If you would open your Bibles to Numbers chapter 13. We’ll take a moment to orient ourselves to the passage. As we do so, I bring you season’s greetings. I hope you had a marvelous celebration of Christmas with family and friends and loved ones and that you have a festive beginning of the new year. It will be the new year that we’ll think about in this look at Numbers chapter 13.
Before we pray and read our passage, let’s think about where this passage kind of finds us. Let’s place this passage. The people of Israel have encamped at Sinai for a year. After an eleven day journey from Sinai, they find themselves here at the wilderness of Paran, Kadesh Barnea. From this place, Moses sends out the twelve spies, each a leader or a chief from his tribe to spy out the land and bring back a report from south to north, from east to west; Moses charges them – what the land is, to see what the land is, to whether the people that dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many, whether the land is good or bad, whether the cities they dwell in are camps or strongholds, whether the land is rich or poor, whether there are trees in it or not. “Be of good courage,” he tells them, “and bring some of the fruit of the land.” The spies, as we know, after they spend forty days in the land bring back a mixed report. Ten say that the land is indeed good, flowing with milk and honey. But they say, “We can’t take this land. They are too many and too large and still, there are giants in the land!” While two of the spies, Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh say, “We can take the land! God is with us and not with them.” The people are at the edge of an unknown place, a place into which God will lead them. They are called upon to trust God for that very enterprise.
Well, we’re not standing before the land but we’re standing before an unknown year. In that sense, we are where they were. We end one year and prepare to begin another. As surely as the Israelites eventually will be led into the land, we will be led into another year. They know more about what’s ahead of them than we will know what’s ahead of us. We can’t send spies into 2020. We can’t find out what August will be like. We can’t find out what November will be like. They know more than we do. The purpose of God will propel them into the land eventually. The reality of time as God has created it will propel us forward into 2020, whether we want it to or not. Both, they and we, are bounded by God’s promise to do good to those who belong to Him.
With that in mind, I want to look at three things from our passage as we prepare to read it. One is, “What does the passage teach us about faith? What does our passage teach us about unbelief? And what does the passage teach us about our responsibility to one another?” With that in mind, let’s pray and let’s look at a few verses, and we’ll pull in from the wider narrative as well. Let’s pray.
Father, this is Your Word. And this is not an intellectual exercise this morning. It never is as we sit down to open Your Word. Speak words of life to us. Indeed, we need words of life. Thank You, our Father, that Your thoughts are not our thoughts and Your ways are not our ways. And Father, Your intention and promise is to send forth Your Word that it would accomplish all that You intend before it returns to You. Do so here this day. Accomplish all that You intend with Your Word this day as we make our prayer in the name of the Lord Jesus, our Shepherd, our Elder Brother, our Savior. In His name we pray and thank You, amen.
Let’s read from Numbers chapter 13, beginning with verse 30. This is in the midst of the report from the spies:
“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.’”
We know that God adds His blessing to His Word as we read it and hear it together.
What Does the Passage Teach About Faith?
What does the passage tell us about faith? Well, let’s think a bit about the ten spies and their judging the challenge before the nation with no reckoning of confidence in God. Do you see that? There’s no reckoning of confidence in God as they make their report. There’s no consideration of what God might do to help them. What have they, as a nation, seen? They’ve seen ten plagues that brought the great nation of Egypt to its knees, culminating in the night of the Passover and the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn. They saw deliverance at the Red Sea through which they crossed on dry ground. And over their shoulders they saw the destruction of Pharaoh’s army as that water that was a wall about them came crashing on those soldiers, after which they saw no more Egyptian army pursuing them. They saw the provision of water from the rock, daily manna, quail when they longed for meat, the visual display of God’s ongoing presence in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire over them, and following those signs through the wilderness as God led them on their way. And that spectacular display of God’s glory and power at Sinai. That’s in their history. That’s in their background; they can remember those things.
And now they hear through Moses what God has said. “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.” That’s verse 2 of chapter 13. The promise of God made to Abraham is about to become reality. The land that God has described more than once as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” they’re about to be ushered into that land. Faith doesn’t come naturally to us, does it? In fact, you will remember that the apostle Paul describes saving faith as “the gift of God.” We don’t come to saving faith, that is, the confidence that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are sufficient to reconcile us to God and cause us to be adopted as His sons and daughters. We don’t come to that realization on our own. God gives it to us as He brings our dead hearts to life in Christ. He brings dead sinners to life.
That’s what Jesus described as being “born again.” That was the terminology He used in talking with Nicodemus. “You must be born again by the Spirit of God.” And as God causes us to be born again, He gives us saving faith which we place in Christ and now we have new life in Him. That’s the first matter of faith that we have to occupy yourselves with here this morning. If that’s not your faith, nothing else in this sermon or in this passage makes sense. Saving faith is the first priority of faith. And I would call us to examine our hearts today to know that indeed we trust none other save Christ. We trust none other to be right with God save the person of Jesus Christ and the work that He has done on our behalf to save sinners. If we have any other hope of personal goodness or personal ability, dash it, because Jesus is all. He is the only hope we have to be right with God, to be reconciled to Him, to be adopted by Him as His sons and daughters. There is no other save Christ. So get Christ today. If you have hope in anything else, get Christ today. Trust Christ today. Turn away from every other false hope because it brings nothing. It’s life that we find in Christ. It’s life that we find in Christ. It’s a new beginning. It’s a new birth we find in Christ. It’s from that birth that God begins to call us to exercise that daily faith, that daily faith in the work of God, the truth of His Word; daily faith in His presence and in His power. Daily faith that we are called upon to exercise more and more as we grow towards maturity in Christ.
Mine God's Word
How do we live that life of faith? How do we access that? How do we create that? How do we nourish that? We mine God’s Word for what He has promised. We mine God’s Word for what He has promised. He promised to give His people the land of Canaan. Since then, since the realization of that promise, He’s made abundant promises to His people that have to do with His presence, with our wellbeing, with the bright future He’s planned for all that are His. To think of a few, Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.” Isaiah 43 – listen to what the prophet Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf at God’s inspiration, says to the people of God. “Fear not, I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned and the flame will not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Jesus, in His last few hours with His disciples, John 14, says this, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to Myself that when I am, you may be also.” Or Paul in Romans chapter 8 says this, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also graciously with Him give us all things?”
Those are promises, and there are hundreds and hundreds of other promises that God has made. We shape our understanding of the world around us and the relationships that give texture to it by trusting what God has said to us about Himself, about us, and about everything around us, as well as the future ahead of us. We form our understanding from what God tells us. We think God’s thoughts. David, 1 Samuel 17, upon seeing Goliath and hearing his taunts to the army of Israel for the first time, asks this question. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine to defy the armies of the living God?” That’s an audacious question, but David was thinking God’s thoughts after Him. As he understood Goliath, an imposing man, a terrifying man, but a man! As he understood the soldiers of Israel’s army around him, the visible army of the living God impressive not in themselves but in their connection to their commander in chief, the Lord of hosts, mighty in battle. David is mining God’s truth to discover how to understand the world he finds himself living in.
Mine God’s Work
But there’s another thing we do as well. We mine God’s Word but we also mine God’s work. We mine God’s work as we see what He has done for us. Again, we go back to David preparing to approach Goliath alone on behalf of his people. He explains himself this way. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Caleb, in verse 30 of the passage we just read, urging his people, “Let us go up at once and occupy it,” that is the land, “for we are well able to overcome it.” Joshua, joining Caleb in chapter 14 as this discussion continues, trying to calm the people and inspire them to trust the Lord who’s brought them this far, “If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into the land and He will give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Do not fear the people of the land. They are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.”
Where does that kind of confidence come from? It comes from seeing how God has worked among them. It’s come from reflecting on the fact that God has brought them this far not to forsake them. Joshua and Caleb believed that God had brought them that far to keep His promise, in light of all that He had done for them to that point, in light of His sure promise to plant them in the land that He had promised their ancestors. God brought them there to keep faith, not to destroy them. We live the life of faith as we feed our souls on God’s Word, paying attention to the promises He’s made, and as we see from His dealings with us in the past, our own past, our collective past as a congregation, that He is faithful and true.
A couple of years ago around this time of year I was sitting right up there in that portion of the balcony up there and Ralph Kelley was preaching and challenged us at the beginning of 2018 to be a people of the Word. A couple of months ago, David Strain was preaching through 1 Peter chapter 2 and he preached on the passage where Peter is urging the people of God to crave the pure spiritual milk of the Word. Some of our elders made it their goal at that time to create the “Read and Receive 2020 Initiative.” We’ve talked about that; you’ve heard about it. The Bibles in the bookstore are all gone, those one-year chronological Bibles, but we’re ordering more tomorrow – if you want to participate just call the church office. We’ll make sure you have a Bible. You can get started a little late but you can catch up also. That’s not a problem.
My challenge to us is this – let’s be a people of faith. In addition to being a people of the Word, let’s be a people of faith, trusting God to lead us and to carry us through hardships, to carry us through undesirable circumstances to the place of rest and security that He has for us. Let’s be self-conscious, intentional, bold, adventurous about trusting God, choosing to trust God for what He has promised to do, for what He has promised to give, for how He has promised to help. Let’s be a people who are intentional about trusting God, not just when the whim lands upon us, but intentional as we face things that we don’t want to be involved in or things that seem too big for us, to trust God to see what He might do to help us accomplish all that He intends for us to accomplish – as individuals, as families, as a congregation of His people. Let’s be intentional and bold, adventurous in being people of faith. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future. Our confidence is in Him to glorify Himself and to accomplish all the good He intends with us and for us.
What Does the Passage Teach About Unbelief?
Well there’s another thing for us to think about and it’s, “What does this passage teach us about unbelief?” Unbelief is kind of where we are naturally. It’s the natural disposition, the default position of our hearts. Isn’t it? We know how to be unbelievers. We don’t always know how to believe, but unbelief comes to us naturally. We see obstacles; we see challenges. We’re aware of insufficiencies, real and perceived. We hear it from the spies. “We seem to ourselves like grasshoppers and so we seem to them.” They’re saying, “We are not enough to face what is before us,” and there’s no lie there. They weren’t enough. You and I are rarely enough to face what is before us, but it’s not all the truth either. Is it? The lie comes in the assumption that there is no help for us. The lie comes in the assumption that there is no help for us. Unbelief operates with an unwillingness to factor God, and most particularly the goodness of God, into our evaluation of circumstances and need. Unbelief tells us that who God is and His attitude and intentions towards us don’t really matter in the way events fall out. We’ve got decisions to make, we’ve got roles to play, things to do that can’t wait on whether or not God might show up.
I remember recently watching the most recent movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dantes is jailed at the Chateau d’If and his cruel jailor begins his imprisonment with the cycle of beatings and torture. And Edmond Dantes of course crying out to God for justice and mercy, the jailor says, “You cry out to God. I’ll stop the moment He shows up.” Unbelief tells us, “God won’t be showing up.” That’s the attitude of the spies who bring the bad report. They talk about the land as a land that devours its inhabitants and “all the people we saw in it are of great height. We saw the Nephilim.” Certainly their attitude was picked up by the majority of the people who say in verse 2 of chapter 14, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey! Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” They’re saying, “The Lord is bringing us here to kill us!” Unbelief, of this sort, carries with it the echo of Eden – “God is not good. God is not good. He’s brought us here to do us harm. He’s brought us here to take away from us. He’s carried us this far ultimately just to do us in.”
Unbelief isn’t about making us atheists. It’s about making us cynics. We can be cynical, we can be untrusting. If we can be untrusting we can be apathetic. If we can be apathetic, then really it doesn’t matter very much about God at all. Does it? He’s a non-factor. It’s interesting to see God’s response to the unbelief of His people. He takes it personally. Look at verse 11 of chapter 14. Here’s His response as He questions Moses. “How long will this people despise Me? How long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” The Hebrew word that the English Standard Version translates “despise” also means “to scorn” or “abhor.” That’s what you and I do when we make a choice to refuse to trust God. We despise Him. We hate Him. We scorn Him. We scorn Him. God uses trials, as you know, and hardships in our lives for many things; things really too numerous to mention.
In my life, in the midst of all those things God has taught me in trial and hardship, there’s a common thread that unites all of those things and it is the issue of faith. When my back is against the wall and I’ve got nowhere else to go and events are pressing down on me, the question I’m always having to ask is, “Am I willing to trust God here? Is God good? Will He help?” And I’ve found that the more I trust Him, the more I choose to believe Him, the more I love Him; the more I love Him, the more deeply I want to know Him.
What Does the Passage Teach About Our Responsibility to One Another?
Well, one last thing. The passage says something about our responsibility to one another. The nourishing of faith is all of our individual responsibility. We nourish our faith. We nourish our choices to trust God. But it’s also a community effort. Note how the ten spies with their bad report turn the heart of the whole nation – “The land devours its inhabitants! Giants are in the land! Fortified cities up to the heavens! We look like grasshoppers to them!” The upshot was that the nation trembled at the border of the land that God had promised them. Instead of a bolstered trust in God’s willingness to help them and to keep His promise to place them in the land, they were begging to go back into bitter slavery in Egypt.
Asaph – I appreciated our reading of Asaph this morning and recognized that he is remembering those deeds of God as you look through the latter half of Psalm 77 and feeding his heart on the deeds of God for His people. Psalm 73 is one of those gritty psalms. Asaph is decrying the prosperity of the wicked while the righteous, it seemed, know only suffering. He was in despair, even to the point of saying, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence, for all the day long I have been stricken.” Then he says this, “If I had said, ‘I will speak thus, I will say these things out loud,’ I would have betrayed the generation of Your people.” Asaph understands something. He understands that he can nourish faith within the household of faith or he can foster unbelief with the power of His words and His actions and he recognizes that fostering unbelief will betray the people of God. God’s people need to trust Him, needs to learn how to trust Him.
We don’t need doubt; doubt is our native tongue. We need a new language. We need the language of confidence in God. We need to teach one another that language. The writer of Hebrews sees that same thing. Listen to this from Hebrews chapter 10. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another all the more as you see the day drawing near.” We have an obligation as the church of God to nourish faith among each other.
Well, let’s wrap up. It’s about time to go. We stand at the edge of a new year, one that will be full of joys and blessings and sorrows and obstacles. We’ll see much at home and at work, among friends and coworkers and extended family that will make us feel like grasshoppers – insufficient, weak, unable, unprepared. But let’s go forward confident in the God who equips the available, who enables the unable, who empowers the powerless, who gives unforeseen and unknown wisdom to the unprepared for the doing of His will, all for His glory and our good. Amen? Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.
Father, we thank You that Your ways are good towards us. We thank You for Your rich kindness, even as we see You patiently bearing, patiently bearing us, patiently teaching us in the school of hardknocks, in the school of discipline, Father, always with Your intention to bear us up and to bear us to Yourself. We give You thanks. Bury this Word deep in our hearts and let us produce the fruit of faith, the fruit of good works, the fruit of honor to Christ here within this body and out in the world in the places that You’ve planted us, for Your honor and glory. Hear us, as we make our prayer in Jesus’ name, amen.
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