Learning from the 12 spies:
It has always been the case that some of God’s people are full of faith and courage, while others are full of fear and cowardice. That is one major dividing line we always find. It was true in the Old Testament, and it has been true throughout Christian history.
Having just read another OT account of this very thing, it is worth penning a whole piece on this. But before I look at the passage, let me remind you of what the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:6: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” He had been referring to a story found in Numbers 20.
The point is, we need to learn from the OT. Yet too many Christians never even read it, depriving themselves of God’s important truths. So here I will look at another story found in the book of Numbers, and also implore you to learn the lessons thereof.
Numbers 13 tells us the famous story of how the 12 Israelite spies went into the land of Canaan to check it out. The context is this: Yahweh had miraculously delivered his people from Egypt, and sustained them in the wilderness. Now they were on their way to entering Canaan.
So the Lord commissioned a small task force to check out the land. As you recall, after the scouts’ 40-day spy mission, they came back to report. Only 2 of the 12 – Joshua and Caleb – gave a positive report, while the other 10 said that taking the land could not be done. As we read in verses 25-33:
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”
And in chapter 14 we see how the people, after hearing the negative report, once again complained and rebelled against Moses, Aaron and the Lord, saying they preferred to go back to Egypt. This again angered the Lord who tired of their constant unbelief and rebellion. As he said to Moses (Num. 14:12): “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
But Moses strongly interceded for the people, so God spared them of this immediate judgement, but he did say that only the fearless two would make it into the promised land, while all the others who had been in Egypt would perish in the wilderness. Some 38 years elapsed until all the males over 20 years old that came out of Egypt died (Num. 14:20-36).
The spiritual lessons for us today should be obvious. Which camp do we align ourselves with? As Num. 13:30-31 makes clear, there are just two options here: “But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are’.”
Is it faith or fear? Is it courage or cowardice? Perhaps this is especially relevant right now. It seems the past two years have made this division even much starker and clearer. So many Christians are living in total fear. They seldom leave home. They certainly are not going to church. They have fully bought the ‘bad report’ that the media and most of our leaders are dishing up on a daily basis.
And how many church leaders have done exactly the same? How many are excluding people who have vax hesitancy and/or good reasons for not getting jabbed? So many pastors are excluding these people from worshipping the Living God. They have let fear and panic over a virus – along with blind obedience to the Secular State – take precedence over being true shepherds of God’s people.
Examples of this are endless. One megachurch in Perth for example told its people that they “will require anyone over the age of 16 to show proof of vaccination/authorised medical exemption in order to be in the auditorium. This is in addition to the COVID protocols already in place (social distancing, face masks, hand sanitising…).”
Hmm, is Mark McGowan the Lord and Saviour at this church, or Jesus Christ? Taking some sensible health steps is one thing, but treating the unjabbed as lepers to be shunned and discriminated against is quite another. So much for showing the world what real Christianity is all about!
But let me offer a bit of reflection on this OT episode. Many commentators could be run with here, but let me utilise just one. In his 2006 expository commentary Iain Duguid has much worthwhile truth to share with us. He says this:
The goal of their mission was not to decide whether entering the land was possible or desirable: the Lord had already reminded Israel that this was the land He was giving to them (13:1). All they had to do was receive it as a gift. Nonetheless, any major military undertaking requires good intelligence so that the best strategy can be evaluated. God’s promise did not eliminate the need for responsible action….
Like many committees, they couldn’t reach a consensus and so returned with a majority and a minority report. The facts were not at issue between the two sides. Everyone agreed, on the one hand, that the land was fertile and prosperous and, on the other, that its inhabitants were a powerful force to be reckoned with. The key difference between the majority and the minority was where to put the “but” in their report. For the ten-man majority, the defining “but” was the people who inhabited the land….
There was a minority report to be considered as well, however. Joshua and Caleb saw exactly the same sights as the other ten did but drew different conclusions. Caleb blurted out the summary conclusion of their assessment: “We should definitely go up and take possession of the land, for we are certainly able to do so” (13:30). Joshua gave the expanded version of their report in chapter 14. He started out with the basic facts: the land they surveyed was not merely good but “exceedingly good” (14:7). He didn’t contest the powerful nature of the inhabitants of the land; yet the defining “but” in his report was not the size of the opposition but the presence or absence of God’s favor. If the Lord was pleased with them, He would lead them into the land and give it to them (14:8). Far from the Israelites being at risk, of being turned into shrimp cocktail by the Anakites, it was the inhabitants of the land who were on the menu: they would be food (lehem) for the Israelites to consume (14:9). Their gods could not protect them against the Lord; their shelter was gone (14:9). So long as the Israelites did not rebel against the Lord, they had nothing to fear from the inhabitants of the land.
Why the Difference?
How could these two groups come up with such different assessments of the same facts? The answer is not hard to find. The majority completely left God out of the equation. . . . Joshua and Caleb, however, looked at precisely the same facts but from the perspective of faith, not unbelief.
As to contemporary application, it is not just our response to a virus that arises. All sorts of things seem to us to be ‘giants in the land’. As Duguid states:
If we simply consider the obstacles that face our churches or the difficulties that we face as individuals, it is easy to conclude that we are overmatched and must inevitably fall short and fail. Humanly speaking, that may be an accurate assessment of reality. We have all sometimes felt like grasshoppers surrounded by giants on all sides. Our lives are full of impossible challenges, humanly speaking. Do you or I have the power within us to bring our neighbor to faith in Christ or to persevere in a difficult relationship at home or at work or to conquer a personal besetting sin? Humanly speaking, none of us do.
However, the eye of faith recognizes that in this world, reality is not accurately measured whenever we are “humanly speaking.” This is God’s world, in which His Word and His promises must ultimately prevail. No matter how great the opposition, if the Lord is pleased with us, our future is assured.
Exactly right. We all need to renounce fear and embrace faith. We are to be courageous Christians, not cowardly ones.