What Is a "High-Handed" Sin and Why Should the Church Care?


In the book of Numbers, sins which were unintentional and those that were intentional were treated differently. Even with some who sinned intentionally there was the option for repentance, but with the flaunting deliberate "high-handed" sin the most severe punishment was meted out. This is why: 

28 And the priest shall make atonement before Yahweh for the person who commits an error, when he sins inadvertently, to make atonement for him. And he shall be forgiven. 29 You shall have one law for him who does anything inadvertently, for him who is native among the people of Israel, and for the resident alien with them. 30 But the person who does anything with deliberate defiance, whether he is native or an alien, reviles Yahweh, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of Yahweh, and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off. His guilt shall be on him.” (Numbers 15: 28-31 trans. by Phillip Budd, Numbers, Word Biblical Commentary)

What is a "high-handed" sin?  

In the Ancient Near East one can find pictures of statues of a god or a warrior with his right fist raised up to the sky. This is the picture of a "high-hand." In the passage above (from Numbers 15) it is used of someone who is literally showing a defiant fist to God as if to say, "Try and strike me dead, I am doing my own thing."  This same sentiment is echoed in Hebrews 10:26 which reads, "If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment …" What we can be sure of is that this sin is not accidental and is done in a flaunting, defiant and open-eyed, unremorseful manner which effectively tells Yahweh that He is irrelevant. There are three terms used to describe this outright rebellion:

  1. It "reviles the LORD [YHWH]" (v. 30) Literally these words in this verse can be rendered "YHWH he blasphemes." The emphasis is on the person of YHWH and the offense caused. The word 'revile' has echoes of the word 'taunt' or blaspheme and it can be illustrated by the words spoken by the servants of the Assyrian king Sennacherib in II Kgs 19 and Isa 37. The reply via Isaiah was as such: "Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice And haughtily lifted up your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel!" (Isaiah 37:23) In a word, Sennacherib defiantly and boldly taunted Yahweh as he suggested that Yahweh was impotent to do anything to stop his military advance.
  2. It "despises the word of the LORD [YHWH]" (v. 31) Another way to describe this term is "“to regard with contempt ...” In this passage the word of the LORD is the spoken word of the covenant keeping YHWH who is in personal relationship with Israel. It is like Absalom the son of King David who essentially looked down his nose at his own father and did his own thing. In this case, however, the sinner is looking down their nose at YHWH and telling Him to shove it. In the book of Jude (v. 4) we read that the false teachers by their actions and the actions that they approve of "deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
  3. It has broken "his [YHWH's] commandment" (v. 31) If the LORD had given certain directions for life, then this person brazenly decided not to follow them.  One commentator said this carries the sense of "reneging on revealed truth.”

The consequences of the "high-handed" sin:

In v. 30 we read that such a person "shall be cut off from among his people." That is to say, such a person was among the people of Israel, either as a sojourner or a native, and that the consequence is that they will be "excommunicated" from the community of faith. In v. 31 we read that the person's guilt/ iniquity/punishment is "on him" [or her]. That is to say, this sin is not pardonable by sacrifice, but it remains on the person. In Numbers 5.1, this kind of "uncleanness" was said to defile the camp of Israel and had to be removed.

Dealing with "high-handed" sin in the New Testament:

  • I Cor. 5 - The Apostle Paul expressed shock that the super-spiritual Corinthian church would actually boast of their spirituality, while tolerating deviant sexual behaviour. The only recourse, according to him, was to eliminate this small, but dangerously insidious "yeast" as it was going to affect the entire "lump of dough" of the church.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened (I Corinthians 5:1-7a)

  •  Revelation 2:18-29 - The faithful and patient church at Thyatira is castigated by the LORD of the church. He who has eyes that are flames of fire that bring both truth and purifying judgment tells them on no uncertain terms that their toleration of a so-called prophetess who seduces the church into immorality is culpable. Their tolerance aids and abets her evil work, in the same way of those who know "God's righteous decree" according to the Apostle Paul, and the penalties for transgressing it (Romans 1:32) but fail to do anything about it, but even "give approval to those who practise" aid and abet such evil.


The sin of the "high-hand" which is nothing less than abuse of the very person of God, appeared in the Bible and appears to be alive and well today. It comes with the spirit of "did God say" and marches right into the church when people basically taunt God by saying: "I can do whatever I want, with whoever I want, whenever I want, and I demand that both God and the church bless my actions." According to the Bible, this is nothing less than rebellion, whether it is overt or covert. Since we know from the Bible that "rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft" [I Samuel 15:23] should we be surprised that this kind of rebellion might come with lying and seducing spirits?

Questions for reflection:

  1. Could the sin of the "high-hand" exist in the CRCNA?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. If so, how and where?
  4. If so, what should be done about it?
  5. Does the CRCNA have systems in place to prevent such a sin from even developing?
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 1. I don't see why the CRCNA would be immune to high-handed sin where other denominations aren't.  I haven't noticed that human nature was any different in our denomination than elsewhere.  

I remember reading in Philip Yancey's book Grace Notes about his meeting with a friend of his in a coffee shop because the other man was planning to leave his wife and family to marry another woman whom he found more exciting, and as this friend asked Yancey if he could be forgiven for this sin he was knowingly planning to commit, Yancey asked him if he would WANT to be forgiven knowing it would involve repentance.  Is there ANY man or woman in the CRCNA above lusting for someone else to the point of planning to divorce their present spouse and abandon their kids?