High Handed Sin - what?

By Phillip G. Kayser · 2/6/2019

This morning I received a question that I thought others might be interested in. Having heard my sermons on the books of Leviticus and Numbers, this person asked,

I am trying to interact with my children through the book of Leviticus. We are on Leviticus 4.

Could you clarify what is meant by unintentional sin and how that differs from intentional sin? It seems that much sin we commit is intentional. No one is confused that lying is wrong; yet, we lie, etc. In my reading, “intentional” sins are defined as “high handed rebellion.” But isn’t all sin “high handed rebellion?” I mean, if I know something is wrong, yet do it anyways, what else would you call that?

Is this section just speaking to the many sins we don’t know we are committing, without making a logical extension to excluding sacrifice for intentional sins? Or is it making such an exclusion of sacrifice being available for intentional sins? It seems that way in Numbers 15.

Here was my answer:

There are actually three kinds of sin:

  1. Sins of ignorance in which a person is oblivious to the fact that he has broken the law (for example, Lev. 4:13-35; 5:18; Numb. 15:22-29).
  2. Intentional sins that flow from the weakness of the flesh but were not engaged in with an attitude of defiance against God. I'll use adultery as an example. The adultery with the concubine in Leviticus 19:20-22 had punishment, but it still had forgiveness. The priest was instructed to "make atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering before the LORD for his sin which he has done. And the sin which he has done shall be forgiven him." I think anyone would recognize that adultery qualifies as an intentional sin. Yet if it was not done "with a high hand" (see next category) it could still be forgiven by God. This category of sin covers the vast majority of sins.
  3. Any sins done in defiance or rebellion against God (the Hebrew is literally "with a high hand" - think of a fist raised against heaven). Numbers 15:30-31 covers these kinds of sins. Using the last illustration of adultery with a concubine, since Absolom did not commit adultery with David's concubines out of the weakness of his flesh, but did so with premeditation, defiance, and a high hand, I would assume that he should not have been forgiven (2 Sam. 16:20-23). It is not by accident that the irrational and high handed rebellion of Korah is described immediately after this warning in chapter 15.

It should be noted that Numbers 15 does not cover the vast majority of sins. Instead, it covers the two extremes about which people might be confused. Numbers 15:22-29 rejects the idea that breaking God's law is unimportant and/or does not constitute a sin if it is done in ignorance. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Breaking God's law is always sin and must always be repented of.

Numbers 15:30-31 rejects the other extreme - the idea that any sin can be forgiven and/or that God will overlook defiant rebellion. Apparently, the execution of the sabbath breaker in verses 32-36 was used to illustrate the fact that high handed sin doesn't have to involve murder or other outrageous sins. Any sin, if done defiantly might qualify as a high handed sin.

Some New Testament examples of high handed sin might include:

  1. The unpardonable sin mentioned in Matthew 12:22-32, which amounted to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit by the Pharisees. Knowing full well that Jesus did miracles by the power of God, they attributed the miracles to Satan in order to protect their power.
  2. The conscious apostasy mentioned in Hebrews 6:4-8 & 10:26-30 would also be a deliberate rejection of what they know to be true. Interestingly, Hebrews recognizes that true believers will not apostatize like this since "we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39), and therefore the writer could say, "But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner" (Heb. 6:9).
  3. The brother who has sinned a sin unto death in 1 John 5:13-17. Though there are other explanations of this verse, many believe it speaks of the same issue that Numbers 15:30-31 does.

Since we don't know the heart, we can't accurately label the sins of others with one of the above three categories. For example, I would have thought that Paul committed a high handed sin when he persecuted the church. Yet he says in 1 Timothy 1:13, " although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." So it is possible for very serious sins to not necessarily be high handed. But the presence of Numbers 15, Matthew 12:22-32, Hebrews 6:4-8, 10:26-20, and 1 John 5:13-17 in the Bible makes us never want to presume upon God's mercies. We never know when we have crossed the line. Better to repent quickly.

One final thought for those who wonder if they have committed the unpardonable sin: It is my assumption (based on 1 John 1:9) that a person who has committed the unpardonable sin will never repent. They will act like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 17, who continued to rebel in irrational ways despite repeated warnings. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." There is no unrighteousness that is unpardonable if it is truly confessed.