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Doug Van Meter - 10 Jan 2021

2020 Vision for 2021 (Numbers 1:1–3)

2020 was a year of numbers—significant numbers. Numbers are significant. Often, numbers represent people and therefore matter. They matter to God and should matter to us. Perhaps no other book of the Bible makes this point more clearly than one of the most neglected books: the book of Numbers. Here, we learn, among other truths, that the number of God’s people is important and yet people are more than a number. That’s always an important truth to keep in mind.

Scripture References: Numbers 1:1-3

From Series: "Numbers Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Numbers by Doug Van Meter.

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2020 was a year of significant numbers.

Most of us followed the daily COVID-19 statistics, commencing with the first case, reported in Howick. Those numbers have increased exponentially to the current excess of 1.2 million, including over 32,000 deaths. These numbers, as I have written before, are significant in that they represent people. These numbers matter. They matter to God and they should matter to us. Perhaps no other book of the Bible makes this point more clearly than one of the most neglected books of the Bible: the book of Numbers. In the book of Numbers, we learn, among other truths, that the number of God’s people is important and yet people are more than a number. That’s always an important truth to keep in mind.

But numbers in Numbers point us to a far greater truth, for they point us to the character of God. They point us to the truth that God is faithful. We needed that vision in 2020. We need that same vision for 2021. We need this biblical 20/20 vision for 2021.

Reasoning from Numbers

In this fourth book of the Pentateuch, we are provided with various lists numbering soldiers, priests, sacrifices, and spoils of victory. But these are more than statistics. These numbers are for the purpose of encouraging believers to keep trusting our faithful God. God’s faithfulness is to bear the fruit of faithfulness in the lives of the faithful. Dennis Cole observes, “The central and unifying theme of the Book of Numbers is the faithfulness of God to fulfil his promise to his people” and “the overarching theme of the Book of Numbers is that Yahweh reveals himself to his people as the faithful God of [his people] through word and deed.” Because of this it has been well-said, “the Book of Numbers is just that! It is a book that uses numbers to celebrate the work of the Lord! And in these numbers is his praise” (Allen).

In the book of Numbers, we have the account of the preparation of the people of God for entrance into Canaan, God’s Promised Land to the seed of Abraham.

The opening ten chapters (covering fifty days) are preparation or orientation for this anticipated and expected conquest. However, if you are familiar with Numbers and with the story of Israel, it is not long before the nation becomes disoriented through unbelief. The result is divine chastisement, recorded in chapters 11–25, where the nation is sentenced to wander for nearly forty years in the wilderness, shut out and cut off from Canaan under the judgement of God. An entire generation died in the wilderness.

The first generation, having been miraculously and wondrously delivered (in Exodus), is provided the opportunity to believe and trust God, expressed in obedience to God. But sadly, the first generations ended in tragic judgement. Thankfully, however, this is not the whole story of Numbers.

Numbers does not end with chapter 25. Rather it carries on for another eleven chapters. And that offers us good news, for this final section of Numbers, commencing with 26:1, can be characterised as a reorientation. As someone has said, “The story of the book of Numbers is the story of two consecutive generations, a generation of unbelief that leads to death and generation of faith that leads to life” (Duguid).

Calculate Your Own Conclusion

Perhaps more accurately, the second generation is provided the opportunity for faithful obedience. The book of Numbers concludes, in a sense, without a conclusion. Consider the words of Timothy Ashley commenting on the message of Numbers:

The story of Numbers is a story without a conclusion. The future is open to God’s people, but it is unsure. It will depend on whether his people maintain their orientation toward him and him alone. Every new generation of God’s people faces the same uncertainty, but also has the same promise of blessing.

The question left to the reader is, how will this second generation of the redeemed fare? Will they persevere in faith or, like their forefathers, will they fail to enter their promised rest? In other words, have they learned from the past? Have I? Have we?

The book of Numbers is referenced several times in the New Testament, and most serve as a warning for believers to do better (1 Corinthians 10:1–10; Hebrews 3:7–4:13). God wants us to remember the failures associated with unbelief, not to create a critical spirit but rather to produce a cautious spirit. We are to learn from both the failures, as well as from the successes of those who have gone before us. As Paul wrote, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4). Numbers is intended to produce faith and hope, which is another way of describing perseverance.

The two divisions in Numbers, the record of two generations, parallel our own contemporary experience.

Last year, we began full of hope. Our World Outreach Celebration focused on a 20/20 vision for missions for 2020. We were challenged to believe God for healthy advancement in the Great Commission. Our faith promise commitment exceeded our expectations. It seemed that, in many ways, we were on the cusp of a great year. And then, a nationwide lockdown commenced, including the inability of our church to gather and to carry out regular body life. Whatever “promised land” we hoped to conquer, we found ourselves in a bit of a wilderness: a period and place of trial.

I need to quickly point out that 2020 was not a loss. A whole lot of spiritual growth took place. People were converted, families drew closer to the Lord and to each other, and churches grew in membership, including ours. Nevertheless, there were failures. Each of us can identify areas where our faith was not as robust as it could and should and have been.

We murmured when we should have been marching. We grumbled when we should have been grateful. We were faithless when we should have been faithful. We fought where we should have forgiven. We wandered when we should have worshipped. We resigned when we should have resolved. We were discontent when we should have been devoted. We scorned when we should have submitted. The question facing us as we commence 2021 is, will we do better? Will we apply the lessons we learned from 2020? In other words, will we apply 2020 vision to 2021?

On the first Sunday of our national lockdown last year (22 March), I said to our congregation, “Though everything has changed, nothing has changed.” That is, our mission has not changed and, most fundamentally, God has not changed. He remains faithful. In 2021, will we be faithful?

We have the opportunity to move beyond our wilderness into a land of fullness. God’s promises remain true. May our study in Numbers this year bear the fruit it is intended for.

As we commence our study, I want to use this initial message to lay what I trust will be a helpful foundation as we seek to grasp God’s meaning of these 36 chapters.

The Title

It has often been observed that the title of this book is less than compelling. We like action, drama, and interesting plots. “Genesis” invites the reader to explore beginnings and “Exodus” stirs our interest about the story of a deliverance. But as Ronald Allen commented, “Who but a mathematician could rise with joy to a book called ‘Numbers’?” However, if the reader of the Old Testament has been paying attention since the book of Genesis, “Numbers” is a rather compelling theme. Let me explain.

There are three sets of words in the opening two verses, which could all vie for a legitimate title of this book.

Numbers

The title “Numbers” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This title derives from the record of the two ‘census’ takings (1:2; 26:2). In the opening verses, Moses is commanded to ‘calculate the total’ (literal meaning of census) of all males over the age of 20. The various ‘numbers’ of each tribe is calculated and totalled (1:46). Some thirty eight years later, the same command is repeated (26:51).

There is a lot of dispute about these large numbers (603,550 and 601,730) with many questioning the integrity of the text. Without going into all of that, suffice to say that these large numbers serve an important theological purpose: They highlight God’s faithfulness.

You will remember that God promised Abraham he would have a progeny that would exceed the number of stars and grains of sand (Genesis 15:5; 17:1–8; 22:15–17). Related to this was the promise of the land of Canaan. That promise was made to Abraham when he and his wife were childless and well beyond the age of bearing children. But a promise is a promise.

Abraham and Sarah died having one son. When Sarah died, her only son was unmarried. This was a long way from heirs as stars and sand. Nevertheless, a promise is a promise.

Over time, grandchildren and great grandchildren were born and the nation of Israel grew to a clan of seventy people (Genesis 46:27). They moved to Egypt where they prospered. And multiplied. After four hundred years, they became so prolific that they were deemed to be a threat by the Egyptian rulers. You see, a promise is a promise.

The book of Exodus records God’s faithfulness, not only in Israel’s numerical growth (1:6–7) but also his faithfulness to his promise of redemption (2:23–25; cf. Genesis 15:14).

Following their deliverance from Egypt, Israel came to Sinai. As Numbers opens, they have now been at Sinai for the past eleven months (Exodus 19:1ff). These were months of organising and building the tabernacle and its paraphernalia. A nation had been birthed.

The tabernacle had been set up, the Levitical laws had been revealed, the priesthood had been established, and the tabernacle (tent of meeting) had been “owned” by God. This is where the book of Numbers comes in. The Hebrew the text opens, “And it came to pass,” which serves as a clue that what is recorded in this book flows chronologically from the end of Leviticus.

However, as you read Numbers 1, it becomes immediately clear that, as important as worship was, warfare was now the theme. Repeatedly we find words indicating warfare, such as “all in Israel who are able to go to war” (vv. 3, 20, 22, 24, 26, etc.). The Hebrew term translated “company” (v. 3) literally means “armed company.” In chapter 2, military terminology (“standard,” vv. 2, 31) is used to describe the setting up of the camp around the tabernacle, while “they shall set out on the march” vv. 9, 16, 24, 31) is similarly military language. Back in chapter 1, the Levites were appointed to “guard” the tabernacle (vv. 47–54).

Clearly, the tone is one of warfare. Worship and warfare. Warfare because of worship. Warfare in order to worship. This theme is dominant in Numbers. And it has a lot to do with literal numbers and the faithfulness of God. It also has a lot to do with God’s people being united for and in warfare.

The “army” of Israel consists of 603,550 males over the age of twenty. Numbers matter because God made an mathematical promise. God keeps his promises. Much could be said about this, and will be in upcoming studies, but for now take comfort in the reality that God is covenantally faithful. The presence of the “tent of meeting” testifies to this. This structure housed the ark of the covenant. Every time an Israelite looked at the tabernacle, they would (or should) be reminded that God was with them and that he is faithful. Though, in Jesus, Emmanuel was experienced in its fullest, yet God has been with his people throughout history. This faithfulness is illustrated in these large numbers. God keeps his promises.

Reading Numbers is not an easy exercise. There is much repetition. But the repetition serves to remind the reader that God faithfully fulfilled his promise to multiply the seed of Abraham. Therefore, there is joy in numbers. Maths teachers, take heart!

God Speaks

The Hebrew Bible titles this fourth book of Torah using the opening words: “He spoke.” There are over 150 references in Numbers to God communicating, and usually he does so with via Moses. Numbers is divine revelation. God took the initiative to make himself and his will known to Moses and, by extension, to Israel. Ronald Allen reverently observes, “The fact that God speaks at all to anyone is a mercy, that he continued to speak to Moses throughout his leadership of the people of God is a mystery, and that he spoke to Moses with the intent that others would read these words throughout the centuries is a marvel.” We should marvel at this.

Another marvellous thing is Moses’ response to God. Verses 17–19 inform us that Moses and Aaron did “as the LORD commanded.” This faithful obedience marks the first ten chapters only to become almost nonexistent from chapter 11 onward. Again, Allen helpfully notes that “what [God] desires more than anything else is a people who will hear him, who will take joy in obeying him, and who will bring pleasure by their response.” The first generation failed to do so. Would the second generation do better? Will ours?

If your 2020 was like mine, there were failures to do what God commanded. But rather than living with lament over the past, let us face 2021 resolved to lean on and into God’s grace for the ability to do this year what we failed to do last year.

Wilderness

The third important term in the opening verses, and throughout the book, is “wilderness” (v. 1). It occurs 42 times. Some argue that this should be the title of this book, for the wilderness is the theatre where the script of Numbers is played out.

This word is translated as “desert” in some translations of the Bible but this gives a misguided picture. The word usually refers to a pasture for flocks. Though the area around Sinai is arid, there was also a lot of vegetation. The wilderness was a place where God faithfully sustained his people. Regardless, it was not a place of fulness, as was Canaan, the Promised Land.

The wilderness was to be only a temporary  sojourn for this generation. Sadly, it became home for nearly forty years. The subsequent generation was glad to leave it behind.

A Place of Testing

The wilderness in Scripture became a metaphor for a place of testing. The Lord Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. The second man from heaven, the Last Adam, the true Israel, was triumphant where the first Adam and corporate Israel failed. And because Jesus “passed the test,” we are able to enter the land of promise, the new heavens and new earth. But I get ahead of myself!

As noted, the people of Israel were in the wilderness for some eleven months, preparing for the march into the land God had promised to Abraham and the subsequent patriarchs. They were instructed about the holiness of God and the appropriate way to worship him. As God continued to speak to Moses, revealing his law for the nation, the priests were being equipped to equip the people of God to love and serve and worship the Lord. They were being prepared to camp with God.

But their worship of God was not a sentimental, passive responsibility. They were to march with and for his glory. When the cloud moved, they were to move (Exodus 13:17–22; 40:36–38). We need to pause and consider this significant matter in the book of Numbers.

Active, Not Passive

When God delivered Israel from Egypt, we see a clear example of the biblical teaching that “salvation is of the LORD” (Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9). Their redemption was monergistic; that is, God did it all. Listen to these words of Moses as the Israelites were on the edge of the Red Sea: “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent’” (Exodus 14:13–14).

But following their deliverance, we see another biblical principle: Those whom God delivers are to do something!

In Exodus we learn that God’s people were to participate in building the dwelling place of God. In Leviticus, we learn that God’s people were to bring sacrifices to the Lord. In Numbers, we will learn that God’s people were responsible to march and, in some cases, to do so militantly. That is, God’s people were responsible to rise and conquer in areas where God has commanded them to.

We can say that, in the exodus, God required his people to flee, not to fight. But now God required them to fight, rather than flee. This, my friend, is the Christian life.

Rousas Rushdoony observes, “Whereas at the beginning God had saved them miraculously, the time now had come for them to battle for their inheritance. They were not going to be raptured into the Promised Land. God’s empowering grace was the preparation for warfare, not for inaction.” He then adds, “Salvation required Israel to be future oriented. They could not rest contented with the wilderness.”

This is a vital lesson for each Christian, which each biblical local church must learn and obey. As Paul put it, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Perhaps Paul was thinking about the book of Numbers when he penned those words, for listen to what he says next: Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14–15).

Sadly, this first generation failed to do any of this. It is often the case that second generation Christians struggle with inertia more than the first generation. And inertia can lead to the insolence of discontent. I have seen this.

Often, the first generation works hard and labours in the building of the local church. They sacrifice and serve tirelessly to lay a good and healthy foundation. But too often those who inherit it struggle with passivity, taking for granted what the Lord has done in the past. Indolence and even insolence can be a by-product.

Brothers and sisters, 2020 required effort for our community of faith to stick together in a united march of obedience. 2021 will require nothing less. Perhaps it will require even more effort. But where we are marching to is worth it. In the words of Isaac Watts, we should reflect on the convicting question:

Must I be carried to the skies

on flowr’y beds of ease,

while others fought to win the prize

and sailed through bloody seas?”

The book of Numbers reveals many necessary lessons for those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, including our calling to faithfully march in step with God and with one another in our quest for conquest of the nations through and for the gospel of God. We are called to witness, work, and war as we worship our sovereign Saviour.

May God grant us with the grace we need to be faithful and fruitful soldiers of the cross. The book of Numbers is a gracious gift towards this end.

Summary

Pulling these three opening words together, we can summarise that Numbers is about God speaking in the wilderness concerning numbers in order to encourage his people to get out of the wilderness. The book is about a community on the march to God’s Promised Land because of God’s faithfulness. God made a promise of numerical growth and for a land to house those numbers. The book of Numbers records something of this promise being fulfilled.

So, what does this ancient book say to us?

Approximately ten months ago, our lives were upended when God sovereignly sent COVID-19. Lives and livelihoods have been affected in a multitude of ways.

Each of us individually, and all of us corporately, have been impacted by this pandemic. Every area of our lives has been affected: physically, financially, relationally, emotionally, vocationally, mentally, and spiritually.

We have found ourselves in a wilderness of uncertainty. For some, fears and anxieties have arisen. As the pandemic has lingered, anxieties have morphed into aggression, resulting in relational friction and perhaps a general grumpiness.

Parents are faced with educational concerns and many are wondering how they will provide for their families. Churches have been faced with the challenge of how to guard community and its related unity. Staying in touch with one another in the church has become increasingly difficult. Just when we thought the worst was over, and we could once again gather, a surge of infections led to another restriction on church gatherings. And if we are honest, some of us have been tempted to question, “What is God doing?” and “How will the church maintain its purpose and its spiritual health?” You might be anxiously wondering, “What does the future hold?” Perhaps, some are even asking, “Where is God, in this?”

If you have entertained any such questions, then our study of the book of Numbers is for you. As we dig into this book we will be continually reminded that God is faithful, and what he has promised, he will perform.

The Theme

As noted, the overarching theme is God’s faithfulness in our wilderness. He will get us to the promised land of the new heavens and new earth. We have every reason for faithful obedience to the Lord. This is such a timely theme for the days in which we live.

Christian brother and sister, we are in a wilderness experience as we continue to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fear lurks all around us with its attendant temptations to grumbling, greed, and grumpiness! Will we respond as the first generation which came out of Egypt? Or, will we be like the next generation which not only camped across from Jericho but who eventually by faith crossed the Jordan to conquer the first of many cities in God’s Promised Land (see Numbers 36:13)? Informed by Numbers, let us march to the place of opportunity.

2021 is doable to the glory of God. People will be converted, and disciples will be made as Jesus continues to build his church. Christians will grow in Christlikeness as the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify the people of God. God’s people will continue to have their needs met as the Father provides our daily bread. And in all of this the triune God will be glorified. For you see, he has promised. I, for one, desire to experience this fullness. I am sure you do as well. The book of Numbers equips us for this.

The Theology

We are told that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and therefore is profitable because it leads us to salvation (2 Timothy 3:15–17). In other words, all of Scripture aims at pointing sinners to the sovereign Saviour. Numbers is no exception.

In this book, we have glimpses of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the water of life (Numbers 20; John 4), the Bread of life (Numbers 11; John 6), and of course the Passover Lamb (Numbers 28; John 19). Jesus referred to the account of the deadly serpents to point his disciples to his eventual crucifixion (Numbers 21; John 3:14).

In other words, the point of Numbers is not merely numbers! The Saviour, rather than statistics, is the point. Though Numbers records colossal failure on the part of Israel, though Israel failed to trust and obey her God, thankfully the Lord Jesus Christ perfectly believed and obeyed. The Father kept his promise to send his Son into our Egypt and into our wilderness. Because, by his life and death, Jesus conquered sin and Satan and death, he has entered his rest (Hebrews 4). And as we trust and obey him, we have this rest as well. That, my friend, is the message of Numbers. And with this clear biblical 20/20 vision, we are well-prepared for 2021.

AMEN