Lessons From Numbers

No, this is not about some counting quiz, or fun things we can get from math. It is about some spiritual lessons and truths derived from the Old Testament book of Numbers, a book I have just again gone through in my daily readings. There are all sorts of great principles, lessons and insights to be gleaned from this book, so here I offer just a few of them.

At the close of the book we find yet more instructions on entering into Canaan. Of course the promise of inheriting the land goes all the way back to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-7, etc.). Well over 400 years had lapsed since those initial promises, and Israel was now on the verge of finally going in.

As they were told so often, they had to make sure they did not pollute themselves with all the idolatry and pagan religious practices. Thus it all had to be wiped out as they took possession of the land. In Numbers 33:50-52, 55-56 we see the Lord spell this out quite clearly to the Israelites:

“On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places…. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them”.’”

There was to be no compromise here; no half-hearted measures. The evils of idolatrous religion were so great that the Israelites must completely obliterate such practices and institutions. If they did not, they would succumb to these pagan beliefs and actions, undermining their very reason for being there.

As R. Dennis Cole comments, “Pluralism in the form of peaceful coexistence with idolatry would be impossible, both for the well-being of the people and the sanctity of the land Yahweh had given as a gift to the people. That gift was to be purified by the expurgation of idolatry and by remaining pure and holy before the Lord. Otherwise those various forms and accompanying practices would ensnare Israel and turn their hearts from God.”

Failure to do so would mean these things would become splinters in their eyes and thorns in their sides. As Timothy Ashley says, “As the splinter or thorn is small but sharp and can cause more than discomfort, including infection and (in the eyes) blindness, so even a small remnant of Canaanites will cause great problems in Israel’s future.”

And that of course is tragically just what happened. Because the Israelites refused to obey orders here, and allowed Canaanite religion and idolatry to remain, they eventually infected the entire nation. Israel ended up just as immoral, idolatrous and disobedient as these pagans were, and therefore God had to use the Assyrians and Babylonians to drive them out of the land – just what Israel was meant to do to the Canaanites.

The spiritual lessons for us today are clear. Whether as individuals or corporately, we are not to make alliances with false religions, and we are to be ruthless in driving out of our lives and our churches anything which will ensnare us, drag us down, cause us to stumble, and turn us away from our Lord.

As churches we must resist the temptations to just get along with everyone, to compromise our beliefs and practices, and to be “tolerant”. Many folks for example are pushing Christians to get involved in things like interfaith dialogue. While there is a place for discussion and debate, most efforts at such dialogue are all one-way traffic, with non-Christian groups exploiting the churches for their own ends. But I discuss this more fully elsewhere in the articles found here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/category/interfaith-dialogue/

And individual believers have a million temptations here. They think they can still dabble with sin; hang on to a few idols in their lives; play fast and loose with holiness; compromise a bit here and there; and so on. Sorry, it just does not work that way. If we think we can mess around with a “little” sin and not be negatively impacted, we are only fooling ourselves.

Indeed, how did all the big church scandals we far too often hear about begin? By allowing a little temptation here, a little sin there, a little compromise all over the place. Christians who got caught out big time in sexual sin or some other public scandal all started out by allowing little compromises, by playing with sin, by thinking things would not escalate. But of course they always do.

Another key truth found in this passage of Scripture comes from verse 53: “Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” This is an oft-repeated theme in the Old Testament: Yahweh has given the land to Israel as a gift, yet they are to go and take possession of it. See for example Deuteronomy 1:8; Joshua 1:9-11, 15 and so on.

There is no need to argue, “Which is it?” It is both. God freely gives it, but he commands his people to go in, exert some effort, and take it. If God had not first given it to Israel, they certainly could not possess it in their own strength. But if Israel had not obeyed God and sought to possess the land, they also would not have received it.

As always in the life of the believer, it is a cooperative effort. God does his bit, but we are to do our bit. In New Testament theology we speak of the indicative and the imperative. That is, God says something is true about us or for us, but he commands us to ensure that it transpires.

In other words, ‘God has done this, therefore you should do that’. For example, God says we are dead to sin, but then he orders us to die to sin. Or again, God says we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, yet he then commands us to clothe ourselves. So we keep getting the indicative (what God has done for us) followed by the imperative (what we must therefore do). But I discuss this more fully here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/08/the-indicativeimperative-and-the-christian-life/

In one sense God has given us all we need as believers to be faithful, growing and fruitful followers of his. But on the other hand there are thousands of commands and imperatives in Scripture. We must do our part in loving obedience. If not, there will be no growth and no movement in our lives – only stagnation or worse.

One other quick lesson, related to the previous one. Earlier on in Numbers we find this passage: “When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, ‘Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.’ (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.) So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath” (13:17-21).

This is rather interesting for various reasons. Even though God had promised to give them the land, the Israelites still had much work to do, including checking it out first, and seeing just what lies ahead of them. How strong are they? How well fortified are their cities? How productive is the land? All practical information needed before Israel enters the land.

Thinking in terms of Christian missions today, and all this is quite sensible. If you believe God is calling you to be a missionary in Japan for example, any prudent believer will take time to reconnoitre the land. That is, they will certainly learn the language, and also seek to learn about the culture, the social mores and values, the history, and so on, so that they might better reach the Japanese for the Gospel. That is all just common sense.

In the same way, if Western believers want to effectively reach their own culture, they need to be culturally literate. They need to know if there are any giants in the land, what sort they are, and how they can be overcome. We need to be students of our own culture, learning about the strongholds and impediments to reaching a nation for Christ.

And it is the same in the individual Christian life. We need to learn what the strongholds are in our own lives. What are the unconquered territories? What are the areas not under God’s control? What parts of us are not being fruitful? What areas of our lives have we not fully surrendered to the Lord?

This is just basic spiritual housekeeping. Taking such a spiritual inventory of our lives is a normal and ongoing part of growth in Christ. We need to know the lie of our own land – the condition of our heart, the nature of our faith, and so on.

No progress and growth can happen if we do not take such regular investigations of the state of our own soul. And it is the same on the church level. We must check out where we are at as a church, what the hurdles are, what the retardants to growth are, etc.

These are just a few of the many spiritual lessons and truths which can be derived from the book of Numbers in particular and the Old Testament in general. If you are not reading your OT, you are missing out big time. Why not start today?

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