MESSAGE FOR MAY 13, 2001 FROM NUMBERS 20:1-13
(Message #8 from a brief series on the life of Moses)
In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. 2Now there was no water for the community, and the people gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron. 3They quarreled with Moses and said, "If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! 4Why did you bring the Lord's community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? 5Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!" 6Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. 7The Lord said to Moses, 8"Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink." 9So Moses took the staff from the Lord's presence, just as he commanded him. 10He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" 11Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. 12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them." 13These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the Lord and where he showed himself holy among them.
This week, we continue our series on the life and ministry of Moses. The last two weeks, we spent in Numbers 14. There, you’ll recall God tells the Jews to spy out the Promised Land and the spies come back with a bad report that kills the faith of the nation and causes them to reject God’s gracious gift. God responds to this by proposing to destroy the whole nation and start over again with Moses. Last week, we saw the unique and beautiful relationship between God and Moses as they discuss that proposition. Moses shows his great heart for God’s glory in a text that captures his greatness as a leader and as a man of God. Numbers 14 shows us just how radically God-centered this man was. This week, we explore a very different episode that highlights a very different kind of response from Moses. If Numbers 14 is Moses’ finest hour, then Numbers 20 is surely his worst. In this chapter, we read of Moses’ sin and in light of the rest of his amazingly faithful ministry, we are amazed at his failure here. The events in Numbers 20 help us to see that Moses, even with his extraordinary heart for God, was still a fallen sinner.
The events of Numbers 20 occur near the end of the wilderness wanderings. The narrative begins by telling us they are in the Desert of Zin and that Miriam had died. Miriam is one of the last of this condemned generation to die in the wilderness. The nation of Israel is, by this time populated almost exclusively by the generation who were children when the Jews rebelled against God’s plan to give them the Promised Land. These people have been out of Egypt for about 40 years and are close to seeing the last of the previous generation die as punishment for their unbelief. But even though this chapter is some 40 years after the rebellion seen in chapter 14, and a new generation has arisen to positions of prominence within the nation, it sounds remarkably familiar to what we have seen so many times before.
Think about it, here’s Moses. He has been with these Jews 40 years. If it weren’t for his prayers for mercy on their behalf on at least two separate occasions, they would all be dead in the wilderness. He has weathered 40 years of their griping and moaning. He has watched an entire generation—his contemporaries, die in the wilderness. Think of how many funerals must Moses have preached! He is doubtless strengthened by his meetings with God and by the thought that someday, he’s going to have the privilege of leading this new generation of Jews into the Promised Land. He’s going to have the opportunity to see God finish what he started with him 40 years ago when he met Him for the first time at the burning bush.
Here in chapter 20, we meet the Jews at a place later to be known as Meribah. They had been there decades earlier and there was no water there then, either. In Exodus 17, God then tells Moses to strike the rock and water came out of it. So, here they are, led by God to this place and there is no water. And this new generation of Jews, whom Moses is going to have the privilege of leading into the Promised Land, sounds remarkably like their parents. “If only we had died when our brothers [those ten spies who died 40 years earlier] fell dead before the LORD! Why did you bring the LORD’S community into this desert, that we and our livestock should die here? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has not grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink.” This second generation of Jewish apples has not fallen very far from their family trees. They whine about wanting to die, they blame Moses for leading them to this desolate place, when they knew he was only taking them where God was leading. They yearn for Egypt, a place very few of them even remember and they once again raise this tired old concern about the menu. This generation had watched their parents and grandparents die for griping this way and here they are seemingly begging for the same fate.
Moses’ initial response to this behavior is just as familiar to us. He and Aaron go to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting where Moses meets with God and they fall facedown…again. What a great pattern Moses repeatedly models for us—when people oppose you as you do the will of God, don’t retaliate, don’t blame, don’t throw a pity party—get on your face before God—that’s wonderful. You have to wonder at this point if Moses was expecting God to act the way he had so often in the past on these occasions. You wonder if part of the reason Moses and Aaron fell on their faces was to communicate that they expected the impending judgment of God. That’s what happened in chapter 14 and in chapter 16, they fell on their faces three times and each time it was before God brought his judgment. This had become something of a pattern. The people sin, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and God brings his judgment. But this time, God’s response is not one of judgment, simply of provision. He doesn’t punish these people for quarrelling with Moses, for showing him disrespect as their leader, for impugning his character. He takes no vengeance this time. He simply tells Moses what to do to get the people water. “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.”
Moses gets up, gets the staff and gathers the assembly just as he was told. But then Moses departs from the script for the very first time in one of these instances. He loses his temper and calls the people “rebels” and hits the rock twice. The rock gives its water and all seems to be well. But then, God does something to Moses that breaks our hearts if we have any love for this man. Moses, because of this one “slight” departure from God’s plan is told that he will never enter the Promised Land. “You will not bring this community into the land I give THEM.” “It’s over Moses, you’re gonna’ die in the desert just like all the rest of the rebels—your dream of entering the Promised Land will never come true—you’re done with that.” There is part of us that is tempted to think, “What a rip. After all Moses had done, after all the personal attacks and griping he has endured and the heavy burden of leading these two million people through a hostile desert, he makes ONE misstep and God lowers the boom. He ends up in the same place as those ten spies—dead in the desert.”
Why? That is a great question to ask of texts like this when we see God doing something we don’t understand. And the reason it’s a great question is because when we find the answer, we’ll know God a little bit better. Our main goal in studying the Scriptures should always be to see God. Too often today, the Scriptures are used as a self-help resource—a guidebook for living successfully. That misses the point. We must look for GOD in this book and when He reveals himself to us, He will radically change us. So, when you come to a text where God says or does something that doesn’t fit your picture of him, don’t get discouraged or just skip over it, spend some time discovering something about God you didn’t know before. Why did God respond so strongly to Moses’ sin? The short answer to that question God gives in verse 12. He tells Moses, “Because you did not trust me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites…” Moses didn’t trust God and didn’t honor him as holy before the people—that’s the answer. But what does that mean? How did Moses’ actions here betray faith in God and fail to publicly show God as holy? And as we answer that question, we hope to find out why committing that sin brings on Moses the severe punishment of God.
This list is not exhaustive, but here are two ways Moses betrayed faith in God and failed to publicly show God as holy. The first and most obvious way is Moses disobeyed God. We’ve already pointed out where Moses WAS obedient. He gathered the assembly and got the staff, but then he chose to rebel against God. And in Numbers 27:14 where God is speaking of this incident in the past tense, he tells Moses, “you rebelled against my command to treat Me as holy before their eyes at the water.” God sees this sin as an act of rebellion against Him. He doesn’t tell Moses to rebuke the people but he rebukes them, calling THEM “rebels.” Ironic isn’t it? In the act of calling them “rebels,” he has become a rebel himself. And God told Moses to SPEAK to the rock and Moses instead hits it twice. That’s disobedience. Some may say, “Yes, but Moses did 90% of what God told him to and the people got their water, what’s the big deal?—for that, God tells him he can’t go into the Promised Land?” We must never forget that God doesn’t grade on a curve. There is no partial credit given when we do part of what we know God commands us to do. Partial obedience is disobedience. When we intentionally give partial obedience to God and do only part of what He asks us to, we are in rebellion against Him. That fact of the matter is, Moses didn’t do what God told him to and it was an act of arrogance.
This was arrogant because Moses hears what God says and decides to edit him and in doing so shows the same kind of unbelief the other Jews had. Think about it. God told them, go into the land and they said in effect, “No, they’re too strong for us—we know better than you, God.” God tells Moses to SPEAK to the rock—not strike it (like he did last time in Exodus 17), but SPEAK to it. And Moses says in effect, “No, I’m gonna hit it twice—I know better than you, God.” How is that essentially different than the other Jews response to God? It’s an indication that Moses thinks he knows better than God. So much of the value in this text for today’s church is this--If God’s response to Moses insults our sensibilities, that says much more about us than it does about God. It is much more revealing about where our hearts are toward God than anything else. It says we really don’t know God very well—that we’ve allowed a culture to influence our understanding of God that has reimaged Him to be reasonable and easy-going. It’s instructive to notice, Moses didn’t respond to God’s judgment with a sense of indignation. He doesn’t offer one argument in his defense—not a peep. He knew God was right. This is a man who, when God uses five chapters of Old Testament Scripture to outline in painstaking detail how to build the tabernacle, down to how many loops to put on the curtains (50, not 51 or 49, 50), he carries out the hundreds of details TO THE LETTER. In Exodus 40, at the end of that seemingly endless section of intensely detail-oriented commands about what the tabernacle should look like, seven times it is recorded, “Moses did everything just as the LORD commanded him.” Seven times! Attention to detail wasn’t a problem for Moses. He knew that God wants his commandments carried out with precision and he had always done that…until now. Now, he decides to improvise.
There’s more arrogance here on Moses’ part. When he meets with God, Yahweh says nothing about rebuking these people and Moses rebukes them. Do we understand that when he does this, he is in some sense making himself equal with God? You see, Moses was a prophet—he spoke for God. When he comes from God’s presence at the tent of meeting (whether the people heard what was said or not) the people assume he will be passing on to them what God told him. That’s just the way it worked. But here, Moses adds this rebuke that God did not give. That means that he, in his anger, is placing his own personal sentiments on the same level as God’s word to the people. He speaks his own personal message in a context where the people would have assumed he was speaking for God. Not only does that border on misrepresentation, it also shows that Moses allows his own personal sentiments to be understood as God’s word to the people. That’s arrogance and anyone who preaches or teaches needs to learn from this sin of Moses. When we teach or preach, we best make sure that we separate out our own personal sentiments from what the word says. We are free to give our own reflections and thoughts, but we had better be careful about allowing our own personal agendas and biases on issues to be thought of as God’s truth.
Listen, we must get this. You don’t edit God. Whether it’s striking a rock or speaking rash words, you don’t freelance on God’s plan. He’s the Master and we are the servants. He is the omnipotent Creator and we are the fallen creatures. He is infinite, we are oh so finite. What right does Moses have to alter the plans of the Lord of the universe? God’s penalty for unbelief in Moses’ case is the same as for the others. God is just—he will die in the desert with the rest. The Jews don’t belong to him, they belong to God and he has a right to do with them whatever He wants. If He decides not to punish them for quarreling with Moses, that’s His divine prerogative. This is so important for us to know. When God calls us to do something from the Scripture or as we sense his Spirit leading us in daily life, he’s not giving us suggestions that we are free to partially obey, alter or ignore completely. When he calls us to do something, He’s not laying out a possible moral option for us to make a decision on. He’s not issuing an invitation that we are morally free to decline if we don’t feel like obeying. He’s the Lord God omnipotent and when he says speak to the rock, the proper response is to speak to the rock and Moses knew that better than anybody.
A second reason why Moses’ response to God betrayed faith in God and failed to publicly show Him as holy is found in verse 12. This is the one you have to look closely for, but when you see it, it is devastating evidence against Moses. Notice again Moses’ words to the people. With Aaron at his side he says, “…must we bring water out of this rock?” “Excuse me, Moses, must WHO bring water out of the rock?” He sins grievously here because Moses implies God’s power belongs to him and Aaron. Here is part of how Moses fails to show God as holy before the people. When we speak of God being seen as holy, we mean that God must be seen as qualitatively different, set apart from us. God is intimate with his children but he is also very different than them. He is separate from them. He never sins and he has many other divine qualities that we can simply do not and will never possess. He alone is God. And Moses steps all over that by, in his fit of anger, identifying himself way too closely with God. Up to this point, Moses had kept this line of demarcation between himself and God very clear. He was the prophet and spoke FOR God. He was the priest, the Mediator and as that he spoke TO God. The leadership he gave was always clearly known to be FROM God. But here, Moses takes that which belongs to God alone and claims it for his own—“Must WE bring water out of this rock?” God provides the water—why should the people suffer for Moses’ sin, but make no mistake—NO ONE gets away with this in God’s court.
Whether you are praying for healing for someone or speaking his word or ministering in any other way, we must always remember and actively proclaim, HE gives the fruit, not us. We do the job, we plant the seed, we water, but God alone gives the growth. Anything that is marvelous or wondrous—that’s God’s doing, not ours and we had better guard his glory zealously. The glory always, always, always belongs to God. We offer the service or ministry, but God is the only one who changes the heart or heals the body or does anything else that is supernatural for his glory. God is zealous to be seen as holy NOT because he is filled with insecurity but because it is true and God is zealous for the truth. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Moses put himself in a position where he took credit for what God alone can do and you just don’t do that with impunity.
We see a similar response in Leviticus 10. Two of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, priests of God appear in the sanctuary and entertain a certain fascination with the spiffy metal (probably gold or brass) censers they used in their priestly duties. We aren’t sure what they did, but they engaged in a little pyrotechnic experimentation with these censers—they were playing with them, “offering unauthorized fire before the Lord.” So, God decides to judge them in a manner consistent with their sin and sends fire from heaven and consumes them right on the spot. And God explains his actions saying, “Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.” Do you hear the same burden is coming from God as in Numbers 20? God is saying, “My censers are not toys—they have been consecrated, set apart to serve me and when you treat them as common vessels, you demean me—you betray my holiness.” Whether you are Aaron’s sons or Moses or anyone else in this kind of position of ministry, if you are ministering publicly before God, you better make sure there is a clear sense in which the people know that anything supernatural that happens is because God alone makes it happen.
As we close, let me make two more applications from this text. The first is, this text painfully supports the truth that with God there is no favoritism. He is utterly impartial. Part of what makes this story so emotionally gripping is God judges…Moses. There is something inside of us that cries out, “Moses, not Moses!” Moses—with all of his years of sacrificial, impeccable service—this one whom God spoke to face to face—this one who occupies a truly unique place in salvation history. With all that, God doesn’t cut him any slack—there is no special favor given to Moses. Ultimately, He suffers the same fate on a human level the other sinners had—he doesn’t make it into the Promised Land. And when Moses pleads with God to reconsider his decision, Deuteronomy 3:26 records God’s response as, “Enough! Speak to Me no more of this matter.” “I said no, now don’t raise the issue again.” This is so important for us because many of us, at one time or another, do something extraordinary for God. We show an unusual amount of sacrifice or go through what we think is some grueling spiritual process. And in those contexts, it’s easy for us to think that God will shoot us some slack on other issues in our life. No, he won’t. If we have a really wonderful season of intimacy with God in our lives and strongly sense his presence in our lives, it is tempting to this, “You and me God, we got a great thing going.” And we can assume that God will be a bit less exacting in his expectations from us than from others who surely haven’t met God like we have. “Me and God, we have this understanding.” No, that’s not the way God is—that’s deception. Most of the rest of the world is like that. Almost all of us have someone in our lives to whom we show favoritism to—people who can get away with practically anything because of who they are or what they mean to us. Not so with God. Vance Havner said, “God has intimates, but no favorites.”
Second and finally, Authority carries with it responsibility. When the new generation comes to Moses and gripes at him, they too were sinning and were worthy of judgment. It is the first time in many years we have any record of this happening, but still, what they did impugned God’s faithfulness and goodness. One reason Moses is judged here and they are not is because of his position. When Moses betrays God’s trust and fails to show him publicly as holy, his sin uniquely affects the entire assembly. This is just a principle of biblical leadership. When an elder sins grievously, 1 Timothy chapter five tells us he is subject to public rebuke—no one else in the church is, but elders are because they have authority and when they sin, it is a horrible example to the congregation and it compromises the testimony of the entire church before the world. Because they in a unique way represent the church, when they sin, it uniquely reflects on Christ and His church. James 3:1 reflects this same value system. It says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. “ Teaching carries authority and there is therefore more responsibility. This is not to discourage anyone from aspiring to pastor-eldership or to teach. We simply see here in Moses this principle painfully reinforced.
This text powerfully illustrates something crucial about God’s character. But God never reveals his character to destroy us, but to build us up. Sometimes that means brokenness—coming to Him in light of a new understanding of Him and confessing that we need his forgiveness and enabling power more than we ever before could have imagined. Maybe you need to do that today. But these truths about God’s character should also help us to see his great mercy and grace toward his children. Though He is holy and we are all sinners before him, if we have truly trusted Christ, He is patient with us and does not reward us according to our iniquity. May God continually be revealing to us more and more of himself so that we might worship Him more fervently in word and deed.
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