We live in an age that is increasingly spiritual in ways we might not expect. In fact, a recent study concluded that more than one in five people in America, and more than half of those who never go to church, identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”1 What this means is that while many of our neighbors and friends do not wish to attend a church or other religious service, many of them are seeking the kind of spiritual meaning and significance that comes from having a relationship with God. People don’t want religion, but they do desire to have communion with God.

The search for communion with God is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as mankind, for we were created to have just such a relationship with God. As a result, we are spiritually empty when we lack communion with God, and at a deep level we long for the fulfillment that it alone can bring. The subject of communion with God is, of course, a central theme in the Bible, which explains how, having been made for such fellowship, mankind lost it through the fall. It goes on to unfold the long story of God’s provision of a new way of fellowship with himself. In a sense, therefore, every chapter in the Bible addresses this topic, but these chapters in the book of Numbers actually address that basic search for communion with God in a profound way. A section that may seem at first sight simply to be a boring list of sacrifices—religion at its worst—actually helps us see the only way in which such an intimate relationship with God may be found and maintained.

The first point to notice in our passage is that the reason the Lord commands these various sacrifices to be offered is precisely for the purpose of fellowship with him. Sacrifices had a number of symbolic functions within Old Testament religion, as we have seen in our earlier studies, but several elements in this context highlight the symbolism of a shared meal between the Lord and his people. The sacrifices are explicitly called “the food for my offerings made by fire” (28:2, NIV), and the point is repeatedly stressed that the scent of these offerings ascended to the Lord as an aroma pleasing to him (28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). What is more, these burnt offerings were always to be accompanied by the appropriate grain and drink offerings, which emphasized the fact that the sacrifice was to be a symbolic balanced meal. These sacrifices were thus a kind of communal meal shared with the Lord, a celebration of fellowship between the people of Israel and their heavenly Father. The daily burnt offerings represented daily fellowship between the Lord and his people, while the weekly and monthly offerings provided times of richer fellowship. Meanwhile, the three annual festivals were to be celebrated together as special occasions of feasting and celebration, family gatherings for the people of God.

It is important to notice at the outset that the Lord is the one who initiates communion with man, and he is the one who sets the terms for it. We may live in a society of seekers, but many of them are still seeking because they refuse to be found on the only terms offered by the Lord. They insist on searching for a deity who suits their desires and preferences, one who will let them live according to their own lifestyle choices. What they want from God is communion without commitment and relationship without responsibility.

In fact, there are striking parallels between the search for communion without commitment in the spiritual realm and in the realm of human relationships. Many people today are searching for meaningful relationships with people of the opposite sex, yet are not willing to make the commitment of lifelong faithfulness and self-sacrifice that marriage entails. They simply want someone with whom they can hook up. On a human level, however, the result of the search for connection without commitment is emptiness, for men and women were meant to commit to one another in a permanent marital bond. By the same token, the search for spiritual communion without commitment is equally fruitless. If we want to find God, he is there to be found. However, he will only be found by those who come to him without demands and ultimatums, ready to bow down and worship at his feet, submitting themselves gladly to his laws and ordinances. On the human level, those who commit themselves devotedly in marriage find that the restrictions that it places upon them are themselves the source of true freedom. In the same way, on the spiritual level those who come and submit to the Lord find that through that submission they experience true freedom and meaning for their lives. Communion with the Lord is only to be found through commitment.


Like marriage, communion with the true God is certainly not cheap. In Numbers 28, 29, the Lord makes great demands on his people, and these demands are required, not optional. The offerings listed here are cumulative; so the weekly sacrifices on the Sabbath were to be offered in addition to the daily offerings, while the festival offerings were in addition to both the daily and weekly sacrifices.2 If you do the math, the total comes out to an annual obligation for Israel to provide approximately 1,093 lambs, thirty-seven rams, 113 bulls, and thirty goats, along with all of the associated grain offerings and drink offerings. That doesn’t include any of the freewill offerings or the purification and sin offerings that were also required to atone for particular offenses. Communion with the true and living God is thus a costly affair.

This, of course, is part of the message that the daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal offerings were designed to teach Israel. The vast bulk of the sacrifices were to be offered as whole burnt offerings, a type of offering that served a variety of symbolic functions.3 In its wholeness, it served as a symbol of total commitment. When Paul told the Christians in Rome to offer their bodies to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), he was using the imagery of the whole burnt offering: the sacrifices served as symbols of complete consecration to God. Communion with God will cost us everything we have and everything we are.

This truth is not news to anyone who has studied the history of the church. Many Christians have paid dearly for their faith, not just with their possessions but with their lives. Early believers were thrown to wild animals in the Coliseum of Rome, and contemporary martyrs in Sudan and the Middle East are shot or beaten to death for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. True faith always occurs in the context of a response to what God has done for us, a response that may be enormously costly for us. The Christian faith is a free gift that demands everything you have.

In fact, it is the costliness of the free gift of Christianity that keeps many seekers from becoming disciples. You may remember the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). The Lord’s response was that the young man needed to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor, then come and follow him (Mark 10:21). The young man went away sad because the cost of communion with God was too high for him. He remained a spiritual seeker instead of becoming a devoted disciple because he found the price tag of commitment too expensive. Following Jesus may not cost us the same things as it did the rich young ruler, but communion with God is never cheap. It demands everything we have and everything we are.


Yet however costly the burnt offering was for the person offering it, it was far more costly for the animal that was being offered! The cost for the animal was death, a death that was necessary to make the offerer acceptable to God. This is the primary symbolic function of burnt offerings in the Old Testament.4 The whole burnt offering had to be a perfect animal, without spot or blemish, whose death expiated sin by providing a perfect substitute to take the place of the offerer. The animal’s blood atoned for his offenses. How many people in Israel understood that truth? How many people stood there as the temple lamb went past, morning and evening, and said to themselves, “That could have been me”?

The reason such atonement was necessary is because in the Bible, as in real life, sin never just goes away. Transgression always has to be paid for, either by the sinner or by someone else. When an uninsured motorist slams into your car and totals it, their saying, “Sorry” doesn’t deal with the cost. Your saying to them, “I forgive you” doesn’t deal with the cost either. Someone has to pay—either the guilty party has to pay for the damage done to your car, or you, the offended party, have to pick up the tab.

It is exactly the same way with sin against God. Someone has to pay the cost of sin, which is death. Either you, the guilty party, have to pay by your own death, or God, the offended party, has to foot the bill on your behalf. In the burnt offering, God allowed a perfect substitute to take Israel’s place and pay for their sin: the blood of these repeated offerings was the only way for Israel to have fellowship and communion with a holy God.

Thus, at the same time that God makes great demands on his people in these sacrifices, he also promises in them a gracious response on his part. Numbers 28, 29 follow Numbers 26, 27, chapters that emphasized both Israel’s guilt and God’s grace. The second census, and the events that followed, highlighted the themes of God’s judgment on the first generation for their sin, leading to their death in the wilderness, and God’s grace to the next generation that was leading them to life and an inheritance in the Promised Land. The Lord who offered the new generation communion with him through these sacrifices was the same God who had brought their fathers out of slavery in Egypt and promised to give them the land of Canaan. Everything they had came from the Lord and was a result of his gracious gift to them. As a result, he certainly had every right to demand that they should give a portion of that bounty back to him—or even all of it, if he asked it from them.


This is an important perspective for us to maintain when the cost of communion with God presses in upon us. God sometimes makes great demands of us, taking away from us things and people that have become very precious. For one person, it may be a business that he has labored for years to build up that is rapidly destroyed by changing markets or corrupt business partners. For another, God may take away a devoted spouse or a treasured child through an apparently senseless accident or illness. For yet another, it may be the dreams he had for his life that have gradually crumbled into dust as one door after another closed in his face. Communion with God can be costly, and at those times we need to remind ourselves that everything we have comes from him. He gave us those people and those opportunities in the first place, and he has the right to take them away from us if he sees fit.
Not only does God have the right to take away the things he has given us—he has also himself fully borne the cost of our sin through the death of his Son. All of the burnt offerings that Israel sacrificed merely symbolized a perfect substitute taking away the sins of God’s people, but ultimately the blood of bulls and goats, even in vast numbers, could not actually atone for sin. That would require a far greater offering—the sacrifice of the perfect Son of God as the substitute for our sin. As you look at the cross, do you ever say to yourself, “That could have been—and should have been—me”? God has borne the cost of our sin for us.


There is more to Numbers 28, 29, though, than the Israelites’ offering themselves to God through a large number of symbolic sacrifices and receiving in return a gracious daily invitation to commune with God. There is also a distinct pattern in the way the various sacrifices were to be offered that forms a pattern for our own communion with God, a pattern that was intended to remind Israel constantly to orient their lives according to God’s calendar.

The pattern in the sacrifices is straightforward enough: the various sections were ordered by increasing periods of time, starting with the daily and the weekly offerings. After them, we hear about the monthly offerings and the offerings for the three great annual festivals: Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles. The further up the time scale, the more substantial the offerings become. For example, the daily offering is two lambs, while on the Sabbath that offering is doubled, as the Sabbath offerings were added to the daily requirement. On the first of the month, the new moon, the offering was two bulls, a ram, and seven lambs, along with a male goat as a sin offering. At Passover and the Feast of Weeks, the first two annual festivals, the same sacrifices were offered as were required at the monthly new moon.

Once the seventh month arrived, however, the offerings moved up to a whole new level, as Israel prepared for and celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. This was the most important festival in the Israelite calendar, a place that is underlined both by the offerings that were required at this feast and by the literary attention it receives in the passage. The feasts of Passover and Weeks are dealt with in nine verses and five verses respectively, but the Feast of Tabernacles receives no fewer than thirty-eight verses. It was a three-part festival that began with the blowing of the trumpets on the first day of the seventh month and continued with the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month. After these preliminaries, the eight days of the feast itself were observed from the fifteenth to the twenty-second day of the seventh month. The offerings for the preparatory events, the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement, were slightly less than those required for Passover and Weeks—one bull, a ram, and seven lambs, along with a male goat as a sin offering. However, the offerings for the Feast of Tabernacles proper were much larger than those required at any other time in the year. Substantive offerings were to be made on each day of the feast, gradually decreasing from thirteen bulls, two rams, and fourteen lambs on the first day down to seven bulls, two rams, and fourteen lambs on the seventh day, along with a male goat as a sin offering each day.


What we have here is, in effect, nothing less than an ordering of sacred time, to match the ordering of sacred space in the camp of Israel in Numbers 1–4. Through these sacrifices, God was teaching Israel how to view time and how to order their lives in accordance with God’s calendar. What lessons are we to learn from this ordering of time?

The first lesson to learn is the importance of daily fellowship with God. The daily sacrifices each morning and evening are foundational to the whole calendar. Israel was to begin their day by symbolically offering themselves to the Lord and sharing communion with him, and they were to end it in the same way. The same is true for us as well. If our whole days are to be given to God, then we should begin them by committing them to the Lord in prayer. When you get out of bed in the morning, take a moment to ask the Lord to be at work in your life in the day ahead. Give into his care the tasks and trials that you already know will face you, along with the ones you cannot predict. Ask God to use the day to develop your holiness and your trust in him. As you have time, read his Word, and ask him to teach you more about himself through it. When the end of the day arrives, thank the Lord for his goodness to you. Ask for his forgiveness for your failures and sins, and pray for the concerns that remain in front of you. Thank him for the gift of Jesus Christ, the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

This daily fellowship with God is so foundational, and yet it is so easy to forget, or to allow it to be squeezed out by the busyness of life. Even as a pastor, I confess to my shame, I can be busy doing all kinds of good things, yet fail in this most basic area. What I find in my own life, though, is that the result of failing to begin and end the day in fellowship with God is that the remainder of the day often gets lived as if God were not there either. I begin to live my life like an unbeliever, even while outwardly serving God, because I have failed to seek God at the outset and ending of each day.

The next level of ordering our time that this passage teaches is the importance of weekly celebration of fellowship with God Sabbath by Sabbath. Monday through Saturday may be, and often are, frantic and fraught with activity and busyness. That is why God has given us a day to draw breath, a day to step aside from the regular duties of life, a day to be given over to him. Sundays are a precious gift, a gift of time to be with the Lord and with the Lord’s people. They are opportunities to have our attention refocused corporately on the things that are truly important. Writing to discouraged Christians, the writer to the Hebrews urged his hearers to “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Our weekly fellowship and communion with God and with our fellow believers is a great source of encouragement and challenge that will keep us persevering, even when the way is hard. Just as the Israelites celebrated the new moon monthly, so too churches can observe special ways of celebrating the rest that is ours in Christ each month, perhaps as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and eat together as the family of God.


The annual cycle of festivals was also far from being a random series of unconnected events. The first celebration, Passover (along with its partner, the Feast of Unleavened Bread), was a time to celebrate Israel’s redemption out of Egypt and their call to be God’s special people. As they remembered the Angel of Death passing over their houses, which were marked with the blood of the Passover lamb, and visiting death on the firstborn of the Egyptians, Israel was reminded afresh of God’s grace in sparing their firstborn and bringing them into freedom (Exodus 12:24–27). As they ate the unleavened bread, untouched by yeast, which symbolized change and decay, the Israelites were to be reminded of their need to be pure and holy, separate to the Lord.

The Feast of Weeks, which took place seven weeks later at the end of the barley harvest, was a time to celebrate God’s providence. As the Israelites brought the firstfruits of the harvest to the Lord’s house, they confessed that everything their land produced belonged to God (Deuteronomy 26:2–11). Later on this festival was also associated with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which took place at this same time of year, at the beginning of the third month (Exodus 19:1). It thus became a day to thank God for the gift of his perfect Law, which showed Israel the way to live a wise life that would be pleasing to God.

The third and climactic feast, the Feast of Tabernacles, began with the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the seventh month. It was a time to acclaim the Lord as Israel’s King, with fanfares and shouts of praise (see 10:10). Later on in the same month, it was followed by the Day of Atonement, a national day of repentance and purification, when the priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the atonement offering on the mercy seat on top of the ark of the covenant to remove the accumulated sins of the people (Leviticus 16). Finally, there was the Feast of Tabernacles proper, a week in which the people would reenact the wilderness wanderings by living in shelters. This formed a perpetual and joyous reminder to Israel that even after they possessed the Promised Land, they were not to settle down entirely as if that were their final destination. The Feast of Tabernacles was designed to keep Israel constantly looking forward to the final consummation of all things, the day when the heavenly trumpet will sound to bring in the fullness of God’s reign upon earth.

Each of Israel’s festivals thus had a redemptive-historical connection that transcended the agricultural reasons to hold a festival at that time of year. Like our Christmas and Easter, however, these Old Testament festivals often tended to lose their connection with their redemptive-historical roots and became mere festivals of consumption, celebrating the joys of getting and eating. Their distinctive meaning could easily be lost in a haze of consumer-driven excess, and it was that meaning of which Numbers 28, 29 was designed to remind them.


For us as the New Testament people of God, the religious calendar of the Old Testament, with its repeated cycles of Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals, does not bind us as law. Paul specifically states in Colossians 2:16, 17 that these things were merely a shadow of what was to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. So how do these shadows point us to the reality that is to be found in Christ?

First, it is in Christ that we find our rest. Each of these shadows provided a day of rest for Israel from their labors and relief from the drudgery of life in a fallen world. Christ is the substance of that rest, which he invites the weary and heavy-laden to find in him (Matthew 11:28, 29).5 Jesus is our rest because he himself has accomplished everything that the Law demands from us, giving us the perfect righteousness that we need to stand in God’s presence. His perfect record is imputed, or reckoned, to those who trust in him, exactly as if it were their own record. Our salvation therefore rests on his obedience, not our own, which enables us to find assurance and rest in him. This rest is unique to Christianity. In most religions, communion with God is the reward given to those who achieve a high enough grade in pursuing the daily round of religious activities. There is no true rest to be found in that eternal round of activity, but in Christ we are set free from that burden and thus enabled to find true peace with God. Jesus Christ is also our rest in that he himself is the goal of our salvation. The heartbeat of Heaven is nothing other than knowing Christ and being perfectly known by him (Philippians 3:10, 11). The essence of our communion with the Father is knowing Jesus Christ, the one whom he sent to us.

Second, Jesus Christ is himself“our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). He is “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15, NIV) through whose blood, shed on the cross, peace is made between us and God, reconciling us to him (Colossians 1:20). He is the only begotten of God, whom God did not redeem but gave him up out of his great love for the world (John 3:16). On the cross his legs were not broken as were those of the two criminals crucified alongside him (John 19:33), so that the symbolism of the Passover lamb could be fulfilled. Seeing Jesus as our Passover lamb brings out the significance of Jesus’ statement in the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). In the normal Passover meal, the Israelites feasted on the body of a lamb, whose death protected them from the wrath of God and established communion among the family unit and between them and God. Here Jesus was inviting them to recognize him as the Passover lamb of the new covenant, the one whose death atones for the sins of the covenant people of God and establishes communion with one another and with God. Now, however, the figure under which the communion is celebrated shifts from a lamb to the associated image of unleavened bread. This image symbolizes the purity that must be ours as Christians, the sanctification that must accompany justification. Thus Paul, having called Christ “our Passover lamb,” goes on to say, “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).

Third, Christ is our lawgiver and our law-keeper. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus delivered the manifesto for his covenant community. This is the New Testament equivalent of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Unlike Moses, however, who simply received the Law from God, Jesus gave the Law on the basis of his own authority. He said, “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …” (Matthew 5:21, 22). The problem with the Law throughout Israel’s history was that they were unable to keep it and therefore were constantly experiencing its curses rather than its blessings. The Law was perfect and good, but they were sinful and defiled, as are we. As a result, the Law inevitably condemns us because all of us repeatedly fall short of its standards. Only in Jesus can we truly celebrate the gift of the Law, because he is not only the lawgiver but also the law-keeper. As our covenant head, he has kept its demands in our place. Now, therefore, the Law can once again serve as our guide to godly living, something to be revered and loved rather than feared.

Fourth, Jesus is both the King toward whose enthronement we look and also our atonement offering. The Feast of Trumpets was a hosanna moment—a time to acclaim the coming King and to celebrate the prospect of his coming, just as the crowds did for Jesus on the first Palm Sunday. Yet the Feast of Trumpets was followed each year by the Day of Atonement. On that day two goats were selected. One was slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat over the ark of the covenant, while the other, the scapegoat, was driven out into the wilderness, exiled from the community into the place of barrenness and death (Leviticus 16). Together the two goats formed a complementary pair of images for God’s judgment. God’s judgment on sin entailed, on the one hand, total separation from God and, on the other, violent death. These two images came together in the cross of Jesus Christ. There on the cross the Son was isolated from the Father, excluded from his presence, and sent out into the outer darkness. For the first time ever, the intimate fellowship between the Father and the Son was shattered, their communion severed by the weight of our sin that Jesus bore in our place. The supernatural darkness around the cross symbolized a yet deeper darkness that engulfed the soul of Jesus. In addition to the separation from God, there on the cross Jesus also bore the penalty of violent death that our sin deserved, atoning by his blood for our iniquity. Only in such a way could our communion with God be restored.


Yet the Feast of Tabernacles that followed the Day of Atonement was a joyful, forward-looking affair. The Day of Atonement was a solemn celebration indeed, but it was followed by riotous rejoicing that looked forward to the consummation of God’s relationship with his people. The temporary shelters that the Israelites built reminded them of the transitory nature of their present experience and pointed them on to the day when God would fulfill everything he had promised to give them. As Christians, we too need to be reminded regularly of the transitory and passing nature of life on earth and to look onward to the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to us in Christ. Having accomplished our salvation, Jesus has now gone from us into Heaven to prepare our eternal inheritance. With all creation, we therefore wait on tiptoes, as it were, to see the consummation of our salvation when Jesus returns (Romans 8:19–23).

All of these things were there in shadows and pictures in the festivals of the Old Testament. God wanted the Israelites to learn from the festival calendar to number their days aright, and so gain wisdom (Psalm 90:12). We need to learn the same lessons they did. We need to be constant in our daily devotion and regular in our weekly fellowship with God’s people. We need to be faithful in all of the passing seasons of life to give thanks for our redemption accomplished in Christ and for his ongoing care for us day by day. Above all, we are to be forward-looking believers, neither overly elated nor unduly cast down by the twists and turns of life’s fortunes, instead keeping our eyes constantly fixed on Christ, who is our heavenly inheritance.

Are we seeking communion with God today? It is not to be found in a spiritual experience on a mountaintop nor in an obscure religious discipline. It is to be found in a committed relationship to the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The door is open for us to enjoy an ongoing relationship with the Father as we come to him through the work of the Son and receive from him the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rest in Christ, and in his finished work on the cross, and delight in the communion that comes from knowing Christ and being fully known by him.

 This blog was taken from Kent Hughes book called Numbers: God’s presence in the wilderness (pp. 309–319).