January 3, 2007
“With God In the Wilderness: Introduction”
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to the Book of Numbers. I would encourage you to bring your Bibles, though. I hope that over the course of our studies of the Book of Numbers you’ll get a good foundation, a good grasp, of this whole book, and that you’ll want to make notes along in your own Bible as we work through the book. Later on this evening I'm going to hand out a rough outline of where we're going in this book as a whole, as well as an overview outline of the larger book. But we’ll hand that out later in this evening.
Here is a book, the fourth book of the Old Testament in terms of its literary order; the fourth book of the Old Testament in terms of the chronological order of the story of God in the days of Israel…36 chapters, 1,288 verses. And you may be scratching your head…why in the world Numbers? Well, I'm going to try and make a case for that to you tonight.
Let's read God's word, and before we do let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We ask that You would speak to us wonderful things from Your Law, that we would respond in faith, that we would respond in delight, and to your glory. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies. With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father's household.’”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word.
When was the last time that you studied the Book of Numbers? Maybe some of you work through Bible reading programs from time to time; when was the last time you read through the Book of Numbers? It's probably not one of those books that's up in your “Top Ten Bible Books” favorites list, but it's a great book.
You say to me, “But it's got a lot of funny names.” Yes, it does.
“And it's got a lot of lists of funny names.” Yes, it does.
“And it's filled with history, and I don't like history!” But I do!
“And it's got a lot of laws in it, and it's about something that's way, way out of date and not relevant to me today. It surely was relevant to the children of Israel in the time of the wilderness wandering, but what does it have to say to me today?”
And my response to that is to ask you–and this is another good reason to keep your Bibles with you on Wednesday nights–to turn with me to Paul's letter to the Corinthians, his first letter to the Corinthians, because what the Apostle Paul tells us in I Corinthians 10 is that the Book of Numbers was written for you as Christians today. Don't believe me? Well, let's read
I Corinthians 10:1-13:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and 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. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.”
Now you need to understand that the Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers…you've caught as we read in the English why we call this book the Book of Numbers…because of that verse in which God instructs Moses and Aaron to take a census. That's where we get the name Numbers for this book. They were to number Israel. But the Hebrew name for this book was In the Wilderness. So Paul is getting ready to apply to you what happened in the wilderness. Notice what he says: “They were laid low in the wilderness.” Now what is his next word?
“Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.’ Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Did you hear the Apostle Paul give you a quick outline of the Book of Numbers there? And then what does he say? 'These things happened and were written down for you.’ Now that ought to considerably change our approach to this Book of Numbers. Far from being musty, dusty, irrelevant Hebrew history, this is a book for today, for Christians, for our times, for our lives. I even like the name of the book: In the Wilderness. That's where sanctification happens–in the wilderness. Did then, does now. If you’re in the wilderness, this book's for you.
I want you to notice four things that the Apostle Paul tells us specifically about the Book of Numbers in I Corinthians 10.
1. First of all, notice he says in verse 6 that these things that happened in the story of the children of Israel in the wilderness recorded in the Book of Numbers happened so that we would not crave evil things as they craved evil things. So the Apostle Paul is telling you that the history of Numbers is in part a negative example to us, designed to keep us from doing the wrong things that they did in the course of their lives, in the course of our own Christian lives.
2. Secondly, if you look at verses 11, the Apostle Paul tells us that these things actually happened as an example for us. That's extraordinary, isn't it? He doesn't just say that they were written down for an example for us, but that they happened for an example for us. In other words, this book is not a Christian book secondarily and a Hebrew history book primarily, from which we can get some implicit second-hand, indirect applications for our life. No. These things actually happened as an example for us. In this the Apostle Paul is telling you that the history of Israel in the wilderness is an example to you as believers. There is something that you are supposed to learn as a Christian from the history of Israel in the wilderness.
3. Thirdly, notice in verses 9 and 10 that the Apostle Paul explicitly warns us against trying the Lord, and then he mentions the incident of the serpents and the bronze serpent, and he warns us against grumbling against the Lord. And so he draws yet another deduction: we're not only not to crave the wrong things that they craved; we're not only to recognize that their history is an example to us; but, thirdly, we are not to put the Lord to test or to grumble like the Israelites did.
It's very interesting. One of the themes that we're going to see through the Book of Numbers is when Israel fails, it typically fails in two areas. It either fails in faith or in practice. It either fails in trust or in obedience. And what's the song we sing? “Trust and Obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Numbers is the living, breathing, walking, talking, poster child that proves that that song is true, because it shows you what happens every time Israel fails to trust and obey. And that's what the Apostle Paul is saying in verses 9 and 10 of I Corinthians’ 10.
4. Fourthly, the Apostle Paul tells you that this book is about Jesus. He mentioned that at the very beginning of the chapter, didn't he, when he spoke about them “…drinking from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ.” In other words, he's telling you that there are evidences of Christ in this story. We will see that those things are not peripheral to this book, but in fact central to understanding this book.
For all those reasons, the Apostle Paul is commending to you the story of Numbers. Now, if that's not enough for you, let me pile on two more reasons why this book ought to be of great, great interest to you.
First of all, this book is summarized in one of your favorite hymns. Anybody here tonight know a famous Welsh hymn that tells the story of the Book of Numbers? And Derek can't answer! Anybody want to guess? Anybody want to guess? Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. It's the story of Numbers. We’ll sing that hymn some during the course of our study through this book. William Williams was called ‘the Isaac Watts of Wales’, who wrote that hymn, and you’ll see how beautifully he captures the story of Numbers in that hymn and applies it for you as a believer. I hope we’ll take that in, in the course of our study of this book. So there's another good reason to love the study of this book.
But yet one more reason is simply this: the stories in this book are great! Even if you don't like history, the stories in this book are great, and they’re not the stories that you've heard over and over and over again in your Bible classes and Sunday School classes, because, sadly, we neglect so many of the stories of the Book of Numbers. But you’ll recall hearing these stories if you grew up under the teaching of God's word, and you’ll delight in remembering things that you thought you never learned in the first place, and in being introduced to things that you’d missed the first time through, and being reintroduced to stories that you’d completely forgotten. Oh, it's a book of great stories, and even the laws–I promise you!–will make sense, once you understand the stories, because the laws in the book are connected to the stories in the book.
You know, one thing you learn about Moses in the Book of Numbers is that he could flat tell a story! And he knew what he was doing. Yes, he was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but he had a plan when he was laying out this book. This is a great book, a practical book, a helpful book for you and me to study over the months to come.
5. Now let me say a few things about what unifies this Book of Numbers. The first thing that unifies the Book of Numbers is God. God–who He is; what He is like–is one of the four or five major themes of the Book of Numbers.
You know, not too long ago I read a relatively modern theologian who said: “You can either believe that God is strictly just or that He's mercifully forgiving. I choose to believe that He is mercifully forgiving.” Well, my friends, he's just made a choice that the Bible just won't let you make, because the Bible says that God is strictly just and He is mercifully forgiving. And if you ever wanted a book that demonstrated that truth, it is the Book of Numbers, because we will behold in the Book of Numbers both the kindness and the severity of God.
J. Sidlow Baxter, the great preacher, in fact said that was the great theme. He took those words out of the Book of Romans and he said that's the theme of the Book of Numbers, it's both the kindness and the severity of God; God's strict judgment and justice against sin, and God's lavish mercy and grace to undeserving sinners. You see it in spades in the Book of Numbers. Does that message ever get old? Don't we need to hear it again and again? Well, this book if about God.
6. This book is also about Moses. You know, we know the stories well of Moses’ own struggles with obedience and unbelief in the course of his life. We know how reluctant he was to go down into Egypt at first, and how God had to cajole him into his calling. But we probably forget the personal family pain that Moses experienced during the course of his leadership of Israel in the wilderness. Do we remember that Moses’ own brother and sister attempted to undermine his leadership of Israel when they said, “Is Moses the only one here who gets prophecy?” Can you imagine that? All that you've gone through, and your own brother, your own sister turn against you. And then you find out in part it's because they didn't like Moses’ wife. (Now, Moses didn't know family problems like we have family problems, did he? No, we have family problems that the people of the Bible just didn't understand.) Can you imagine the heartache? Here's Moses, the God-chosen leader of Israel, whose brother and sister turn against him in part because they don't like his wife. Can you imagine that family heartache underneath all the other heartache that that man had to bear?
We learn a lot about Moses in this book. In one chapter we're told that he's the humblest man on the face of the earth. This is a book that tells us a lot about the character of Moses.
7. This is a book that tells us so much about the journey that Israel is on. The very journey that Israel is taking through the wilderness, according to the Apostle Paul, is designed to tell us something about the journey we take through this life as Christians in the course of our sanctification. The Book of Hebrews makes this clear. The journey and the wilderness reappear in the Book of Hebrews. Yes, the Book of Hebrews is in some ways the New Testament version of the Book of Leviticus, but you know, there are other ways in which Hebrews is the New Testament version of the Book of Numbers. And so that theme of the journey in the wilderness is a great theme in the book.
8. But finally, the theme of the bad behavior of the Israelites is so apparent in the book. And you know, my guess is by the time we finish reading and studying through this whole book, we’ll be tired of their bad behavior! And when we get tired of reading about their bad behavior, let me just remind you of two things. Just think how tired God was of their bad behavior. And then think about how patient and gracious He was. Yes, He shows His justice; but you can't read the book without seeing the patience, the forbearance, the putting up with this stuff, of God.
9. And then secondly, and maybe even more importantly, before we get too impatient with their disobedience, let's think about our disobedience and how tired it must make God.
I was talking this afternoon with some Christian leaders, and one of them was Jerry Bridges, who's going to be preaching for us in March. Dear, dear man. And he said, “Oh, I'm shaking at my boots at the thought of preaching at First Presbyterian Church!” I had to laugh! I said, “Brother! You have to shake in your boots? What about me?!” But he was telling me he has just written a new book, and it's called The Acceptable Sins of the Saints…the acceptable sins of the saints. Has that title got your attention? And the subtitle is The Sins That We Have Come to Tolerate in the Christian Life. And while we're pointing our finger at the culture and all the bad things the culture is doing, the things that we ourselves have come to tolerate…that's the theme of the book. He said when he started the project he was really excited. He said, “By the time I finished that book, I felt like I was shoveling… [and you can just figure out the rest, OK?]” But how appropriate. And doesn't the Book of Numbers…won't it remind us of that? We’re quick to point our finger at the Israelites, but this book has something to say to us.
This is a great book, and it's a book that we need for today.
On the front of the sheet that we're handing out there is the title of our series, which is going to be With God in The Wilderness. And you’ll see something of what we're going to try and do during the course of our study. During the course of our study, I hope to frequently have for you maps, so you can get a feel for where Israel is going and where Israel has been. And then on the other side of the sheet, you will see an outline of the Book of Numbers, and if you’ll look real quickly at that four-part outline, you’ll notice something really interesting: the first section of the Book of Numbers, the first ten chapters, basically–covers a period of 19 days. The second section of Numbers, from 10-14, covers a period of ten days; the third section of Numbers, from chapter 15-19, covers 37 years; and then, the final section from 20-36 covers a period of ten months.
Now, do you notice the utter asymmetry of the chronological sequence that's being covered there? If we were writing it, you know, we’d break it down into ‘ten years, ten years, ten years, ten years.’ I suspect that the very dissimilarity of the lengths of time represented in each section point to the fact that there are specific lessons that Moses wants us to learn. He's not just doing the job of an historian; he's doing the job of a pastor, and he's wanting to bring things to your attention…not so that you’re smarter about the history of Israel's wandering in the wilderness…although I hope you’ll be smarter about the history of Israel's wandering in the wilderness before it's all done…but not just so that you’ll know more stuff about Israel's history in the wilderness, but so that you’ll love God more, and know God more, and would walk with Him more closely. No, Moses is writing this book as a pastor, not a historian; and you can see it even in the way he breaks the material down.
Well, join me on this adventure together with God in the wilderness.
Lord, thank You for this great book and for this opportunity to study it together. Give us a fire in our bones to know You through the story of Your dealings with Your people, and we’ll give You the praise and the glory. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's stand and sing The Doxology.
Grace and peace to you in this new year, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.