Well, we’re in the book of Numbers, many of us, in our daily Bible reading. Raise your hand if the book of Numbers is your favorite book in the Bible. Anybody? That’s what I expected. It’s not a very popular book.
Strange title for a book. But it’s not the Hebrew title. It’s not what the Jews call it. They call it Bamidbar, which comes from the first line of the text and means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” I think that title better sums up the contents of the book. It’s about the nation of Israel in the wilderness between being freed from slavery in Egypt and entering the land of Canaan that God promised to give them. We call it Numbers because back in the 4th-2nd century B.C. when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek they gave the book a new title in Greek. They called it Arithmoi, which means numbers. I suppose it was called that because it begins and ends with numbers, with 2 census. What’s the plural of census? Censi? Censuses? We’ll say censuses. There’s a census in the first chapter and then another in chapter 26 toward the end. Each census was a counting of the men of Israel at least 20 years of age who were fighting fit. The purpose of the censuses I think was military reasons and also to see how much land each tribe would be allotted when they conquered the land of Canaan (26:52-54). The larger the tribe, the more land they’d be given. The total number counted in both censuses is very close to the same, around 600,000 able bodied men (1:46; 26:51). That’s why we believe this nation was over 2 million. If you add in the women and kids under 20 and those men not able bodied enough for war, you come up with at least 2 million. But the censuses at the beginning and the end were taken close to 40 years apart, and the 600,000 counted at the end of the book are totally different from the 600,000 at the beginning, except for 2 individuals, a man named Joshua and a man named Caleb (Num 26:63-65). Aside from those 2, the 600,000 counted in the beginning die out in the wilderness south and east of the land of Canaan within 40 years. The 2nd counting is of a whole new generation.
It’s a very sad book, because that first generation had the opportunity to not have to spend the rest of their lives in a dry miserable wilderness just eating manna. In the 1st 3rd of the book God bought the nation right up to the southern edge of the good land of Canaan that He’d promised to give them. In just a matter of weeks, maybe even days, they could have been in that good land, wiping out the evil nations that God wanted removed from His earth, eating grain and fruits and milk and honey instead manna. Greatness and blessing and prosperity were right there before them for the taking. But they failed to take it. When the spies they’d sent in came back and said, “The people of the land are bigger than us and their cities heavily fortified,” the Israelites rebelled from following the Lord into that land and going to war with those nations. And this generation had been so displeasing to God ever since He brought them out of Egypt that God didn’t give them another opportunity to take that land. He sentenced that generation to spend the rest of their lives in this desert that they hated and had been grumbling about ever since they left Egypt. And a new generation that grows up in the wilderness will be the one that He brings into the promised land. And then the book of Numbers describes how in the wilderness they just continued to be rebellious and disobedient and provoke the Lord to anger and brought upon themselves an infestation of deadly snakes and multiple plagues. No wonder it’s nobody’s favorite book of the Bible.
But it is one of the most needed books. Over and over again the Bible refers back to the events recorded in the book of Numbers. The New Testament often even calls our attention to things that happened in this book. As Paul said in I Corinthians 10, “These things happened as examples for us. They were written for our instruction.”
The book of Numbers brings out that there was really one root problem with that generation of Israelites. It wasn’t their constant grumbling. It wasn’t their lapses into idolatry and immorality. It wasn’t their refusal to follow their God into the promised land and take on the Canaanites. It wasn’t their other acts of disobedience. Those were all symptoms a deeper sin in their hearts. It was their refusal to trust God, their stubborn unbelief in the things God said to them. It was due to the unbelief in their hearts that they constantly grumbled and rebelled and disobeyed.
Israel’s Unbelief Problem in Numbers 14
Let’s read a little in Numbers 14. The nation is camped at Kadesh, just south of the land God promised to give to this nation. The spies they’d sent in forty days earlier have returned. They’ve said, “Sure enough it’s a good fertile land like God said it would be.” But 10 of the 12 said, “But the people of the land are too big and strong for us to fight. Their cities are too well fortified for us to conquer.” So 14:1, “Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. 2 All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” 5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel. 6 Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; 7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us — a land which flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Then the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel. 11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?”
See that’s the fundamental problem. They would not believe in God. That doesn’t mean they would not believe that God exists. There was not a doubt in the mind of these people that a divine being was with them. I mean they’d been witnessing undeniable acts of a supernatural power since they were in Egypt. They’d heard His voice at Mt. Sinai. The cloud of His presence was leading them. They knew God exists. But they would not believe in Him in the sense that they would not trust Him. They would not embrace the things that God said to them as being reality. And notice again in v11, “How long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” Over and over again God had proven Himself that He was one their side, that He cared for them, that He was going to be faithful to His promises, that He really was intent on settling them in the land of Canaan and that He was fully capable of doing that. He freed them from Egypt with those plagues that made it clear that He rules heaven and earth. He parted the Sea so they could cross through on dry land. He drowned the pursuing army of Pharaoh. When they were thirsty, He provided them water miraculously. When they were hungry, He provided them food miraculously. When other nations attacked them, He enabled them to defeat them. He’d been taking care of them and sustaining them in this wilderness in which nobody would think a nation could survive. And God even bound Himself to them in a covenant. He made a deal with them sealed in blood that He would bless them and they would have the land and be prosperous if they will obey His voice. That’s why their unbelief was so infuriating to God. It’s because God had given them more than enough evidence to confirm that He should be trusted.
And let’s read just a little more here in Numbers 14, beginning at v26, “The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 27 “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will surely do to you; 29 your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. 30 Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey — I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you will know My opposition. 35 I, the Lord, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die.’”
Now, I’ve never been real good with “numbers” (in more than one sense). So I’m going to use someone else’s sermon this morning. It’s a very old sermon and there’s no copyright on it. It’s public domain. And it’s one of the greatest sermons ever written. And you have a copy of it. It’s called the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. There’s a portion of Hebrews in chapters 3-4 that is about a big lesson that God wants us to learn from those ancient Israelites in the wilderness and His dealings with them.
Hebrews 3:7, “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says…”
And then he quotes here from a Psalm, from the end of Psalm 95. And he says that through this Psalm the Holy Spirit is speaking present tense. Did you know when you open your Bible and read it or hear it read, the Spirit of God is speaking to you? It’s as the writer will say in 4:12, “the word of God is living and active.” These are not just words that God spoke a long long time ago, but are now dead and past and irrelevant to us. No, through these words God speaks to you and me today. The Hebrew writer wants us to feel that when we read this quotation from Psalm 95, that we are hearing our Creator speaking to us today. Are you ready to hear something God has to say to you? Here it is.
Thus says the Lord to you and me right now, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, As in the day of trial in the wilderness, Whether your fathers tried Me by testing Me, And saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they did not know My ways’; As I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
God is warning us through the Psalm not to do as that generation did that died in the wilderness in the book of Numbers.
Like often happens in sermons the Hebrew writer quotes that passage of Scripture and then he explains it and applies it and urges us to do what it calls us to do.
3:12, “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.“
He’s saying unbelief was their problem, as we saw in the book of Numbers, and we must make sure it is not our problem. And like unbelief for those ancient Israelites was evil in the sight of God, unbelief for us Christians in God and in the one He has sent for us and the gospel is also evil in His sight, because whenever God calls us to believe something He always gives sufficient evidence to make believing it more reasonable than not believing it.
Some people say that faith in God and the gospel is like a blind leap in the dark. Some people define faith as the acceptance of ideas for which there is no evidence. Mark Twain has been quoted as saying that “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” An atheist named Sam Harris said, “Faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence.” But I know that ain’t so. That’s nonsense. If that was the case unbelief would not be evil. Unbelief would be reasonable. Unbelief is evil because God has given sufficient evidence to make belief the most reasonable option.
Which is more reasonable to believe, in the beginning was nothing and it exploded, or in the beginning God created the heavens and earth?
Life spontaneously generated from dead chemicals and that first life also managed to survive and just so happened to also be able to reproduce and then eventually came all the different complex organisms living today, or life was a gift from an eternal intelligent living creator?
This earth, positioned just the right distance from a sun (a sun that just happens to be just the right size), and tilted just right and spinning just right and orbiting at just the right speed, with just the right atmosphere, just the right amount of water, and just right a thousand other factors necessary to sustain life was a lucky product of an explosion, or was designed?
How do you explain those OT Scriptures written way before Jesus was born that consistently from beginning to end paint a picture of an individual to come in the time of the fourth world kingdom from Babylon, in the days of the Roman Empire, a descendant of David, born in Bethlehem, have no appearance that we should be attracted to him, but righteous, blameless, pure, and He will suffer horribly and die as a guilt offering for the sins of others and be raised and be great to the ends of the earth, and people of all nations and tribes and languages will serve him, and he will be called by terms like “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Eternal Father, Prince of Peace,” and many other things they describe about this great King and Savior to come? Why would they come up with all that in the first place? And then how is it that at just the right time and the right place and of the right lineage this man Jesus comes and He fits the prophetic description perfectly?
How do you explain the empty tomb? And how do you explain the conviction of His apostles and the other supposed eyewitnesses to the point of giving up their lives? I mean if they didn’t actually see Him alive from the dead, if they knew that was a lie, why would they make themselves hated and suffer and die preach to the world that He lives?
Look at the greatness of His teaching, how much sense it makes out of this world and our lives and how beautifully it transforms people. Look at the impact this man Jesus from 2,000 years ago has had on the world. And for many other reasons God has made belief the most reasonable option.
But faith is a matter of the will. It is a choice. What we human beings believe is to a certain extent what we want to believe. What we believe can be effected by what we want to be true and what we don’t want to be true. There may be times when the evidence ought to lead us to believe something, when the evidence says it is more reasonable to believe this than to not believe it, but we still won’t believe it, because we don’t like the implications of that particular piece of knowledge. And so we push it aside or, as Romans 1:18 says, we suppress the truth and pretend that it’s not true.
I think those ancient Israelites who came out of Egypt would not believe in who God really is because they didn’t really want God to be like He really is. They didn’t really want a God who is so holy and righteous and who calls them to live holy and righteous lives, very different from the way people were living around them, and a God who sees and hears and knows everything, and a God who holds them accountable for the way they live, and a God who is so worthy of our submission and the surrendering of our lives to Him. I think they wanted a less holy, smaller god like the nations around them had who lets them live however they want. They had a bias against God. That’s why they wouldn’t believe in Him.
Jesus said in John 7:17, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” In other words He’s saying what determines whether you see that His teaching is truth from God or not has to do with your willingness to do God’s will, your willingness to humble yourself, to submit to Him and follow His ways in your life. So “Take care, brethren,” he says, “that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God,” like was in those Israelites.
3:13 says, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Psalm 95 says, “Today if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts…” So as long as it’s still called “Today” it’s the most important thing in the world that we trust God and the one He has sent for us. And he’s says we can help each other to do that. We can encourage each other to trust God. We can do like Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Caleb were trying to do for the Israelites. They tried to get them to quit focusing on how big their enemies are and how fortified their cities are, and look at how powerful God is and look at all the reasons we have to trust Him and look at how blessed we will be if we follow Him. He exhorts us here to try to do that for each other. Let’s be in each other’s lives and not just talk about our jobs and sports and the weather all the time, but let’s talk with each other about what really matters, trusting God. And let’s make sure that none of us buy into the deceitfulness of sin, he says. I think the deceitfulness of sin is the lie that many people accept that we’ll be happier and better off doing things our way instead of God’s way. Let’s watch out for each other and if we see a brother or sister who seems to be thinking in that direction let’s not just let them go. Let’s reason with them.
3:14a, “For we have become partakers of Christ…”
That could be we are partakers of what Christ has made available to us, or we are partakers with Christ. Either way amounts to the same thing. What Christ has made available to us, the promised land, the world to come, glory and eternal life, we will partake of with Christ.
3:14b-15, “if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, 15 while it is said, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS, AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME.”
The Israelites in the beginning of their following God out of Egypt came to believe. Exodus 14:31, when God parted the sea for them and brought the waters crashing down on Pharaoh’s army, it says, “When Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” And so they came to an assurance that God was going to keep His word to them. But as soon as things happened that seemed maybe contrary to the idea that God was on their side and that He cares for them and that He’s going to fulfill His promises, as soon as they were thirsty and there was no water around, as soon as they were hungry and there was no food around, as soon as their enemies were bigger than them, that faith faded away. They didn’t hold fast the beginning of their assurance firm until the end. So they were not able to partake of the promised land. And the Hebrew writer says let’s not be like them. When we suffer, when things happen that we don’t understand, when we’re confronted with questions about God and His word that we can’t answer, let’s not lose sight of all the reasons for which we know God is and God loves us and God will keep His word to us. Hold fast your assurance to the end.
3:16, “For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?“
Think about that. All those who came out of Egypt, or pretty much all of them, only 2 out of 2 million held on to their faith. 2 million of them let go of their faith whenever they found what they thought might be a reason to not believe. And yet even though pretty much everybody was unbelieving, God didn’t excuse it. God’s judgment is not affected by how many are in the wrong.
3:17-19, “And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.“
There is a very important principle illustrated here about faith. And that is that we behave according to what we believe. Our actions reflect what we believe. Notice the last verse again, “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” How do we see that? By what they did. Their sin and disobedience and refusal to follow God showed that they didn’t trust Him, that they didn’t trust His promises or His threats. God said you follow Me this way and all these good things are going to happen for you, but if you go that way all these bad things are going to happen to you, and the fact that they went the way God told them not to go and not the way God told them to go, shows that they didn’t trust Him.
We behave as we believe. It’s a common sense observation. If I’m sick and I want to get well, and you come to me and say “Hey, I’ve got this great medicine that I’ve found. It will cure you. I promise.” And I may say “Oh great. I’m sure it will. Thank you.” But then if I don’t actually take the medicine, if I toss it in the trash when I get home, then clearly I didn’t really believe you. If you go out for lunch this afternoon and you order a coke and it’s brought to your table and somebody says to you, “I wouldn’t drink that if I were you. I saw the guy in the back blow his nose in it.” Well, whether you drink it or not reveals whether you believe him. We behave as we believe. The Bible understands that if you believe God, not just in His existence and some facts about Him, but if you trust Him, then you will do the things that He tells you you need to do in your life. Belief and obedience always go hand in hand together all through the Bible.
There is confusion whenever a Bible reader doesn’t understand that. People read John 3:16 that wonderful verse, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” And then they read something like Hebrews 5:9, “having been made perfect, He [Jesus] became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” Or Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” And they think, “Now wait a minute. John 3:16 says all those who believe in Jesus will be saved, but Hebrews 5:9 and others say it is those who obey Jesus who will be saved. Well, which is it? If you believe in Jesus will you be saved? Or do you have to obey Jesus to be saved?” The answer is “Yes!” “Believe in Jesus” is like “believe in God” in Numbers 14:11 and Exodus 14:31. It’s not just to believe that He exists. It’s not even to believe a lot of facts about Him. It is to trust Him. Think of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says very plainly “If your righteousness, if your obedience to the will of God, is like that of the Scribes and the Pharisees you’re not going to make it into the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20). If you’re somebody who hold grudges against people or if you have a practice of being dishonest or if money is the priority in your life, you’re on the wide road with most people headed to destruction. But if you follow Me in being different, in being forgiving and honest and unselfish with your money and these other things, that’s the narrow path that leads to eternal life.” That’s what Jesus says. Do you believe in Jesus? Your life will answer that. If you trust Jesus you will follow Him in the way He says you need to live.
The Hebrew writer keeps going in chapter 4, but we’ll save that for another time.
God has brought us to the edge of the promised land, to the edge of rest from our journey, rest from our enemies, rest from the difficulties of this wilderness we’re in. Very soon we can be in the promised land. This life is like a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Very soon we can enter our rest in the promised land, if we will just trust God and follow Him. So God appeals to you and me today. He’s saying to us, “Do not harden your hearts like they did in the day of trial in the wilderness.”
– James Williams