Learning From God's Word: Numbers
God spoke, Israel obeyed (Numbers 1:1,54). This is the constant pattern of the life of faith - hearing and obeying the Word of God. The names of God's people differ from place to place. The pattern of their life remains the same. This pattern is also emphasized in Numbers 2, which begins with God speaking (Numbers 2:1) and ends with the people obeying (Numbers 2:34). This pattern is repeated in Numbers 3-4, which begin with God's Word (Numbers 3:1; Numbers 4:1) and end with our obedience (Numbers 3:51; Numbers 4:49). In Numbers, we read so much that is unfamiliar to us. We must learn to look for the Word that comes to us, in our time, as a Word from the Lord who is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). Hear and obey. Listen to what God is saying. Do what He has said.
We must take sin seriously. It can lead to a withdrawal of God's blessing. This is the important and challenging message of Numbers 5. We must not lose sight of God's purpose for our lives. We are to be "dedicated to the Lord" (Numbers 6:6). It is God's intention to bless. In His love for us, He continues to speak to us His Word. His promise of blessing is still His Word to us. It is a Word which never ceases to be relevant to His people: "The Lord will bless you and watch over you. The Lord will smile on you and be kind to you. The Lord will look on you with favour and give you peace" (Numbers 6:24-26).
From each tribe, the gifts came. The Levites had a special ministry. For this ministry, they needed to be made "clean" (Numbers 8:5). Through cleansing, they were made "ready to do the Lord's work" (Numbers 8:11). In a very special sense, God said of them, "the Levites will be Mine" (Numbers 8:14). Between the gifts from the tribes (Numbers 7) and the preparation of the Levites (Numbers 8:5-26), there are the seven lamps on the lampstand, giving "light in front of the lampstand" (Numbers 8:1-4). The lamp stand was made of "gold." This is the precious light of God's Word, shining like gold, which is greater than all the other metals. God's Word is the light which inspires the giving of the tribes and the ministry of the Levites. Without God's Word at the centre, everything else means nothing.
The Israelites were travelling towards the promised land. As they travelled, they were to celebrate the Passover (Numbers 9:1-14). In their journey, they were being led by the Lord (Numbers 9:15-23). In the course of their journey, they faced opposition from their enemies, the enemies of the Lord. In this situation, they looked to the Lord for victory: "the Lord your God will remember you and rescue you from your enemies", "Arise, O Lord! Scatter Your enemies! Make those who hate You, run away from You!" (Numbers 10:9,35). Our journey is from the past (for which we give thanks to God), through the present (in which we look to the Lord for victory), to the future (towards which we are being led by the Lord.) In every part of our journey, we are journeying with God.
There were problems among God's people. The spirit of complaint had spread among them. This brought the "fire" of judgment (Numbers 11:1). The spirit spirit of complaint comes when people don't like what God is doing among His people.We see this in Numbers 11:26-28. The words of prophecy are described as the result of the working of "the Spirit" (Numbers 11:26), yet Joshua said, "Stop them, sir!" (Numbers 11:28). Note Moses' response - "I wish all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them" (Numbers 11:29). What we need is not the quenching of the Spirit, but the release of God's Spirit among God's people.
In his leadership of God's people, Moses faced problems. It was not an easy pathway towards the promised land. There was opposition from Miriam and Aaron (Numbers 12:1). There was an unbelieving report, brought back from the land of Canaan by most of the spies (Numbers 13:31). Alongside these problems, there was the encouragement, which came from Caleb's words of faith: "Let's go now and take possession of the land. We should be more than able to conquer it" (Numbers 13:30). By faith, we shall overcome the problems.
The problems continue. The problems increase (Numbers 14:1-4). Again, there is the Word of encouragement - "this time from Joshua, as well as Caleb" (Numbers 14:5-9). The people bring judgment upon themselves. They will not enter the promised land. Of the older generation, only faithful Caleb and Joshua were to enter the land. They would lead the next generation into the land of promise, thus fulfilling the Lord's promise of grace, which is always free grace - but it's never cheap grace. Grace is freely given by the Lord - but it can never be taken for granted by us. This point - not taking God's grace for granted - becomes clear in Numbers 14:39-45.
God's work among His people was directed toward the future - "Once you're settled in the land I'm giving you" - and it was grounded in the past - "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God" (Numbers 15:2,41). Our present obedience draws strength from our past redemption - "It is finished" - and our future hope - It is still to come.
In this chapter, we read about the judgment of God upon those who sinned against Him. God is perfectly holy. He calls us to be holy. This is not to be a pretence. It is to be real. Those who came under God's judgment claimed to be holy (Numbers 16:3). God saw what they were really like. This very challenging. It's a reminder that we must not take God lightly: "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Alongside this, we should also remember that Christ's hands were pierced for us. He waits to welcome all who return to Him, fleeing from "the wrath to come."
Moses, the priests, the people - All of them were to honour the Lord in everything. (i) "Moses did exactly what the Lord commanded him to do" (Numbers 17:11). (ii) The priests were "a gift, given by the Lord, to do whatever work is necessary at the tent of meeting" (Numbers 18:6). (iii) The people were to "contribute the best and holiest parts to the Lord" ("out of all the gifts they had received" (Numbers 18:29). Whoever we are, whatever our place in God's Work, we are to be dedicated to the Lord, committed to doing His will and being faithful in the work He has given to us to do for Him.
When we read about being made clean, we must look beyond what we read in the Old Testament. From the sprinkling of the blood of "a red cow that is perfect, with no defects", we must look on to the New Testament, where we read of "the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Jesus Christ is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
Neither Moses nor Aaron were to enter the land, promised by God to His people (Numbers 20:12,24). This is a reminder to us that we dare not presume on God's continued blessing. The fact that He has blessed us in the past does not mean that He will always bless us. We can lose out on His blessing. The blessing of God is to be treasured. It is not be taken lightly. It must never be taken for granted.
The Israelites are journeying with the Lord. He is leading them from victory to victory. Salvation fro Israel, salvation from the God of Israel, the true and living God, meant "destruction" (Numbers 21:3) for those who opposed God and His people - "How horrible it is for you, Moab! You are destroyed, you people of the god Chemosh" (Numbers 21:29). If there is to be real blessing among God's people, we must face conflict and overcome opposition from God's enemies.
The story of Balaam concerns the challenge of speaking God's Word in truth. God is the God of truth (Numbers 23:19). His messengers must speak the Word of truth.. Before we can speak God's Word in truth, there needs to be a confession of sin, an acknowledgment of how far we have deviated from the way of truth. This confession of sin is to be accompanied by a fresh commitment to walking in the way of truth (Numbers 22:340. Speaking the Word of truth involves looking beyond ourselves to the One who is the Word of truth - our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Numbers 24:17).
God's people are being called on to maturity. This is the significance of the phrase, "at least twenty years old" (Numbers 26:2,4). There are, however, many dangers. We are easily sidetracked - putting other "gods" before the Lord our God (Numbers 25:3). This turning away from the Lord is a serious matter, leading to the withdrawal of God's blessing. We can, however, continue to enjoy the Lord's blessing if, like Caleb and Joshua, we are men and women of faith (Numbers 26:64-65).
Joshua was to lead the people beyond the point to which Moses had led them. Joshua was chosen and empowered by God. Reading the story of God's people, from one generation to another, we find that the names change - but the Lord remains the same. Moses played his part. Joshua played his part. At every point in the story, God is there, upholding His servants in every generation.
The people of Israel were given an extremely elaborate and detailed description of the sacrifices they were to bring to God. We no longer need to to bring such sacrifices to God. God Himself has provided the perfect Sacrifice. The Son of God has given Himself for us. He has put away our sin by the Sacrifice of Himself. We must focus our exclusive attention on Him.
In the various areas of life - -personal faithfulness (chapter 30), our relationship with the world (chapter 31), our relationship with the Lord's people (chapter 32), there is one thing which is of the utmost importance: "we will do as the Lord has said" (Numbers 32:31). This is the most important thing: obedience to God.
Much of what we have here is geographical. There is also, however, a spiritual dimension. God is leading His people to their new land, the land He had promised to them. In all the names of the places, we must see the hand of God directing His people according to His perfect plan. In God's "place", the "place" of His blessing, there must be nothing that hinders true worship of the Lord (Numbers 33:52).
The whole of life is to be arranged according to God's perfect plan. This principle underlies all the detailed instructions given here. We see it, first, in Numbers 35:1 - "The Lord spoke to Moses ... " It is repeated in Numbers 35:9 - "The Lord said to Moses ... " It is emphasized in Numbers 36:5-6 - "So Moses gave the Israelites a command from the Lord ... This is what the Lord commands ... " It is seen in the response of "Zelophedad's daugthers" who "did as the Lord commanded Moses." It is found in the concluding verse of the book of Numbers: "These are the commands and rules the Lord gave the Israelites ... " (Numbers 36:13). Life may be very different today. Still, the spiritual principle remains the same: Our life is to be lived according to the teaching of God's Word.