill brothers and sisters in Christ.

But Jesus turned him around and invited him into God’s family.

Now look at the end of Paul’s ministry. In Acts 28 we find him shipwrecked on the island of Malta. Cold and hungry he “gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire” (v3). Uh oh, we’ve already seen what gathering sticks represents. And the very next thing we learn is that “a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand.” The native people put two and two together and said, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live” (v4). They were right – he had been a murderer when under the old law-based harsh religion. The sting of sin had finally caught up with him. But no – “He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm” (v5).

In this incident Paul lived out the solution to the human dilemma. The name he was previously known as, Saul, in Hebrew, is the same as the word for the grave – sheol, just with different vowel pointing. Just like his Old Testament namesake he was a persecutor and murderer. Both Saul’s represented the power of the grave. They were also both legalists and sinners. Law, sin, and death all rolled up in their religion and behavior. When the prophet Hosea commented on the people choosing Saul he wrote, “I gave you a king in my anger” (Hos. 13:11), and if you look at the story from 1 Samuel, you’ll notice that they wanted a king like the other nations, particularly the nation ruled over by a man called Nahash (1 Sam. 12:12), who’s name happens to the same in Hebrew as the serpent. In other words, the people chose King Sin to rule over them and Saul happily obliged. But the prophet Hosea goes on to say:

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
I shall redeem them from Death,
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting? (v14)

You’ll recognize those words because Paul quotes them in the Resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15. Saul, representing the power of Sheol, would lose that power. And so, Paul writes, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26) before quoting the prophet:

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Paul lived this out. He was once the one who represented King Sin, but Jesus converted him on the road to Damascus. So, the very next thing Paul writes, is, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” (v56). Law, sin, and death once worked together in harmony, but now, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v57). Paul, by shaking off the serpent that bit him after gathering sticks, showed the power of salvation in Christ. So, he ends the chapter by saying, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (v58). We might think life is too difficult. Keeping God’s law. Overcoming sin. Dealing with death. But, even though at times it might feel like we’re laboriously gathering sticks, in the Lord it is not in vain. As Paul writes elsewhere, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:1-2).

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