Strength for the Journey: "Radical Commitment" – Numbers 6

The line between courage and foolishness is sometimes quite blurry. I cannot imagine why anyone would walk a tightrope between two tall buildings. It seems insane. Yet the story of Man on Wire is all about just that very idea. The official trailer to the movie said this:

On August 7th, 1974, a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers. After dancing for nearly an hour on the wire, he was arrested, taken for psychological evaluation, and brought to jail before he was finally released. This extraordinary documentary incorporates Petit’s personal footage to show how he overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieve the artistic crime of the century.”

Whatever you think about Petit’s idea of walking 110 stories above the ground, you have to admit one thing – the guy was committed. Not only was he committed enough to work at it for months – he was committed enough to trust his life to be dangled by a tiny wire. He trusted his feet to remain steady amidst the perilous cross-winds. He trusted his abilities and took on what could only be termed RADICAL COMMITMENT.

Rest easy, I am not going to be asking you to walk on a high wire a thousand feet in the air. I am, however, going to speak about a radical kind of personal commitment. God will not call ALL of us to do this – but he may call YOU. Some believers will be engaged, in each moment of each generation, in a radical kind of commitment that will force them to stand out in the face of the rest of us. If they take on the challenge, we will all be changed by their testimony. We will all be moved to recognize their intimacy with God. We will all be the better because of the commitment of a few.

Key Principle: A specific call to radical commitment may come to you from God’s Spirit and God’s Word. If it does, you will know how to respond Biblically and sensitively if you follow the pattern God left for us in His Word.

Radical commitment isn’t something new – it is as old as a walk with God itself. It isn’t for everyone. God has a call for specific people at specific moments. The important thing about the call is that it demands a proper response. Even before we turn to Numbers 6, let me show you a picture of what I am talking about:

Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann, were two young Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut, Germany that were called in 1732 to minister to the African slaves on the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. One source recalls that when the men were told that they would not be allowed to do such a thing, Dober and Nitschmann offered themselves into the bonds of slavery if this were the only way to make passage – an irreversible offer of extreme commitment to the cause of Christ, on behalf of a forgotten people – the slaves. Another source shared the story that as they boarded a ship bound for the West Indies, and the ship pulled away from the docks, loved ones on shore cried out, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering!” It is not clear that they actually became slaves. What is clear is that when asked by a court official how they would support themselves, Nitschmann replied, “We shall work as slaves among the slaves.” Another point is also clear. They left Copenhagen on October 8, 1732, and arrived in St. Thomas two months later on December 13. While in the St. Thomas, they lived frugally and preached to the slaves, and they had significant success. Other Moravian missionaries continued the work for fifty years afterward, and Moravian missionaries baptized 13,000 converts before any other missionaries arrived on the scene. Few direct quotes of the two men survive, but one is particularly moving: “Even if no one should be benefited, and no fruits follow my efforts, yet I will go, for I must obey my Savior’s call.” – Leonard Dober

These Moravians, and many others like them, were called to radical commitment. They vowed by the move of God’s hand, to do the extraordinary – and they felt that any less was blatant disobedience to God’s call in and to them. Long before the Moravians, long before the ministry of the Cross of Jesus – there was a pattern for radical commitment. It is found in a group that were called NAZARITES – those ordinary Israelites that were impressed by God to offer a special vow to complete a specific act in accordance with their call. Often they appeared quite radical – but they were following God to do extraordinary things. The pattern of that call, and the proper response is the subject of today’s lesson.

What should a “radical commitment” look like?

It is a commitment that originated from God and is in line with God’s revealed truth (6:1-2).

Number 6:1 Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them: ‘When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to the LORD…” The text offers four truths that help define this radical commitment:

The Lord gave the specific rules – that means that He is acknowledging the burden that came from Him in His people. Because He regulates the practice, such commitments must be according to His parameters.

The person making the vow was individually led to do so. No discussion is given to how the man or woman received the burden to make the vow – so it appears it is not the same for everyone.

The issue of the rules was to regulate not call them to a vow. Because I have a burden for something I am not more spiritual than others – I am just called to play a specific role in what God is doing.

The vow (neh’der) can be for personal service, or the giving of a special offering (votive) for a season. It is always given to the Lord and no other, and done for His purposes and no other reason. Jesus warned that there were those who gave “to be seen of men”. Mt. 6 and Mt. 23 both offer this insight from Jesus: “People who are seen of men because they have desired to be – have the only reward they will receive for their sacrifice right here and now.”

The issue of Numbers 6:1-2 then is this: God may call a certain man or woman to a radical commitment from a burden within for a time and for His purpose. We should not feel deprived if we are not so called, but be readily responsive if we are called. Most importantly, we must check the vow against the Scripture and it must fit into the priorities of God as stated in His Word. God is absolutely consistent: He will NOT call you to do something that He has placed outside the boundaries of proper ministry. Care should always be taken to check a burden against the pattern of the Word of God.

I remember when I was a freshman in Bible College, a speaker came from Inner City Ministries in Chicago. He shared about the terrible conditions of people in his part of the city, and how desperately they needed help. I remember coming back to the dorm and thinking, “What am I doing here? I can help! Why not quit school and go right to that area and start working?” Then one of my older room mates came and sat down to talk with me. He explained that God told me to be at school, and the needs would wait until I was made ready. He spoke of it in terms of a surgeon, whose impulse to help needed to be matched by training to help. I needed to be calmed down. Vows to the Lord are not just emotional springboards after a stirring Chapel speaker – they are considered, careful and planned.

It requires a disruption from the normal life patterns and setting aside of personal pleasures (6:3). It is a distinct call for a set time, taking extreme care to commit every effort to strict obedience (6:4).

6:3 “…he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, nor shall he drink any grape juice nor eat fresh or dried grapes. 4 ‘All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin.

Because of the radical nature of a specific commitment to the Lord, it is essential that there be complete and absolute sobriety and clarity of thinking. Doubt will creep in when the vow get hard to accomplish – so it is essential for the duration of the commitment to abstain from anything that would decrease clarity, making it ever clearer that the direction was from the Lord, and for the Lord.

Fences must be set away from any possible violation. Every care should be taken to see to it that no one can even claim an influence beside the Lord – so there is both complete abstention from wine, and even from anything that can be made into wine. Though the person under commitment does not vow to be seen of men, it must be clear that what he has committed to do was not influenced by anything but God’s call.

Apart from the vow, the normative behavior was to be able to drink wine and eat grapes. The point is not that such a normal ancient practice was ungodly – it was not. Note that after the vow, they are specifically told they are allowed to do so: 1: 1:20 ‘Then the priest shall wave them for a wave offering before the LORD. It is holy for the priest, together with the breast offered by waving and the thigh offered by lifting up; and afterward the Nazirite may drink wine.’

Let me interject here that abstention from alcohol is a perfectly acceptable practice among believers. Since we do not know if another believer was an alcoholic, it may be wise to abstain, at least in front of that person. Yet, abstention was not the norm in the Biblical period. We must guard against any haughty spirit that can be found in us because we abstain from normative practices. If God has told you to stay away from anything alcoholic – don’t even take cough medicine with alcohol in it. We will all understand. It is God’s call on the body you live in – but it is only a loaner body. You must do what He tells you to do.

On the other hand, what He specifies for you is personal, and cannot be applied to everyone in every place. I recently dealt with a woman that knew God told her not to wear pants of any kind. She was to wear dresses and skirts. She wouldn’t even were pajamas that had pants. The problem was that she was busy trying to get every other woman to stop wearing them – and I cautioned her that she had no business trying to do so based on Scripture. Her understanding of God’s call in life was no more general than her personal life. The Scriptures offer direction and the Spirit speaks to each of us through the Word. We need not make lists for one another that are longer than stated Scripture. Follow the Word on what is stated. Ask the Spirit for what is left to license. I have every confidence that if you are truly willing to follow God in all things – you won’t go wrong.

It should so obviously dominate your life that every aspect of it is affected – from appearance to daily practices (6:5).

6:5 …‘All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the LORD; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long.

Most vows and covenants required a symbol. We are physically oriented people. That is why we baptize people – because the work of the Spirit is invisible, but the world we live in is visible. We have a marriage ceremony to represent something that happens in Heavenly places as two become one.

The distinct look of one under a vow also helped others to encourage them to walk uprightly. When someone undertook a Nazarite vow, you wouldn’t offer them a glass of wine or a grape. You would see their appearance, judge their commitment, and help them accomplish it. Believers should be seeking ways to encourage each other to walk with God in the call He has made for each of us. Don’t try to get the other guy to explain all that he is going through with God. Suffice it to say that he is working out something in his walk, and God is leading him. Help him with it; don’t hinder it.

God expressed no desire to have those who were following Him walk around wild-eyed saying strange things. At the same time, you don’t know what God is taking another brother or sister through. We see only what they DO, God sees WHY they do what they do. Be encouraging to one another, pulling each other up with words of encouragement – not pulling each other down with words of discouragement.

It will restrict even normal commitments and desires – and entrust them into the hands of the Lord for that season (6:6-8).

6:6 …‘All the days of his separation to the LORD he shall not go near to a dead person. 7 ‘He shall not make himself unclean for his father or for his mother, for his brother or for his sister, when they die, because his separation to God is on his head. 8 ‘All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD.

Separation to God’s work for the specific time of the vow takes one out of the normal loop of life. We should not enter any vow lightly, because God takes them very seriously. While in the vow, there may be things we would otherwise normally be responsible to do, that we cannot do. This should be considered before we take on the vow to accomplish something.

There are seasons in life when it would be unwise to take on a vow to the Lord –as in when a parent is quite ill and failing. Because that is true, it was important for the Lord to explain exactly what He desired concerning that time under the vow.

One of the greatest privileges of a son was to be the one to sensitively and lovingly care for the body of his parent in burial. It is a strange concept to us, but it was an honor for them. I have only one memory that compares – when I carried the body of a former colleague out after his death the hearse that was to take him to the funeral home. I will always feel that was a special honor for me.

In this time of a vow, a man forfeited that honor, and any other honor that he would anticipate – because the vow took precedence over everything else. It became his passion – his duty and his focus. Jesus warned that there would be radical commitment involved in following Him in Luke’s Gospel:

Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 “Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 “Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

Jesus pressed the disciples and called on them to count the cost of following Him. Yet, not everyday are we called to live the extremes. We have to reckon that such a time may come, and we must be readied to know what comes first on the list of priorities.

Brothers and sisters, we live in a time when people measure rights more than responsibilities – privileges more than priorities. We have had the wind of culture at our back for generations, and we have come to expect much more out of life than the disciples of the early years of the faith. We consider any derision in public a form of persecution. Yet, we know little of the days of real peril known to the early church.

Under Emperor Nero, Peter was crucified upside down at the circus grounds west of the city of Rome. Paul was beheaded south of Rome. Domitian is recorded as having executed members of his own family generally assumed to have been Christians. Under Emperor Trajan, Christians were outlawed but not deliberately sought out. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic had the Church Father Polycarp killed in Asia Minor. Under Emperor Septimus Severus (202-210) the famous martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicity were carried out. Perpetua (born around 181) was a 22-year old married noble and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, an expectant mother, was her slave. They were thrown before wild cows and trampled, and when they did not die, they gave each other an embrace of peace and then helped the hesitant executioner find the mark with his sword. There are thousands of other stories – all like this one. Were they different than we are? Not really. They met Christ and He changed them. They knew He was Savior, and they gave all they could. Why do we expect less? We can and should HOPE for better, but should we EXPECT better?

We may yet see days ahead where extraordinary commitment and radical devotion are called for again. I pray it is not so – but I recognize it is fully possible. It is happening in some places today, and it could happen where we are in days to come. Christianity cannot be indelibly linked to temporal success – that is not its message. The Gospel is about salvation from sin – an abundant life that may seem distant to a Christian martyr, but they die with confidence that God hears every cry, sees every tear, and knows every sacrifice.

Only in the most extreme providential situations can it be broken, and then it requires a renewal to the commitment (6:9-12).

6:9 …‘But if a man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his dedicated head of hair, then he shall shave his head on the day when he becomes clean; he shall shave it on the seventh day. 10 ‘Then on the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the priest, to the doorway of the tent of meeting. 11 ‘The priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him concerning his sin because of the dead person. And that same day he shall consecrate his head, 12 and shall dedicate to the LORD his days as a Nazirite, and shall bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering; but the former days will be void because his separation was defiled….

I love that the Word of God is tremendously practical. God offers this to the one under the vow: If the man beside you keels over dead – you must break your vow and care for his needs. This was a call to the Priest and Levite of the Good Samaritan story. People who have no help, must be helped. Set aside the vow – there is a way to renew and start again says the Lord. Do you see the shocking irony? I must forfeit caring for my father and mother, but take care of the stranger that has no one else to care for him? How can that be? It is the way God works. He knows our desire is for our family, but His providence overrules our right.

The technical part of how to present the specific Nazarite offering is given (6:13-21):

We will not address the specifics of the way to offer the Nazarite sacrifice given in verses 13-21 in this lesson, but suffice it to say that every aspect of the separation and cleansing are carefully prescribed. God did not ask men to take on the seriousness of the day without ample instruction as to what they must do and not do. He is a precise God. (6:13-21).

Finally, there are unique benefits of the radically committed to the community (6:22-27).

God called some to a vow before Him. He had them make a radical commitment. He nudged their hearts with a prayer burden and a spiritual burning fire within. They felt it. They knew they needed to abandon all other pursuits and follow Him. Their names may seem a blur, buried in the past of ministries and commitments – but they are God’s heroes.

They are men like Adoniram Judson – called to reach into south central Asia, and David Livingstone – called to the dark continent called the “white man’s grave yard”. They were single women like Charlotte (Lottie) Diggs Moon and Amy Carmichael. They were student volunteers like C.T. Studd converted at a Moody evangelistic crusade and sent to China, India and later Africa. There was John R. Mott who reached into China, the likes of Rowland Bingham of the earliest days of Sudan Interior Mission. One writer introduced Mr. Bingham in this way: “Failure, death, and despair marked the beginnings of the Sudan Interior Mission..”.

What made these people surrender comfort and loving care of home to go so very far away? God’s burning passion within. God’s flaming call that pulled them from normal life. There may be a life like that today, right in the sound of my voice. God may be calling someone to extraordinary commitment. I mention their names and feel the words of Hebrews 11: “of whom the world was not worthy.”

Their lives pave a road for the Gospel, and the salvation of the souls of men. Look at the blessing they become to all of the people of God:

6:22 …Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the sons of Israel. You shall say to them: 24 The LORD bless you, and keep you; 25 The LORD make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; 26 The LORD lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace.’ 27 “So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel, and I then will bless them.”

Two times in the verses, God’s face is mentioned as turning toward His people. His tender but mighty attentions flow to those who are prepared to “leave it all on the field” for the Lord. Half hearted commitment doesn’t move God’s face – whole surrender does. How can we give Him less if He calls us to lay down all for Him?

A specific call to radical commitment may come to you from God’s Spirit and God’s Word. If it does, you will know how to respond Biblically and sensitively if you follow the pattern God left for us in His Word.

I close with a passage taken out of the book: From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya that slaps my commitment in the face every time I read it, It is a selection about Mary Moffatt, wife of Robert Moffatt:

The Moffats’ early years in Kuruman were filled with hardships. They lived in primitive conditions, their first home being a mud hut, with the kitchen separate from the house. Although Mary was not used to doing heavy domestic work, she adapted to African life remarkably well. She washed clothes by hand in the river and cooked on an open fireplace. She overcame her aversion to cleaning the floors with cow dung and even recommending it: “It lays the dust better than anything and kills the fleas which would otherwise breed abundantly.” Her husband Robert wrote: “Our labors might be compared to the attempts of a husbandman laboring to transform the surface of granite rock into arable land.”

I read this stuff and think to myself – Randy, you are a wimp. Shut up. Just shut up. They ministered in radical commitment – you (I tell myself) need to stand silent as you read their names. Radical commitment may grab your heart. Count the cost, but look even further. At the end of life’s journey, when the whole ordeal is over, the face of the Savior stands at the finish line of life. Run to see Him smile – and the journey will be worth it all!