MESSAGE FOR MAY 6, 2001 FROM NUMBERS 14:10-45
(Message #7 from a brief series on the life of Moses)
This week, as we continue our study on the life and ministry of Moses, we pick up where we left off last week. You’ll recall we looked at the Jew’s tragic rebellion against God when ten of their spies came back with a faithless report of the Promised Land that resulted in the nation refusing to trust God and enter the Promised Land. God calls this unbelief rebellion and last week we saw from the text some reasons why God hates the rebellion of unbelief among his people. This week, we move into the second half of this story where we see God’s response to his people’s rebellion unbelief. This text is an example, not only of God’s anger and wrath in his desire to virtually destroy the Jews, but also his great mercy in sparing all but the ten rebel spies from death—mitigating his original sentence from death, to banishment to the desert.
But what is most astounding about this text is the interplay between Yahweh and Moses. Here, as much as any place in the Pentateuch, we see the unique relationship God had with Moses. We saw that relationship described a few weeks ago as we examined Numbers 12, but here the uniqueness of their relationship is put on display for all to see. What a fascinating account this is of God and Moses working together! This text is powerful in many ways. The people of Israel are rebelling, ready to stone the small, righteous remnant of those who truly believe God, when God, rising in defense of his faithful servants, immediately descends to the tent of meeting, appearing in his glory before the entire Jewish nation. And what follows that dramatic entrance is God’s (seemingly public) conversation with Moses about what he wants to do with this rebel nation. That conversation is nothing less than astonishing.
The most amazing aspect of this dialogue, the part that catches us by surprise is that the text reads in such a way to make some believe that God erupts in a burst of anger, ready to destroy the entire nation and start over with Moses as the new “father” of the Jews, but level-headed Moses “reigns in” God and explains to him why that really would not be such a good idea. It almost feels like Moses has to “calm down” this irrationally angry God and tell him why the response he had planned is really not at all plausible. The situation here is in many ways similar to Exodus 32 where God and Moses have a similar conversation after the incident involving the worship of the golden calf. There, God says to Moses in 32:9-10, “I have seen these people," the Lord said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. 10Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." Just as there, here in Numbers 14 we see Moses being the only person standing in the way of God’s complete destruction of Israel.
Why did God do this!? We know one reason why he did NOT do it. We know that God, the omniscient One, who knows the end from the beginning, was NOT in need of advise from Moses. The uniform witness of the Scripture, Old and New Testament is, “Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him—who…is God’s counselor?” God has no need of a counselor. As much as it, at first blush, looks like it, this is not a case where Moses has to save the day by leaping in and pulling an overzealous God off the backs of sinners. God is not like us—His anger burns with white-hot intensity against sin, but it is a controlled anger. God never “loses his cool” and needs someone to bring him to His senses. That’s not what this text is communicating, even though it may look that way when seen without the lens of good theology. But the question remains, if God doesn’t NEED Moses here to straighten him out, why did God orchestrate these events in this way that makes Moses a necessary conduit of his mercy?
This morning, we will look at two answers to that question. The first answer is—God uses Moses to demonstrate his mercy and prepare his people for Jesus, the Great High Priest who intercedes for his people. Before we go on, we first have to see the dilemma posed when a holy and merciful God is confronted with a situation where heinous rebellion is being committed. Here’s the dilemma—God is holy and sin before a holy God means death. So here are his chosen people in a state of out and out apostasy—they would rather leave him and his plan for them and return to the bondage of Egypt under Pharaoh. When God tells them he is about to bring them into the land he has promised them, they spurn him in rebellious unbelief. Their sin is immense here and a holy God must respond in response to this horrible, national sin—a sin that deserves the destruction of the unbelieving people. So how does God in this situation on the one hand, show that He is blood earnest about judging sin, but on the other hand display his incredible mercy? How does he, in the face of sin like this, show his holy hatred for sin AND his mercy at the same time? This narrative shows us how.
First, he comes down and shows his just, utterly deserved anger and wrath toward sin and he passes sentence on the Jews in verse 12—death by mass execution. This is consistent with his holy character that must, in the strongest possible terms, express hatred of sin. Those who have sinned here know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, according to God, they have done something absolutely deserving of the lethal wrath and anger of God and they are left there, helplessly awaiting their execution. They feel on their necks the hot breath of God’s holy anger at their sin. They doubtless and with good reason shake in their shoes as condemned sinners standing before an angry God. As distasteful as that picture is to a Christian culture that is trying to re-image God to remove his holiness, that is all perfectly appropriate and a consistent response from God. He is holy and he shows himself as such.
But how, in the midst of this heinous, sinful context where God is rightly, justly ready to execute the sinful nation—how does he manifest his mercy? Does he just explode and make his threat to destroy them and then back down all of the sudden saying, “Well, I won’t judge you this time, but if you do this ONE MORE TIME, POW?” Does he stand there before the Jews as a God who really wants to blast them, but because of some sort of soft spot in his heart he, at the last moment, changes his mind? No—we may do that as parents, but that’s not God. God is perfectly holy AND perfectly merciful so he shows his mercy by placing into that context of heinous sin and holy justice, a mediator—a priestly figure whose job it is to call on God to show mercy. Now, get this. God has, before the sin ever occurred, already provided for his mercy because he places Moses among this sinful people as his mediator priest, the one who, by virtue of his office, will stand before Him and call out for his mercy on these rebels. This is part of his commission as a priest for these people. So, Moses does just what God has commissioned him to do and calls on God for mercy. As God responds to this call for mercy, he is able to show the people, at one and the same time, not only his holy hatred of sin, but also his great mercy. After the incident, the people walk away knowing that their sin was worthy of death and God had every right to execute that sentence. But they also know that Yahweh is a God of mercy who “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10).
Now, what is the application for us? One point of this is this and we must never forget it is this: in God’s economy, one reason God’s people are not destroyed for their sin is the presence of an Intercessor, Christ, who will call on God for his mercy to them. Someone may respond, “That may have been true in the Old Testament, but since Jesus died on the cross and paid for all my sins and took my punishment, I don’t need an intercessor pleading for me.” Yes you do. Paul says in Romans 8:34 “Who is he that condemns? [no one can because of ] Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” The text is clear, one reason we cannot be condemned to eternal death is because Christ intercedes for our sins before the Father. Hebrews 7:25 says of Christ, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, [why?] because he always lives to intercede for them.” This text seems to be saying that part of Christ’s reconciling ministry to the church is his mediating ministry of intercession in heaven before the Father.
Christ reconciled us to the Father through his death and part of how that reconciling work is applied to us is by Christ’s ministry of intercession, mediating for us before a holy Father who hates sin. I take that to mean that Christ acts to maintain that reconciled relationship by pleading on our behalf before the Father who hates sin. George Eldon Ladd, in his New Testament Theology places the intercessory role of Christ in heaven right smack within the context of Christ’s saving work. He writes, “Salvation from sin in the present tense is based not only upon the propitiatory work of Christ upon the cross, but also upon his exalted status in the presence of God. The idea includes intercession for believers on earth as in Hebrews 7:25; 9:24 and Romans 8:34.” That understanding makes this connection between Moses the mediator and Christ the mediator more clear. Now, we can see Moses more clearly as a type of Christ. Moses manifests God’s mercy by pleading as God’s chosen mediator for his sinning people and Christ fulfills the office of Mediator by, when we sin, interceding for us as God’s ultimate, final Mediator on the basis of his saving work at Calvary. In this sense, God is once again using Moses as a type of Christ to pave the way for the Great Intercessor, the Great Mediator, Jesus Christ. And once again, the point for us to take to heart is God is holy and hates sin. And just as the Jews were desperately in need for a mediator before God to plea on their behalf, so do we in the person of Christ. When we sin and sin and sin and do not perish at the hand of a holy God, we must never forget that a significant part of the reason for that is because Christ stands before the Father as God’s chosen Mediator praying for God’s mercy on us. It would do us much spiritual good for us to do much more thinking about Christ in his role as our praying Mediator. If we would spend more time thinking about that, it would help us see our sin in a different light and it would stir us to be more thankful for the untold mercies of God.
A second reason why God has this dialogue with Moses in the presence of the Jews is to show the stark contrast that exists between Moses and his heart and the Jews and their hearts. The response Moses gives to God’s threat of judgment is perhaps his finest moment in a life filled with great moments. Here you see the heart of Moses--what made this man tick. And as that is revealed, it brings out with crystal clarity, the huge gulf separating Moses from almost all his fellow Jews. The contrast between Moses and his heart and the people’s hearts could hardly be more stark. When God threatens to destroy the entire nation in one fell swoop, what is Moses’ response? Notice it is NOT, “Oh God, don’t do that—they’re just a bit confused and besides I love these people, don’t kill my family and friends.” No. Moses’ burden is NOT with the people and what is best for them. Notice three concerns that burden Moses’ heart in this context of God’s impending destruction of the Jews.
In verses 13-17, Moses’ first concern is God’s reputation among the nations. His response, when met with the possible destruction of the Jews by God is “The Egyptians will hear about it.” He says in verse 15, “If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, “The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert.” Moses is burdened about what the nations will think about GOD if this happens. Two million people are about to be slaughtered all around him and Moses is concerned about GOD! He’s concerned that this would convey that God is impotent—that he is not “able to bring these people into the land.” He’s concerned that this will communicate that God is cruel, some sort of a despot, “so he slaughtered them in the desert.” Moses’ heart is heavy NOT fundamentally because of the slaughter of all these people he had been leading, (some of whom were his relatives) but at the thought that God’s reputation might be tarnished among the nations. Moses’ heart was zealous for the glory of God above all else and his first response is to advocate for God’s glory among the nations. This is what burned Moses’ heart white hot.
Notice he was much more concerned about God’s reputation that his own. Don’t miss this. God offers to destroy all the people and start over with Moses. That would make Moses a second Abraham. It would forever seal his peerless legacy. “Moses, you can be the new Father of the Jewish race.” God offers Moses an unspeakable honor for a Jew. Moses never even considers the offer or what this would do to his own reputation. He was totally focused on what this would mean to the Name, the reputation of Yahweh. This is an incredibly revealing picture of Moses’ heart. His heart beat for the name and glory of His God above all else.
What a total contrast Moses’ response is to the rest of the Jews. God tells these people he would give them the Promised Land, that he would fight for them and displace these nations larger and stronger than they. If you are God-centered, having the exaltation of his Name as your highest desire, when you hear that you will think, “This is gonna’ be so great, just think about the glory the LORD will get from this. These pagan nations who have rebelled against him for so long will be just like Egypt—they will have no choice but to acknowledge that Yahweh is far greater than their gods. God is gonna show his awesome power by wiping the mat with their demonically powered idols.” You see, if they were God-centered, they would be so excited because God’s conquests would, as in Psalm 96:3, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” Instead, what is the Jews’ top priority? They were concerned about their safety and their comfort and their menu and how long were they gonna’ have to wait to get what they have been promised. It’s all about them and what is best for them in the short term.
The second concern burdening Moses’ heart about this proposed mass execution is His burden for God’s character to be displayed. Moses knows God and in verses 17-19 he speaks of God’s glorious character. He says, “Now may the Lord's strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 18'The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.' 19In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now." Moses appeals to God on the basis of his slow-to-anger, abounding-in-love character on behalf of the Israelites. He longs to see this aspect of his character put on display. But he also speaks of the aspect of God’s character that does not leave sin unpunished. We must understand that God displaying his judgment on sin was a significant part of God’s motivation for destroying the Canaanites. We saw from Genesis 15:16, he allowed his own people to live in slavery in Egypt for 400 years until “the sin of the Amorites has reached its full measure.” The sins of these pagans had persisted to a point where it was now time to go in and use the Jews as his rod of destruction to wipe them out.
We see just how significant this motivation to punish sin was to God in taking the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 9:4. God says to the Jews as they are about to enter the land, “After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.” God is going to display his holy hatred for sin by using his people to drive out these wicked nations. He would wage a holy war of judgment against these pagans and use his own people as the instrument of their destruction. Moses’ heart is burdened for God’s mercy AND his justice to be revealed. That is the second reason he pleads with God to not destroy the rebel Jews.
Again, how different Moses’ heart is from the other Jews. The Jews as a people weren’t the least bit concerned about God manifesting his character. Their concerns lay only with themselves. What got them excited was not God showing forth his holy character. They weren’t the least bit honored by the thought that God would use them to display his power and might and justice. That didn’t move them in the least. The Jews had one concern and it was THEM. THEY were hungry, THEY were thirsty, THEY were tired, THEY were impatient. God and his character didn’t even register.
A final contrast seen here between Moses and the Jews is seen in the reason for Moses’ grief surrounding this sin. Both Moses and the people were deeply grieved by this incident but the reasons for that grief could hardly be more different. We see Moses’ grief back in verses 5-9 we looked at last week. When the rebels spew out their last report of unbelief, impugning the character of God, Moses and Aaron “fell facedown in the front of the whole Israelite assembly.” Joshua and Aaron tear their clothes. These are expressions of deep grief and foreboding. They have heard these horrible, faithless attacks against God and they are on their face before God in graphic displays of grief and horror. Their grief is centered around the fact that these people have sinned against God by calling his character into question.
The Jews grieve too, but at a different place in the story and for very different reasons. After God passes sentence, banishing the Jews to 40 years in the desert, it says in verse 39, “they mourned bitterly.” But in verse 40, it continues (NASB), “In the morning, however, they rose up early and went up to the ridge of the hill country, saying, “Here we are; we have indeed sinned, but we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised.” Here we see the sole reason why the Jews were so sad. They were sad because they didn’t want to die in the desert. They were grieved NOT by their sin, but by the consequences of their sin. There is no sign of repentance here; only a desire to get back what their sin had cost them. Notice, they are still acting in unbelief even here. Think about it. When God told them to go up initially, they refused because they thought they knew better than God. Here, they refuse to NOT go because they think they know better than God. That’s unbelief. In the first instance, they refuse to believe God’s promise to them. In this second foolish instance, they refuse to believe God’s word of judgment on them. They are still acting in self-centered unbelief. Moses grieves because they have sinned against God. The people grieve because they have blown a chance to get into the Promised Land and will have to eat manna for 40 more years.
Do you see the vast difference between the heart of Moses and the heart of the Jews? The point of application is clear, isn’t it? Are we more like Moses or like the Jews who came under God’s judgment? When we are placed in difficult situations, is our first concern the glory of God or our personal well being? Do we live each day with our top agenda item being the glory of God’s name? When we go through trials are we seeing them through the biblical lens of God’s glory, seeking out how he can be honored, how His character can be manifest in our lives. For instance, are you willing to pray, “God, I pray that your sustaining power will be manifest in my life” when that prayer will almost always open the door to suffering? Why would God’s sustaining power be needed if you weren’t suffering in some way? Some of God’s attributes are only manifest in us when we suffer. So, when we suffer, is our primary concern that God’s glory can be uniquely revealed in us, or is our only concern being done with the suffering?
And when you sin, are you more grieved because you have rebelled against a God who sent his only Son to die for you, or is your grief a response to seeing the consequences of your sin? The carnal person grieves only because of what their sin costs them. The spiritual person grieves because of what it cost God. Where are you? May God give us the grace to imitate Moses, having his heart for God’s glory.
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