Sermon preached on Luke Sermon preached on Numbers 14:1-38 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/09/2022 in Novato, CA.
I thought it would be fitting given that we have two ordinations scheduled for today to take a break from Luke and bring you a sermon about godly leadership in the church. Today we will have the opportunity to set apart our brother Jim Wright to the office of ruling elder and our brother Rene Tovar to the office of deacon. Those are two different offices with different job descriptions in the new covenant church. Neither of those offices are specifically addressed in this passage. But today’s passage does teach something of church leadership that would apply to all the officers in the church. It speaks to what kind of leaders we need in general. And it also speaks to how we as Christians ought to respond to all our leadership.
Let us begin then today by considering the background to this passage. The book of Numbers is in the aftermath of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery. But let’s go farther back in time than that. Remember, how God began to set apart a people holy to himself back in Genesis through the patriarch Abraham. Of all the peoples on the earth, God called out to Abraham and promised him in Genesis 12 that he would bring forth a great people through him. God also promised Abraham that he would give that people the Land of Canaan. The vision was of a special people that would live holy unto God in that Promised Land. That people would worship God and ultimately bring God’s blessings to all the world.
Yet, these promises seemed slow to be fulfilled at first. Initially, Abraham’s family was small. And while they moved to the Promised Land, the first few generations were really nothing more than sojourners and aliens in the land. So, Abraham had Isaac, who then had Jacob, who then had twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet, that’s when during a famine they ended up relocating to Egypt. After a number of generations, they then found themselves slaves of the Egyptians, forced to make bricks for them, and unable to leave and return to the land that God had promised then in Canaan. And yet, while they were there in Egypt, one of God’s promises was starting to be fulfilled. Israel had grown to be a large nation of people. Yet, as slaves in Egypt, they were not able to take possession of that land God had promised then in Canaan.
But that is when God raised up the leadership of Moses and Aaron. God used Moses and Aaron to bring Israel out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Egypt was not willing for Israel to leave, but God worked the ten plagues to bring judgment on stubborn Egypt. Finally, they let Israel go, and we call that the Exodus. But then Israel had to get from Egypt back to Promised Land. So then, the book of Exodus describes the people making their way through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai where God gave them the Ten Commandments through Moses and established his covenant with them, again through the mediation of Moses. The book of Leviticus then describes God instructing them on how they were to be worshipping him, especially through Aaron and his descendants serving as priests. Finally, we get to the book of Numbers and the people set out through the wilderness of Sinai on route to the Land of Canaan which God had promised to give his people. They finally make it all the way back to the edge of the Promised Land.
Israel then sent twelve spies to spy out the land. That is recorded in the chapter just before ours today, in Numbers 13. They spy out the land come back and give their report. They all agree that the land is a good land, a land full of milk and honey. They even bring back evidence of the bounty of the fruit of the land. But then ten of twelve spies report that the land was so well-fortified and strongly defended there would be no hope of defeating the inhabitants in order to take the land. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, give a positive report. The rest of the spies give a hopeless report. That’s how last chapter, Numbers 13, ended. That’s the context for today’s chapter starting here at verse 1 of chapter 14.
So then, with that background and historical information, let us next observe the people’s reaction to this bleak report given by the ten spies. Observe that their ultimate reaction is to turn against their leaders and to reject them. They start in verse 1 by crying all night long. They moan and wail and weep over what seems horrible to them – that they had come so far and through so much from the Exodus and then the long wilderness journey, to them come to what they think is now a dead end. And so, then in verse 2 they turn from crying to complaining. It says they grumble against Moses and Aaron. After they spend all night crying, they then turn to complain. And they are complaining, not just in general, but against their leaders. I can tell you, as a leader it is demoralizing even when just a few in the church are complaining about things. Imagine if the whole congregation is complaining against you and basically blaming you. (Moses and Aaron had much patience with the people!) Then in verse 4, we see that the congregation says that they need a new leader. They want to replace Moses and Aaron with someone else who can then lead them back to Egypt. In other words, they are literally rejecting Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership for someone else.
Then we read on and see that the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, try to talk the congregation and encourage them. While not in the same position of leadership as Moses and Aaron, they were major representatives of the people as two of the twelve spies. In fact, they would go on to become the two main leaders in the next generation of God’s people. So, these upcoming leaders plead with the people, but the congregation won’t listen to them either. In fact, in verse 10 it says the congregation is about to stone them because of what they are saying. So then, we see that the congregation is united in their fury against all their leaders, against Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb.
Recognize the circumstances for why they are upset with these four godly leaders. There were real obstacles before the people. These four leaders couldn’t change that fact, even though they were godly leaders. But the people are upset at them for something that is out of their power to change. But these godly leaders can point the people to trust God and follow him. There is an application for us here too. Generally speaking, our leaders aren’t going to be able to stop there from being obstacles and threats and challenges and difficulties in the life of the church. Our leaders can’t get rid of all the troubles that we will face. But they can and ought to point us back to God and his word and call us to keep our trust in God and to look to be faithful to follow him.
So then, this is the ultimate problem with the people here in our passage. On the surface, it looks like Israel is rejecting Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua, and Caleb. But actually, they are ultimately rejecting the LORD here. Their rejection of their human leaders represents a lack of faith and trust in God and God’s Word to them. We see their lack of faith in God at several points in this passage, but the first explicit statement is right away in verse 3. There we find what they said to Moses and Aaron when they complain against them. They say, “Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” They basically are saying that God is going to get them all killed. Well, according to conventional wisdom, the people’s analysis was sound. From a worldly assessment, they didn’t have a chance to conquer the giant and well-fortified Canaanites. But then again, from such worldly wisdom, Abraham and Sarah would have never had Isaac in Sarah’s barrenness and their old age. And worldly wisdom would also have said they would not have been able to escape from Egypt. But you see, that’s why they needed faith. But alas, they didn’t believe the LORD would give them the victory and that is why they start to call for new human leadership among them, one who could turn them back and return them to Egypt.
As I’m especially using our passage today to talk about human leadership in the church, I think it is important to see the connection here between Israel rejecting their human leaders and their rejecting God’s leadership. If their leaders had been leading them in ways that were contrary to God’s Word, then they absolutely should reject such leadership and call for new leaders. Or if their leaders were living wickedly, it would be right to call them to account. As an example, I think of how later in 1 Samuel, the wicked sons of Eli the priest are such godless leaders, and they are rightly called out for such. But that is not what is going on here.
So, when the congregation is about to stone Joshua and Caleb, the LORD intervenes. In verse 10, we see that God somehow shows forth his glory from the tabernacle so that everyone sees that and apparently doesn’t follow through with stoning them. Then we see what God says to Moses. There he says exactly this point. God says, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” You see, God had said he would give them the Promised Land. If God promised this, then God will see that it happens. God has already shown them that he has the power to do such things – think of all the plagues in Egypt he performed. The fact that the inhabitants of the land are so strong and so well fortified only highlights the need to look in faith to God to give you the victory. What is impossible with man is possible with God. If you realize that you can’t get the victory on your own, then it should make you look all the more to God to give you the victory that he promised. This was a test of their faith in God and they failed. And that’s what God says of them. They don’t believe in God. Their rejection of their leaders is really a rejection of God. Their lack of faith in their leaders is really a lack of faith in God. They reject their leaders’ words because they reject God’s Word. It’s similar to how Jesus would later warn his apostles – how the world would hate them because the world has hated him, Jesus.
So, we see then what God says of their unbelief here. Their rejection of him means they deserved judgment. God is prepared to wipe them all out and restart his redemptive plans through Moses. Yet, here their human leader again shows that he has their best interest in mind. They had grumbled against Moses. They had looked to replace Moses, yet what does Moses do when God threatens to destroy? Moses intercedes on their behalf. Moses is a more gracious man than me. I could see that if I were Moses I might to be tempted to say to God, “Go for it!” Go ahead and judge them and destroy them, I’m tired of all their complaining! But Moses graciously intercedes on their behalf that God would forgive them. And we remember today, that Moses was but a type of an even greater mediator to come, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And indeed, our Lord has graciously interceded on our behalf, for all our sins, and for all the ways we have looked at times too much like this congregation of Israel.
Trinity Presbyterian, I hope you see the point that I’m bringing to you from this text. Israel here acted here like they had a problem with their leaders, but really they had a problem with God. This passage brings the charge to not reject your leaders whom God has called when they are faithfully bringing you God’s Word. To reject them when they are doing so, is to reject God.
Now in this regard, we can see a lot of law in this passage. Here we see God’s law requires us to hear and heed his Word, even as God brings that through his ordained messengers. But we also see lots of gospel here too. Here you have a lot of both law and gospel. They broke God’s law. They deserved God’s judgment that he here threatened. But Moses as mediator appeals to the character of God. He appeals to God as a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive sin. Yet, in tension he also mentions that God will by no means clear the guilty, a tension which finds its resolution in Jesus who bore the punishment for the guilty so God could forgive them. And so, Moses as a type of Christ pleads for God’s mercy and the gospel is there in verse 20. Moses asks God to pardon them, and God replies, “I have pardoned.” Yes, there would still be consequences. God would have that generation wander in the wilderness for forty years. Yet, God would also provide for them through that time as their offspring grew up and prepared to take hold of the Promised Land by God’s mighty hand. During their forty years of wilderness wandering, God would show his power beyond conventional wisdom even in making their clothes and sandals not wear out during those forty years. Verse 38 tells us something else that didn’t wear out in that timeframe: Joshua and Caleb. In other words, God also preserves the next generation of godly leadership among them. God wanted his people to have godly human leadership. God continued to lead that next generation through such leadership. God did this so he could ultimately fulfill all those promises that he gave his people, including bringing them into that earthly Promised Land despite what worldly wisdom said. And so, there is so much gospel in this passage.
In conclusion, our passage gives us some helpful reminders of what godly leadership in the church should look like and how we ought to respond to it. Elders and deacons have different job descriptions, but they have this same general requirement of what we see of the leadership in this passage. They are to be serving on behalf of God. Whether it be elder duties, or deacon duties, or pastoral duties, the officers of the church are not ultimately to be about their own personal agendas, but about God’s agenda. They are to serve at God’s pleasure.
So then, as they are faithful to do that, we God’s people need to joyfully receive their leadership. Our submission to their leadership in the various scopes of their authority is a function of our faith in God. As a pastor brings us God’s word in the sermon, we are believing God when we believe what the pastor preached. When an elder shepherds us by calling us back to how God’s word says we should be living, we are believing God when we heed such admonition. When a deacon leads us in Christian service in calling us to love our neighbor in the ways God has told us to, we are believing God when we so love one another in action.
This passage has reminded us that God’s people don’t always follow the church leadership the way they should. Other passages in the Bible can show that church leaders also don’t always lead the way they should. But our passage also reminds us of the grace of God in our weakness. In our failings, may we be quick to repent and turn afresh our eyes back upon our LORD. For while humans will falter, this passage reminds us that God will always and ultimately keep all his promises.
That promise includes bringing us into an ultimate Promised Land in the age to come. God preserved Joshua and Caleb to bring Israel to an earthly Promised Land. And God has raised up Jesus as the ultimate Joshua and Caleb to bring us into an eternal Promised Land. And Jesus has seen fit to raise up Jim and Rene to help us on the way to that Promised Land. May God keep them faithful in their service and may God keep us faithful to follow their leadership in the Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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