MESSAGE FOR APRIL 29, 2001 FROM NUMBERS 13-14
(Message #6 from a brief series on the life of Moses)
As we continue our study of the life and ministry of Moses, this week, we turn to one of the saddest chapters in the biblical history of God’s people. The flow of the narrative in Numbers is written to prepare us for this. In chapter 11, there is the rebellion of the people over the lack of variety in their menu. In chapter 12, which we saw last week, Miriam and Aaron rebel against Moses. Now, here in chapters 13-14, we see the most tragic and costly of all the rebellions of God’s people in the book of Numbers. As long as this chapter is, the entire story can be summarized in one word and that is, unbelief. This story is a case study in unbelief and so this morning, we want to put, by God’s grace, the sin of unbelief under a microscope using this text as our slide. As we dissect unbelief, our hope is to better see it in our own lives and more deeply appreciate what a horrible thing it is and how much God wants us to repent of it in our own lives and our church. Because God hates all sin and unbelief is sin we know that God hates unbelief in the lives of his people. Let’s look at four reasons why God hates unbelief that are found in this text.
The first and perhaps the most obvious reason this story brings out about why God hates unbelief is because Unbelief causes God’s people to miss out on his blessings for them. Think about this. Here are God’s people. They’ve been slaves all their life—their backs broken by the terrible load they were forced to carry under Pharaoh in Egypt. They had no choice but to look on helplessly as their children and then their grandchildren grew up as the property of Egypt. For longer than any of them could remember, their sense of identity was shaped by the whip and bondage and suffering under the boot of the Pharaohs. They had no land; no place they could say was theirs. They were a slave race living on foreign soil. They had the stories of the patriarchs which gave them hope, but the stories of God promising them a land of milk and honey doubtless seemed too good to be true after 400 years of servitude.
Then, miracle of miracles, God gloriously delivers this horribly oppressed people out of bondage. He leads them to a desert to prepare them for a new life on the outskirts of the land he has promised them. During this time of preparation, He gives them the law—the Ten Commandments to help them know how to live this new life in community. But the desert, as we said last week, was not intended for long-term habitation by people. It was a violently inhospitable place. During this time of what was supposed to be a limited period of preparation, God had miraculously supplied them with food but after only a few weeks, they were sick of it. Life was hard in the desert—so hard that many of them wanted to return to the horrible life they lived in Egypt. But it was only temporary, until God had prepared them to enter the Promised Land.
And so we heard that God finally is ready to move them into this Promised Land where they can be free from the enslavement of Egypt as well as the crushing hardships of desert living. They would find property, land that had already been farmed—underground springs and a veritable cornucopia of different foods. What a wonderful collection of blessings awaited them in the Promised Land. But God wants to do one more bit of preparation so he tells Moses to send spies in who scour the land for 40 days. They bring back a report that confirms their highest hopes and aspirations about the goodness of the land God had given to them. It was light years better than both the life of slavery they knew in Egypt and the baking hot sun of the desert—milk and honey flowed in this new land God had given to them. It would all be theirs—the oppression of Egyptian enslavement and the hardships of desert living would be distant memories if only they would trust God and take the land he had promised them.
But we know that’s not the way the story goes. Instead of trusting God to be faithful to his covenant promises—instead of trusting that God had already given them the land—instead of trusting that the Lord would fight against their enemies for them as he promised, they acted in unbelief. These people who had for so long suffered in Egypt, who had laid awake at night dreaming of living in the Promised Land…would never enter it. They would miss out on God’s blessing for them. And instead of a few months of wandering in this wasteland of a wilderness, they would live for decades there and be buried there. Instead of a few months of manna, it would be 40 years with nothing to eat but this one menu item. Instead of the wilderness being a temporary place of preparation, it would be their permanent home. Instead of seeing God work miraculously, clearing out the Canaanites, they would be relegated to seeing him move them from one place in the desert to another. God would not be their mighty warrior as he had been in Egypt. They would experience Him only as a cosmic babysitter who waited for their faithless generation to die in the dust. And instead of having the unique privilege of being revered as the generation of people whom God used to defeat the Canaanites and claim the Promised Land, their legacy would instead be the rebellious, disgraced generation who refused to trust God and died under the desert sun.
Do you see the huge difference between what God WANTED for them and what they ended up EXPERIENCING? Do you see the vast chasm that existed between God’s planned incredible blessings for them and the hard and humble life their unbelief forced them to settle for? That’s what unbelief does to God’s people and God hates it. It takes the potential blessings of God on your life and runs them down the drain. It forces us to be people who settle for God’s second or third or fourth best. It puts us in the desert of despair, the wilderness of hardship instead of the Promised Land of God’s blessing. There are so many Christians who are living less than the life they could have lived because of unbelief. This can take so many forms. Christian marriages that are dry and arid because they refuse to trust God and die for their spouses—or marriages that are less than God desires because, instead of waiting for God’s choice of a spouse, they impatiently grab the first eligible person who shows an interest in them. Other Christians live for years eating the dust of despair because they refuse to believe that God loves them because of what Jesus has done for them. So many are in bondage because they refuse to believe fully the gospel of God’s free grace—they try to add their own human works to be pleasing to God. That’s unbelief and so many believers wander in that wilderness when the promised land of God’s blessings through grace is waiting for them. There are so many more. We can experience this drought of God’s blessing whenever God calls us to move out in faith, but we instead follow the lines of least resistance and do the easy thing, the convenient thing, the thing that requires no faith. God is merciful—he can build a new life filled with his blessing as we repent of unbelief and move on with Him in a life of faith.
A second reason God hates unbelief is because Unbelief is often rooted in the lie that God’s blessings and promises are received passively and without risk. We see the toxic effects of this lie in this story. The spies return from their 40-day reconnaissance mission and they report the land is filled with bounty. But then, notice what they say next in verse 28,
But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan." The main, objective reason why ten of the spies faithlessly veto God’s plan is because—the land is inhabited. “The land is filled with all sorts of people… there’s one group of people who live in the Negev and there’s more people living in the Hills and there is a different group of people living near the coast—this place is full of people and they live there.” Did they think the rich, fertile land of Canaan would be just a big vacant lot? They knew God promised Abraham this land and from Genesis 15 we know they knew it would be inhabited with many different kinds of people. Also, it was well known that walls 30-50 feet high and 15-20 feet thick surrounded Palestinian city-states. Did they expect the inhabitants of the towns to see the Israelites and just roll over and run for the hills?
From the reaction of the spies, we are forced to draw the conclusion that they believed the lie that because God said he would give them the Promised Land, there would therefore be little or no effort or risk required of them. Because they believed that lie, they were set up for a staggering disappointment, which fueled the fire of their unbelief. They believed that if God has promised you something then there surely would be no obstacles in the way when you go to get it from him. There are several areas of application for us on this, but the most readily apparent is perhaps the issue of our sanctification. There are those who try for years to live the Christian life passively. They just, “let go and let God.” They see themselves on some sort of spiritual magic carpet that just whisks them off to the land of spiritual maturity while they sit back and recline on it. After all, (they wrongly think,) “First Thessalonians 4:3 says, “It is God's will that you should be sanctified:…” “So God, sanctify me—I’m all yours.” You promised to finished the work you began in me, so finish it—I’m ready God.”
They see the Christian life to be primarily lived passively. God’s plan was much different, wasn’t it? God had given the Jews the Promised Land and he called them to go in and fight for it and as they were fighting for it, He would be fighting through them. That’s a pretty good model of growing in holiness and maturity. God calls us to the Promised Land of Christian maturity and has promised that he will finish the work he has started. But he also calls us to fight the fight of faith—to practice spiritual disciplines that act as conduits for his grace—to seek him diligently—to obey him in the face of opposition…to (Philippians 2:12) “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” But as we fight this fight he has promised us that (Philippians 2:13) “it is GOD who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Now, there is a place of resting in faith, but that resting is part of the fight, not a vacation from the fight. Many Christians spend much of their Christian lives laboring under the lie that there is no fight to be fought, no risks to be taken. And those Christians are habitually disappointed with the low wattage level of spiritual power in their lives. They wonder what they are doing wrong and they have somewhat regular “crash and burn” crises of faith because when they discover there really is conflict to be faced and risks to be taken, they don’t know what to do with that. It contradicts their understanding of how God is supposed to work in their lives. Often, they act just like the Jews, becoming terribly discouraged and living a spiritual life of wilderness wanderings.
A third reason God hates unbelief is because Unbelief is rebellion against God because it impugns His faithfulness to his promises and his past provision. By the time of this rebellion, God had gone to great lengths to establish his sufficiency for the Jews—to confirm that whatever challenges his people might face, he was more than able to take care of it. He took the most powerful nation in the world and, through a shepherd’s staff, destroyed it. He took what was arguably the strongest military force in the world and in the span of a few minutes completely annihilated it. He turned the Red Sea into a water tunnel. He came down on the Mt. Sinai in such majesty and awesome glory the people told Moses they never wanted to experience that again. Now, the Israelites face the opposition of some Palestinian city-states. These were certainly not pushovers (if they were, the Jews would not have needed God) but conquering them would be much less demanding than bringing the most powerful empire in the world to its knees. God obviously wanted the Jews to learn from the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea and his miraculous provision of manna that He was more than sufficient to handle any possible set of contingencies. He had already done the greater—everything from this point was the lesser. If God had already done the greater, then it would certainly make sense to trust him for the lesser.
But in Numbers 14 the Jews display a remarkable sense of spiritual amnesia. Unbelief horribly clouds a person’s memory. Isn’t it the height of irony that the Jews remember quite well their “stable,” life in Egypt and want to go back there, but they have forgotten the miraculous series of events God pulled off through Moses to get them out of Egypt? When the spies come back and say, “We can’t go in there—its full of people” they are in effect taking all of God’s miraculous acts and presumptuously crossing them off their books. They were clearly irrelevant to them. God had done all this to cause them to trust him and when it came time for them to draw faith and strength from His past provision, they act as if it never happened! They just erased it from their hard drive—it might as well not have occurred as far as its impact on their faith about going into the Promised Land. How do you suppose God received this after He had done all those glorious miracles to show his utter trustworthiness? This is nothing less than a betrayal of all God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt.
Not only that, what do they do with all God’s promises? God had promised Abraham that after 400 years he would liberate his people from bondage and lead them into the land he had given him. Now, here he comes after 400 odd years and does just what he said he would do. He brings his people out of bondage. He had promised this to the people through Abraham. God had never broken a promise to these people and in fact had miraculously kept his promise to bring them out of Egypt, a promise that many would have thought utterly foolish to believe. When the spies act in unbelief, they are taking all of God’s promises and all the things he has done to show his ability to keep them and they say, “He may have promised us this, but why should I risk my neck, my families neck just because he has promised us this land? The message is clear to God—you aren’t worth trusting—you just haven’t given me enough evidence for me to risk it.
We can look at this from our seats 3500 years away and stand amazed at their unbelief, but we better be careful. How many times has God called us to do something far less outside our comfort zones and we refuse because just can’t see God coming through for us. Or, even more applicable, do we worry—do we get anxious about what we wear or what we have in the bank? Worry is just unbelief expressed emotionally. In our culture and even the church culture to worry about something or someone is often seen as virtuous. It shows how much we care. If I worry about you, that means I love you. We forget that, in addition to that horizontal message worry sends, it also sends a message to God. We should call it what it really is. It’s unbelief. Husband or wife or teen-age offspring doesn’t call in when expected and can’t be reached and you haven’t heard from them in two hours and you do what the godless culture tells you to do when you really care about someone, you worry. If we were more biblically informed on this issue we would describe it this way, “Honey, I’m so glad you’re safe. I just couldn’t trust God to take care of you. He’s protected you for the last 16 years and shown himself faithful in a 1000 ways, but I just sat here and rebelled against him in unbelief because I felt I should do something—that this was MY problem to solve. I prayed but that didn’t instantly zap you here so I betrayed God’s incredible faithfulness to me and I worried about you.” That’s God’s perspective on worry, its unbelief.
Another reason God hates unbelief is because unbelief is rebellion against God because it impugns his goodness and his power. Unbelief not only communicates that God is not to be trusted because he is not faithful, it also can communicate that God is not good. We see this in this text. After the spies give their initial report, Caleb responds by telling the people that, no matter what opposition there may be (13:30), “we shall surely overcome it.” The other spies respond by cranking up their negative rhetoric a notch and in 32-33 say, "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). The spies now resort to lying and say that this land God has for them devours those who live in it. Here, they indicate that taking this land and dwelling in it would be self-destructive. The descendents of Anak mentioned earlier have grown in stature and are now “the Nephilim.” The Nephilim are mentioned in Genesis 6:4 in the narrative leading up to the flood story and were thought to have been humans who had been fathered by demons. The spies charge God with wanting to send them into a land filled with half human, half demonic, supernatural hybrids who would destroy them.
In a parallel passage in Deuteronomy one, Moses quotes what the people were saying when the spies came back. He says in verse 27, “You grumbled in your tents, “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.” We see the same sentiment in 14:2, “All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, "If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! 3Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" Here, God is pictured as a baby killer. If we do what he says, our babies will die. They would rather die in the wilderness and God judges them by their own words and grants them that wish.
They make God guilty of laying some sort of trap for them. God is made out to be a cruel, sadistic God whose goal is to destroy them. As outlandish as this seems, THIS is what the people believed. Even though Caleb’s testimony is far more consistent with what they have experienced from God, the people instead choose to believe that their God is a cruel, sadistic tyrant. Just as ridiculous is the people’s impugning not only his faithfulness and goodness, but also his power. In chapter 14, Joshua and Caleb, in one final attempt to turn back the tide of unbelief say in 14:9, “Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them." These men of faith bring the issue down to brass tacks and point out that it’s not about them and their military power, its about God and his awesome power. “God will fight with and for us—He will be there.” The faithful try to get the people to see that Yahweh, the warrior King will be with them—can anyone stand against him? The people were utterly unimpressed and unaffected by this bit of information and chose that moment to pick up stones to kill these men. Unbelief communicates to God that we think he is impotent and worse, cruel or stupid.
As heinous as these offenses were in Numbers 13-14, we do the same thing to God at some level every time we look at one of his commands or promises and refuse to act on them. Here’s just one example. The statistics tell us that only a small percentage of evangelicals tithe—give a tenth of their income to the Lord. That means either that a huge number of believers are in ignorance of what the Lord says on that subject or they are living in unbelief. For many, the response of their hearts is, “God wants me to give a tenth of my income to the LORD. If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to make my house payment.” If that is the case, its not because God wont provide—he is simply speaking to you about how you spend His money. But if you are using His money anywhere close to responsibly, to tell God that a tithe will put you into financial ruin is to impugn God’s faithfulness, his power, his goodness and his wisdom. It impugns his faithfulness and attacks his character as Jehovah Jireh, God will provide. It impugns his power by believing that he is not able to come up with the money you need. It impugns his goodness because it assumes that if you obey his commands, it will bring financial ruin and that makes Him a sadist. It attacks his wisdom because it assumes that, “You just don’t understand, God.” God just doesn’t get it somehow.
The point we must get from this text is that unbelief is not just a weak area for many of us—it’s not just a deficit on our spiritual resume. God sees it as rebellion against His character. In Deuteronomy 9:23 Moses says of this refusal to believe God, “And when the Lord sent you out from Kadesh Barnea, he said, "Go up and take possession of the land I have given you." But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You did not trust him or obey him. Unbelief reflects horribly on God and He calls us, like the Jews of old to repentance. God hates it because it causes his children to miss out on his blessing, its rooted in lies and it impugns his character. May God give us grace to see unbelief for what it is and repent of it for God’s glory.
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