THE JOURNEY OF ISRAEL: THE BOOK OF NUMBERS
A) Israel's PATH: For the last two lessons, we've been talking about the Law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai; and in doing so, we've been focusing mostly on passages of Scripture from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. But there's one book remaining that we haven't quite dealt with yet: How do we understand the book of Numbers? In short, while the other three books of Moses deal with the content of God's Law, the book of Numbers deals mostly with the journey of God's people.1
God had set His people free from slavery in Egypt. He had redeemed them. But the goal wasn't just to get them out of Egypt! That was just the beginning. The whole reason the Lord brought them out of Egypt was to bring them into the land He had promised to give them. As Moses reminded Israel in Deuteronomy 6:23, “He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers.” God had redeemed His people; but He had also promised to give them an inheritance. They had passed through the Red Sea. But one day they would also cross through the Jordan River. And as we meditate on these things, we realize that Israel's story is our story. We too, as God's people, have been redeemed. We look back to the cross as Israel looked back to their redemption from Egypt. And in the same way, we look forward to the promise of a future inheritance, just as they did. The day is coming soon when we too will cross over the Jordan.
But for Israel, there was quite a distance between the Red Sea and the Jordan River. To make it to the promised land, they had to travel through the wilderness. And it was a dangerous journey. The path that led to Canaan was full of trials and temptations. There were pitfalls lurking at every step along the way. It's the book of Numbers that covers this hazardous forty-year journey. And though Numbers may have been written about them, it's no less significant for us. Israel's story is our story: Just as they had to make it through the wilderness to arrive safely home at the promised land, so do we. Israel's time in the wilderness is meant to teach us about our sojourning as Christians in this life:2
B) Israel's POSITION: There's something that's important for us to clarify at this point. It's true that Israel's redemption from Egypt is a picture for us of the redemption we have in Christ. And it's true that Israel's inheritance in Canaan is a picture of the eternal inheritance reserved for us in glory. We see that God was pleased to teach His people eternal truths using earthly pictures in the time of the Old Testament, much as a Sunday school teacher uses arts and crafts to teach children.3 But though God was pleased to use pictures and types to teach His people eternal truths under Moses—what we need to understand is that they were still His people. When the Lord first appeared to Moses, He referred to Israel in this way: “I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10). And even with all their failings in the wilderness, the Lord continued to tell them: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord your God.” (Numbers 15:41). So then, the Lord is Israel's God and they are His people. God doesn't tell Israel that they are, in a way, like His people—but that they are His people. He doesn't tell them that He is, in many ways, like their God—but that He is their God.4
Here's the point: Some say that the people God was leading through the wilderness was just a picture of God's people. But they were more than that—they were God's people. Some say Israel was just a type of the church; but they were more—they were the church. Israel was the Old Testament people of God—but they were no less the people of God. They were God's church in the Old Testament—but they were no less the church of the living God. After all, what does it mean to be the church, but to be God's chosen people; a people among whom God dwells; a people set apart; who are blessed because they sit under the teaching of the gospel; and who confess their faith by also partaking of the sacraments God has instituted? And this is Israel. Moses tells them God had chosen them “to be a people for His own possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). God dwells in their midst (Numbers 5:3; 14:14; 35:34). Israel is “a people who dwells apart, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” (23:9). God himself tells Balaam not to curse them, “for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12); and Hebrews 4 tells us that Israel sat under the teaching of the gospel, for they had the same “good news” preached to them as we do to us (vv2,6). They even partook of the sacraments, for Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10: “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” (vv1-4).5 What we see as we read through the Scriptures is that Israel wasn't just a picture of God's people—they were God's people. It's for this reason that in Acts chapter 7, when Stephen refers to Israel in the time of Moses, he speaks of them as “the church [ekklesia ] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38; KJV). So, Israel wasn't just a type of the church—they were the church.6
C) Israel's PROBATION: So then, Israel under Moses was the church. They were God's redeemed people. Israel was the church then, just as we are now. But this is what makes Paul's words all the more shocking, when he says: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.” (1 Corinthians 10:5). They were the church, but what kind of church were they? In Numbers 14, the Lord refers to them twice as an evil congregation (vv27,35). They were witnesses of God's power; and they sat daily under His teaching. But ultimately, as Psalm 78:21 says, the great majority of them “did not believe in God and did not trust in His salvation.” In other words, they sat in the pews in the wilderness—but most of them never truly had saving faith in the Lord. They were in the covenant, but many of them were never truly of the covenant. They were the people of God on the outside, but most of them had never come to know and experience Him on the inside. And so, they all came out of Egypt. But many of them never made it to Canaan.
Scripture draws this out for us in an unmistakable way: As we read the book of Numbers, and then on through Deuteronomy and Joshua, we read of two generations: the first generation failed to enter into Canaan. The Lord refers to them as an “evil generation” (Deuteronomy 1:35); “a stubborn and rebellious generation”; “a generation that did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalm 78:8). God says: “For forty years I loathed that generation, and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways.” (Psalm 95:10). It was the second generation under Joshua that entered the land. But the first generation never made it; they fell in the wilderness.
What are the lessons for us? Paul tells us: “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were. . .Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord. . .Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.” (1 Corinthians 10:6-10). In other words: Watch yourselves, because you are no different than them. They sat in the pews, just like you do now (10:1). They partook of the sacraments, same as you (vv2-3). They heard gospel teaching (Hebrews 4:2,6) week in and week out. But it never did them any good, “because it was not united by faith in those who heard.” (Hebrews 4:2). There's a very solemn warning here for us: Being part of God's people doesn't guarantee you're destined for Canaan. Being a member in the church doesn't guarantee access to eternal glory. It's a wonderful privilege to be part of God's people, but the question for each one of us is this: Which kind of His people are you going to be? Are you going to be like the first generation of His people in the wilderness? Or will you be like the second?7
1 We could more particularly categorize the five books of the Pentateuch in this way: Genesis gives us an introduction to God's Covenant; Exodus provides us with a history of God's Redemption; Leviticus is essentially a manual for God's Worship; Numbers records for us the sojourning of God's People; and Deuteronomy contains an exposition of God's Law.
2 See Hebrews 3-4 and 1 Corinthians 10, where Israel's time in the wilderness is compared with with our present life in this world. Pink says: “[Numbers] treats of the practical side of the spiritual life, tracing the history of the believer in the world. . .It records at greater length than Exodus the history of Israel's journeyings and sojournings. It's theme then is the walk and wanderings of the believer during this life, depicting his testings and trials in the world. . .it represents the experiences we encounter in this scene of sin and suffering, our repeated and excuseless failures and God's long-sufferings. It reveals God maintaining His holy government and yet dealing in grace with His own, destroying unbelieving rebels yet preserving the faithful.” (Joshua). As the Reformation Heritage Study Bible notes: “[The Book of Numbers] is an inspired history that teaches more than simple facts; it is replete with spiritual lessons and applications.” (1 Corinthians 10). The ESV Study Bible notes: “[Numbers] deliberately sets out to record what happened on the journey from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River. It does this to instruct future generations of readers with the lessons to be learned from the wilderness experience. It is saying in effect to the reader, 'Your forefathers made many mistakes on their journey to Canaan; make sure you do not repeat them.'”
3 We've spoken about this in much more detail in earlier lessons; see Sinai Lesson 1 (V.1-7); and Sinai Lesson 2 (II.1-7).
4 Remember, this is the very essence of the Covenant of Grace. The Lord used the same language in speaking to Abraham, when He had promised him in Genesis 17:7-8: “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” So if we ask what it means exactly that the Lord was Israel's God, we must say He was their God in the same way that He was Abraham's God. Further, this is no different than what God had promised concerning the New Testament people of God (Jeremiah 32:38). What we have in the new covenant is no different than what they had in the old.
5 Notice, Paul doesn't say: They ate physical food, but now we eat the spiritual; they indeed drank physical drink, but we the spiritual. No—the food and drink they consumed was spiritual. Further, Paul clarifies for us not only that it was spiritual food and drink they partook of—but that it was the same spiritual food and spiritual drink that we partake of; namely, that of Christ. Indeed, the whole thrust of Paul's argument here to the Corinthians is: Watch yourselves—for you are no different than them. Calvin explains the passage thus: “Paul premises, that there is no such dissimilarity between us and the Israelites, as to make our condition different from theirs. . .For they were favored with the same benefits as we at this day enjoy; there was a Church of God among them, as there is at this day among us; they had the same sacraments, to be tokens to them of the grace of God; but, on their abusing their privileges, they did not escape the judgment of God. Be afraid, therefore. . .” (1 Corinthians).
6 On Acts 7:38, the Reformation Heritage Study Bible explains: “The church did not begin in chapter 2 [of Acts] but was present already in the wilderness during Israel's exodus. The Greek word translated church in the New Testament is the same as that used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the assembly or congregation of Israel.” As Calvin also says in his Institutes: “The same church existed among them [IE, the Jewish nation], but as yet in its childhood.” (2.11.2). And again: “After Christ's resurrection, the boundaries of God's Kingdom began to extend far and wide among all nations generally. . .Yet many centuries previously he had embraced the Jews with the same great mercy. And because, passing by all others, he chose this one nation in which to confine his grace for a time, he called it his own (Ex. 19:5) and his purchased (Ex. 15:16) people.” (4.16.13). And lastly: “The true church existed among the Jews and Israelites when they kept the laws of the covenant. . .They had the doctrine of truth in the law; its ministry was in the hands of priests and prophets. They were initiated into religion by the sign of circumcision; for the strengthening of their faith they were exercised in the other sacraments. There is no doubt that the titles with which the Lord honored his church applied to their society.” (4.2.7). The idea that Israel was only a type of the church is the traditional Baptist understanding (see Coxe, Covenant Theology, pp130ff).
7 A similar account to 1 Corinthians 10:6-10 of Israel's sin and God's judgments is found in Psalm 106:13-33. Paul may have had this passage in mind when he penned 1 Corinthians. We should note here that though the first generation on the whole failed to enter into Canaan because of unbelief, there were exceptions. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all died in the wilderness, and though they all had their personal failings (as all of us do), no one in their right mind would question their salvation. It doesn't seem prudent then to draw the conclusion that Caleb and Joshua were the only ones who were truly saved among that whole generation. Some or even many of them may have repented along the way. We simply don't know. The main point is that the first generation in the wilderness on the whole rejected the Lord. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:5, “with most of them God was not well-pleased. . .” This helps to interpret the passages quoted above about the first generation. As Calvin says of Hebrews 3:16-17: “the whole people were justly condemned for unbelief, when the body was torn and mutilated by the defection of the greatest part.” And again: “It may be further asked, whether Moses, and Aaron, and those like them, were included in this number? To this I answer, that the Apostle speaks of the whole community rather than of individuals.” On the other side, some might seek to limit those with whom God was displeased to those only who experienced the divine judgments of plague, fire, serpent bites, and the like. Owen distinguishes between Especial Provocations (the egregious sins in the wilderness that required special divine judgment) and General Sins (cf. Hebrews 3). And Calvin and Gill interpret (rightly, it seems) those with whom “God was not well-pleased” and thus “laid low in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5) as referring to those who experienced these kinds of special judgments, which Paul then goes on to describe in verses 6-10. So a question arises: Was God also displeased with those who died of natural death—or only with those who perished by means of direct divine judgment? We can't say for sure. What we can say is that whatever kind of death they experienced, the great majority of that first generation proved rebellious, for however they met their end, the fact remains: “with most of them God was not well-pleased.” (10:5). That's the main lesson: “Neither the blessing of the exodus from Egypt nor the privilege of hearing God's voice guaranteed the generation that died in the desert entry into God's rest in the promised land. . .Their rebellion (v16), sin (v17) and disobedience (v18; 4:6) were rooted in unbelief—they failed to cling persistently to God's promise (v19; 4:2-3) and proved by their actions that they were not truly redeemed.” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Hebrews 3:16-19).