TIME TO TASSEL
Numbers 15:37-41 CSB
37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner. 39 These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all the Lord’s commands and obey them and not prostitute yourselves by following your own heart and your own eyes. 40 This way you will remember and obey all my commands and be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.”
Before he ascended, Jesus gave his great commission to his followers telling them to make disciples of all nations. But that is not the first instance where believers are commanded to make disciples. I want us to spend a few weeks examining what the Bible says about the act of discipling. I think there are some passages of scripture that are not so well known, and these can help us get a tighter grip on what it means to be a disciple, and to make disciples. I also think that once we have that foundation, we will be better able to see the significance of the passages we normally go to on discipleship and discipling.
It would be helpful for me to define some terms that I plan on using in this series of sermons. I will try to use these words consistently so there is no confusion.
Disciple – A disciple is a student of someone. In its richer religious use, the term indicates that disciples desire not just to learn from the teacher, but to become like their teacher. Jesus said that it is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher – and that is enough for us as well. We can never become like Jesus in some ways, but we can become like him in other ways. We should always strive to become disciples in that sense.
Discipleship – I’m using this word to indicate everything the Bible teaches on becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is a major theme of the New Testament, even though the noun disciple and the verb to be or make a disciple are not found after the book of Acts. Other terms take their place, but the theme of discipleship runs all the way to Revelation. It is also the theme of today’s message from the Old Testament.
Discipling – This word describes the process of making someone a disciple. This is something we want to study in this series as well.
Today’s text from the book of Numbers gives us some foundational thoughts about discipleship. Follow along with me as we trace these thoughts.
The passage describes the tassels that the Israelites were commanded to wear on the corners of their robes. When anyone saw the tassels, they would identify the wearer as an Israelite, a follower of the God of the Bible. The tassels had no purpose other than identification. But identification is a major aspect of discipleship. Identifying as a member of God’s kingdom is testifying to the authority of God’s king. Identifying as a member of God’s family is testifying to your relationship with your heavenly father. Identifying as God’s servant is testifying to your intention to obey him and follow his instructions, not to do your own thing.
God told Moses that it was time for his people to put on tassels. What can we learn about discipleship from this text?
Discipleship is generational (38).
God told Moses that the Israelites were to make tassels, not just for a select few adults now living, but it was to become a practice “throughout their generations.” Timothy picked up his faith from watching and listening to Lois and Eunice. Faith is designed to be passed on from generation to generation. We learn how to be a disciple of Christ at the same time we are learning how to brush our teeth, make our beds, read and write. And we can learn discipleship in the same context as we learn these other things.
This is how God intended discipleship to happen among the Israelites. Every boy and girl would be identified as a member of God’s kingdom from the very beginning. Being a follower of the God of the Bible was to be as natural as breathing. If you had asked that boy who he was, he would say “a follower of the LORD, just like daddy.” If you asked that girl who she was, she would say “a follower of the LORD, just like momma.” If you had asked that young couple what they were doing, they would say “we’re raising a family of followers of the LORD, just like our parents did.
One of the absolute joys of being a parent is seeing your child confess faith in Jesus Christ, and demonstrate that faith with the sign of water baptism. One of the absolute heartaches as a parent is to see your child hesitate or reject that faith. This is only natural. Discipleship is designed to be generational.
Discipleship begins with repentance (39).
The tassels were to prevent the Israelites from prostituting themselves by following their own hearts and their own eyes. This shows that even though God wanted their discipleship to be generational, that did not mean that it was going to be automatic. No, the natural inclination of these Israelites was going to be rebellion and independence from God.
Jeremiah (17:9) tells us that the human heart is more deceitful that anything else, and desperately sick. We do not naturally seek God. We do not naturally want to do what God wants. That is why each one of us has to go to the cross. Discipleship has to begin with repentance. We have to admit that there is nothing good in us before we can hope for anything good to become of us.
The Bible proclaims that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We begin at that point. We do not begin as a blank slate with nothing written on it. We begin as a defiled slate, with nothing good on our hearts to commend us to a holy and righteous God. So, the first thing we must do is come to God and confess that we are unworthy of him.
If we do not begin here – in repentance – there can be no progress in our discipleship. If we don’t confess “LORD, my heart wants to love the wrong thing, and my eyes want to see the wrong thing” – then we will never find grace.
Discipleship is a response to who God is (41).
Verse 41 begins and ends with the same statement: “I am the Lord your God.” True disciples come to God not because of who they are, but because of who he is. Knowing who we are without God only brings shame and despair. But knowing who God is enables us to lift up our eyes and hope for a better day.
When God told Moses to go to Egypt and rescue the Israelites from bondage, Moses told God that they were going to ask him what God’s name is. God told Moses to tell them “I AM WHO I AM.” He then went on to tell Moses to identify him as “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
He is the God who created all things. He is the God who calls people to himself. He is the God who intercedes in people’s lives, and rescues them. He is the God who calls one person to build an ark, and another person to become a father of a multitude.
Our discipleship may lead us to do many things that we do not have the power to do. But we take up the challenge to do these things because of who God is, not because of who we are.
Discipleship requires devotion (40).
Our walk in the way of righteousness begins with out confession that we are anything but holy. But after being plunged into the cleansing fountain we are ready to be holy to our God. We have devoted ourselves to becoming a living sacrifice that pleases God.
As we saw when we looked at Romans 12, this devotion cannot begin with us. Our minds are not formatted for renewal. But if we make the choice to present our bodies as living sacrifices, he will transform us by renewing our minds.
Discipleship requires specific obedience (39-40).
The tassels were visual reminders of the things that God had commanded the Israelites to do or avoid doing as God worked out the process of discipleship in their lives.
Note how Moses said this in verses 39-40:
These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all the Lord’s commands and obey them…
This way you will remember and obey all my commands…
If the Israelites merely wore the tassels, without allowing those tassels to remind them to obey the Lord’s commands – wearing the tassels would just be another meaningless ritual.
Rituals become meaningless when we refuse to attach to them the meaning originally intended. This is what happened to the tassels. They became a sign identifying an Israelite, but they lost their connection to the commands. That was not what God wanted to happen.
Because there were so many rituals in the Old Testament that became empty like this, Jesus did not give his church many rituals. He did not want his church to follow rituals without purpose.
He did make two exceptions. He gave us the ritual of baptism, and the ritual of the Lord’s supper. Both of these rituals highlight what Christ did for us.
The tassels were to remind the Israelites that God had commanded them to do some things for him. To be a disciple of the God of the Bible is to obey him in some very specific ways.
Now, you might say “Well, that was the Old Testament, and the New Testament does not command us to obey, it just asks us to believe.” No, that is not correct. When our Lord gave his great commission, he told us that we would make disciples by teaching people to obey what he commanded.
The New Testament teaches that “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life” (John 3:36 ESV).
Grace and obedience work together in the discipleship process. Without grace there can be no obedience. Without obedience, there is no proof of grace. So, we say “salvation by grace alone” but we must be careful when we say that because true grace never stays alone. It produces obedience.
This is why James taught that faith without works is dead, being by itself (James 2:17). True biblical faith is never by itself. It is accompanied by God’s power and produces a life of discipleship focused on obeying Christ.
This is what God wanted for his children in the promised land. This is what he wants for his disciples today. He wants us to come to him for salvation, and then commit to living lives that draw others to his saving grace.
Jesus did not command us to put tassels on our clothing. But he did command us to be his disciples, and to make disciples of all nations.