Strength for the Journey: "Collision of Principle" – Numbers 36

Sebring accidentAt about 1 PM on Thursday, a Ford Focus was traveling southbound on U.S. 27 near Hammock Road, when it was struck by a northbound Jaguar. The Jaguar went on to strike two more cars, resulting in a pileup that lasted most of Thursday afternoon and probably spawned two more accidents on or near the detour route, which included Flare Road, Brunns Road and Hammock Road. At the scene, one man from Sebring was pronounced dead. His wife was airlifted and reports suggest she is still on life support. The Jaguar driver was transported to Highlands Regional Medical Center. As if that wasn’t enough, at around 2:30 PM, a three-car accident was reported at Heron and Pigeon, just a few blocks from the detour route. Still later, at about 6 PM, a four-car accident was reported at Heron and Hammock, which seems to have been related to the detour. Wow, for a small town, Thursday was a tough traffic day! We hurt for the family that lost a loved one, though we don’t know them. We can’t imagine how difficult this time is.

At the same time, these three collisions illustrate a truth: Collisions are seldom simple affairs, and are usually messy. Because the corner I live on is a reasonably high traffic zone, I have on three occasions gone out front and discovered substantial portions of automobile in my front yard. Ask anyone who has ever cleaned up after an automobile accident – they leave behind a mess! Even in cases where (thankfully) no one is hurt, the mess can be significant.

What is true of automobile collisions is also true of “truth principle” collisions. “What are they?” you ask. Truth collisions are times when two principles, both true, seem to crash into one another. Navigating the choices of the world isn’t all that simple, even with a careful look at it through the Biblical world view. As an avid student of the Bible, I still have to admit there are times when two Biblical principles can conflict and compete for value. So as not to confuse the issue, perhaps an example or two would help:

Take, for example, the case for civil disobedience in the Bible. God’s Word makes clear that He calls His children to respect and obey authorities that are placed over their lives.

In specific passages like Romans 13 we read: “1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The timing of the command of God in this regard is quite significant, since Nero was ruling Rome, and NO HISTORIAN alive today would argue that he was a particularly good ruler. This wasn’t Paul shilling for Nero’s next election – this was the clear validation of a principle of respect for those in authority, and a clear call for loyalty for civil government by the Christian community of the first century.

Yet, the principle of Romans 13 isn’t the only principle a believer needed to take into account when dealing with civil authority. In other places, God also commanded us to obey Him above all others. When unjust authorities moved in ungodly ways, it brought people who loved God into conflict with the principle in Romans 13 and the two principles into conflict and collision.

Consider Daniel as he prayed. Daniel 6 unfolds the familiar story: Daniel 6:7 reminds us how Daniel was set up by jealous men before the king, and ended up in a lion’s den: “All the commissioners of the kingdom… have consulted together that the king should establish a statute and enforce an injunction that anyone who makes a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, for thirty days, shall be cast into the lions’ den. 8 … 9 Therefore King Darius signed the document, that is, the injunction. 10 Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling on his knees three times a day, praying and giving thanks before his God, as he had been doing previously.

This isn’t an isolated case. Consider Peter and John as they preached. The authorities arrested them and subsequently released them with a stern command to cease preaching about Jesus in Jerusalem. They didn’t listen. In Acts 5:27: “When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31 “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 “And we are witnesses of these things; and [so is] the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.

The point of this lesson isn’t to bring a solution to the conflict of principle in issues of civil disobedience, but to establish that such conflicts exist. There are times when two principles of the Word of God seem to crash into one another. In each of the cases we just mentioned, God told His people in the passages two things – obey and respect authority (which appears in many ways throughout the Bible), and for His people to obey God before anything man would say to negate His Divine right to absolute obedience. Here then, is the obvious question “When two principles of the Word seem to collide, how do we know the right way to go?”

Key Principle: The application principles of God’s Word are complex and can appear to conflict with other principles. When that happens, the Lord has a way to help us discern His higher values.

The Situation (36:1)

Numbers 36 offered at the end of the journey with Moses’s leadership an important example of facing the collision of principles. The story needs a proper staging to make sense. Look at the opening verse, as we begin to discern seven principles to evaluate God’s direction in difficult and conflicting areas like these:

First, the Authority Principle

Our story opens with a group bringing a grievance to Moses:

Numbers 36:1 The family heads of the clan of Gilead son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, who were from the clans of the descendants of Joseph, came and spoke before Moses and the leaders, the heads of the Israelite families. 2 They said, “When the Lord commanded my lord to give the land as an inheritance to the Israelites by lot, he ordered you to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters.

The authority the presented the case to was the one that God placed in their lives. They recognized the authority involved and took the problem to the authority (36:1). They sought Moses and the tribal elder’s instruction, because these were the men that held the God-given authority in such spiritual matters. As part of the authority principle, they acknowledged the Word came from the Lord, not from men (36:2).

There are difficulties in discerning Scripture, and there will always be. God carved out a system in each age whereby people who truly desire to follow Him could search answers from leaders who were given their position by God, and were subsequently acknowledged by men. Leaders of the community of God’s people were to be wise men, but also Biblically knowledgeable. In the church such things were cared for by a call for ELDERS in places like 1 Timothy 3:1-7.

Without belaboring the point, let me mention something the family heads did NOT do: They didn’t ask the Midianites, Egyptians or Canaanites. They didn’t expect the WORLD to tell them what God thought about His own commands. Far too many believers today come to a difficult place of discernment in their walk, and turn to sources like an intelligent friend at work, or a website or blog by an unknown author to get answers to serious Biblical issues. I am not saying that Google somehow represents evil, but it may offer more confusion than help. If you have a serious medical issue, I suggest a doctor that you choose, and a second opinion behind that if you feel it necessary. I do NOT suggest diagnosis by WebMD – even though sources like that have their uses. If you observe such sites carefully, they warn they are NOT a replacement for a medical practitioner.

Not only did they NOT ask the WORLD, they found those who carefully sought God and His Word for the answers. In the same way, you may CHOOSE the local church you participate in, but one part of that choice should SURELY be: “Do they have Elders that can handle the Scripture well.” I mention this because I have been stunned to hear people who increasingly admit they attend places where they don’t have such confidence.

Just a short time ago, I was counseling someone who asked a complicated question from the Word. I prodded them to tell me what counsel they received from their own church leaders. They flatly admitted to me: “I can’t ask them. I know them all pretty well, and they don’t really have much knowledge of that depth in the Word.” I wanted to ask, but out of politeness just couldn’t, “Why are you going there?” My point is simple: You can choose what spiritual community you are a part of. In our area there are a number of good choices. When you choose, make sure it is based on more serious considerations than just programming and personality – make sure they can handle the Word well. Serious times are coming, and serious voices need to emerge. The authority principle is simply this: When conflicts arise in the Word, take them to Elders who have been noted for their knowledge and careful study of the Word.

Second, the Clarity Principle

Watch closely as the men present their Scriptural conflict to the tribal authorities. They said:

Numbers 36:3 Now suppose they [the daughters of Zelophehad] marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into. And so part of the inheritance allotted to us will be taken away. 4 When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.

Note as you were reading how carefully the problem was presented. In only a few words they framed the problem clearly, placing two principles of God’s Word that seemed in conflict in opposition to one another (36:3-5). Perhaps you missed what the conflict was all about:

On the one hand, the division of the land for the inheritance in Numbers 27 forced an inequity – those who were inheriting women without male heirs were left out. They complained to Moses and God made sure they were given their land rights. The principle of equity was upheld. On the other hand, the land rights were transferred from a woman to a man in marriage, because God’s principle of male priesthood over a family and its possessions was another value the Word taught. Because the women who had an inheritance were sure to marry, these two values of the Word were set to cause conflict.

When the women married, their land rights would be ceded to their husbands – and that had the potential of expanding the land allotment for some tribes by marriage and disrupting the long-term land apportionment among the tribes – another principle for God’s Word. With a conflict such as this – the whole map of the tribes could change in a few generations! God’s inheritance for a tribe could easily be eroded by means of marriages!

The clarity principle isn’t about the problem – but how the problem is posed. Note what they men of the tribes of Joseph did. They carefully outlined exactly what they were facing in the problem and why it was a problem to them. They were specific about the principles involved, and drew a line from the conflict to the confusing results. Moses and the tribal leaders were not entertaining some interpersonal slight, nor was the problem a simple administrative snafu – the issue was a conflict derived from the revealed Words of God. In short, after finding the right authority to present the case to, the men carefully highlighted the Biblical problem to their leaders.

Third, the Sovereignty Principle

The men of God knew they were facing something difficult, and they did what men and women of God should always do:

Numbers 36:5 Then at the Lord’s command Moses gave this order to the Israelites…

Can you see how the leader took the problem to the Lord before he spoke (36:5a)? Moses spoke at the Lord’s command. What a refreshing approach to spiritual problem solving! I cannot share clearly enough how self-dependent we have become in our day. Because we have the ability to network information, we often think in “crowd speak” – the language of the many. Got a question, there are a thousand sources for the answer. We have so many possibilities that are so immediate and seem so adequate, we don’t feel ill-equipped WITHOUT CONSULTING GOD. How can that be?

The Sovereignty Principle is this: God’s Word cannot be discerned without God’s Spirit, and a humble recognition of God’s right to make the rules. We are flawed, He is perfect. We are weak, He is unfailing. We are easily confused by emotions, personal sentiments that cloud clear judgment. God, the author of all truth, is not swayed and not fickle. When we want to know what HE thinks, it is always best to ASK HIM.

Fourth, the Acknowledgement Principle

The very first thing that Moses did when God gave him direction was point out the case was complicated, and God would solve it:

Numbers 36:5b “…“What the tribe of the descendants of Joseph is saying is right.”

The leader responded openly that a problem existed and God would address it (36:5b). The worst thing a leader can do is TRY TO SOLVE A PROBLEM BY IGNORING IT. Moses knew the men had a reasonable issue, and he made sure they knew that he knew.

Fifth, the Priority Principle

As Moses spoke, he needed to make sure the people knew which of the two conflicting principles took priority over the other. Numbers 36 continued:

Numbers 36:6 This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan. 7 No inheritance in Israel is to pass from one tribe to another, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal inheritance of their ancestors.

Moses explained the prescription that made clear the higher value principle (36:6-7). The land inheritance had to be protected above the freedom of the women to marry any man of their own choosing.

Here is an essential principle for today’s conflict: God can limit who you can marry. The mantra of “we cannot choose who we love” is increasingly confusing LUST with LOVE. We need to be careful as believers not to fall into the trap out of soft-headed concern and miss-framed benevolence toward people, by opening for them choices that God did not give them. Since I am reading his biography, let me echo a voice of a now with Jesus brother:

Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

Let me follow that up with another of his writings that also reminded me not to stop speaking truth even when bullied by lobbying on every hand in our public presentation:

The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only he will be blessed who remains loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

As a follower of Jesus, you have made a choice to let Him lead. Would the One who wrote that light and darkness should have no fellowship together call you to marry one who is not a believer in Jesus? Do you REALLY believe that God would tell you to find someone who loves you deeply, but does not LOVE HIM, and marry them? In truth, God has the right to tell His people what they can and cannot do in every intimate area of life!

Think about the Priority Principle for a moment. It means that though both the inheritance rights of the women were important to God, they were not as important as the principles of maintaining the boundaries God set for the tribes. God wanted the tribes to maintain their size and shape. When two principles are in conflict, God will sort out in the rest of His revealed Word what He cares about more. Because that process is potentially dangerous, your choice of leadership becomes increasingly more important. As the curtain draws on moral thinking in our country, many so-called spiritual leaders will fold on issues of truth. Life will get more complex, as wrong is increasingly defined as right. It will take greater adeptness in the Word and greater sensitivity to the Spirit in the days ahead to get the right answer on conflicts, because many of the choices people will make were never contemplated by the believing community in the past – with good reason.

Sixth, the Direction Principle

Moses offered God’s response to the problem in clear terms that everyone could understand. He said:

Numbers 36:8 Every daughter who inherits land in any Israelite tribe must marry someone in her father’s tribal clan, so that every Israelite will possess the inheritance of their ancestors. 9 No inheritance may pass from one tribe to another, for each Israelite tribe is to keep the land it inherits.

It is important to note the solution was clear and measureable so obedience would be obvious (36:8-9). When people have wrestled with conflicting principles, it is essential that seek God for clear lines, so that obedience may be openly understood. When the standards are blurred, even those who are living outside the problem are affected. Because we are in a relationship with God, it becomes increasingly important for us to UNDERSTAND WHAT HE CARES ABOUT when moving forward from a time of conflicted values. Note that when you read the end of the book of Numbers, the inheritance principles are repeated. Moses is not stuttering, he is making sure there is absolute clarity with regards to the answer to the query brought to him. The people of God must be clear and concise on the truth – and not get so wrapped in the theory of a relationship, we don’t truly follow God.

Look at verse nine. It begins with forceful language – NO INHERITANCE MAY PASS… There is a refreshing sense of clarity, and a resounding tenor of command – DO NOT DO THIS. When the voices of the church are muddled because we do not have those most capable to answer the question out front, obedience and disobedience is a muddy mess.

In the UK last week, a prominent “so called evangelical” wrote a five page article explaining that since the “law was done away with in Christ”, he was dropping his stand for traditional marriage between one man and one woman – based on the fact that laws such as those found in Leviticus 18 were “nailed to the cross”. His evidence?

There is only one only scripture that used the terminology “nailed it to the cross” if you were reading from the AV or NKJ, as it appears the writer was. That passage is found in Colossians 2:13-14: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross“.

The reasoning appeared to have been this: We were alienated in our lost-ness from God because of the Law. When Jesus came, He nailed that Law to the cross and His death replaced any need we as believers have for the Law. Look carefully at Colossians 2, because that is NOT AT ALL what the text truly said. The Pastor saw two conflicting principles: our call as believers to be loving and kind as opposed to our standards of marriage that exclude how some people feel. He felt in conflict. His reach for the Bible took him to a passage that concluded the Cross cancelled the need to stand by the principles found in the Torah concerning marriage.

There are two profound problems with this approach:

First, it discounts the fact that all Scripture is profitable for teaching the truth (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible isn’t in two parts – an old part and a new part that cancels the old part. It is TRUE that Hebrews 8 and 9 clearly argued that the New Covenant of God cancelled the Old one. Yet, if you look at the writing of the passage, the reference is to ATONEMENT, not books of the Bible. In short, Hebrews said that Jesus replaced animal sacrifice, not that Colossians replaced Numbers. The fact is that we have studied for ten years together the principles that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures. NO, we don’t kill a goat to make God happy, but we DO depend on the principles of every one of the sixty-six books for direction. That is why we study them all, and not just the New Testament.

Second, if what he said was true, if the CROSS eliminated the Law, it eliminated ALL laws regarding things like bestiality. There are only four passages in the Bible that speak of it – and none are in the New Testament. They are ALL in the Law. If the law regarding homosexuality in Leviticus 18 is tossed aside at the Cross, what happens to the other laws in the same passage? Are we now allowed sex between blood relatives (cp. Lev. 18:6)? How about incest with a parent (18:7)? Can we marry our sisters now? (18:17). Do you see the problem? Christians that have been poorly taught to toss out the Hebrew Scriptures because they aren’t “under the Law” open the flood gates to every kind of impurity.

Third, it is not at all what Colossians 2 actually says. The NASB translation of the Colossian 2:14 passage is much clearer: “14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.. (Colossians 2:14, NASB). Jesus didn’t cancel out the principles of the Law, He took away the obligation we have to pay for the charge of unrighteousness, because His righteousness has replaced our unrighteousness. We don’t have an indictment against us anymore, because it has been satisfied.

But, didn’t Galatians 3:13 say that: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Sure it did! The CURSE of the LAW was the penalty – not the LAW ITSELF. Jesus paid it all. I don’t owe it anymore. I don’t worry about the indictment of sin found in the Law to keep sacrificing – my “one size fits all” sacrifice of Messiah paid it all.

Not to over press the point, but how could it have truly condemned me if God doesn’t think it is so heinous that it no longer applies?

My point is not to make every student a “legal expert” in the Bible, but rather to show the severe danger when the Bible is poorly handled by big-hearted but soft-minded men. People need decisive direction that reflects what God’s Word actually says – and much more as the time of His return approaches.

Seventh, the Blessing Principle

Finally, we see the people blessed and happy in obedience. The Book of Numbers recorded:

Numbers 36:10 So Zelophehad’s daughters did as the Lord commanded Moses. 11 Zelophehad’s daughters—Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah—married their cousins on their father’s side. 12 They married within the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in their father’s tribe and clan. 13 These are the commands and regulations the Lord gave through Moses to the Israelites on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.

As always, obedience brought blessing and order, and made even clearer God’s highest value in the case submitted (36:10-13). We need to keep saying it aloud, because our voices get shouted down in the world – there is MORE THAN LIMITATION that comes from the command of God – there is RICH BLESSING.

The world is very good at marking out the BENEFITS of doing what men want to do. Believers often recoil and do not make the case plain concerning the BENEFITS of obedience.

1 Kings 17 recalls the journey of Elijah from the brook with the ravens to Zarephath, where he met a widow who was about to prepare a “Last Supper” before her food ran out entirely. Elijah told her to trust God and he would keep the flour and oil coming until the drought was ended – and He did. Trust paid off. Following God’s Word kept her alive when others were starving.

Later, the protégé of Elijah, the younger man Elisha faced a woman who was starving. Her husband had died after serving the Lord faithfully for many years (2 Kings 4). Elisha told her to go a collect up from her neighbors as many jars as she could. She obeyed, and found that each was filled with oil! The more jars she had collected, the more God could bless her! Obedience brings blessing. Profound obedience brings profound blessing!

Not everything in the Scriptures is that simple. Sometimes the principles of one passage seem to collide with another – but God has provided seven important principles to help us consistently answer the problem.

The application principles of God’s Word are complex and can appear to conflict with other principles. When that happens, the Lord has a way to help us discern His higher values.

Renewing Our Values: "The Return to Costly Grace" – 1 Timothy 1

jets versus patriotsThe Jets won 30-27 against the New England Patriots in overtime a few weeks ago in North Rutherford, NJ, but that wasn’t the end of the clash. Apparently, a man in Jets fan gear was caught on a cell phone video punching a woman in the face during a brawl outside MetLife Stadium after the game. When I saw it, I was simply stunned. Then I listened to blogosphere commentators explain why it may have been justified. I have no words… Let me ask you something: Have any of you ever been SHOCKED by a stranger’s public display? Have you ever seen someone in a bathing suit that made you believe they didn’t understand the whole purpose of clothing? If you spend any time in public these days, you may find yourself shaking your head at what some in our dear country have come to see as acceptable public behavior. Pass quickly through the channels of a TV set on any given night, and you will likely hear words that were once barred from use in mixed company. You don’t have to be a keen observer of culture to notice how far America has moved from the 1939 shocker that rippled outward from “Gone with the Wind” at the box office as Clark Gable’s famous words echoed from the broken antebellum south: “Frankly Scarlett…” (you get the idea…). Any frank look at American life will force you to conclude that our country no longer holds back. From “costume failures” to the most vulgar expressions, the standard for acceptable behavior is changing – and it doesn’t appear it is heading in the direction of restraint in any area. It is becoming swiftly redefined in movies, TV, video games and even in speeches of our public officials.

Truthfully, none of us are shocked anymore. In fact, one of the lost emotive states of the modern American is the “blush”. As the country changes, so the lines are being re-drawn in the American church. We now accept what we would not have recognized in the past. To be candid, in some areas, this is an improvement, for we drew lines in earlier times more tightly than the Bible. We fought too long and too hard over church doctrinal minutiae that now can’t get a hearing. Thankfully, we have grown more sensitive to our public perception as the people who are “against everything”, the original “party of no”! I hear more and more appropriate laughter among God’s people than I used to – and for that I am very thankful. At the same time, with the strong storms of a vulgar culture on the horizon, it seems time for us to look again at what Scripture defines as proper behavior, particularly among those who name Christ as Savior.

For that reason, in our next series of lessons from God’s Word, I want to return to the familiar territory of Paul’s Epistles to struggling younger Pastors and churches of the first century, this time for eight lessons from the first epistle written to Timothy. I am aware that most every believer, after your first years in the faith, has been invited to study these letters perhaps numerous times, so they are by no means unfamiliar, but there is a reason we need to renew our study in these ancient words. With the shift in the winds of the culture, standards appear to be changing inside the churches across our land. We must recognize the changes, and be prepared to guard the teaching of God’s Word, while being a friendly and loving congregation. We don’t want to be a negative group, because that isn’t how God has called us to think, let alone live. We want to be winsome and happy but vigilant and prepared. We don’t live in fear of coming changes, but we do live watchfully, guarding our young and preparing our people.

The letter to Timothy is not an evangelistic one – for Tim knew Jesus. Therefore, our series will be chiefly directed at RENEWING PROPER BEHAVIOR among believers, since that was what Paul was addressing. That means the problems aren’t new, but are rather a resurgence of an old strategy of our enemy. As we progress, we will be examining eight specific problems that believers have faced through the centuries, and apply God’s prescription for both preventative care and serious correction of each. For a quick preview, the eight are as follows:

Study One: Returning to Costly Grace: (1 Tim. 1) a study in which we examine the way that grace has been being misconstrued by pitting lifestyle standards as beyond the scope of God’s desire in us.

Study Two: Renewing Commitment to God’s Sovereignty: (1 Timothy 2:1-8) where we will contrast angry disputations with peaceful prayer.

Study Three: Refocusing on Proper Affirmation: (1 Timothy 2:9-15) which will help us re-examine the wrong emphasis we place on physical appearance over the spiritual reality.

Study Four: Restoring an Emphasis on Character: (1 Timothy 3:1-7) where we will recognize that true character is more important than pragmatic solution.

Study Five: Recognizing the Value of Servanthood: (1 Timothy 3:8-16) where we will again recall how the vital connection of the body has been designed to function.

Study Six: Realigning Priorities to Guard Truth: (1 Timothy 4:1-16) where we will directly confront theassault on truth and the erosion of resistance to standing for it.

Study Seven: Redefining Standards in Relationships: (1 Timothy 5:1-6:12) where we will look closely at God’s intended behaviors that should mark a believer.

Study Eight: Regaining a Hunger for True Wealth: (1 Timothy 6:3-21) where we will re-evaluate the attraction of temporal gain in light of eternal truth.

If you look over the subjects in the series, they touch issues like behavior and license, anger and confidence, emphasis on physique versus inner beauty, developing leadership with character to take us forward, remembering the sweet aroma of servanthood, building resistance to diseased thinking, learning true care toward others and making clear what real wealth is, and what it is not.

A Place to Begin – Grace Renewed

Let’s start where Paul did – with a concern about the perversion of the basic grace message of the church. To set this up, I want to take you to the words of Pastor Tim Keller that I lifted from the beginning of the sensational biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. The quote succinctly explained how Germany, and particularly the German church, was set up to allow the rise of evil with so few words of protest. Kellers quote is a good explanation:

It is impossible to understand Bonehoeffer’s [written work] without becoming acquainted with the shocking capitulation of the German church to Hitler in the 1930s. How could the “church of Luther,” that great teacher of the Gospel have ever come to such a place? The answer is that the true gospel, summed up by Bonhoeffer as costly grace, had been lost. On the one hand, the church had become marked by formalism. That meant going to church and hearing that God just loves and forgives everyone, so it doesn’t really matter how you live. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace. On the other hand, there was legalism, or salvation by law and good works. Legalism meant that God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life. Both of these impulses made it possible for Hitler to come to power…. Germany lost hold of the brilliant balance of the gospel that Luther so persistently expounded – “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone.” That is, we are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet, if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live… Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law not cheap grace can do that.”

Did you catch what Keller said about grace? That is the message of Paul to the young pastor in 1 Timothy 1, and it is our key principle…

Key Principle: We are saved by grace through faith alone, but true faith (real apprehension of what God says is true) never stands alone. Real faith works. Real faith changes us. Real faith in the heart can be seen in the hands and feet.

Today we need to think about what a “grace through faith” relationship with God is all about. God isn’t asking you to clean up your life to be worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice – because you can’t do that. At the same time, the bigger problem in our time seems to be the number of people that have somehow come to believe that God is up in Heaven simply forgiving everyone of everything, because they think that is “His job”. The Bible doesn’t agree at all. God LOVES you, and that is why He paid for your sin. At the same time, God LOVES you, and that is why He wants your relationship with Him to change your life.

The Context: Relationship

Before we can explore our relationship with God, we have to admit something. We came to Jesus, most of us, because of a relationship we had with someone on earth. Someone we loved and trusted led us to their Savior, and He became our Savior. That was true of Timothy, and the man that led him to Jesus was Paul the Apostle. Look at how Paul’s letter recalls their relationship warmly.

1 Timothy 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, [who is] our hope, 2 To Timothy, [my] true child in [the] faith: Grace, mercy [and] peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Can you hear how the relationship is the basis of the instruction? Before we even attempt to look at the instructions that God tailored for this young and struggling leader of the faith, stop and consider the five relational truths revealed in the opening lines:

First, Paul was an ambassador of Jesus Christ – and that made his words carry authority and weight. This wasn’t an edict of strong opinion, but a letter with the full authority of the Lord of Heaven. That means the words weren’t merely the advice of a fellow traveler, but were the pressing commands of a representative of the Holy One. When a believer immerses himself or herself in the study of the Word, and can wisely bring that word to bear in a situation – they become an ambassador of God to a needy and hurting person.

Second, Paul held his commission by command of the Lord. He did not feel free to allow his relationships to determine his prescriptions. He didn’t soften truth out of some misconstrued idea of love. He listened to the Lord’s instruction and faithfully accepted the command of the Lord in his life to speak that truth. People need to be able to count on us to hold fast the standard of sound words without wavering, because we are called and commanded by God.

Third, Paul shared a living hope with Timothy – the promise of a great destiny. The troubles of the current days had to be placed in the context of the whole of eternity. The sufferings of the current time, even those that included Paul’s incarceration, were always to be considered with the delights of eternity just over the horizon. Believers need to be constantly re-focused to see beyond today’s troubles and see tomorrow’s promise of eternal life with a wonderful Savior!

Fourth, Paul buried his relationship toward Timothy deeply in his heart. Paul wasn’t just an instructor, a warrior and an ambassador – he was a lover of people. He cared deeply for Timothy. What hindered his ministry, what caused him pain and suffering, also affected his mentor. People need to know we truly love them if they are going to hear hard things from us about their behavior.

Fifth, Paul hungered for Timothy to have a full grasp of God’s favor, mercy and peace. Paul didn’t want to simply “graduate” Tim from a seminar or program – he wanted to see the young man grasp more than the technique of ministry. He longed for Tim to grab and hold tightly the garment of God. He wanted Tim to understand in the deepest part of him the real favor, blessing, mercy and comfort that only God’s personal touch can bring. A teacher may be happy if the students get a good grade – a mentor wants them to get a good life. They want to see their follower end up in the embrace of Jesus.

What a relationship! In the end, a deeply loving ambassador of Jesus who followed his Lord’s commands, looked with anticipation toward sharing a common exciting future and called on Tim to listen to the words that could change his life, if they were heeded! With an opening like that, I am certain Tim gave what followed his full attention!

The Two Grace Problem

As you read over the verses of the first chapter, you get the sense that Paul was trying to unknot a string that was wound together and causing him trouble in the church. Something wasn’t working correctly, and Paul knew that it emanated from a few people who thought they knew how to teach truth – but they were far off the mark. Some were teaching costly grace, and others were using the terminology to create a cheap “knock off” of license wrapped in God words. Take a closer look and it will become clearer. Paul told Tim five important things that made the difference:

First, hold the line:

Real men and women of God don’t want to fight – they are FORCED to defend the truth against attack – because that is what honors God and His Word. Paul mentioned it in 1:3, and then reiterated it in 1:18.

3 As I urged you upon my departure for Macedonia, remain on at Ephesus so that you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines…18 This command I entrust to you, Timothy, [my] son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight,

To fight, Paul made clear to Tim that he had to remain in place. He told him not to run from the struggle! (1:3a). There was a time when that was obvious, but it is no more! My father spent his entire life on the same job, married to the same woman, living with the same family – that would be an exceptional accomplishment today. Staying power is lost in companies – on jobs – in marriages – in relationships. Now what has been true in the world has become true in the body of Christ. Pastors stay a very short time. Workers stay for only a short time. Commitments must be in smaller and smaller blocks. Ministry seems to be in a constant turmoil of change! We must be leaders that will stay put when things aren’t easy!

At a time when the enemy will plot for a generation, churches think in six week series terms. There has to be a better strategy than the next new seminar and the next publishing house push. The Bible has 1189 chapters, and few believers ever systematically study all of them. Something is wrong, and it ISN’T that God didn’t provide the information. Men and women of God MUST, not as a duty, but as a privilege and delight, bathe our minds in the Word of God.

Second, avoid the distractions:

Real men and women of God recognize fruitless discussion and simply steer people away from it. They judge the value of the time spent by whether it helps people manage their walk with God more in harmony with a Biblical point of view.

4 nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than [furthering] the administration of God which is by faith.

I cannot emphasize this enough. Stay away from the speculative nibbling at the edge of Scripture. Feed your mind on the Word, and not the windless fantasy that purports to teach its lessons. If what you are reading and listening to is not the Scripture, never refrain from dropping your guard! Be careful to continually set parameters on the teaching and ideas you consume. (1:3b-4). These are times with a lot of strange teaching. People who have little knowledge of God’s Word have confident opinions – like the loud old west “snake oil” salesman. They avoid the tough words of surrender to Christ, but enjoin you to enjoy more, and indulge more.

They could convince you the conviction symptoms you felt weren’t serious. The same is happening in the church today! Here is the truth! You can know if your heart is in trouble:

• When the things of God do not stir you
• When the glories of heaven do not interest you
• When the horrors of hell do not concern you
• When the peril of the lost doesn’t move you
• When the Word of God does not attract you
• When the idea of prayer does not draw you
• When the worship of God does not delight you
• When you do not see daily life as a way to perform the will of God… you are having a heart attack.

It is time to change direction. It is time to re-open to wholesome teaching and clarity building words. It is time to look seriously at the Word and grasp anew the SIMPLE PRIORITIES of what God said.

The sad fact is that when we stop making the Main thing the Main thing, any church is bound to wander into some form of legalism or mysticism that bypasses God’s real message – intimacy that leads to loving obedience.

For some reason Christians seem to be drawn in by:

Trendy but shallow teachings that are based on pop psychology and feel-goodism.

Flashy ministries that focus on constant signs and wonders … with lots of emotionalism, mysticism, and appeals for money-ism.

Harsh voices of forceful leaders with doctrines full of rules and regulations about how to dress and talk and even think … but the next step is to decide that EVERYONE has to subscribe to their particular slant. And if they don’t … well, they’re just plain WRONG. Worse yet, they are not “worthy.” Maybe they’re not even saved. And we certainly can’t fellowship with them until the others come around and see the light.

I once spoke in a church that taught that if your children weren’t home schooled you were living a compromised lifestyle and should seek the Lord as to whether you were saved or not.

Legalism takes a lot of different forms. But it always has these characteristics:

• Legalism takes what is accessible and makes it unreachable.
• It takes a blessing and makes it a burden.
• It takes what is simple and makes it too complex for the average guy to grasp!

I laugh at this example, but this story perfectly illustrates it:

One man wrote: “I saw a pamphlet recently about simple steps to better health. Chapter 1 said: DRINK MORE WATER. I was thinking, “Hey, how hard could THAT be?” Well, I found out how hard it could be… Then they offered a few rules for water drinking:

• Never drink Tap Water — the Chlorine will give you Cancer, the Fluoride will give you Arthritis, and the Aluminum will give you Alzheimer’s
• Never drink Bottled Water — the plastic bottle contaminates it, and bacteria grows when it sits around
• Don’t drink Filtered Water – it isn’t filtered enough and Distilled Water is filtered too much to carry in it what you need.
o The only water you SHOULD drink is water from an Alkaline Filter with a PH above 7. It must go through a second Electrolysis Filter, creating a rich, dense, hexagonal molecular structure. (You can install this filter for a mere $200, or buy it in Glass Bottles at your nearest Health Food Store.) You need to drink 2 gallons of this magic concoction every day — but only at room temperature, and NOT with your meals.

Well, reading all that made me so thirsty I went outside and guzzled water out of my garden hose – and boy did that taste perfect!”

Third, focus on the proper goals:

Real men and women of God get the point of the teaching of the Word. The goals are clear. We are seeking to produce people who live a life of unselfish actions with pure motives, moral clarity and an authentic Biblical world view.

5 But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith… 19 keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.

• If we don’t give opportunity to serve in the body of Christ and in the community, we will become unbalanced Christians – and these invariably become critical and opinionated slothful believers.

• If we don’t keep proper light on MOTIVATION, we can get a room of people who come her to find mates, gain customers or look for someone to dump their responsibilities upon.

• If we don’t emphasize moral clarity, we will get a room full of people who have a SUNDAY GOD that doesn’t affect their MONDAY CHOICES.

• If we hobby-horse on a favorite subject and don’t teach the whole Word of God – our world view will be a warped one that our little group all believes – in spite of the fact that it doesn’t reflect what God’s Word truly teaches.

Paul wanted Tim to recognize the goal of the true teaching of God’s church. Don’t skip it – learn it from 1 Timothy 1:5 – it will help you spot counterfeiters.

Ask the first question: Does the teaching cause me to live out unselfish actions from pure motives? We want deliberately to produce WORKING CHRISTIANS, not just theoretical theologians. The world has seen too many who can postulate and theologize, and too few who are making an impact.

In central Italy there stands a church at Assisi that is unlike any other I have ever been to. It is a church building WITHIN a church building. The small chapel that was entirely enclosed later within a larger church recalls what Francis of Assisi (born just before 1200) did to kick off what became a world wide movement of the Franciscans. He believed God told him to “rebuild His church” – so he sold his horse to get some supplies and picked up a stone and began rebuilding a wall. He decided that if the message of the Gospel meant anything to him, he should take an old and broken down chapel and rebuild it. He thought God saved him so that he should DO something… something for others.

The Gospel isn’t just about the salvation WE GET, it is about the changed life WE HAVE, and the loving acts WE DO because of the change HE MADE! In an effort to steer people away from a works salvation, we sometimes forget that the TRUTH IS SUPPOSED TO CHANGE OUR WORKS!

Ask a second question when you engage Bible instruction: Is the goal is to produce disciples that understand MORAL CLARITY in an age where wrong is increasingly called right? Proper instruction of God’s Word must unapologetically define moral boundaries by what the Bible teaches – not what the crowd wants God to teach.

A third question should also be applied: Is the goal of the instruction to produce believers with a Biblical world view? The term “sincere faith” means a straightforward look at what God says is true (1:5).

There was a world famous animal trainer who gave command performances with his wild beasts. He used lions, tigers, elephants, horses and other animals in his acts. One of his favorite was his pet boa constrictor. He had raised this creature from a little thing and used it for over 25 years. It grew to be 35 feet long. All this time he had fed it and cared for it on a daily basis. In this act he would have the snake wind itself around him and it was strong enough to crush his body but every time it would release him at the last moment which brought cheers from the crowd. It happened one day that this act was being performed when the snake all of sudden took on its true nature and started squeezing the trainer and did not let loose as the crowd saw this man die. He screamed but it was too late for help. This story tells us something of an evil nature may seem harmless at first but in the end cause death.

The Bible makes clear that you have an enemy, and God has not been unclear about how he works in your life:

• First, he baits a hook with a temptation to dangle before you. He knows what is appealing to you, so he uses whatever he can to best to capture your attention. His goal is to destroy any effect you will have with Jesus working through you.

• Second, he works the images and desires our undisciplined mind has allowed to rattle around inside us. He pits our flesh’s strength against the shadowy world of the spirit. He makes NOW more important than THEN. He make WANT more important than HAVE.

• Finally, we forget our blessed life. We forget our good God. All we can see is that we WANT. We jump up on the throne of our lives and begin to give instruction. What we fail to see in that moment is how much our voice sounds exactly like the tempter that coaxed us to the chair.

Without an eye on the proper goals – we will spend our energies on the WRONG ONES.

Fourth, we must learn to recognize the counterfeits:

Paul didn’t just outline true goals, he helped Timothy to identify traits of the fake, and recognize problems that come with wrong focus. Some people will call the fellowship into frivolous discussions (1:6) and act like they have authority, but be thoroughly confident incompetents (1:7). There have always been sincere teachers of the Word that didn’t know what they were talking about. The teaching of God’s Word is not merely teaching from God’s Word. It is the careful explanation and proper application in life of what the text says, not what we think punctuated by verses. Look at the way Paul identified the problem:

8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted…20 Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.

Take it apart, and what Paul said was this: The Word of God isn’t the problem – the application is what is tricky. If we use the Word to allow things that God has said are wrong, we aren’t using the Word properly at all.

Believers have to restore right thinking (1:8-10). We must understand that the law has PRINCIPLE value in our lives, even if we aren’t bound to keep those things written to others (1:8). The law helps us judge right from wrong and good from evil (1:9). Without the standard of the Word, “good” might be a flexible term defined by our preferences or polls. We are to think rightly in the area of a core message as well, and get back to the Gospel as the main thing we share (1:10f).

o If you want to press for a Bible that disrespects parents and trashes God’s view of the family – you don’t want the Bible God wrote.

o If you want a Bible that doesn’t care about the killing of babies in the womb – you don’t want the one God composed.

o If you want a Bible that doesn’t define the terms of marriage as one man and one woman – you don’t want the one the church has preached through the ages.

By the way, I am not hobby-horsing about gay marriage. If a large group of Americans starts preaching that God is OK with lying, I will equally climb on their back. Let’s get serious. The Bible doesn’t say what they want it to say – and that isn’t my problem.

I don’t want to sound unkind – but kindness in this debate has gotten us NOTHING BUT CONTINUALLY BACKING UP until our chaplains can’t even preach the truth of the Bible in a chapel service without peril. This has gone far enough. If they want to dismiss the Bible, that is one thing – but they need to stop swearing honesty on a Bible they are now trying to re-write in front of a Biblically illiterate generation’s eyes. It defines marriage and it defines proper sexual expression. It isn’t mistranslated. It isn’t unclear. It is just inconvenient if you don’t agree with what it says.

o If you want a Bible that doesn’t smack down the idea of kidnapping, lying and cheating – you need to print a different version than the one we have had our whole lives.

God isn’t waiting for Americans to vote or agree – He is awaiting Americans that wish to open their heart to the Creator’s words as He wrote them. His universe – His rules. All the other versions being touted are cheap knock offs of the truth. God knows what He thinks, and He didn’t make it so complicated to understand.

Fifth. we must truly recall the wonder of the Gospel:

The church cannot live for a moment without its chief message – the Gospel! Look at how Paul said it:

1:12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; 14 and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are [found] in Christ Jesus. 15 It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost [of all]. 16 Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, [be] honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

We have to realize how good God has been to us – and share it every day! (1:12-17). Paul never lost the wonder that God could and did redeem someone like him. He viewed himself as the supreme example of God’s saving grace. Paul knew that we are saved by God’s mercy, not our merit; by Christ’s dying not our doing; by trusting and not trying! We have been saved by Grace. The end of the passage offers is a picture of the pattern of grace – “Jesus put me into service” (1:12); the power of grace – “I was shown mercy” (1:13); the perfection of Grace – “more abundant” (1:14); the purpose of Grace – “to save sinners…I am the foremost!” (1:15-16); the praise from Grace – “be honor and glory!” (1:17).

The Bible records the conversions of the demoniac at Gadara, the despised tax collector and traitor to his people Matthew, blind Bartimaeus, an adulterous Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, the Roman centurion at the Crucifixion, Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch, the Philippian jailer, and Lydia, among others. But of all the conversions ever recorded none was more remarkable than that of Saul of Tarsus. This bitter enemy of the cause of Christ, in his own words the foremost of all sinners, became the greatest evangelist & theologian the world has ever seen. Acts 9, 22, 26, Galatians 1-2, Philippians 3, and 1 Timothy 1 all describe aspects of his conversion.

One night in a church service a young woman felt the tug of God at her heart. She responded to God’s call and accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. The young woman had a very rough past, involving alcohol, drugs, and prostitution. But, the change in her was evident. As time went on she became a faithful member of the church. She eventually became involved in the ministry, teaching young children. It was not very long until this faithful young woman had caught the eye and heart of the pastor’s son. The relationship grew and they began to make wedding plans. This is when the problems began. You see, about one half of the church did not think that a woman with a past such as hers was suitable for a pastor’s son. The church began to argue and fight about the matter. So they decided to have a meeting. As the people made their arguments and tensions increased, the meeting was getting completely out of hand. The young woman became very upset about all the things being brought up about her past. As she began to cry the pastor’s son stood to speak. He could not bear the pain it was causing his wife to be. He began to speak and his statement was this: “My fiancee’s past is not what is on trial here. What you are questioning is the ability of the Blood of Jesus to wash away sin. Today you have put the blood of Jesus on trial. So, does it wash away sin or not?” The whole church began to weep as they realized that they had been slandering the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are saved by grace through faith alone, but true faith (real apprehension of what God says is true) never stands alone. Real faith works. Real faith changes us. Real faith in the heart can be seen in the hands and feet.

Strength for the Journey: "Perfect Application" – Numbers 34 and 35

ice skating pairHave you ever watched the Winter Olympic Games, and seen two people gliding across the ice in perfect synchronization in an ice skating competition? The best of them are like two swans, floating across a ripple-less pond, beautiful in their graceful fluidity and elegant in their harmonized presentation. When you gaze at a performance executed at such a high level, you cannot help but be mesmerized! Imagine the staggering number of hours of practice of each move, and the muscle control developed in each athlete that competes. This is not a development of brute force of simple powerful muscle release – or power lifters would make great ice skaters! This is power developed under very specific controls; skill honed to precise movements and measures. Ice skating duos may well represent some of the top form in controlled strength and trained muscle use.

My problem is that I don’t know how to ice skate well, and though their movements appear elegant to me, I don’t have the training to really comprehend if they are moving correctly. In fact, their form may not be nearly as skilled as I give them credit for, because I am not up to the task of judging them appropriately. I am uninformed in the principles of the task, and ignorant of the rules of each maneuver. What I DO know is what I think about the beauty of each turn, each toss, and each spin. If feelings evoked were the standard, I would score them differently than the judges in many cases.

How are the skaters judged? On what basis can one get a “9.4” and another an “8.9” when both appeared to make the crowd very happy? The judges determine the value of the performance with an eye toward the assigned difficulty of each maneuver, as well as technical considerations on the execution of each part of the routine. They have a set of rules, another set of learned principles, and they apply them to the performance. It is rule bound, yet somewhat subjective — but never arbitrary. There can be disagreement in some part of the grading, but if it is graded properly – it is not simply “made up”.

I mention this, because as we open the story tucked near the end of the time of Moses’ leaderships of the people of Israel, we see a case where God set the same pattern for the walk of His people through the world. It will not all be nearly as graceful as ice skaters – that much is for sure – but it does follow a pattern. God’s people throughout the centuries often faced issues that required them to move beyond the simple application of a “black and white” written verse of Scripture – requiring a knowledge of the Word – but also a sense of God’s principles. Deciding specifics about an obedient life walking with the Lord is not always done by looking for a verse that mentions the subject. A great many modern problems are not specifically mentioned in the text of the Word, but the underlying principles revealing God’s desire are CLEARLY in the text.

Let’s say it this way: There are definite fixed RULES in the Word of God, but that won’t solve an issue not specified without more study of underlying principle. I must learn, as a follower of Jesus, what HE is like, in order to understand WHAT PLEASES HIM. I must not heed the voices of those who try to use grace as an abstraction to fixed truth, in order to license what God does not. Yet, I have to admit that not everything is as simple as “following the rules”. Many standards for following God are not as simple as standing by the yard stick at the carnival ride to show that I am tall enough to get entry – the Scriptures reveal obedience to be found in greater complexity – not always a simple “yes” or “no”. Why? Because a walk with God is a relationship, and relationships are more complex than qualifying for a carnival ride. Texts like Numbers 34 and 35 help illustrate a more accurate way for a believer to live in both obedience to God’s standard, and sensitivity to His direction in their daily walk.

Key Principle: Though the boundaries of God’s Word are absolute, the application of the principles must be made with discernment by God’s people to His revealed principles.

That explains why so much of the Bible is written in moralistic stories that are so messy. One day Jacob is walking the life of a trickster, the next he is facing God in a vision of a stairway to Heaven. Even later, he is stopping off at a prostitute’s tent beside a dirt path. His life, like the lives of all of the Biblical characters is froth with right and wrong turns – and the path helps us learn by example what we would otherwise only know by painful experience. To illustrate this truth, let’s start by observing the contents of the passage in Numbers 34 and 35:

• Numbers 34 is a record of two things: 1) the boundaries of the land as specified by God (34:1-15) and 2) the appointed people who God held responsible for making judgments and apportioning property (34:16-29).

• Numbers 35 is also a record of two things: 1) the division of special apportioned cities for the sons of Levi (35:1-8) and 2) specific commands regarding trials over accidental death.

These sound like four random stories, but they were organized together because they inform us of a very important truth of how God works in His people. They make clear that God sets boundaries, but knows those boundaries won’t answer every question of practical living – so He endorses a system of leadership and principle application to close the gap on what He specifically outlines.

Numbers 34 and the Boundary Lesson

As our text opens, we get a carefully recorded instruction on the borders of the land they were to conquer – the so-called “WHAT” portion. It begins with God’s simple instruction in 34:1:

Numbers 34:1 “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as an inheritance, even the land of Canaan according to its borders.

The Call to Attention

When you read these words, it is clear what God has commanded. I have a land already marked out for you – and here it is. YOU don’t choose to take, let’s say, the Hittite lands of Turkey, or the Aramean lands of Syria – they aren’t for you. THIS is what I have selected for you. That seems simple – but it really isn’t. For a great many followers of Jesus, their problem starts with WILLFUL IGNORANCE. They simply don’t ASK God, by listening to His already prescribed words, what He wants.

Susie finds a man in the office very appealing. He is handsome, kind and makes her feel like she is special. Her heart speeds up when he comes near. The sound of his voice touches her like nothing she ever experienced before. She knows that he is the ONE for her. The only problem is that he has already married another. Yet, she rationalizes, he seems so unhappy. She calls in and yells at him. She doesn’t seem to see in him what Suzie does. She ignores God’s land boundary, and reaches to pull him in, all the while popping into church on a Sunday morning, vacillating between feeling guilty and hoping she can talk God into her plan. She wants the blessing of God’s land, but she wants it in another territory.

Let’s make it crystal clear to all the Suzies that may be working a rationalization out there – God knows what He wants. He lays the boundaries and will not be talked into redrawing the lines because of pressure. Remember: God has no peers, so He feels no peer pressure. He places boundaries because they are the way He intends things to work best for all involved. Suzie may not see it, but the child of the object of her affection will have his young life forever altered if she acts selfishly, and violates the God-placed fences.

Numbers 34 then marks out the general lines of the fences. Since all my students know that I love Bible geography, they will recognize the deep temptation I had to explain each of the regions mentioned in 35:3-5 that follow the southern deserts of the land of Promise.

  • Suffice it to say the land stretched across from the southern end of the Dead Sea in the Aravah to the Rafiah border, with a border that swept southward in the center to reach to the edges of the Paran desert south of Wadi Zin.
  • The western edge was the Mediterranean Sea up to Lebanon (34:6).
  • The northern border stretched from the Mediterranean to the Hermon range, across what is southern Lebanon today (34:7-9).
  • The eastern border included all of the Sea of Galilee (Chinnereth) and largely followed the Jordan River, as the border does today (34:10-12).

The Lesson of Borders

As you keep reading, God reiterates that He has given a standard for the border. He knows where He wants the fences to be placed. Exodus 34:13-15 record:

So Moses commanded the sons of Israel, saying, “This is the land that you are to apportion by lot among you as a possession, which the Lord has commanded to give to the nine and a half tribes. For the tribe of the sons of Reuben have received theirs according to their fathers’ households, and the tribe of the sons of Gad according to their fathers’ households, and the half- tribe of Manasseh have received their possession. The two and a half tribes have received their possession across the Jordan opposite Jericho, eastward toward the sun rising.”

Beyond IGNORANCE, there is another very important lesson to every believer. Don’t get caught up in the geography and miss the real lesson. The emphasis of the text was not simply on the lines of the border, but on the WAY the border was determined. God set the parameters of the inheritance. He snipped at the edges of the maps to tell them what they had to work with to build a homeland that would please Him.

What was true of the timing of their birth and death, their gender at birth and their parentage was also true of their land inheritance – the parameters were set by God. At the same time, they WERE to use judgment concerning specifics within those set guidelines.

Yet, it is worth noting that God didn’t fix the borders so tightly that everything was specified. The land was filled with mountains and valleys, so the borders between the few places that were named required the people to settle the edges of each border and discern the best defensible path for the border. This is one of the KEY PROBLEMS for those who choose to focus on religious life, rather than a walk with God – a relational experience with the Lord of the every day. God WANTS every believer to face making JUDGMENTS in daily life based on the principles that He outlines. He doesn’t want us to follow a list of rules and then come to Him demanding Heaven because we kept the rules and scored enough points to get in. He wants a RELATIONSHIP, not some religious rule-keeping game that we can so easily fall into.

Let me ask you a pointed question: Is your focus on your faith about pleasing Jesus in daily life, or about keeping the rules well? Is the point of your Christian life about how WRONG people are in their choices, or about how SAD it is they are missing the JOY of walking with Jesus today, and experiencing HIM?

Keeping it Simple

In many cases, people COULD make sound judgment about how to mark out specific cases of property. The easiest places were those who lived along the shore line, since the rules were clearest there – the border is where the water meets the land. They didn’t need a committee to apply the rules, the surf made the judgment for them!

Here is a great lesson of its own: Younger believers should be kept from the edges of judgment that requires great discernment – help them to stay within the obvious places. Many people abstain from practices like drinking, dancing or watching certain movies or TV shows during the growing stages of their faith. That is as it should be. What is NOT correct, is to assume that is the standard mark of maturity – it is NOT. For instance, if I had the skill, I could dance with my wife – and nothing bad would result – regardless of those who believe I would somehow be violating a fence. Check the Scripture carefully, there is no violation in dancing with your life’s partner. The point of violation can be found when certain kinds of touch are applied to non-spouses – and that is where the normal dangers come into play. At the same time, with the skill level I DO have, however, nothing GOOD would result. Mature believers recognize danger areas and need to develop a sense of God’s direction in the principles of the Word. Abstaining is a great starting place, but not the goal. Discernment is the goal. If God indicates that your participation in something violates what He is pleased with – you must be able to set it aside – no matter what everyone else feels licensed to do. He has a plan for YOU, and you may be under the Nazarite vow of abstention because something special is planned for your life. Don’t run around judging everyone else – obey God wholly and wait for His called expectantly. If you are a young believer – stay away from the fences that require great discernment – God has provided voices that will help direct you.

The Lesson of Leaders

Not all of Numbers 34 is a geographical survey – in fact the bulk of it is about PEOPLE, and not LAND. It isn’t enough to have general parameters of a border, and then allow the people to fight out how they think the lines should work along any valley or mountain. There is a need for responsible leadership if the general parameters are going to be properly applied in specific cases. With that in mind, we next read the WHO section. Not everyone would be able to make such determinations, so the second part of the chapter deals with WHO would ultimately be responsible for the choices (34:16-29).

34:16 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “These are the names of the men who shall apportion the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun.

The ultimate responsibility for the whole land apportioning project fell to a partnership between the civil authority invested in Joshua and the priestly responsibility invested in Eleazar, son of Aaron. These two worked in tandem to determine the military necessities, and the spiritual realities. I recognize the blend of “church and state” was one for a particular time and place, but it is easy in our modern culture to mistake the division for something it never was intended to become. The cry for “secularism” in modern culture is actually a cry for moral relativism in our day. We live in a time of vast social experimentation, applying rights where there are none, and making right, what is Biblically and morally outside of any reasonable defense beyond the simple standard, “I want to!” God made it clear – secular authority that ignores spiritual principles will become something abusive and ugly – so He placed the two together to be responsible.

Leaders are simply people, and they need checks and balances, as well as breaks. With that in mind, in addition to the two men, Eleazar and Joshua, the text spread out in “post-Jethro” thinking, the tasks of administration over key men from each tribe (34:18-29), and that record is given to us with each of their names:

Numbers 35:18 “You shall take one leader of every tribe to apportion the land for inheritance. These are the names of the men:of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Of the tribe of the sons of Simeon, Samuel the son of Ammihud. Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. Of the tribe of the sons of Dan a leader, Bukki the son of Jogli. Of the sons of Joseph:of the tribe of the sons of Manasseh a leader, Hanniel the son of Ephod. Of the tribe of the sons of Ephraim a leader, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. Of the tribe of the sons of Zebulun a leader, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. Of the tribe of the sons of Issachar a leader, Paltiel the son of Azzan. Of the tribe of the sons of Asher a leader, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. Of the tribe of the sons of Naphtali a leader, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” These are those whom the Lord commanded to apportion the inheritance to the sons of Israel in the land of Canaan.

Here we see EXACTLY what Jethro called for with Moses years before at Mt. Horeb. Smart administration is shared administration. Teams offer some of the best management solutions. There is, in every major endeavor, the need for leadership, which is generally in the hands of an individual or two, and there is management which is best when distributed to the hands of many qualified people. Leadership is about vision and direction, while management is about accomplishing the specific tasks in a “nuts and bolts” practical fashion. Not everyone can point the direction, but many can solve the daily issues required to accomplish it.

Applying the Discernment

By now, some students of the Bible might begin to wonder about why God preserved this portion of the narrative for people beyond the day it was verbally delivered. It was a legal document of that generation, but why should we care about the division of the land of an inheritance that is not ours, and never will be. The answer is simple – the passage is a set up for what follows. Numbers 34 reminds us that God set up the general lines, and then left the people to operate within those lines based on the principles outlined in His Word – in their case the laws from Mt. Sinai, and the Deuteronomic laws of Mt. Nebo. As Numbers 35 opens, we can see this system at work in two essential cases:

• The distribution of the Levites in the land (35:1-5).
• The operation of the “cities of refuge” for those who argue a manslaughter defense in accidental death (35:6-29).

The text takes the easier one first, as it records God’s command to provide for the Levitical distribution in the land (35:1-5):

Numbers 35:1 “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, 2 “Command the sons of Israel that they give to the Levites from the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall give to the Levites pasture lands around the cities. 3 The cities shall be theirs to live in; and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle and for their herds and for all their beasts. 4 “The pasture lands of the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall extend from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits around. 5 You shall also measure outside the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, with the city in the center. 5 This shall become theirs as pasture lands for the cities… 7 All the cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be forty- eight cities, together with their pasture lands. 8 As for the cities which you shall give from the possession of the sons of Israel, you shall take more from the larger and you shall take less from the smaller; each shall give some of his cities to the Levites in proportion to his possession which he inherits.”

Look closely at the commands of the Lord. God offered the COMMAND to the tribes to make the cities available (35:1-2), explained their purpose (35:3), then specified in exacting detail the land marked outside each city that was to belong to the Levitical land (35:4-5,7-8).

Move in closer: First, it was not given to the Levites to go and TAKE the land from the tribes; the tribal leaders were to cede the land to the Levites so they could develop forty-two cities, spread over the tribal territories (35:1-2). Levi’s children were to live amidst the other tribes with no distinct land allotment beyond these cities. They were to travel to and from the national sanctuary from a city within the boundary of each tribe, serving God uniquely among their fellow countrymen. The people of the other tribes needed to value and respect God’s plan for their spiritual leaders in order for those leaders to be effective. No spiritual leader could TAKE from the families what the families were unwilling to give to them.

In a very real way, the same is true today. As a Pastor, I can only lead those who let me do so. I cannot compel people to follow me, I can only continue to speak into the lives of those who choose to hear the instruction from the Word that we offer in this place. People must ultimately assume responsibility for their own spiritual growth, their own obedience and their own depth of understanding. The Pastoral role is one of equipping the believers to accomplish the work of the ministry. It involves casting vision for a specific way to accomplish the task, and careful instruction of God’s Word to set the boundaries. When that is done consistently and carefully, the Spirit uses that instruction to pull the hearts of believers to the tasks He has gifted them to accomplish. Yet, the process is a voluntary one. Only those who choose to learn, who choose to identify their giftedness, and who choose to submit to God’s call in their life will be best used of Him. All our lives count, but many will never have the joy of experiencing God’s powerful hand using them to accomplish great things, based on their own identification of His call, and yielded-ness to His empowering as their call unfolds in daily life.

In addition to that truth, we must also recall that they were to work and live as others did, caring for their households, albeit without a tribal allotment (35:3-4). They were to be shepherds, a worthy craft for those who would lead and care for the people of Israel. They were to care for the sanctuary of Israel, but they also needed to develop patience to care for her people as well. Shepherding offered them long hours of watchful caring practice that set them up perfectly for God’s intended spiritual work.

Think for a moment about what made a successful shepherd. They needed to be on guard against those hungry animals that would snatch away the weak of the flock. They needed to aware of the pains and distractions of the flock. They needed to develop an ear for the bleeting of the sheep – knowing which sound was that of something real and which was just fussing. All of that would be helpful in ministry to the people of Israel.

For those of you who lead people, and those who minister to others in leadership roles at every level of ministry, it is important to remember. If the sheep are hungry, they are unsettled. You must feed them. As they grow, their needs will change, and you will need to keep a watchful eye on the various stages of those in the flock. You need to offer greater food to those who consume it and use it well, and food that is easier to swallow for those who are young in their understanding. Part of the joy of ministry is to get to know those you lead, and enjoy the many ways God is using situations and other people to shape them into well-balanced and productive people for His glory.

If you read the verses that I skipped in our reading, you are aware there is the explanation of the provision and function of “the cities of refuge” (35:6, 9-29)” Numbers 35:6 recalls the command to provide the six cities as follows: 6 “The cities which you shall give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, which you shall give for the manslayer to flee to; and in addition to them you shall give forty- two cities.” Six of the forty-eight cities were clearly set aside for those who were involved in a slaying that could be deemed an accidental death. The Civil Code of Law in Exodus 21 specified the conditions of declaring a death accidental, and made clear the conditions of that judgment. In the case of an accidental death, the slayer was to move from his home to a city of refuge, and await trial by the congregation of Israel. If the death truly was deemed accidental, and not premeditated murder, they were told to remain there until the death of the high priest who held the office at the time of his sentence. If they chose not to do so, they risked retribution from the family of the one that had died at their hand. While remaining in the city of refuge, they could not be harmed. After “release” they also were untouchable to the injured family. The cities became self-exile points, with their own lands for raising crops and pasturing sheep and goats.

The Example: Discerning from both Word (Law) and Principle

The rest of Exodus 35 unfolded the proper use of the Levitical places of refuge, and the proper time to convict a murderer. It would be easy to get caught up in every detail of the text, and miss the bigger lesson it offers. Let me caution every student of the Word. God is unfolding something important to spiritual understanding that is not just a web of intricate details.

God offered this instruction beginning in Numbers 35:9-34, First, He opened with When the law should be enacted. God said the cities should be a part of the initial planning of the tribes when they get to the land of promise (9-12). Why? Because they are essential!

35:9 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. 12 The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial.

The Need for a Plan: The time to learn the principles of a walk with God are BEFORE the situation arises. Planning is a God thing. Saving for a rainy day isn’t pessimism, because rainy days WILL COME. Outlining general ways to face some possible trouble shows wisdom and maturity. Living paycheck to paycheck is a disaster in the making. Here is the point: People WILL get hurt, and even killed. There has to be a mechanism to care for what comes next.

13 The cities which you are to give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities across the Jordan and three cities in the land of Canaan; they are to be cities of refuge… 19 The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him…21 or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and [as a result] he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

The Need for a Process: The verses describe places where the tribes were to select six cities (13) that were superintended by the Levites as a place of REFUGE (miqlat) so that a BLOOD AVENGER cannot bring about penalty without proper trial. The blood redeemer is the GAAL, a word for redeemer that is upholding the “blood for blood” standard of 35:19 and 21. Here is one of the greatest misunderstanding Christians bring to their reading of the LAW. God didn’t say that wanting to see an injustice righted was the definition of VENGEANCE – it was NOT.

Vengeance was the desire to take the place of GOD in harming another because of the pain they inflicted upon you. When God prescribed in the Torah a legal mechanism of the death penalty, and then prescribed the one who represented the wounded family to personally take part – He provided a resolution with JUSTICE. Vengeance was the desire to operate as a vigilante in the place of God, not to be satisfied when the Biblically proper methods were used to right wrong. “Vengeance is MINE” said the Lord. For that reason, He instituted methods for governments to care for injustice, and warned those kings who would not act to do so. At the same time, He instituted DUE PROCESS, and delay of action and declaration of a need for a TRIAL by the congregation of Israel. Vengeance is to justice what punishment is to discipline – one is God-ordained, the other is flesh driven.

The Parameters for Judgment

As you finish out the passage, there are strict parameters set between those who could appeal to the process, and those who could not:

15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.

The Requirement of Equity: It didn’t matter if you were a citizen, only that you were in the land when the event happened (35:15).

16 But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 17 If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and [as a result] he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and [as a result] he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. 20 If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and [as a result] he died, 21 or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and [as a result] he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; 22 But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or threw something at him without lying in wait, 23 or with any deadly object of stone, and without seeing it dropped on him so that he died, while he was not his enemy nor seeking his injury,

The Exclusion of Tools: I didn’t matter the intent if it was done with a tool – the person was guilty or MURDER. Therefore, if a tool struck another of metal (barzel in 35:16 is used of an axe or chain), or of stone (even) or wood (etz), the case was considered murder. This would have the net effect of making people VERY CAREFUL in the use of tools! In cases of murder, execution was to be carried out, if at all possible, with the nearest responsible relative of the injured party’s involvement (35:19,21). The issue was NOT malicious premeditation versus “crime of passion” – BOTH were considered murder. The issue in 35:20-23 was totally unintentional contact that resulted in death. Those who unintentionally killed another by unintended contact (shegagah of 35:11 is the word for “in error”; from shagag, to go astray or sin).

24 then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the blood avenger according to these ordinances. 25 The congregation shall deliver the manslayer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he fled; and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, 27 and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood 28because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession. 29 These things shall be for a statutory ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 30 If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31 Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. 32 You shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD am dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel.‘”

The Rules for Trials: In cases of pleaded unintended contact, there were rules for the trial that included: 1) Multiple witnesses (35:30); 2) No bond or delay for murderer (35:31); 3) No bond for those who fled refuge place (35:32).

The passage ends with three statements that are the essential issues:

1. The land is profaned (chaneph) or polluted by unjust blood guilt (35:33).
2. There is no appropriate satisfaction (expiation is the word kaphar) apart from the blood for blood formula (35:33).
3. The real issue is that the crime was not simply man on man, it was an attack on God’s creation. The sin was an act of further rebellion, not just an inhumane act (35:34).

By the end, we arrive back at our principle – that God establishes parameters and leadership structures, and then expects us to operate within them as best we are able. The Word of God offers the fixed principle, but not the specifics of judgment in each case. General boundaries must be filled in by people who seek to follow God’s commands. Cases will arise that are not immediately clear, but God gave not only His Word, but our minds to discern the application of His principles, and our leadership structures to help make sense of the conflicting views.
Let me ask you to think of life in a different way than those who do not know Christ as Savior. Imagine that your life is not only about other PEOPLE you may offend, but about God Who knows every thought of your heart. He is the One Who gave you life. He gave you the air you breathe. He gave you the beautiful sunsets and the cool morning dew. He swept His hands across the land and gave us the canyons, prairies and cool river streams. He stretched out the stars of the Heavens as a canopy above us. He did all this – and He loves you. Not only does He love you, but He loves the rest of the people on the planet. He cares for sparrows that fall and hurting people who lay in hospital beds. He grows the infant to be the active toddler. He strokes the hairs of the lonely widow in the still of the night. He is a deeply caring, outlandishly loving God. He loves His creation.

When one harms another, He is deeply wounded. He is not unable to care for the situation – and one day He will right every wrong. He KNOWS justice. He KNOWS truth. He knows LIES and He knows HIDING. Does that make you want to pull closer to Him, or are you looking for a place to HIDE from HIM? The answer to that question will likely indicate to you whether you are trying to apply His Word and draw near to Him, or whether you are making up your own rules and hoping He won’t notice.

Though the boundaries of God’s Word are absolute, the application of the principles must be made with discernment by God’s people to His revealed principles.

Renewing Our Resolve: “Fitting People Together” – Colossians 4:7-18

hold handsSitting in the room as the man took his final breath, I held his hand. I watched as those who loved him throughout these last days of his life wept, held each other, and sought the comfort of another amid the searing pain of loss. The last few weeks, with their joys and laughter over shared memories, as well as their deep pains – piercing outward after a long burial in the back of the family closet – were now brought to a peak as the one around whom they gathered made a quiet exit from the body and the room. The pent up emotional anticipation could now be released in a tumble of tears. There was pain, but there was sweetness in that place. You could feel the blanket of soft tenderness and the warmth of love behind the pain of parting. These were people who were, in part, held together by the one they had just lost. These were those who had common experiences, shared life happenings built around one who was now represented by the empty chair.

Our lives are a puzzle of people and events that fit together uniquely from the vantage point of our own heart view. Yet, they are more than that. We can neither fully grasp the meaning of people in our lives in real time, nor do we often see the point in many of life’s moments – until our lives are completed and we are in the presence of our Savior. Not only that, but we can forget the size of our attachment to each other. In Christ, we have a vast family that extends beyond the biological one – a community not bounded to a spot on the globe. We are a part of something that extends outward around the world, and backward through time – we are connected to “the communion of the saints” now in the presence of the Savior. We are linked to a fraternity that is broad in its size and varied in its makeup and deep in its connection around common values of our one Father. We find the wholeness of our identity in Jesus – One not represented by an empty chair –but by an empty TOMB. It’s true, as followers of Jesus, we are a family of sorts – with all its laughter, its beauty and all its embarrassing moments.

Key Principle: A proper walk with Jesus is about fitting life together with other believers, and making an impact together that we cannot make alone.

Paul knew ministry was about TEAM. He knew that his life was an essay in working together, sharing together and accomplishing together. The end of virtually every letter of Paul was about the people he was connected to in Christ, and his desires and hopes for them. Look at the close to the Colossian letter:

Colossians 4:7 As to all my affairs, Tychicus, [our] beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. 8 [For] I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; 9 and with him Onesimus, [our] faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your [number]. They will inform you about the whole situation here. 10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and [also] Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him); 11 and [also] Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. 13 For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis. 14 Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and [also] Demas. 15 Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and also Nympha and the church that is in her house. 16 When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter [that is coming] from Laodicea. 17 Say to Archippus, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” 18 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment. Grace be with you.

Look at the list of people Paul mentioned.

Ambassadors: Some were with him until he sent them with this letter: Tychicus and Onesimus (the runaway slave who also carried his own letter to his master Philemon).

Local Coworkers: Some remained behind, like Aristarchus, the fellow prisoner. Others stayed with Paul as much as possible to help him, like Epaphras the prayer warrior, Luke the physician, and Demas another companion.

Disciples and Assistants: Some were in Paul’s presence, but may have left him in Rome by the time the letter was received in Colossae, because Paul directed them on errands, like John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas and Jesus called Justus – some Jewish believers that encouraged Paul in his condition.

Family far away: Some were on the receiving end of the letter, like Nympha the hostess and Archippus, a local church leader.

So that we don’t get lost in the list of people, let’s identify that Paul outlined seven types of people in the community of faith that are essential in navigating life well with Jesus before a lost world. We cannot do it alone, and we are not natural about the attachment of the Spirit in a fallen world. We must recognize the unity God gave us, and then endeavor to strengthen it.

Seven Brothers and Sisters Essential to Navigating Life Well

1: Loving brothers:

The first kind of partner in life you and I need are what I am simply calling LOVING BROTHERS OR SISTERS. Here he included Tychicus (4:7) who was called “beloved brother” (agapes adelphos) as well as Onesimus (4:9) who was also addressed by that title. Luke was mentioned in this way as “beloved” (4:14).

We all know we need loving family to grow in Jesus. Our lives are interconnected, and what we become is often very related to WHO we have partnered with to grow. For Paul’s circle, one man was a doctor, (Luke) another man was a freeborn Roman (Tychicus) and the other a runaway slave found by Jesus (Onesimus). It didn’t matter how they came INTO the faith, what level of capability they had to help the others or what baggage they brought – it matters that they found in each other a family, and in God’s love a home. They found a place where people could LOVE them while they learned to grow into their walk with Jesus. Love isn’t the sole foundation of our walk together, however. It is important we recall that Peter carefully sketched out, under the Divine move of God’s Spirit, “God’s process for us in following Him together” as expressed in 2 Peter 1:

1:5-7 offers clear and eight deliberate steps should a believer should take to grow as a part of the body of Christ:

1. It all starts with Faith (pistis) the vision of what God says is true. A believer must conform our personal opinions and ideas to what God says in His Word, or we will be tossed about and not able to build on that foundation. These ideas form a new “world view” that is Biblical. The method is the transformation of our minds through the careful understanding of God’s Word.

2. Next, I must add to this Biblical world view specific chosen acts of moral excellence (areetay) a word from metallurgy that was commonly used for purity. My Biblically shaped world view must show in my moral choices and acts of truth and purity. Believers who live immorally cannot grow properly. Choices affect proper growth spiritually as dramatically as abuses of the body affect proper growth phytsically. One mirrors the other.

3. As I continue to grow, I must next focus on adding knowledge, (gnosis: add learning strategies and life experiences that enhance specifics of God’s teachings and wise experience). The experience of the Christian life is to be a shared experience. I can’t accomplish God’s desire for me if I don’t spend time with those who know more about how to be successful in the walk – it is the best way to grow.

4. Surrounded by others and walking in that Biblical world view, I need to focus on the constant discipline of self-control, (eng-kratia: one who masters his impulses) I must learn strategies to control impulses for God). Even though I will increasingly shape a more Biblical world view, it will be constantly challenged by my rebellious and undisciplined nature. I need to learn how to address that part of me as well. This will include learning to control my thought life, my mouth, and my behaviors.

5. Dealing with my disciplines I will be challenged by life’s difficulties. For these I must learn to persevere, (hupo-meno: stand by the difficult and remain under rather than try to escape the uncomfortable). I will want to quit, but I must stand under the load and not abandon my post. Those who go the distance see the prize, those who quit half way see only the troubles of the journey.

6. While I stand at my post and pass through troubles, I will deepen in reverence under God’s gentle and powerful hand. I will learn to see God and revere Him in a deeper way, (godliness: eusebace; reverence and worship). It takes experience with God to really appreciate Who He is and what He has done.

There is a common error in our churches that must be addressed. Many want to start with some form of musical or emotional worship today, but Peter makes clear that real worship is built on other things that must be settled first. This list in 2 Peter 1 is an ORDERED ONE. Coming to WORSHIP and seeking God is preceded by BELIEF in what He says, MORAL CHOICES that are in harmony with what He said, LIVING STRATEGIES of His Word, CONTROLLED IMPULSES in my lifestyle, and an understanding that it may take PERSEVERANCE to really connect with God amidst the distractions of life. Worship isn’t easy, but nothing that is truly impacting and extremely important is!

I am not suggesting that a believer needs to be PERFECT to worship – or none of us would. I am suggesting that the soul mimics the Spirit, and we will not be sure that we are, in fact, acceptably worshiping and effectively seeking God if we start with that.

7. When I really am experiencing God’s grace and worshiping His presence in my life, I will have endurance and grace in my striving with others. (Phildelphos: brotherly kindness, operate in grace to pull others up). How I treat others is a reflection of my walk with God. Bad relationships are a symptom of a deeper problem, not the key problem, and that was James’ point in the fighting between believers in the early Messianic movement.

8. When I am experiencing God’s power and grace, and I am reflecting His attitudes in my life, I am able to give myself away to love. (agape: unconditional and whole love; wholly caring for others before self). A right application of true love comes from a whole and complete lover. My maturity has everything to do with my ability to truly love another. If we start with LOVE, we may be attracted in LUST and not in God’s love. Moral choices will be compromised as we miss-order the list we were given.

In public discourse, the Bible follower has been placed on the defensive as more and more people are applying a misconstrued idea about what LOVE. In almost any discussion about moral limits in the public forum today, someone echoes the notion that Christian’s shouldn’t JUDGE, but they should LOVE as Jesus and His Disciples taught. That brand of so-called love is applied liberally to force acceptance of any practice that has been historically shunned by Bible believers, even when the practice is clearly outlined in the text of Scripture as reprehensible to God. Is that really LOVE as Scripture teaches? The text argues clearly that it is not. Peter said it ever so clearly in the beginning of his second epistle. He URGED LOVE – but a love that was defined and clear. He claimed that TRUE LOVE sits on TOP OF OTHER UNDERLYING TRUTHS.

Peter claims that TRUE LOVE must be based on a Biblical world view (he used the term “faith”, corresponding moral choices (“virtue”), knowledgeable strategies of working them out, self-mastery, perseverance, reverence, and practical kindness. He claims that people who violate that progression and try to put LOVE first will become unproductive and unsure of their true relationship with Jesus. That’s his argument, and it makes sense to anyone who has children. Love places limits or lives with the consequences of unruly and unwholesome living. The call for LOVE today is often nothing more than a version of TOLERANCE of behaviors that were unacceptable in the Scriptures – redressed in a garb called “love” – but it is a charlatan’s trick.

The list Peter provided clearly illustrates that Biblical love isn’t an inoffensive, warm and fuzzy tolerance – it is genuine caring about everyone’s welfare by following God’s declarations of the clear fences that mark proper conduct and unacceptable behavior.

In the end, we need loving partners, but that isn’t as simple as it would seem. It includes people that have been deliberate about their growth in Jesus, and have been following the path He placed before us. The bottom line is this: we need loving brothers and sisters to hold us up when our arms are too tired to do what we were called to do.

2: Faithful partners:

Tychicus is mentioned as FAITHFUL (4:7) and again Onesimus (4:9), but the list continued. Jesus called Justus was included (4:11). Epaphras was called out in a particular area of faithfulness – prayers for their completion in Christ and understanding of God’s will for each of them (4:12). It didn’t matter how far they were from one another – they could lift the other before God though miles away. Faithful partnering isn’t always about physical presence, but it is ALWAYS about consistent and deliberate help to the other.

The term FAITHFUL is “pistós” (an adjective that is derived from peíthō, “persuaded”). The word is used interchangeably with loyalty to the faith. Don’t skip the derivation of the word. I walk in faithfulness when I am FULLY PERSUADED of the rightness of the path, and the benefit of endurance.

• People leave a marriage because they are NO LONGER PERSUADED they cannot live without their partner.

• People become disloyal to their country, and trade secrets, because they are no longer persuaded the nation they have served is worthy of their trust.

• People leave a company because they no longer believe that work environment will offer them what they truly want in advancement and environment.

Faithfulness is rooted in being persuaded. Faithfulness to God is rooted in true and honest belief that God is Who He says He is, and will do what He says He will do. You need people in your life that have that long view of God. David Owens illustrates God’s ability to do what He said:

A man named Russell Edward Herman left trillions of dollars to thousands of people he’d never met. What was the catch? Russell Edward Herman didn’t have trillions of dollars. He was just a simple, poor carpenter. While the wild, wild will of the late Russell Herman never paid off for his “beneficiaries,” it certainly enlivened conversations. Take the tiny Ohio River town of Cave-In-Rock, for example. Herman bequeathed $2.41 billion to them. Cave-In-Rock’s mayor, Albert Kaegi had this to say, “It’s an odd thing to happen, isn’t it?” While the will would never pay off, the mayor had no trouble imagining uses for the willed imaginary monies. Russell Edward Herman had great intentions, but he lacked the resources needed to make them a reality. The greatness of God, however, stands in sharp contrast. God not only has made great and precious promises, He has the ability to follow through on every single one of them.

Faithfulness to God is rooted deeply in persuasion ABOUT God. If He is able to deliver on salvation, following Him is worthwhile. If I am not convinced, then why would I give up the pleasure of living for self for this season in the hope that He will see my surrendered heart? I simply wouldn’t.

Faithful partners in Christ are people who are first faithful to the Master, and then as a consequence of that belief faithful to serving a brother or a sister. If the faithfulness to Christ isn’t first, the enemy will be able to introduce something into the relationship – a hindrance or trouble – that will wedge between you. The faithfulness will fail when the enemy is able to convince either or both of you that you are being taken. All it takes to destroy the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is for the enemy to convince Naomi that Ruth is only her friend to get her farm and her heritage. If Naomi believed the poison, the book would have finished entirely differently.

Here is the warning: surround yourself with people who are endeavoring to be faithful to Christ in their choices, and who will push you to be as well. Don’t let the enemy fill your ears with ulterior motives – spend time with them, and cherish them. Affirm every faithful step they take and stay close to them.

3: Encouraging guides:

Along with those who will faithfully partner is the mention of one who needed encouragement to continue to follow Christ with their full efforts – like Archippus (4:17). He was apparently tempted to distraction from fully working out his giftedness in faithful service. The warning of Paul was a public one, read in the openness of the assembly as an encouragement to stay by the task assigned to him. Many BEGIN serving Jesus, but some need to be encouraged to STAY WITH the task until it has been completed in and through them. Paul used his gift of exhortation to warm and guide him.

For those who possess exhortation as a gift, we must be warned: the gift of exhortation can become caustic if not immersed in the control of the Spirit of God. That same gift was dispensed because it is essential to the fitting together of the body. Exhortation must be tempered by wisdom, and that comes with experience. If God has gifted you with the ability to see clearly where others cannot, and speak to the issue effectively when others do not – you must steward the gift very carefully – so that you don’t become unnecessarily critical and unduly harsh.

Remember that people in our “always affirm” society don’t handle criticism very well, so it must be delivered carefully. Most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. We also need to do a personal eye check for logs before we start exhorting anyone about anything. We need to have God at work in us, in a way that others can tell we are truly speaking for their good, and not out of our annoyance. Vance Havner once rightly said: “We are not going to move this world by criticism of it nor conformity to it, but by combustion within it of lives ignited by the Spirit of God.”

People are hungry for encouragers today – not just hollow affirmers. I treasure people who give difficult feedback to me, and some of you do as well. Encouragement keeps us looking forward, because we feel like a team is PULLING FOR US. Encouragement keeps us smiling in a world that is frowning. In “Laugh Again”, Chuck Swindoll made the observation: “I know of no greater need today than the need for joy. Unexplainable, contagious joy. Outrageous joy…Unfortunately, our country seems to have lost its spirit of fun and laughter. Recently, a Brazilian student studying at a nearby university told me that what amazes him most about Americans is their lack of laughter. I found myself unable to refute his criticism”. We are not just sad because we forgot how to laugh. Americans are worried. They are nervous. It is time for believers to learn to encourage, and fill our rooms again with laughter!

4: Competent companions:

Some people are particularly encouraging because they are LIKE US in some important way. For Paul, three men represented the Jewish believers – Aristarchus, Mark and Yeshua called Justus. We need people who understand our background, our thinking, our needs – they will encourage us in deep and significant ways. Paul had some Messianic believers around him that understood the lifestyle of a Jew in the Roman world.

It isn’t wrong for you to seek to be with those who are like you. You should always be kind and hospitable, but it isn’t a flaw that you prefer to hang out with people that are similar in background and culture to you. That is natural, ever since the Tower of Babel yielded divisions into nationalism. Those who know how we are raised are often able to speak more deeply into our hearts. That is no secret. If multi-culturalism has taught us ANYTHING, it should teach us that we don’t understand as much as we think we do about other people around the planet, and other cultures they come from. Truly competent people know their limitations. Unfortunately, there are a lot of incompetent people out there today. I read this last week:

Most incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent. In fact, researcher Dr. David A. Dunning of Cornell University reports that people who are incompetent are more confident of their abilities than competent people. Dunning and his associate Justin Krueger believe that skills required for competence are the same skills necessary to recognize that ability. Krueger writes in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Not only do [incompetent people] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” SOURCE: Hank Simon, Catch-22 of Incompetence, Belleville, Illinois. Citation: New York Times News Service, Belleville [Illinois] News-Democrat (1-18-00.)

Even in our own country we are having trouble speaking to each other. Why would we believe we truly understand those half a world away after a thirty second news segment? Brothers and sisters, we must be slower to conclude that we understand things. Too many people are making decisions that shouldn’t be – and too many decisions are being made that are damaging our future. You see, in a democracy, good will without competence and competence without good will are both equivalent formulas for community disaster.

Our problem carries to the mission field as well, because we make a mistake when we think that we can casually adopt another world view and truly understand what someone else is saying because they have learned our language. We need to slow down and recognize that we may grasp their words, but entirely miss their meaning. Some of you know that I was almost married once, entirely by accident, because I thought the Arab community of East Jerusalem was just like my little town in New Jersey. It was a time that marked dramatic learning in my life.

We don’t need people who THINK they know us – but close friends that share life perspective – especially when we are hurting. We don’t want to have to explain from our pain. Truly competent team members know what you mean by the grunt of the groan. You need friends like this, and so did Paul.

5: Caring providers:

It appears, according to some records that Dr. Luke cared for Paul’s needs in his house arrest, and acted as an amanuensis, or secretary for Paul. Nympha (4:15) provided for believers in her home as a hostess for the local fellowship. Every believer needs these kinds of people in their lives – those who will see a need and not wait for a new program to start meeting it. Ministry is messy, and there are as many needs as there are people. Some of those who come in the door are deeply hurt by what life has delivered to them. They hurt in every direction. Some of YOU are gifted to be the caring providers.

Marc Axelrod mentioned this story in one of his writings: “There’s an old story about Dr. Benjamin Warfield. He was a theology professor at Princeton Seminary. While he was still at the height of his academic powers, his wife got sick. And she became an invalid. He took care of her for ten years. During that ten year period, he never spent more than 2 hours away from his wife. Even though she was handicapped, she still loved to read. And so Dr. Warfield would sit at her bedside day after day. And read to her. He was always gentle and caring with her. One day, someone asked him, “Have you ever thought about taking your wife to an institution?” Then you could write bigger books and have a bigger ministry.” But Dr. Warfield said, “No way. My wife is my ministry. I will never leave her side. I am going to love her and take care of her as long as God grants us life.”

Don’t we ALL hunger to have someone in our lives that will be that caring provider when what we add to their lives is so much less than what we ask for from them? We all need caring providers, and some of us are especially gifted to be one in the lives of those in the body around us.

6: Fellow servants:

Tychicus (4:7) and Epaphras (4:12) are noted as fellow slaves or servants. The term “doulos” that Paul routinely used of himself was a loaded term in a society where nearly half of all the empire was populated by slaves. Paul was BORN a free man of Rome, but DIED a slave of Jesus. No man or woman of God could want more. Yet some do… Demas (4:14) served for a time, but eventually peeled away from Paul (2 Timothy 4:9 “Make every effort to come to me soon; 10for Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens [has gone] to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.” The sad fact is that some will serve for a time, but be pulled away.

Slaves keep their tastes simple, and their eye on pleasing their Master. They are those who SEEK to find a way to help. They may have limitations, but they are undaunted in their zeal to live to please the Master.

Bishop J.C. Ryle, the first bishop of Liverpool, wrote about servants of Christ and said: “[Their] zeal is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way. A zealous man is preeminently a man of one thing. He is more than earnest, hearty, uncompromising, wholehearted, and fervent in spirit. He sees only one thing, cares about one thing, lives for one thing, swallowed up in one thing, and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives or dies, has health or has sickness, whether he is rich or poor, pleases people or gives offense, whether he is thought wise or foolish, gets the blame or the praise, whether he receives honor or is given shame, He burns for one thing, and that one thing is to please God. Such a one will always find a sphere for his zeal. If he cannot preach, he will work and give money, he will cry and sigh and pray. If he cannot fight in the valley with Joshua, he will hold up the hands of Moses until the battle is won.” (From a sermon by Robert Stone, The People God Can’t Forget: Nehemiah, 5/28/2011).

The church has produced clergy, professionals, publishers and prima donnas – but it lacks servants around the world. Are you one? We need them, and when we see them working – it is a breath of fresh air!

7: Fellow prisoners:

Aristarchus (4:10) was another believing prisoner that shared the hardships with Paul. Sometimes what you need more than anyone else is someone who has the same problems, same struggles, and same needs as you do. They may not be able to remove your need or satiate your hunger, but a shared sorrow is half a sorrow. Seek out those who understand, because they are going through it just as you are.

Widows, seek out those who have survived the process. Widowers, spend more time listening to those who have walked through the fire. If you are sick, make a prayer partner out of someone else who is, and call each other every day to chat for a few minutes. Hearing about someone else’s problems helps to keep life in balance. Sometimes you need a fellow prisoner to listen to your pain.

In the end, we need a variety of people – and we need to be at work helping others on our team… but we have a problem:

Every team in the NFL has players that know what their role is on the team. Some are part of the offense – the part of the team that puts points on the board. Others are part of the defense, those who hold back the opponent from moving the ball down the field in the “wrong” direction and scoring against their home team. What we are doing is MUCH MORE than a game – but it DOES have an opponent, and that opponent does have a team. He has a strategy called in Scripture his “schemes”, and he has an objective – to thwart the work of our Master. How is it possible that many of us don’t know – years into the service of our King – what our role is on the team?

A proper walk with Jesus is about fitting life together with other believers, and making an impact together that we cannot make alone.

Strength for the Journey: “The Time Lapse Photo Journal” – Numbers 33

time lapse photoHave you ever seen time lapse sequential photos? Through photo journaling, we are able to watch as a seed germinates and grows into a flower in thirty seconds. A single frame, taken at regular intervals, can be brought together with other frames in sequence, and the flower “grows” right before your eyes. Recently I saw a fascinating look from satellite photos of earth since the 1980’s until now. You can watch as Orlando grows outward, sprawling half-way across Florida’s inland counties. Even the changes in my own little town are noticeable from space. Watching a flower grow by staring at the pot in real time would be mind-numbingly boring. Watching it happen in high speed is fascinating. Sometimes the best way to notice the changes is when they are brought together in quick comparison.

Our passage for this lesson is a good example of how the diary of two generations can be brought together in time lapse to help pull out the lessons of God to His people. Numbers 33:1-49 read – at least to an emotionally detached Bible student – like a lifeless travel itinerary – empty place name after place name. The names don’t cast images on our minds because they weren’t OUR history – we hadn’t experienced the days and nights in those places. Yet, to the children of Israel those places were markers of God’s profound lessons to them – or at least they were supposed to be… Here is the problem: History isn’t well remembered even when it has been carefully documented. Powerful lessons to one generation can quickly dry on the page into dead words for the next generation. Standing at the edge of the Promised Land was a new generation of Israelites. The stories of God’s great victories over the gods of Egypt were just that – stories. They didn’t live through those events – their parents and grandparents did. The dramatic stories were fast losing their meaning and power.

Sociologists call the critical stories of a people’s heritage their “energizing mythology” – not a reference to the veracity of the events, but a reference to their power to create an ethos in a group. The bonding of people into a nation or community comes from the records of shared experiences that led to the formation of shared values. The record of God’s work in and through Moses was intended to help Israel move from an over-inflated family and rabble of ex-slaves to a nation – with common remembrances of the move of God in their midst. This is the overview of that process – the high speed “time lapse” journal, filled with snapshots that should bring back the pain of loss of feckless rebels and the contrasting warmth of comfort and care from a faithful God. This is both a historical overview, and a trail of learning and formation.

Key Principle: Before we move ahead, we should look back. Careful observations of the lessons of our past will help us make fewer mistakes in our bound forward.

That is why a nation needs its older members. Youth brings vitality and zeal, but not often wisdom – and a nation needs to look at choices of its future with wisdom.

The account opens: Numbers 33:1 “These are the journeys of the sons of Israel, by which they came out from the land of Egypt by their armies, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.”

The story was intended to reflect “stages”. The Hebrew term “mas-sah’” (translated “journeys” in verse one) is derived from a term to “take up the camp” or “break camp”, but is figuratively used in the sense of the “stages” of a journey. A painfully literal translation of the opening verse says: “These are the stages of the camp movements of the sons of Israel which came out from the land of Egypt with her armies at the hands of Moses and Aaron.” In other words – this is a history lesson – a remembrance of the whole of the journey that is about to end with instructions to move forward into the Promised Land and begin the battle to possess it.

For time’s sake, I have traced in my study the whole of the record, and will press it together into the lessons that should flash before our minds as we read about the places. There were certainly many other lessons that could have been included. We are simply observers, not participants to the fourteen thousand five hundred cold nights and hot days of travel. We sit in temperature controlled rooms on padded chairs to critique the exhausted responses of camp crammed ex-slaves on a perilous and uncomfortable journey with uncertain leaders and little cohesive bond.

Numbers 33:2 Moses recorded their starting places according to their journeys by the command of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their starting places.

When you read this whole chapter, the details are overwhelming, because the places don’t evoke any image in our minds. It is as painful as watching a long slide show of your friend’s vacation that you weren’t a part of, about places you haven’t seen. Our passage includes three parts:

  • Four lists of encampments that were struck and removed during the journey are reviewed quickly.
  • Sandwiched in the middle of the four lists is a passing geographical reminder of the encampment at Sinai, where Moses met God in worship and was given major portions of the three codes of law.
  • Finally, it ends with God speaking to the people by relaying a message about entering the land through Moses – that includes four instructions and a single warning.

Stage One: Eleven Camps from Ramses to the Mountain of the Law (Exodus 12-19).

First, let’s notice that twelve camps are named, and eleven journeys between them recounted in order. Along the way, let’s think about what God communicated to His people. You cannot read the first part of the journey out of Egypt, and not recognize that GOD HAS A PLAN FOR HIS PEOPLE.

1. Shouts and Cries: It began with the death and pain of Egypt contrasted with celebration and departure of Israel: Numbers 33:3 They journeyed from Rameses in the first month (Ex.13:4), on the fifteenth day of the first month [Nisan or Abib]; on the next day after the Passover the sons of Israel started out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians, 4 while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn whom the LORD had struck down among them. The LORD had also executed judgments on their gods. 5 Then the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses and camped in Succoth (Exodus 12:12-37).

2. Heavenly GPS: Next was the story of God’s miraculous guidance. Numbers 33:6 They journeyed from Succoth and camped in Etham (Exodus 13:20), which is on the edge of the wilderness. This is the part of the journey when God first placed the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day to guide them (Ex. 13:21-22).

3. Baiting: God sets up Pharaoh. Numbers 33:7 They journeyed from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth (Exodus 14:2), which faces Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. Exodus 14 tells the story of how God told Moses to camp by the sea after wandering a bit (remembered in the places named here) so that Pharaoh would see them wandering and chase after them! (Exodus 14:1-5). Pharaoh took the bait and chased after them. God parted the sea, and then swallowed up the Egyptians, causing great reverence to overtake the people of Israel (Exodus 14:31).

GOD HAS A PLAN. It may not always appear that God is at work, and sometimes the way God works is so incredibly difficult to discern. Who beside our God would have planned for Pharaoh to resist so that a contest could form and God could fill the hands of His people? Who would have thought ahead to the coming generations of Pharaohs and recognized the need to bring Egypt and her self-made gods to their needs before the Holy One, so that Israel would be left unmolested to flourish when they arrived in Canaan? God did! He did it according to a plan. Who would have thought of a desert GPS guidance system to get the people to follow Him? God did! He knew where He wanted His people and when. Who would have told the people to appear to be wandering so He could draw Pharaoh in and crush his chariots – the one danger that would have haunted Israel for the next four decades in the wilderness of Sin? God did! Because He wanted Israel to settle down and organize into a nation.

When it appears this old world is spinning out of control, it isn’t. God IS at work. His plan is complex, and His power is unbounded by human will. No Congress can overrule Him. If He allows something, it won’t be simply human sin sickness that causes it – it passed through God’s stamp of approval toward His plan. That is easier to say that to truly accept.

Did not this plan put His own people in more peril? Did not this plan drag out the bitter hardship of slavery and abuse on His people longer? Yes, it did. When a believer exclaims: “God has a plan!” they do so in the face of a world that would reshape God to their own sense of justice, their own sense of fairness, and their own sense of timing. God has a plan – but men and women who do not believe in Him do not like to hear that. He is not a malleable God – He will not be shaped, trained to jump through the hoops of our timing. Ultimately, belief that God has a plan is an expression of belief in God’s Sovereignty. A Sovereign has no need to explain the details of His plan to His followers. Job discovered that lesson.

When people demand that God explain Himself, they are often saying they don’t believe that He knows what He knows, sees what He sees and understands what He understands. Recognizing that God has a plan is recognition of God’s place above our lives – and that is something a non-believer does not WANT to do. Nevertheless, God has a plan!

Not only that, but WHERE GOD GUIDES, GOD PROVIDES. Look at the whole next segment of the journey to the Mountain of the Law:

4. Bitterness: The people face the reality they are unprepared for the desert. 33:8 They journeyed from before Pi-Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness; and they went three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah (Ex. 15:22). Thirsty, the people came to Marah, a place of bitter calcium and magnesium springs, and found water that would cause terrible cramps and intestinal distress. God provided what they NEEDED, not what they WANTED.

5. Blessing: Numbers 33:9 They journeyed from Marah and came to Elim; and in Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there (cp. Ex. 15:23-27). The people learned that God had prepared places of rest and provision in the wilderness, in spite of the inhospitable appearance. God had PLENTY for them in places they knew nothing of, yet they needed to keep following Him past bitterness and into blessing.

6. Numbers 33:10 They journeyed from Elim and camped by the Red Sea (omitted in the Ex. 15-17 list, but less than 2 miles away – probably not considered important in the primary account). The hot desert also had some cool breezes, and the food supplies at the shore were helpful to stretch the supplies.

7. Bread: Numbers 33:11 They journeyed from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. Exodus 16 recounts this journey to have taken place one month into their travels, more than half way to the Mountain of the Law. At the point their grain had run out, God began providing the manna to them for the next forty years, until they came into Canaan (Josh 5:10-12). Cheese they had, perhaps even some eggs, but the staple of grain used to supplement both man and flock was running scarce – and God showed something new. God has more options to supply than we can see.

8. Birds: Numbers 33:12 They journeyed from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. In the journey into the wilderness of Sin, they left the sea, and any fish they could have caught. Turning inland, they hungered for something more than manna, and God gave them quails. The sites are not named in the Exodus 16 account beyond the region (16:1), but they apparently included Dophkah and Alush – and are recapped in 17:1. The people could not risk

9. Numbers 33:13 They journeyed from Dophkah and camped at Alush.

10. Drink and Defend: Numbers 33:14 “They journeyed from Alush and camped at Rephidim (Ex. 17:1); now it was there that the people had no water to drink”. The story of Exodus 17 opens with the grumbling of thirsty Israelites, and the instruction for Moses to STRIKE the rock and get water from it near to Horeb (Ex.17:6), and area familiar to Moses (Exodus 3:1). Moses renamed the place he associated with his CALL by God the new names of Massah (Heb: trial) and later a similar place called Meribah (Heb: provocation). Meribah is not the same place as Massah and not at the same time, but connected by the same “water from the rock” experience in Numbers 20:8-11– except Meribah is where God said SPEAK to the rock (all remembered in Psalm 95:7-8). Shortly after God provided the water from the rock on the west of Horeb – a band of marauding Amalekites attacked (perhaps because they were taking the stored water?) and Joshua got his first command of an army of Israel to fight (Ex. 17:8-16) and the victory was celebrated by giving God the title “Yahweh Nissi – the Lord our Banner” (17:15).

11. Consultation: The Amalekites weren’t the only one who heard about Israel’s camp in the Wilderness of Sin – the Midianites also heard. Sometime during the time of camping at Rephidim, perhaps near the end of the fifty days of the journey, Jethro (Reuel) the father-in-law of Moses came out to see Moses and his family (Exodus 18) and told Moses to spread out the workload. Numbers 33:15 They journeyed from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai (Ex. 19:1-2). Fifty days after Passover (12:18), they arrived from Egypt to the Mountain of the Law (19:1).

WHERE GOD GUIDES, GOD PROVIDES. He can provide water in a desert for thousands, or counsel in a tent for one leader. He can fill a net with fish, or a hungry belly with manna. He can store rain water in a rock wall or supply strength from a team mate holding up your arms during a conflict.

Stage Two: Fifty Days Later – Camping by the Mountain of the Law (Ten Months- Exodus 20-40; Numbers 1:1-10:11).

They arrived at the Mountain and met God. Some only saw His power from a distance, seventy saw Him pass by a prepared lunch table. One talked with Him and got a tablet cut from His hand. Here is the lesson: GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS. He wasn’t waiting for a poll or survey to make the rules of right and wrong. He wasn’t “getting input” from Moses. God knows what is right, because God DEFINES what is right. He also is keenly aware that fallen human nature isn’t keen on following what is right…

During the time Moses was on the Mountain of the Law (forty days – Ex. 24:18), the people rebelled. Three thousand were involved in a calf worship uprising, together with an orgy that followed the inaugural celebration (Ex. 32). God tipped off Moses, who seemed in no hurry to go back to the people, and Moses angrily broke the tablets he brought from God when he saw the party. He called on Levites to kill those involved (3,000 according to 32:18). In the face of this bold mutiny, God threatened not to go personally with Moses to the Promised Land, though He would supply an angelic guide. Moses pleaded with God, and God relented and replaced the tablets (Ex. 34:1ff). He kept meeting with Moses, who walked from the presence of the Holy One with a shining face (Ex. 34:29ff).

Our faith is built on the truth that GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS. He doesn’t need men to try to make right more popular. He requires only that we live by His Spirit and His Word – and that we understand His absolute right to move in history, and in our lives. We don’t have to understand his reasons, we have to follow His Words. We don’t need to make His Words softer to win him a greater popularity, we need to speak them openly, cherish them lovingly, and live them humbly. If the Bible means anything in all its content, it means this: GOD KNOWS WHAT HE THINKS AND SAYS WHAT HE MEANS.

Stage Three: Moving from the Mountain of the Law to Kadesh (Numbers 10:11-14:38).

The next stage after Sinai illustrates vividly the common frailties of people. The people didn’t trust Moses, and they didn’t trust God. They wanted what they wanted, when they wanted it. They fussed and fumed…

1. Greed: Numbers 33:16 They journeyed from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 10:11-11:35). The people left the mountain in fanfare thirteen months after their departure from Egypt (Num. 10:11). The camp moved out, complete with a new worship center of the Tabernacle. Complaints about the conditions caused a fire to break out on the edge of the camp, and GREED overcame people on God’s next wave of quail brought to the camp – so a sickness set in killing those who incessantly cried for more than they needed. They buried many at the site of the “grave of the greedy” or Kibroth – hatta ‘avah.

2. Healing: Numbers 33:17 They journeyed from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth (Num. 10:34-35). To get away from the cemetery, they founded a little village (chatser) and called it “The Villages”, or Hazeroth. It took time to heal from their losses.

3. Mistrust: Numbers 33:18 They journeyed from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah [in Paran -Num 12:16]. (The whole encampment encompasses the stories of Num. 13:1-14:38). It began with Moses’ own family expressing jealousy about Moses and his special relationship with God. Miriam stalled all forward movement while she recovered from God’s temporary plague of leprosy. Next was the mistrust of the spies sent to the Hebron plateau. They returned with grapes and stories – but the majority of the spies would not urge the people to take the land as God instructed.

This stage, filled with rebellion and grave stones, reminds us of an essential truth: GOD’S PLAN REQUIRES OUR SURRENDER. God’s people need to follow God’s Word and God’s will – or disaster follows. When we want and pursue what God says we AREN’T SUPPOSED TO HAVE, we wound those around us. When we delay in following God’s stated purposes, we stifle God’s blessings. We go on in a desert while God provides in the land He called us to live in. Believers are called to surrender their WANTS to God and TRUST HIM for the direction and provision. We won’t find the provision in a place He hasn’t told us to be. Conversely, we will experience greater communion with Him when we walk beside Him, and refuse to wander off.

Stage Four: Eighteen Encampments in the southern deserts of Israel ending at Kadesh (Numbers 14:39-20:14).

In our recent studies in the Book of Numbers we have followed the lessons of the eighteen camps mentions in 33:19-36 There is no cross reference for these in another travel log outside of Numbers. Based on Deuteronomy 1:46-2:1 it appears Israel encamped for a length of time at Kadesh the first time “many days” at the time of the spies search, and God’s penalties to the people as a result of their disbelief. The record is near to Rithmah, an undermined location not far from Kadesh. Numbers includes the list of camps without commentary:

Numbers 33:19 They journeyed from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. 20 They journeyed from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. 21 They journeyed from Libnah and camped at Rissah. 22 They journeyed from Rissah and camped in Kehelathah. 23 They journeyed from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. 24 They journeyed from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. 25 They journeyed from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. 26 They journeyed from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. 27 They journeyed from Tahath and camped at Terah. 28 They journeyed from Terah and camped at Mithkah. 29 They journeyed from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. 30 They journeyed from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. 31 They journeyed from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. 32 They journeyed from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. 33 They journeyed from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. 34 They journeyed from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. 35 They journeyed from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. 36 They journeyed from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin, that is, Kadesh.

The eighteen encampments chronicle the venture of most of the thirty eight of the total forty years of wandering. It then took another two years in Transjordan to place the people in the valley opposite Jericho. This was forty years to reach what would have been a march of only a few days to get into the heart of the Promised Land when the spies went up from Kadesh through Wadi Zin.

A fourth lesson is so obvious in this section: WHEN GOD CALLS – ANSWER HIM. God told the people to go in to the land, but they chose a “plan b” for their lives. How many believers can identify with that?

• God told you to marry a believer, but you didn’t – plan b created a huge difficulty.

• God told you to live within your means – but plan b has meant years of recovery from debts.

• God told you to study His Word and know it – but years of distraction in your plan b has made you spiritually anemic and open to making the wrong judgments.

We could go ON and ON… but we all get the point. Delayed obedience is disobedience. WHEN GOD IS CALLING – PICK UP THE PHONE.

Stage Five: Ten Encampments from Kadesh to the Jordan River (Numbers 20:14-33:49; cp. Numbers 26:63).

Tired of running and ready to head, at least little by little, toward the Promised Land – the children of Israel moved another ten times – largely making their way AROUND THE LAND through Transjordan – a choice that would cost them two and one-half tribes, a deeply destructive compromise with women of the region and several difficult battles is recounted in a simple quick reference:

Numbers 33:37 They journeyed from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, at the edge of the land of Edom. 38 Then Aaron the priest went up to Mount Hor at the command of the LORD, and died there in the fortieth year after the sons of Israel had come from the land of Egypt, on the first [day] in the fifth month. 39 Aaron was one hundred twenty-three years old when he died on Mount Hor. 40 Now the Canaanite, the king of Arad who lived in the Negev in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the sons of Israel. 41 Then they journeyed from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42 They journeyed from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43 They journeyed from Punon and camped at Oboth. 44 They journeyed from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, at the border of Moab. 45 They journeyed from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. 46 They journeyed from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. 47 They journeyed from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 48 They journeyed from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan [opposite] Jericho. 49 They camped by the Jordan, from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

At the risk of being overly OBVIOUS, there is a simple lesson we have in these eleven places and ten journeys: NOT BEING WHERE YOU ARE TOLD LEAVES YOU OPEN TO ENCOUNTERING TESTS FOR WHICH YOU AREN’T PREPARED. Skip school and hang out with trouble makers off campus and you will end up facing challenges you may not have bargained for. Sneak into the party with the “druggies” and “partiers” and you will be confronted with peer pressure and choices on a whole different level. Choose a philosophy program in a godless institution, and you may find yourself standing like a tree in front of a flame thrower. Spend late hours at the office under pressure with the new intern and you may find yourself ruining your marriage. CHOOSE TO SPEND YOUR TIME WHERE GOD HAS TOLD YOU TO BE. You may feel ready for the tests, but no one EVER failed when they avoided the test altogether.

The end of the passage is four commands and a warning in the Laws of Conquest. The four commands included:

The whole of the travel log had a point – and that was to let the lessons of the past inform the choices concerning the future. God gave four brisk and simple commands:

Numbers 33:50 Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan [opposite] Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them:

Command One: DON’T COMPROMISE WITH WICKEDNESS. Numbers 33:51b… ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places;

Command Two: DON’T STOP SHORT OF OBEDIENCE. Numbers 33:53 and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.

Command Three: TRUST MY DIRECTION AND PROVISION AGAIN. Numbers 33:54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the larger you shall give more inheritance, and to the smaller you shall give less inheritance. Wherever the lot falls to anyone, that shall be his.

Command Four: PRESERVE THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FAMILY STRUCTURE. Numbers 33:54b…”You shall inherit according to the tribes of your fathers.

The One Warning:

Five stages gave way to a record of four commands that eventually came down to ONE WARNING: BE THE DISTINCT PEOPLE I HAVE CALLED YOU TO BE, OR YOU WILL NOT BE A PEOPLE AT ALL.

Numbers 33:55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them [will become] as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. 56 And as I plan to do to them, so I will do to you.'”

Don’t get smug about being my children, act out of humility and obedience. How do we accomplish that? The best was is to LOOK BACK, and review the lessons God already taught you:

• God has a plan
• Where God guides, God provides.
• God knows what He thinks, and says what He means.
• God’s plan requires surrender.
• When God calls – answer Him.
• Choose to be where He tells you – or face testing that exposes your weakness.

Before we move ahead, we should look back. Careful observations of the lessons of our past will help us make fewer mistakes in our bound forward.

Strength for the Journey: “The Politics of Compromise” – Numbers 32

washington shut down1You cannot look anywhere in the news and not see a reference to the current political showdown happening in Washington. As I write, the United States government is partially shut down, or to hear some say it “slimmed down”. In any case, they are in some way furloughing many employees. The media is filled with blame, fear and hostility. To CNN it is obvious that Republicans are to blame, particularly their arch enemies found in the “Tea Party Movement”. To Fox News, it is the so-called “Obamacare” and the Democrats that are the divisive, intransigent ones. Pundits are prognosticating and Facebook is alight with one part of America telling the other part of America how truly dumb they are. It is so heartwarming, when the nation strains against itself, isn’t it? My favorite story came this week from a busload of cranky World War II vets that pushed their way into their officially closed memorial in Washington, D.C. and then told the Capitol police “not to bother them” or they’d have another war on their hands! How wonderful to see Brokaw’s “greatest generation” about to launch another military maneuver, albeit this one closer to home. It seems everywhere we hear the voices of those who are affected by the current situation saying in unison: “For Heaven’s sake, find a COMPROMISE!”

When we come to worship and study God’s Word, we don’t gather to heal the nation’s rifts, nor do we want to even begin to suggest the solution to its various policy issues. We are believers, and among us are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and most of all… a mass of people who are SICK of hearing about dysfunctional government. Why did I open this “can of worms” as I propped open my Bible today?

In the great irony of God’s timing for our study, the text of Numbers 32 is all about a political compromise.

The compromise called for by men in the Israelite camp, and eventually condoned by their leader, Moses – was the wrong kind of compromise. It was the WORST KIND of compromise. It took advantage of an aged and retiring leader’s weariness, and negated God’s specific commands to get the people into the land of promise and settle them there.

Key Principle: Political compromises are to be expected, but spiritual compromises are to be rebuffed. Compromise that defies God’s directions isn’t compromise – it’s called something else… SIN!

Let’s just be honest. Political decision making is ALWAYS about compromise. Horse trading is the stuff of a Congress. That’s what they do, and that’s what we should expect. Ideologues don’t always make the best legislators, because political life is about finding the common ground, not forcing everyone to accept only your ground. That is the reason I do not personally want to create a “Christian nation” – because it would never truly be one, and it would shift a personal walk with God to the drift of following a Christian culture. Because I don’t want the country to be hostile to the Bible doesn’t automatically mean I want to run the country. I don’t – and I don’t think I would make a particularly good politician. The work of a Pastor is about representing a Monarch and His Sovereign absolutes – not about finding “common ground” moral tenets. I accept the need for political compromise and coalition building, while I reject that method of determining ultimate truth and morality. I work for One Master, and my opinions must increasingly be conformed to His – because His are the only ones that will stand in the end.

One of the great benefits of any believer seeking to live in conformity with the fixed principles of the Scripture is that they are ever learning to resist a compromise caused by placing ultimate trust in their feelings. The Bible teaches that one of the byproducts of Eden’s failure is that the heart has become untrustworthy, often deceptive and morally fickle. As our nation promotes popular “feeling-based” decision making, we increasingly expose the inconsistency of that logic. The same society that counsels an anorexic through illness considers gender to be defined by inner feeling. A young woman who starves herself or “purges and binges”, based on her inner feelings of obesity may seek a radical surgical removal of sexual organs because they “see themselves emotionally as a different gender than their body’s biological components. That is their unquestioned right in some states. Worse yet, any attempt to counsel caution concerning such a radical approach is met with scathing rebuke and even legal action. The error of trusting feelings as the key baseline of decision making will extract a toll on our society – because it is rooted in a lie. Our feelings are not the best compass for our path. Our compass comes from God’s revealed record of truth.

Here is the point: Politicians can compromise on policies, but no one can afford to compromise on ethics that are rooted in absolute truths from God’s Word.

Let’s look at an example that will shed some light on the problem and its solution… Go back three thousand five hundred years in time, and sit down beside the camp fire of the elders of Israel. Look around. Moses looks exhausted. He has at least forty years more on his body than the oldest person to hear this lesson. He has been at this leadership thing for an entire generation, and the people he has been leading were not the light-hearted compliant types. He looks like a bearded Charlton Heston on a bad hair day, and that was before he heard what the Reubenites and Gadites were proposing. Listen in…

The Request (32:1-5)

Numbers 32:1 Now the sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad had an exceedingly large number of livestock. So when they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, that it was indeed a place suitable for livestock, 2 the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben came and spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the leaders of the congregation, saying, 3 “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo and Beon, 4 the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” 5 They said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants as a possession; do not take us across the Jordan.”

The men who came to Moses represented some of the front line troops of the second wave of any attack. In Numbers 2 the order of the march was given:

• Issachar, Judah and Zebulon lead the campaigns as the tribes situated at the EAST of the camp.
• Reuben, Gad and Simeon were second in the campaigns as the tribes to the SOUTH of the camp.
• With an interlude for the Tabernacle and the Levites, the camp continued its march bringing on line those WEST of the camp – Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh.
• Finally, the NORTH side of the camp brought up the rear – Asher, Dan and Naphtali.

To Moses and the children of Israel, going into battle without the men of Reuben and Gad was like going in with one boot off – it felt incomplete. That played into Moses’ first reaction to their request. Look closely at the request, and take it apart – because its reasoning should trouble you:

First, the desire to stay east of the Jordan seemed to be based primarily on the fact that God had already blessed them with a large herd and flock between them. The men of these tribes had already traversed the slopes of the Gilead uplift, and the Jordan Valley’s fertile plain. The PUSH for the decision is revealed in the words: “had an exceedingly large number of livestock” in verse one. Isn’t it strange how God’s recent additions to their flocks from the Midianite raid, and His continual good hand on them made them conclude they should solve the issue apart from His already stated truth found in His Word?

Some may counter, “Wait! Isn’t this PART of the Land of Father Abraham’s promise?” Lots of believers think so, but that doesn’t fit what Moses and the men of his time thought. Moses reached the land Reuben and Gad wanted, and Moses wasn’t – according to God’s own revealed Word – going into the Land of Promise that was their destination. Living on the east of the Jordan was living on the edge of the promise, but not inside it. It was living with one foot in the Lord’s will, and another in the world’s way. They chose it because they had a practical problem that came from the blessing of God – but they chose a path in violation of God’s stated will. If it was fine with God to settle BEFORE reaching the Land of Promise, they were fine in Egypt, or Sinai, or Paran, or Zin or Edom’s Wadi Rum, or Moab’s plateau. Those WEREN’T OK WITH GOD. – and neither was this choice.

The second thing to notice is the choice was based on what appeared to be good pastureland. They couldn’t look forward to see what their choice would mean to the future. They didn’t know that they would be a people that suffered more bloodshed than other tribes because of their choice. They couldn’t know that when the time came for invasion, they would fall eight full years before any other region. They made a choice because they saw their CURRENT STRENGTH to stand against enemies, and the CURRENT PROSPERITY of the region. They judged on appearance, like Lot chose the Sodom and Gomorrah. They chose of practicality that defied Biblical principle. They chose wrongly.

Thirdly, note they used GOD TALK but not revealed principles of God’s Word when they fashioned their request. They said: “the land which the LORD conquered before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock!” (32:4). The openly acknowledged God’s empowering in the wars, but overlooked God’s clear call to bring the people into the Land of Promise. The logic of the compromise was pragmatism – since this works, it must be acceptable to God (32:3-5). The problem is that what works must always be placed in the context of God’s revealed Word – but they weren’t doing that.

Moses’ First Reaction (32:6-15)

Moses heard the words and they hit him like the stone that knocked down Goliath. He was “floored” by the request. From his toes the red rash of boiling anger rose within him. He got warmer in a moment than he had been able to get in his tent for the last twenty years! Look at the reaction:

6 But Moses said to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to war while you yourselves sit here? 7 “Now why are you discouraging the sons of Israel from crossing over into the land which the LORD has given them? 8 “This is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. 9 “For when they went up to the valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the sons of Israel so that they did not go into the land which the LORD had given them. 10 “So the LORD’S anger burned in that day, and He swore, saying, 11 None of the men who came up from Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob; for they did not follow Me fully, 12 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have followed the LORD fully.’ 13 “So the LORD’S anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the entire generation of those who had done evil in the sight of the LORD was destroyed. 14 “Now behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to add still more to the burning anger of the LORD against Israel. 15 “For if you turn away from following Him, He will once more abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all these people.”

Take apart Moses’ issue with the request – because it is revealing in what it OMITS:

1. Moses assumed the tribes of the second wave were “bowing out” of their responsibility to fight the war ahead with their brothers (32:6). That wasn’t what they wanted, but that is what he heard.

2. Moses expressed fear that a splinter off would cause the remaining people to face discouragement to do what God wanted – to enter and take the Land of Promise (32:7). He underscored the idea that he KNEW God wanted them across the river displacing the Amorites and other Canaanites.

3. Moses immediately connected the request with the past – because he had both the benefit and the hindrance of aged thinking (32:8-9). He automatically connected the request with another time in which the plantiffs called the whole congregation to forsake acquiring the land – but that wasn’t justified. His analysis was flawed.

4. Moses feared the wrath of God falling anew on the people because of what appeared to be a peaceful insurrection (32:10-15). He saw his life’s work evaporating in front of him.

The problem with Moses reaction was that it wasn’t the real problem. It was all about the practicality and mechanics, but not about the central issue: THEY WERE ON A MISSION FROM GOD. The real problem was that God didn’t tell them it was fine to peel some tribes off on the way to the objective God gave them. Don’t forget, also, that Moses DIDN’T stop and talk to God about this affront to the plan of the Holy One of Israel. He didn’t call out the line as “Follow ALL of what God told us, or their will be trouble.” Moses threw down the practical reasons, and that opened the door to compromise based on pragmatism – based on filling the needs Moses could calculate. Keep reading, and more of the “heart problem” of the tribes making the request will become CLEAR…

A Second Attempt (32:16-19)

Having survived the initial reaction of Moses, they came back to assuage his fears and answer his objections…

16 Then they came near to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our livestock and cities for our little ones; 17 but we ourselves will be armed ready [to go] before the sons of Israel, until we have brought them to their place, while our little ones live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 “We will not return to our homes until every one of the sons of Israel has possessed his inheritance. 19 “For we will not have an inheritance with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has fallen to us on this side of the Jordan toward the east.”

I cannot help but smile at the record of the conversation, and marvel at the obtuse view of the Reubenite and Gadite spokesmen. Did you hear what they said? Look again at the words:

First, we will provide a place for our sheep, THEN we will provide a place for our children (32:16). Seriously? You will build the SHOP for your business and THEN make sure a roof is over the head of you offspring? Well, that’s good to know that the children will EVENTUALLY get a place. What’s next, we’ll feed the kids next week because this is SHEARING SEASON? Note that Moses gets the order correct in the reply in 32:24. He said: “OK guys, build a place for your children and THEN a place for your animals. Reuben and Gad’s children may have known how to raise flocks, but I truly wonder about their priorities concerning their children.

Second, note the promise they made in 32:17-18. Essentially they said this: “OK, Mo, we get it. We will build a place for our children and flocks, and then we will leave our families for HOWEVER LONG IT TAKES to fight. Yes, Mo, all the fighters will go. Don’t worry, mom will be fine without us for a few months, years or decades. No matter – whatever it takes, our family will make due without us!” Seriously! How do you think this story will “play out” when dad is gone for a generation or so? Stay tuned…

Third, as if the practicality of their promise wasn’t so short-sighted to be absurd, they snuck the critical line at the end in 32:19 – they wouldn’t have the inheritance God directed – but the one they wanted.

Let me paraphrase the whole passage: “Moses, here is the deal. We will get our shop put together, and then, oh, yeah, we will fix a place for our families. We will build it STRONG since we won’t stick around to, you know, raise them and protect them. Instead, we will go off and help the other tribes for as long as it takes on our way back to doing what we want and ignoring what God said to do – to live together in the Land of Promise. We found our own, thanks.”

Moses’ Second Response (32:20-24)

As stunning as it seems, Moses BOUGHT IT. The wear on the man must have been tremendous…

20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will arm yourselves before the LORD for the war, 21 and all of you armed men cross over the Jordan before the LORD until He has driven His enemies out from before Him, 22 and the land is subdued before the LORD, then afterward you shall return and be free of obligation toward the LORD and toward Israel, and this land shall be yours for a possession before the LORD. 23 “But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the LORD, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 “Build yourselves cities for your little ones, and sheepfolds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.”

Moses was about to pronounce aloud one of his most famous sayings, and he offered it in the middle of a totally wrong solution to the proposed compromise. Look at the progression ramping up to it:

First, he told them the terms were not negotiable – they had to suit up and fight (32:20) and they could not abandon the army until the job was complete (32:21-22a). Then he stepped right on God’s command and told them they were FREE of obligation to the Lord toward the other tribes, and they could have the land they wanted (32:22b)! Stop for a second and consider what was happening.

If they could possess the land later, why not COME with Israel – ALL OF THEM – and return after the battles were fought? Would someone else occupy the land in the interim? Maybe, but wouldn’t their wives and children face that same problem with the army off fighting a war?

Let me ask another question: When did God turn the promises and covenants over to Moses to write an addendum?

When we compromise on God’s Word, we aren’t compromising our OWN WORD. His principles, His promises and His prescriptions are HIS TO ASSIGN. Moses may have gotten to write down the Word, but he was NEVER THE AUTHOR.

Some of you can see where I am heading. The pulpit today is the repository, the guardian, the mouthpiece of His Word – not ours. We can compromise on many things that don’t violate His principles. Not every believer has the same political outlook – and there is no reason why they should. We can have differing opinions on a great many things. God’s Word doesn’t specify how much time a child should spent studying mathematics per day, or what should be included in a child’s lunch. Healthy debate isn’t un-Christian or devilish. We learn from listening to each other, from hearing another view point, from considering life from another’s window view. Yet, we must also be careful to filter all of what we read, see, hear and believe through the screen of God’s stated Word. We can’t cancel Hell because it offends, or remake marriage because more people would “feel comfortable” with our stance. Our work is to study carefully and proclaim clearly – not make everyone happy with God’s position on issues.

Moses made the classic mistake that so many of us do – he gave away in compromise what was NOT HIS to give. He made OK something God said was NOT OK.

It wasn’t over… the compromising tribal sons spoke again…

The Promise (32:25-27)

25 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben spoke to Moses, saying, “Your servants will do just as my lord commands. 26 “Our little ones, our wives, our livestock and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead; 27 while your servants, everyone who is armed for war, will cross over in the presence of the LORD to battle, just as my lord says.”

They essentially said: “We shall live by the rules we have proposed, that you have so graciously accepted. We are ready to fully and completely live this agreement that has been molded around our own desires and needs. Aren’t we the flexible ones!”

Moses’ Instruction to Eleazar and Joshua (32:28-32)

Moses passed the corrupted instructions to Eleazar and Josh – but no word on how they felt about what he said. He was Moses, and this was the end of his administration…

28 So Moses gave command concerning them to Eleazar the priest, and to Joshua the son of Nun, and to the heads of the fathers’ [households] of the tribes of the sons of Israel. 29 Moses said to them, “If the sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben, everyone who is armed for battle, will cross with you over the Jordan in the presence of the LORD, and the land is subdued before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession; 30 but if they will not cross over with you armed, they shall have possessions among you in the land of Canaan.” 31 The sons of Gad and the sons of Reuben answered, saying, “As the LORD has said to your servants, so we will do. 32 “We ourselves will cross over armed in the presence of the LORD into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance [shall remain] with us across the Jordan.”

Look at how commanding the words of Moses were, considering they weren’t a good representation of what God told him to do. They have the RING of a legal standard, without the stamp of approval of the Eternal Lawgiver. Moses passed the whole agreement, with all its compromises, and all its future problems. It wasn’t his best day in government.

The Compromise Enacted (32:33-42)

33 So Moses gave to them, to the sons of Gad and to the sons of Reuben and to the half-tribe of Joseph’s son Manasseh, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites and the kingdom of Og, the king of Bashan, the land with its cities with [their] territories, the cities of the surrounding land. 34 The sons of Gad built Dibon and Ataroth and Aroer, 35 and Atroth-shophan and Jazer and Jogbehah, 36 and Beth-nimrah and Beth-haran as fortified cities, and sheepfolds for sheep. 37 The sons of Reuben built Heshbon and Elealeh and Kiriathaim, 38 and Nebo and Baal-meon– [their] names being changed– and Sibmah, and they gave [other] names to the cities which they built. 39 The sons of Machir the son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it. 40 So Moses gave Gilead to Machir the son of Manasseh, and he lived in it. 41 Jair the son of Manasseh went and took its towns, and called them Havvoth-jair. 42 Nobah went and took Kenath and its villages, and called it Nobah after his own name.

Numbers 32:33 opens with the summary that “Moses gave the sons of Reuben and Gad… then comes the half-tribe of Manasseh.” Wait a minute? How did another half tribe get in on the action? Now we aren’t JUST dividing the nation, we are dividing extended families. How did THAT happen?

Don’t miss that, in the end, even more people compromised than those who asked in beginning! Compromise creep is natural in a fallen world. Standards based on self-benefit are inevitable destined to become more popular than lines drawn on grand principles. The short-sighted choose based on CURRENT BENEFIT, not based on long-term effects – and often have no patience to grapple with grand moral principles.

Long ago, someone said: “Compromise is the art of giving your opponent that which he is not powerful enough to take.” Nobody FORCED Moses to accept something less than God commanded – he did that all on his own… just like we do.

Maybe he did it out of compassion. He looked at that nice pastureland and saw the flocks of Reuben and thought: “Wouldn’t that be nice for them! That would just so PERFECTLY meet their needs!” Prayerlessly, and with no consultation with God’s fore-revealed principles, Moses spoke words of compromise, and the people of Reuben celebrated them. He didn’t see the heartache ahead – because compromise is so big it blocks the view of all that.

There is an old fable about the hunter and the bear that met in the forest. The hunter held up his rifle to put down the bear when to his surprise the bear looked him in the eye and started to speak his language perfectly. The bear said: “Sir, I have never harmed you. Why do you want to shoot me?” The man answered: “I am cold, and I need the warmth your big furry coat gives to you!” The man asked: “When we met in the forest, you raised your paws as if to attack me. Why did you do that?” The bear replied: “Because I am hungry, and I thought you could provide me with something to eat!” The bear continued: “Perhaps we can make a compromise that will give us both what we wanted!” The hunter lowered his rifle, and the compromise was made. Walking out of the forest, the full bear carried the hunter in his stomach, a place that was no doubt warm.

Political compromises are to be expected, but spiritual compromises are to be rebuffed. Compromise that defies God’s directions isn’t compromise – it’s called something else… SIN!

Renewing Our Resolve: “Looking Both Ways” – Colossians 4:2-6

cross streetChildren have to learn to pay attention. They have to be able to spot a car that may have an inattentive or distracted driver, and stay at the curb until danger passes them by. The safest child is most often the alert child – one who has learned to keep his or her eyes watchful for trouble before it comes. We don’t want to make our children paranoid, but we want them to know WHEN to look, WHERE to look, and WHAT they should be looking to see before it comes. That same caution existed in the Apostle Paul’s heart when he instructed the early church about the challenges that lay ahead.

The Roman world at the time of Paul’s preaching and the church’s establishment was a world in transition. The Principate – the scholastic term for the Roman Empire – was tottering with a madman at the helm. The government projected stability, but the Palatine hill was occupied by a man who NO ONE thought was stable by the year Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians. Paul could have written about the need to collect non-perishable goods and hide in the caves of Cappadocia – but survivalism wasn’t the point of God’s work – testimony was. Under the direction of the Spirit, Paul wisely cautioned believers to keep their focus in two directions to make an impact – not just one.

It was a call for a balance that was rare then, and even rarer now. Why? Many churches form their program around the chief gifts of their leaders.

• In a church that is led by an evangelism-gifted leader, growth will often be spectacularly fast, but the church will expend huge amounts of time, energy and material resource on the outreach. Administration will often be weak in such a place, as the workers are overwhelmed with new outreach vision on a weekly basis. Ever expanding in outreach, just keeping the facility able to hold the people and keeping the leaders aware of the next waves of activity is difficult, let alone keeping the place prepared and accessible.

• In an administrative-led ministry, the property is well kept. The constitution is completely and carefully followed. The bulletin is flawless. The ladies’ room is always supplied. If someone visits, they get the visitor’s packet. If someone makes a commitment, there is a chart for follow-up.

• In a compassion-led ministry, the property needs work, because the resources have been heavily allocated to those who have less. A food pantry is given more attention than a Sunday School class. Soup kitchens are often defined as “real ministry” – and the focus is often placed on a hurting world outside the church.

• In a teacher-led ministry, the emphasis is placed on the Word and its careful dissemination. People come because they want “depth” in the teaching. The team evaluates every presentation on whether or not the material is explained thoroughly, while being presented in a relevant and timely way. The study becomes the point of the whole presentation, and the worship in song seems more like “preliminaries” to the presentation of the meat to a hungry and often weary traveler.

Paul advocated a team ministry, and he argued that no ministry was what God wanted it to be if it only focused on one direction. It was imbalanced and as unsafe as a child crossing the street only having looked in one direction.

Key Principle: Team ministry and disciple building require looking in two directions – growth inside the work and impact outside the work.

If you listen carefully to the five verses near the beginning of what is now the fourth chapter of Colossians, you will pick out six priorities of a healthy body of believers. If you distill the six, you will see both directions they are to focus – inside and outside the body. Look at the verses for a moment:

Colossians 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with [an attitude of] thanksgiving; 3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. 5 Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

First, Paul offered an “INSIDE focus” (between believers) in three priorities:

1. God’s Work is God led – so PRAYER is essential (Col. 4:2a).

Anyone can do philanthropy – with or without the leading of the Holy Spirit. They can do GOOD work – but they cannot truly do GOD’S work – because they aren’t being led by God. There is a flesh alternative to almost every spirit work – and we must be wise to recognize which is God’s direction and path.

Colossians 4:2a: Devote yourselves to prayer. What a simple statement. It doesn’t say, PRAY. It says “devote yourselves”. The term proskarteréō is a combination of a prefix “pros”, which in this context means “towards, interacting with” and “karteréō”, a word of some intensity that can be translated to “show steadfast strength”. The idea of kartereo was derived from krátos, which means the FINAL JUDGMENT that comes by “prevailing strength”. The word DEMOCRATIC is from this word, and means “gets its judgment strength from the common people”. In the Scripture, the idea of DEVOTING OURSELVES means “to continue to consistently do something with deliberate and intense effort, with the implication of expecting resistance and difficulty – as in the idea ‘to persist’.

The believers needed to be instructed that God’s empowering followed the believer’s requests for that power. The requests were to be steady, deliberate, consistent, and resistant to distraction.

Does that describe your walk with God? Does it describe our church?

What are we asking God to do in this place, and how consistently are we asking Him to do it? How SET are we on the life of prayer?

2. God’s Work is God filtered – so events must be viewed through the lens of God’s goodness (Col. 4:2b).

Events that challenge our life will always be on the horizon. Troubles fill our fallen world until the Savior calls for the end of all of this. Yet, believers were told to view their world through a different set of glasses. They were not “rose colored” – but they were GOD COLORED! That is the secret to the words found in Colossians 4:2b: “…keeping alert in it with [an attitude of] thanksgiving.

The phrase follows the command to pray consistently, and cannot be grammatically separated – it was a phrase that described HOW a believer should prayerfully tackle life. Look closely at the description as Paul wrote the words: “keeping alert”. This is the term grēgoreúō – the word we get the name GREGORY from. It literally means to “stay awake”, and comes from the guard duty of a soldier. It was figuratively used to command one to “be vigilant and watchful”.

Think about that for a moment. Paul didn’t say “be thankful”, he said “keep your eyes peeled with an attitude of thankfulness”. When we read these words, there is a natural question: “What am I watching for?” The answer isn’t as simple as you might think.

• We need to watch for those attacks of negative attitudes that will leave us grumbling and unthankful.

• We need to watch for coming difficult things that will challenge us, so that we can pray about them and search for some possible uses God can make of things meant for our harm.

• We need to recognize that with an overwhelming number of troubles, our temptation will be to disengage, and keep ourselves happy and numb – but that isn’t being watchful.

Paul told the Colossian believers they were to PRAY consistently and diligently – but with pray with their EYES OPEN. They were to be ever watchful of the coming troubles on the horizon, gazing at them through ‘God-colored glasses’. The purpose of watching the horizon was NOT to grouse and moan, but to plan. If I cannot ignore the coming troubles, and I cannot grumble about them, what CAN I do? I can pray fervently with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I can see what appears to be coming our way and look for ways God can use it to further His Kingdom through our lives. I cannot moan, but I can plan. I cannot control, but I can pray! The true weakness of the modern church in this hour is that we prefer personal complaint and public protest to consistent expressions of thankful prayer. That is painful for us to admit, but we are constantly tempted to fight a spiritual battle with a political alternative – and that simply won’t work. Political cause can often fill an auditorium, while prayer meetings can just as quickly empty it.

3. God’s Work is Vast – so keep your eyes open to the fields outside the one you are working within (Col. 4:3-4).

Paul told the believers they were to pray consistently and expectantly – but they were also to pray generously. Their prayer time was to be balanced between anticipation of both challenges and blessings from God, and looking TO OTHER PLACES where God was at work. He was careful to tell them WHERE to focus, as well as WHAT to focus upon. Look at his words:

Colossians 4:3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; 4 that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak.

Paul didn’t want prayer to become an exercise in INTROSPECTION ALONE. Immature believers spend all their time focused on THEIR OWN NEEDS, praying with the urgency of people who think that prayer is about INFORMATION. God KNOWS what you need. We don’t present it to inform God – but to conform to God’s work and plan. We KNOW God can work, but we want to be a part of that work.

Along with praying for our own needs, which is something we should and will do, we should pray for those outside our immediate circle of life. Paul urged the people to pray for HIS TEAM as they moved about with God’s Word. He implored them to seek God’s aid as they shared reveled truths to those who had not received them yet. He asked them for one specific request – that Paul would be clear and speak as he ought.

This is the call for those of us who speak for God – that we not ad lib, that we not obscure – but that God’s Words are faithfully, carefully and distinctly set in front of people. We must be careful about our commentary, and clear in our delivery. We should not seek, nor should we hunger to have our words and thoughts remembered – but HIS words and thoughts. Our job, on our best day, is to relay a message from God’s Word, delivered in harmony with the empowering of God’s Spirit. Our message is to be Biblical, practical and clear – and that is what Paul asked people to pray for concerning his work.

Let me ask a pointed question: “How much time have you spent asking God to get the message of the Word out from this church, its mission staff, or from any other work God is doing on the globe?” Can I kick a Biblical truth around for a moment? If the empowering of the work is through prayer, how much power are we expecting to see when we invest little in asking? I think you see where I am going with this. Let’s just agree that we will see more when we SEEK more. Sometimes, we have not, because we ask not.

Take a moment now, and review the three INSIDE FOCUS priorities, and then we’ll move on in the text:

• The people were called to devote themselves to prayer. Prayer is the engine of God’s empowering, the check of self-will, and the typical expression of a heart dependent and thankful.

• The people were implored to be alert with an attitude of thanksgiving. A piercing look at life through the lens of God’s goodness fuels a thankful heart, an appreciative spirit, a renewed reliance of trust in the intrinsic righteousness and sound wisdom of our Master.

• The people were told to pray for others in the fields beyond their own. A sweeping view of the whole horizon of God’s work among partners around the globe guards us against tunnel vision, and invites us to celebrate the body world-wide.

Next, Paul offered an “OUTSIDE Focus” (toward the world) in three other priorities:

1. Believers must be circumspect and wise in deportment – we must conduct ourselves in an exemplary way (Col. 4:5a).

People take their first step toward Christ, very commonly, watching someone who already belongs to Him navigate difficulties of life. That isn’t always the case – but most of the time, that is true. People watch believers before they see Christ. When Paul admonished in Colossians 4:5 “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders…” he was really calling the followers of Jesus to two things:

Watch out that you walk with a view toward your testimony – don’t be unwise in your life in a way that will cause the name of Christ to be defamed. In difficulty, you don’t choose your circumstances – but you do control your choices. Because mature people recognize that life in a fallen world isn’t fair, and that you didn’t necessarily contribute to the disasters that come into your life – they will be slow to blame you for the circumstances – but they will watch your response in attitude and action.

You have faithfully, as best as you were able, walked through a marriage, with all its normal rough spots. You came home and find your spouse with someone else intimately. Your heart is broken. Is there anyone who would blame YOU for the failure? Probably there are, but no one with much life experience. Immature people are quick to judge. Those who live longer know better – simply by personal experience.

Rather than feel like a failure, or try to fit a “D” on your forehead, think about something for a moment. Isn’t the real test of your faith how you respond to this crushing blow?

You worked hard to keep the business on track, but the government began selling in your sector and undercut your prices. Social policies that make an ever-expanding government take over every responsibility of life from feeding children breakfast to backing our home mortgages just decided your trade was a good one for them to invest in. Now they have inadvertently undercut your ability to compete because they use your own tax revenues to defeat your business plan as they underprice and undervalue your service. Your once thriving business fails, and you are forced to release your workers, though you gave all you had to make things work.

Rather than sit and stew at the part of society that votes to destroy your livelihood so that they can seem to get some temporary benefit – you can choose a path of peace and productivity. You are angry, and you feel unjustly broken down. That makes perfect sense to all of us. Your testimony will be seen, though, in how you get up off the mat.

Believers will have greater chances to share Christ from the ashes of their own lives than from the platforms of victory – because far more people draw inspiration from those who rise in spite of the circumstances than those who gloat at award ceremonies because of their victories. We should live in such a way that we use our defeats, our challenges and our victories to reflect God’s values – not in self-exaltation, but in a fixed view toward a positive testimony about HIM to the world. Yet, that is not all that Paul was saying in his call for believers to conduct themselves wisely in the world. There was another aspect to that command…

Watch out for what the outsiders will do to harm God’s church – keep private things private. Paul divided the world in the statement “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders…” – can you see that? Paul split the world between those INSIDE and those OUTSIDE. He made the point that some things don’t belong being aired before the world. The intimate workings of God’s people, and in particular the disciplines that sometimes must be applied to God’s family, must not be placed before a lost world. We must learn to keep family business inside the family.

A Bible study leader was pulled over by a policeman on his way back from a family birthday barbecue and cited for being over the limit in blood alcohol. He gets home and calls his Pastor and says that he was wrong, and he would like help. He isn’t an alcoholic, but he used poor judgment, and he now recognizes that he needs to place very tight limits on his life. He also goes on a diet, and cuts down his media and television time. He and his wife begin a program of accountability with each other on a series of disciplines. A few months pass, and the Pastor checks in on the couple by phone and gets a “two thumbs up” and puts him back in the rotation for teaching the Bible study. Someone who reads every day’s police blotter in the local paper, without speaking to anyone in leadership about the issue, begins to raise concerns with people both in the church, and in the trailer park where the Bible study is held. Unbelievers are informed that this is a “compromised” Bible study, and the attendance drops off. People from the park ask the Bible study leader to step aside, and the whole group becomes known as the “drunkard’s study”, killing the outreach. One believer, thinking they were doing “God’s work” of keeping people righteous, ended up killing the outreach opportunity. All they really needed to do was sit down with their Pastor and check that the situation was being addressed properly by leaders. Instead, they exposed a brother to ridicule, and brought the work of Jesus to a standstill in that place.

It is essential that believers understand that even their good friends in the world don’t have the same Spirit, and therefore don’t share the same ultimate realities and ends. They may be affirming, but the spiritual aspects of life aren’t fully grasped without the work of the Spirit of God within – and they don’t have that! It is true that believers fail to live the standards of the Word – it is equally true that we need to provide a SAFE PLACE where correction can occur without the public grandstanding of the Pharisee that cries out: “Thank you Lord that I am not as these sinners are!”

2. Believers must keep watch on the time clock – our opportunities slip away swiftly (Col. 4:5b).

Men and women of God must watch out for their testimony – that much is clear. Yet, there is another enticement that is equally alluring – the idea that we have MUCH TIME to begin to live for God, to share God’s salvation, to show love to people in the world around us. Paul wrote to the believers in Colossians 4:5b “…making the most of the opportunity.”

Some among us will “perk up” when we hear that this term for “making the most” is actually an ancient SHOPPING TERM. The word eks-agorázo is take from ek which means “completely out from” a prefix which intensifies agorázō – the term for “buying up at the marketplace”). This is a word for the shopper that finds the incredible sale seizes that buying-opportunity, This is the man who bought twenty cases of dog food because it was “practically a give-away price” – (fat pooch to follow).

The simple point of the word is this – we think we have more time than we do to get God’s things done. The word kairós is translated time, but it has a greater meaning. It is more properly the word “opportunity”. The word kairós (“opportune time”) is derived from kara (“head”) and refers to things “coming to a head. God brings about the “favorable moment” in our lives, and desires that believers look for the opening.

The difference between a good running back in the NFL and a great running back is this: one can spot the openings in the other team’s defensive lines. All the players on the field are strong – or they wouldn’t have made the cut. All the players can run – or they would be of no value to their respective franchises. What makes some men particularly valuable is they can see the play in their head before it happens on the field. They ANTICIPATE the opening, and get ready for it.

Not everyone can relate to athletics. Some of you may see it better this way:

The greatest benefit to playing chess is that when one learns the game well, you learn to think five, and even ten moves out. Strategy is the ability to see the range of responsive moves your opponent will make, and plot an alternate response to each – ending in your win.

Believers don’t simply need to read the second part of Colossians 4 and say, “Gee, I need to really use time better!” That isn’t the whole point. What Paul was calling for was “watchfulness” – not regret. We are called here to live strategically, looking down the road at the ways we will live out a testimony in the different circumstances that appear to be emerging on the horizon.

3. Believers must learn to guard our mouths – speaking in a way that covers our brothers and sisters (Col. 4:6).

One of the chief places believers damage God’s work today is the use of our mouths. I do it, and you do it too. We say the wrong thing, we say the right things insensitively or at the wrong time, or we speak the truth to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Paul urged: Colossian 4:6 Let your speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

We have spoken about salt and the “salt covenant” in the past a number of times. Remember that salt was a commodity in antiquity that was traded for all kinds of goods. We get the term “salary” from salt. We get expressions from our past, like “He’s not worth his weight in salt!” as a way of expressing someone is marrying a man less worthy of the covenant.

Salt was used to preserve meats and vegetables, but it was also used in the Near East as a covenant symbol. For the Levites (Numbers 18) salt was a reminder that God promised to be faithful to them if they shared God’s truth with the tribes who were apportioned property. God would not forget them – He would be LOYAL. In the Davidic line, salt was a symbol of the LOYALTY of God to the promise He made concerning David’s line – a point that King Abijah made to King Jeroboam when the tribes of Israel attacked the household of David in Judah (2 Chron. 13).

When Jesus said that His followers were the “salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13, He also spoke of LOYALTY – though in Matthew it is hard to see it. In the cross reference in Mark 9:50 it is clearer, where Jesus followed the saying with “Have salt in yourselves, have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50). The clear statement was that LOYALTY between believers should bring PEACEFUL RELATIONSHIPS in the same place.

This is a very old idea, and one that Leonardo da Vinci knew when he painted “The Last Supper” in what is now the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, in the northern Italian city of Milan. He began the work just after Columbus discovered the New World – painting around 1495 for his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. If you look very closely on the table – there is a HINT that Jesus has told the men that “One of you is going to betray Me!” You can see the troubled faces. You can see that Judas has left. If you look closely, you will see the salt container is spilled out on the table – because the loyalty of a disciple has been broken.

Don’t get lost in the history. Remember the simple call of Paul. Our speech is to be gracious, but our speech is to be LOYAL. We should speak of each other in a way that is not demeaning, and not disclose personal problems without the most urgent need to do so. People will ask about the other people we know – and we need to know how to respond graciously and loyally, but truthfully and honestly. We must represent Christ in our mouths as much as any other part of our lives. James exclaimed: “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small flame!”

At long last, we can see that believers must not only look INWARD to the needs and actions of the Body of Christ, but also OUTWARDLY to the world.

• We need to be circumspect and wise in our conduct – the world is watching how we live.

• We need to be watchful for opportunity – the world is fading away quickly.

• We need to be careful with our words – the world is listening to how we speak, even of each other.

Team ministry and disciple building require looking in two directions – growth inside the work and impact outside the work.

Strength for the Journey: “Returning Soldiers” – Numbers 31:21-54

SoldierAmerica is again facing a new wave of returnee servicemen who have been serving in fields of conflict. They bring home with them some challenges. To illustrate this, I clipped this out of the Buffalo News from a few months ago about this College year in New York schools:

When Dan Frontera enrolled in graduate school at the University at Buffalo, he found himself yelling at two fellow students, one reeking of alcohol, who browsed Facebook instead of listening to the lecture. During Frank Grillo’s first week at Daemen College, he stormed out of class after hearing two young women complain about getting mud on their Ugg boots and remembering his boots being “completely covered in blood.” And Matt Ziemendorf usually counts how many people are in the room and identifies all the exits as he enters classrooms at Niagara University. These young men are a different type of college student. Veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly are turning to higher education as they leave the military and confront an economy still rebounding from recession. They’re often older than other students, and frequently have spouses and children. They’re not interested in partying, and many try to finish their degrees as quickly as possible. Some also struggle with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD… Veterans are generally more respectful of professors and more focused on their work than many other students, said Andrew Overfield, coordinator of veterans services at Canisius. Administrators at other local colleges agreed. That discipline, Overfield said, helps veterans finish school as fast as they can. … But veterans, despite their maturity, often have trouble with the transition from the service to academia. Many grapple with the loss of the military’s strict routine. “The thing I struggled with for the longest time was, you no longer have your senior NCOs and stuff like that giving you orders,” Ziemendorf said, referring to noncommissioned officers. “You’re kind of figuring this out on your own.”…Jason Gilliland at Buffalo State and Frontera, who’s now the veterans affairs coordinator at ECC. [These men] are both pursuing master’s degrees in the higher education field at Buffalo State, so as they help students navigate the transition from deployment to academia, they are going through the same thing. … Being a veteran himself, Gilliland can understand a veteran with PTSD “hitting the deck” upon hearing construction noises on campus, and can point him to a place where he can get help. And being a student himself, Frontera can understand what it’s like to be surrounded by younger college students who are nothing like you.” (By Luke Hammill on July 15, 2013).

Returning veterans often have many hurdles to overcome, and some who hear this lesson today remember the experience all too well from their own past. When Stephen E. Ambrose wrote his book, Band of Brothers, he featured the awkward return to civilian life at the end of the work, because it was part of the war. The men didn’t return to a new life, it was the re-acquisition of the old life by an entirely changed young man that was often so difficult. Our lesson today is about the same kind of problem, albeit from a short and bloody conflict – not a sustained campaign far away. Returning veterans pose special problems. Yet, it is not only about them. It is also about the expressions of GRATITUDE after a time of God’s unusual provision and pronounced protection – and we ALL need that lesson!

I mention this because if you look into the text of Scripture, you will find the narrative of Numbers 31 contains two distinct stories: 1) the command of God and execution of a raid on Midian, and 2) the return of the raiders and the purification and offerings from the spoils. In our last lesson, we handled the first part of the story – the stirring account of a battle that forced us to face an issue that was uncomfortable – that God has the absolute right to act on behalf of His people and His plan in pronounced ways to bring about His plan. Today we face the second half of the story, in which we must deal with the aftermath of the bloody battle – including the dividing of the spoils and the required offerings to the Lord. The response to the battle was as telling a story and the execution of it. In some ways, the story was similar to what an allied WWII veteran may tell about his service. Neither were wars of personal vendetta, and neither group of returnees came back wringing their hands with glee at the hurt they put on another people group. The Biblical raid was executed in obedience to God’s command, and the chief expression of returnees was relief and thanksgiving to God. That is the story for our lesson today.

Remember, the people didn’t fight to prove anything. They didn’t fight to resolve any leftover feelings in them. They may have had feelings about the Midianites, but the fighting came about at the behest of the Lord, relayed through the instruction of Moses. They marched out with a priest, with holy silver trumpets of the Tabernacle, and with the confidence they were following God’s holy command. With these tools of mind and heart, they were invited by God to participate in a powerful victory. Swiftly the tides of war turned into the fortune of spoils and they returned with arms full of loot – their tunics still stained with the blood of the battle and their skin still covered with the dust and grime of the swift passage through the desert sands. Arriving at the camp, they were relieved and exhausted… but they were not allowed to drop in their tents and run into the arms of their wives and children. Something else came first. There was a time of healing, purifying and worshipful giving. They needed to understand a truth that we need to revisit…

Key Principle: The highest calling for a follower of God is obedient and repeated dedication to the Lord – everything else comes second.

The WAR was a step of OBEDIENCE. Would the RESPONSE be one of GRATITUDE and REDEDICATION?

Before the embraces of loved ones, before sitting around the campfire to share the story of the battle with their children – there had to be planned “down time” alone with God. There was a time of rededication, rest and re-orientation. There was time for celebrating with the comrades in arms, and the quiet thanksgiving of men who returned from a battle whole, along with their brothers and fellow soldiers. The re-entry to society was planned and prescribed by God. The nightmares of war needed to find a place inside of them to rest in their memory – and God was prepared to help them deal with it all. God never calls people to do things He won’t help them through.

Drop your eyes into the scene of the returnees, and listen to the speech they heard outside the camp…

Purification Instructions from Eleazar:

Numbers 31:21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, “This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: 22 Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24 On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp.”

We pick up the story with the High Priest of Israel telling the warriors what to do with the spoils they were carrying home. The remnants of war – its ribbons, weaponry and its victory spoils – all needed a place to be laid before the Lord and cleansed, both physically and spiritually. It was required of a warrior to take the things from his hands and place them before the Lord for cleansing. The passage offers three important principles of cleansing the fighters and their victory spoils.

There were three “Principles of Cleansing” found here:

1. Required Consecration: Cleansing wasn’t just a good idea – it was a God-ordained and revealed idea (31:21). The best surgeon isn’t ready simply because of training – there must be scrubbing. The idea that a fully prepared and fully qualified person should be given time to set aside after a difficult, even harrowing experience is a God idea. Preparation must be matched by periodic purification – and that wasn’t optional. It isn’t just qualification that makes one eligible to effectively serve God today – but purification. Even as a believer and follower of Messiah, I must recognize that purity in my walk will be tarnished while passing through the streets of a fallen world. Jesus told His Disciples that periodic “foot washing” was still absolutely essential – even for those who left the house fully clean that morning.

Two essential truths regarding purification must always be regarded. First, the means of purification has always been exclusively available by God’s provision – God alone can declare me clean by the means that God alone provided. I cannot earn clean-ness before the Holy One any way but through His provided cleansing agent. Second, the application of cleansing has always been personal and deliberate – I alone am responsible to apply what God offers to cleanse my life. No well-meaning parent can do it. No friend can act on my behalf to apply it. Just as God is solely responsible for the provision; I am solely responsible for the application of what He provided. God gave the washing solution at great cost to Himself; I must apply it carefully to my stained life.

Look again at our returning warriors in Numbers. They went through a time of slaughter. It changed them. Killing, even when done for a just purpose before God, was never easy. Ask the man who pulls the switch before the convict who has been sentenced to death – killing is hard. It is supposed to be hard. In war, we must move against compassion, against humanity itself. It was a necessary affront, because it was in obedience to God’s command – but it was still hard. The return of the veteran warrior required “down time” in a “compression tank-like” experience before returning to home and family. The warrior needed to get clean before God and men in the quiet of the desert outside the camp.

2. Careful Scrutiny: The goods brought from the battle had to be heat-purified and then water-purified. (31:22-23). Some things needed to be destroyed and smelted. Shapes that were inappropriate for the camp of God’s people would need to be reduced to liquid and re-formed. All of the spoils would need heating to eliminate any dangerous bacteria or germs that could harm God’s people. Items unable to be heated must be thoroughly washed (31:23b). The warriors needed to detoxify their implements of war and the spoils they brought back. While they did so, they had time to let the events sink into their hearts.

The point is that interacting and ingesting the goods of the world is a dangerous proposition. We are so familiar with handling dangerous things of the world, that we have become glib about their volatility and hazard to our lives. We flip on a TV and nonchalantly laugh at stained humor about things as sacred as marriage, honesty and truth. We watch routinely as people engage in marriage activities outside the holy bonds of that commitment. In war, the rules change. The strong defeat the weak – and not always the right win. Even when they do, the behaviors of warriors, amped up on testosterone and the taste of blood, is not always exemplary. The language of the barracks often reflects the tensions of war.

For God’s servant, the time for inspection allowed them to settle down and look at everything they returned with from that experience, and take the time to allow God to cleanse it, stain by awful stain. I don’t want to stretch the point. There was dirt and germ removal – but that wasn’t all there was too the cleaning. It included scrutiny – looking carefully for any impurity.

3. Personal Responsibility: With the command of God, there was one week of “down time” for each warrior, during the thorough cleansing of clothing, implements and body before resuming their post (31:24). Time alone in intimate inspection and re-consecration was interwoven here. The purification of one’s own life was one’s own responsibility. No one else knew what was hidden.

All three principles added up to one important truth: Warriors need a space between the battle and the resumption of daily life. The lack of that space will make the re-entry harder. The warrior may not sense the need, and anxious to return, they will plow back into the daily grind. God COMMANDED it, simply because the warrior wasn’t always conscious of the needs they had – and they were entirely unfamiliar with the corrupting issues of bacteria and germs. Don’t so fixate of the physical cleaning, however, and forget that God included in the command the mental, emotional and spiritual needs they carried home with them. As Pastor Warren Wiersbe once quipped: “God didn’t just want CONQUERING SOLDIERS, he wanted CLEAN SOLDIERS – He always does”.

The Tribute Offering

The text moved past the men and their cleansing, and then reminded us that in every blessing, no matter how hard fought to obtain, there must be recognition that we have what we have because our Lord has made it possible.

Numbers 31:25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. 27 Divide the spoils equally between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community. 28 From the soldiers who fought in the battle, set apart as tribute for the Lord one out of every five hundred, whether people, cattle, donkeys or sheep. 29 Take this tribute from their half share and give it to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part. 30 From the Israelites’ half, select one out of every fifty, whether people, cattle, donkeys, sheep or other animals. Give them to the Levites, who are responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.” 31 So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses.

These verses offer three “Principles of Tribute”:

The children of Israel just fought a Holy War – a war directed by God for His own purposes. The taxing of tribute was the required recognition of God’s goodness in the victory – a “tithe against the blessing”, if you will. Like the “Shelmim Offering” (Thanksgiving Offering) of Leviticus 2, it was a “thank you” to the Lord, that was expected by Him, and prescribed by His Word.

1. Accounting: First, an inventory needed to be taken by the priests accompanied by tribal leaders of all animals captured (31:25-26). This included both inspection and counting. Any diseased animals would need to be disposed, while a strict counting of the whole size of the material blessing was authenticated. The people doing this were priest, but they were accompanied by the watchful eye of the secular leaders. Following a new material acquisition, there was an inspection that was publicly executed and entirely verified. Getting the material blessing wasn’t the end – it was the beginning of taking the responsibility to steward well. That responsibility needed transparency, so the accounting was swift, accurate and public.

2. Dividing: Second, the spoils needed to be divided in two – half for the fighters, and the other half to be divided over the families of Israel (31:27). Clearly those who fought got a higher amount of the spoils, but those who were not able also were blessed by the victory. Some people are enabled to stand on the front line – but those who no longer can, should also be recognized for their value in the struggle. Those who did not fight were able to be a part of the support system, and needed to be blessed in the rewards as well. The prize was to the nation, not simply to the army.

3. Giving: Third, soldiers were to have an offering based on 1:500 “man to animal” ratio – given to the priestly families – the Cohenim (31:28-29). The animal tribute among the non-fighting populace was by a 1:50 ratio, given to the Levite families (31:30). The whole system that God set up was to work together. God’s people needed those who operated the Tabernacle, and those who cared for the administration of God’s work in their midst. This was a state religion, given at a unique time in the life of a certain people. Yet, the principle of giving place to the operations of ministry is elsewhere validated in Scripture. No nation can long endure that pits itself at odds with God’s stated desires for man – and pushes God’s people to the periphery.

A nation must recognize the place of God. Our forefathers knew that in the open praise of Thanksgiving. The History Channel reminds: “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.”

Today the holiday continues without the “guest of honor” in most of our public institutions, as American shrink in fear of lawsuits from secularists that threaten every imaginable venue because they have been forced to hear about a God they don’t believe in. What bothers them is NOT that they have to hear of a “god” they believe is false – for they show little impatience with public recalling of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (and I suppose they don’t believe in them either). What bothers them is the WE still believe that God is real, just like our forefathers did. That belief seems to be at the center of their disdain. It bugs them…

We don’t come to church to bemoan culture – even when we know that culture is desperately looking for a replacement for their Creator. We come to be among those, planted in places all around the globe, who WORSHIP the King.

• We will not be stingy, because God has been so gracious and blessed us in abundance.

• We will not be silent, for God has given us a reason to sing.

• We will not be angry, for despite the changes in our culture, God has promised at the end of days to wipe every tear from our eyes.

• We will not be timid, for a God so great deserves our full throated praise for Who He is and all He has done.

Our nation that rewards with greatest income those who can play a ball game, but cannot afford more than minimum wage for one who works with our children and our elderly speaks with little moral authority. Our God, who cares for us “from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same” beckons us to praise Him with our giving. The Gospel must go forth, and we will use the wealth He has given us to make that happen. The poor and the needy must be cared for, and we will not withhold our help. Let the nation grow cold – and let the church be the church. Let us look and act with generosity and charity!

The Inventory and Tribute Offering

As we continue with our story of the returnees, we get an inventory…

Numbers 31:32 The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 33 72,000 cattle, 34 61,000 donkeys 35 and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man. 36 The half share of those who fought in the battle was: 337,500 sheep, 37 of which the tribute for the Lord was 675; 38 36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72; 39 30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61; 40 16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32. 41 Moses gave the tribute to Eleazar the priest as the Lord’s part, as the Lord commanded Moses. 42 The half belonging to the Israelites, which Moses set apart from that of the fighting men— 43 the community’s half—was 337,500 sheep, 44 36,000 cattle, 4530,500 donkeys 46 and 16,000 people. 47 From the Israelites’ half, Moses selected one out of every fifty people and animals, as the Lord commanded him, and gave them to the Levites, who were responsible for the care of the Lord’s tabernacle.

The real question was: How will they meet the continuing needs of ministry? God’s answer was to organize ministry and its support through the people.

This section provided three “Principles of Support” of God’s ministry among the people:

1. The first part of the narrative offered the totals of each category (31:32-35), followed by the divided half to the soldiers (31:36), and the amount taken in tribute (31:37-40). It was one thing to learn about the ratios, it was another thing to actually take the amount that was to be offered and carefully separate out the gift. The theory of giving is only helpful if followed by the ACTION of giving.

Let’s think seriously about the idea of GENEROSITY for a moment…People often think that their giving would change if they had MORE to give. Yet, the truth is the majority of the giving is done by those who have little. Pastor Bobby Scobey related a story:

Don’t say you would give if only you had something to give. There was a farmer who asked his neighbor, “If you had a million dollars, would you give me half of it?” The second fellow was amazed at the question and replied, “Of course, I would do that in a minute.” The questioner persisted, “If you had cars, would you give me one of them?” The friend said, “I can’t believe you asked that. Since we are such good friends, sure; you know I would give you one.” Third question: “If you had two hogs, would you give me one?” The other guy said, “Shoot, man, you know I’ve got two hogs.”

God is honored by what I give, not what I intend to give. Theoretical sacrifice wasn’t what God instructed Israel – actual hard numbers are given to prove that point!

2. The second part of the narrative detailed the part that went to the Cohenim (priests) that was carefully given by Moses in accordance with the Lord’s instruction (31:41). God called out certain men to serve as the intercessor between the people and God – and they and their families needed to be cared for by the people in the process. They were to lead the people in worship, but were, in another sense, dependent upon the people for sustenance. It isn’t wrong for God’s people to shoulder that responsibility – it is appropriate.

I am not bucking for a raise, here – just commenting on the truth. I have had the fortunate circumstance of watching God pour blessing on my life – material, emotional and spiritual. I know some of the finest people this old planet has ever witnessed. I am surrounded by blessing! At the same time, it is my responsibility to faithfully represent the Word of God. Our staff gets wonderful support from our flock – and that is the way it is supposed to be. God has honored your sacrifices and blessed our work together because of your obedience. We all do this ministry together!

3. The last part of this text shows how the animals were the numbers divided among the people (31:42-46) and the amounts that were given in tribute offering to the Levites (31:47). In addition to caring for those who interceded for the people – God also devised a system of caring for both the physical operations of the worship center, and a way to spread out across the camp those who could serve God by serving the people – the Levitical formula. God provided increase, and the people needed to make sure the needs of those who sacrificed a portion of inheritance in this life were cared for as well.

He does the same in our ministry today! Just as you care for the staff, so there are missionaries serving in far flung places in the name of Christ. They, like Levites of old, have traded a land inheritance to be those who work for the Lord in the midst of a tribe that owns the land on which they labor. They live in faraway lands, and miss their families and their friends – all for the cause of the Gospel. Why? In Heaven, French people will stand beside you and remind you that your obedience in giving provided a man or woman who gave them the Gospel. You will meet Cambodians, Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Asians, and many others who were reached by the support you helped with! God blessed us to be a blessing to others. It is our rightful tribute.

A Thanksgiving Offering Added

The final part of the passage displays what happens when people have faced crisis, and seen God deliver blessing.

Numbers 31:48 Then the officers who were over the units of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—went to Moses 49 and said to him, “Your servants have counted the soldiers under our command, and not one is missing. 50 So we have brought as an offering to the Lord the gold articles each of us acquired—armlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement for ourselves before the Lord.” 51 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted from them the gold—all the crafted articles. 52 All the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds that Moses and Eleazar presented as a gift to the Lord weighed 16,750 shekels.(about 420 pounds) 53 Each soldier had taken plunder for himself. 54 Moses and Eleazar the priest accepted the gold from the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds and brought it into the tent of meeting as a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord.

Finally, there are three “Principles of Blessing” in the account.

1. First, there was recognition of God’s goodness to them – rejoicing over the protection of God (31:48-49). When the officers looked carefully at the roster of the returnees – they saw it clearly. God brought the entire army back… not one of their men was lost! They were amazed at God’s protection, and overjoyed at His grace!

Have you thanked God for the many times in the last months you have been spared from harm? Every day there are those who wake up and dream of harming our nation and wounding our people. Yet, God has been good and offered protection. Diligent men and women serve our country in a variety of services, and God uses them to protect us. Police, rescue workers, firemen and many others stand by to help if an emergency strikes. There has never been a people, since the beginning of history, that has been so thoroughly guarded and protected by agencies as ours. Yet, we complain. We act as though we deserve peace, prosperity and stability. Have you thanked God for the protection that we have enjoyed?

2. Recognition that is REAL is followed by RESPONSE that is measureable – responsive offerings for God’s goodness (31:50). The result of their collective joy was an offering to God – not compulsory, but as an overflow of their heart! God protected them, but God also showered them with good gifts -and they wanted to give them back to Him!

Let me ask you directly: If God dropped a large amount of money on you right now, would you find it hard to give to Him an offering from it? How quickly and steadfastly do you own the things He provides for you? Isn’t it just possible that God is not placing more in your hands because He knows you would squander it on things that don’t honor Him – selfish pleasures that don’t advance His Kingdom at all?

These men looked that the wealth they accumulated. They recalled the men that lay in the camp, fallen in battle and dispossessed of all their earthly goods. Facing death helps us sort out priorities. The men saw that God saved them, and God blessed them – and no one had to convince them of God’s goodness. No one had to beg them to give. They volunteered.

Let me say something that could sting just a little bit. Those who see God as He is, and themselves as they are – should be inclined to generosity in giving. When we truly recognize the depth of our own sinfulness and the size of the Lord’s gift to us – we see His marvelous generosity toward us. We know of His liberality. It challenges us to respond well.

3. Reception of Freewill Offering and placement before God (31:51-54). The priests took the offering that was given and laid it before God. Mere Midianite trinkets took on the sweet smell of offerings to the Most High God. The people rejoiced, and God was pleased.

As little as I normally speak about giving and generosity, I am still a preacher, and the subject is dangerous in our hands…In fact, it reminds me to warn you with a story:

A barber in a small town was busy cutting hair one day when the local cop walked in to get a haircut. And the barber was feeling a bit generous that day, so he said to the cop… “Since you do such a good job protecting us, and watching over us… today’s haircut is free.” The cop said he appreciated that, and the next day when the barber showed up at his shop, there were a dozen donuts waiting for him. In walks a local florist. The barber tells him how much he appreciates all the work that he has done around town, planting bushes and flowers and making the town look real nice, so he gives him a free haircut. The next day, the barber shows up at his shop and there are a dozen flowers waiting for him. In walks the local preacher, the barber tells him how he is feeling generous that day, and how much he appreciates all his hard work with the children and taking care of the needs of the people, so the preacher gets a free haircut. The next the barber shows up at his shop, and there are a dozen preachers waiting there for him. (Taken from sermon central illustrations).

Seriously, we have followed the Israelites from their beginnings to nearly the end of Moses’ life as we have studied together – and very few times did we end this way – with the people at peace and God pleased with them. What did it take? It took OBEDIENCE. It took practical DEDICATION to what God called them to accomplish. It took understanding the truth….

The highest calling for a follower of God is obedient and repeated dedication to the Lord – everything else comes second.

Renewing our Resolve: “Modeling Clay” – Colossians 3:18-4:1

molding clayPeople need more than directions; most require models to really understand a concept. That’s absolutely clear to any of us who have assembled most household items by looking at the pictures rather than by reading through the directions. Furniture and toys aren’t the only things that require assembly – children do as well. God cares, in the womb, for the knitting together of the body. He leaves to us – parents, families and communities, the task of knitting together a conscience. Right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are mostly learned in the context of our early life. Americans have come to realize in recent years the powerful nature of the two “e’s” that are shaping our children – education and entertainment. We have looked at the trends in education at various times together, but occasionally we also must lend a “nod” to the field of entertainment. You might be interested to know that TV guide has come up with their “must see list” for new shows for the Autumn 2013 season across the US, and even a short examination of the shows reveals “family models” that Hollywood is offering for our nation in the days ahead.

On the roster, there is plenty to help those who are hungry for new superheroes, and those who need another dose of the undead. Even vampires make their way back for yet another year – as if the world needs another Bram Stoker revival. There are a few new cop and robber dramas, and some interesting forays into history – though told without any of those “pesky constraints” like the actuals facts of the events. Yet, we can always draw particular comfort in the golden city’s depiction of the American family, as they shape and model what they think people live like – or should consider living like. Look at the “diet” of “new models” we are to digest in the name of entertainment:

Back in the Game (ABC), a comedy which stars a divorced single mother and former all-star beer-swilling ex-baseball player. Father and daughter reconnect when they start coaching a Little League team together.

Betrayal (ABC), a story about unhappily married photographer that starts a torrid affair with a lawyer for a powerful family. It turns out that her new love is defending a murder suspect who is being prosecuted by her current husband.

Dads (Fox), a story of two video game developers whose lives are disrupted when their fathers move in with them and fill the house with crass, sexist and racially insensitive jokes.

Hello Ladies (HBO), a new cringe comedy where a tall, gawky English web designer who moves to Los Angeles is taught to “have game” with the ladies.

Masters of Sex (Showtime), exploring the Life and Times of Williams Masters and Virginia Johnson, who pioneered research of human sexual response, and diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders in the ’50s.

The Millers (CBS) a comedy about a news reporter who makes the mistake of telling his parents that he just got divorced. Why? His dad leaves his mom and moves in with him!

Sean Saves the World (NBC) the story of a career-oriented divorced gay dad who is determined to become the “world’s best father” after his 14-year-old daughter moves in with him.

Trophy Wife (ABC) the tale of a reformed party girl who marries a man she met at a karaoke bar. He comes with a lot of baggage though: three manipulative kids and two ex-wives!

We Are Men (CBS) the comedy about a man who was left at the altar, and his move to a short-term apartment complex, where he’s befriended by three fellow bachelors: an OB/GYN in the middle of his second divorce, a four-time divorcee and ladies’ man, the third is a guy who’s desperately trying to win his wife back after he got caught in an affair.

I am not picking on people who have gone through a failed marriage. Nor am I making specific commentary about the shows – I haven’t seen them and (from the sounds of them) very likely never will. All that I am trying to show is this: If you are placing your hope for the future of America’s families in the forthcoming models of entertainment, plan on frequent divorces, lots of gay interaction, and a continuous call for the shaping of immorality into amorality. Hollywood’s answer is that our word is not our bond, marriage is not a covenant, and the best way to solve difficult times at home is to find a new home. They can complain about church, but they are doing more PREACHING than any Pastor I know about how we should all aspire to live.

Here’s my point: Many young people in our nation will learn from the Hollywood model. They will be shaped by what they laugh at, sing to, and have their heart strings pulled by. One hour in Sunday School cannot reverse twenty hours of shaping and sculpting by morally depraved producers. It won’t happen – even if the child is in the home of a believer. The line-up of new shows is woefully deficient in one category – two biological parents that love and honor each other, and thoughtfully raise a child. Apparently, they are either no longer living in Hollywood, or no longer worth really exploring for our next generation.

What are we to do? First, recognize the problem. People are “pressed into the mold of the world” as a natural consequence of living in it, and we have to limit the exposure to ourselves and our children by the shaping process. Don’t trade what is right for what is funny. A few laughs, at the expense of wholesome thinking, are the cracks in the foundation of a godly home. Be careful little eyes what you see. Second, and absolutely essential to the future of our nation, LIVE TRUTHS that you know God’s Word expresses. Nothing else helps more. Let me say it another way:

Key Principle: The most prominent place for our faith to be lived in is our daily relationships.

That was Paul’s point when he wrote to the Colossian church in the first century. In the opening of the letter (chapter one), Paul offered three details to set in context his words on relational behavior:

He started by telling them they needed to know what Jesus has done for mankind (Col. 1:3-14) and Who Jesus truly is (Col. 1:15-20) – so that life is placed in the context of the Master – His saving and transforming work. When we know Jesus for Who He is, and we see what He has done for us – we WANT to live to please Him!

He explained why they needed to see who they were when Jesus met them (1:21-23) to remind them they didn’t find HIM – He found them. When we are reminded of who we have been, and confront anew God’s goodness is offering us a relationship with Him – we WANT to live to please Him!

He reminded them of who he was as an Apostle on a mission (1:24-27) and what his goal was in relationship to them (1:28-29) – to see them all mature and ready to meet the Master. When we recall that the goal of ministry is NOT just to reach people for Jesus and give them the Gospel, but to GROW them to maturity – we WANT to live to please Him!

Paul was hindered from getting to see them face to face (2:1-5) and that frustrated him. Add to that, Paul knew some distractions were tugging on them, and some were slipping away from a positive walk with Jesus. Paul made the problem clear:

Some felt like there was “something deeper” than the Gospel and a walk with God (2:6-15). They were attracted to the “philosophically deep” discussions invented by lost men.

Some felt pressured to conform to religious practices posed by others (2:16-23).

Some were so pulled in by fixation on the physical world; they allowed themselves to wallow back into the mud of immorality (3:1-11). They spent their time thinking about THIS WORLD and its pleasures – trying to “gain the whole world” but in danger of “losing their own soul”.

With those problems pulling people back (worldly philosophies, religious practices, and licentious living), Paul made it clear that there were, in fact, “Six Markers of God’s Transforming Work” that he wanted to see in them as they progressed toward his goal of obvious maturity. We looked at these in the last lesson briefly:

Marker 1: God’s people saw each other (and the world) with new eyes of love and compassion (3:12-14). They were to be kind people.

Marker 2: God’s people walked with a new steadiness – peace ruling them (3:15). They were to be settled people.

Marker 3: God’s people will learn the new tone of thankfulness (3:15b). They were to be people filled with gratitude.

Marker 4: God’s people will offer the sounds of a new voice. They will sing a new song (3:16). They were to be people who shared faith with their mouths.

Marker 5: God’s people will learn a new goal – to do all that we do in Jesus’ name (in His character and under His authority with personal responsibility). They were to be dedicated people.

Marker 6: God’s people will focus on a new pattern of relational behavior (3:18-4:1). They were to LIVE OUT truth in their daily walk and relationships…

That is where we want to focus our attention for the next few moments. The passage ends with an insightful list of instructions about RELATIONSHIPS that change when we practice God’s Word in daily life. Look at the text. Paul wrote:

Colossians 3:18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them. 20 Children, be obedient to your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart. 22 Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who [merely] please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. 4:1 Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven.

These aren’t unfamiliar words… but they may be unfamiliar actions in our lives, and are CERTAINLY unfamiliar patterns on our TV sets! Look carefully at the list – because it reveals key conflict areas in relationships of the Roman world. Many of them continue to be problem areas today, suggesting the conflict is broader than a single culture and time:

Wives: be subject to your husbands. The term is hypotássō (from hypó, “under” and tássō, “arrange”) – properly, “arrange yourself under”. It is used in the New Testament as making choices that submit to the Lord’s stated plan or order. The word is something A WOMAN CHOOSES TO DO as a mark that she belongs to and follows Jesus. Look carefully at the phrase: “as is fitting in the Lord”. This is the term anḗkō (from aná, “completing a process” and hḗkō, “come”) – which combined means to “come up to a particular standard of expectation” or “to fill out the required obligation”.

When women live in submission, they live according to the place God put them in the world; they celebrate God’s right to shape them as He desires. They worship Him by submitting to His plan for them.

Let’s face it, ladies. You know the truth. He can’t make you voluntarily place yourself in a serving position in your marriage – but I will tell you the truth: He yearns to be respected. Men want to be respected more than they desire to be loved. That respect is clearly transmitted when you place them above you in rank, though (and we know it is true), we men are often not nearly as smart as YOU! This “befits” a believer according to the text. This doesn’t befit Hollywood. This doesn’t befit Washington. Yet here is the truth: There is no such thing as a “two-headed” marriage. Someone leads in every one of them. This is your opportunity to serve Jesus by serving your husband. Maybe he isn’t as bright as you. Maybe he lacks many of the character traits you wanted in a man. That’s fine – because JESUS DOESN’T – and He is the One you serve when you obey His Word.

Husbands: There are TWO instructions. The first is LOVE your wife. The second is to deliberately toss out of your heart anything that will allow bitterness to take root inside you concerning her. The word used, pikrainó, can mean “to make bitter” or “to make harsh”. The Spirit calls to believing husbands – address issues and then LET THEM GO. Love her, and cherish her. Let her know you are fortunate to have her in your life.

When men love their wives and act in patience toward them, they recognize God’s headship over them and His patience with them. They worship and serve Him by serving their wife.

Go back in time for a moment, and recall that Colossians weren’t Americans – they were Romans. If you think modern America doesn’t treat women in a proper way, you will be amazed at ancient Rome. The Roman poet laureate Vergil summed up well Roman feelings about women, in a line that he used of Dido, Queen of Carthage. He said: “A woman is an unpredictable and fickle creature.” Most Roman men would no doubt have agreed with him. In fact, as late as the C 2nd CE we still find Galen, the foremost medical writer of Roman times, describing women as “less perfect” than men on the grounds that their bodies are colder. It gets worse…

The standard under Roman Law for women was they were considered in frequent references of two phrases: They had “infirmitas sexus” – the basic infirmity of being female, and “levitas animi” – or inflicted with a fickleness of mind. It appears that some men in Rome felt the need to stop women from overshopping – and devised a legal remedy in the Oppian Law (215 BCE) (named for Gaius Oppius). He proposed a law that limited to half an ounce—the amount of gold that a woman was allowed to possess. This was passed at a time of dire hardship—one year after Rome’s catastrophic defeat at Cannae at the hands of the Carthaginian general Hannibal—and it was later repealed. I guess he figured if they outlawed too much jewelry owning, they could cut down on jewelry buying. Just telling women to “take it easy on the shopping” didn’t seem to be enough for the afflicted and weak-willed among them.

It would SHOCK your modern sensibilities how much inequity was actually enshrined in Roman law: If a woman committed adultery, it was a criminal offense, whereas if her husband committed adultery it wasn’t. Constantine later decreed that if a woman was raped in the city, she was automatically partly responsible, guilty of what we would call today “contributory negligence,” because if she had screamed sufficiently loudly, the neighbors would have come to her rescue and prevented the rape.

Valerius Maximus, a C1st CE writer, wrote a number of examples of women being “punished” (Read: abused) by their husbands. He referenced one man who clubbed his wife to death for drinking wine and was left unpunished. Valerius observes: “And so, long ago, when the misbehavior of women was kept in check, their minds were prevented from scheming.”

I mention all this because it was the world that Paul was addressing. He knew men could be brutal, and for their harshness, they would not be held accountable. He knew they needed to learn both LOVE and FORGIVENESS… and so do we. For generations, the law has been unequal in regards to women – so we must be even MORE CAREFUL to understand the gift they are to us. They aren’t OBJECTS – they aren’t BEAUTIFUL PLAYTHINGS. They are God’s first gift to man after life itself – and they are a PART OF US – taken from our own flesh. No man in our free society EVER has the Biblical right to physically harm a woman – ever. If you raise your hand to your wife, you are NOT acting as a man – period. I have NO room for this. NONE. Cease the sin, and stop looking for some way to excuse this abysmal behavior.

Children: In a bare-knuckled, no-nonsense way, Paul says: “Please the Lord and obey your parents.” He is addressing this to those who are not considered adults, and he is saying that parents are supposed to be honored and respected.

When children obey their parents, they kneel at the authority of God. They recognize God’s position by recognizing the positions of authority God placed in their lives.

The term “teknon” means a “dependent”. It refers to one who is unable to care for self and needs the guidance and assistance of another. Children must learn they are not providing for themselves, and they need to heed the voices of parents who are offering the provision.

How are we to enforce this Biblical view in modern society? Lest we bypass the war on Biblical principle in modern society, let us hear the voices that are educating our modern sensitivities. Al Mohler offers this comment:

As [Daniel] Zalewski [of the New Yorker Magazine] argues, today’s young parents “learn that there are many things they must never do to their willful young child: spank, scold, bestow frequent praise, criticize, plead, withhold affection, take away toys, ‘model’ angry emotions, intimidate, bargain, nag.” In other words, “nearly all forms of discipline appear morally suspect.” Modern “experts” like Alfie Kohn [considered a leading figure in progressive education] now go so far as to argue that rewarding children for good behavior is virtually as injurious to the child as punishing children for negative behavior. Arguing against what he calls “conditional parenting,” Kohn came out against everything from the “time out” to positive reinforcement. Writing recently in The New York Times, Kohn asserted: “Conditional parenting isn’t limited to old-school authoritarians. Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

I want to deliberately encourage parents to recognize some important stages of raising children. Though the war against parental authority, as a subset of war against all authority in the country, is alive and well, parents must NOT abandon their role in the blur of cultural distraction. Studies show that an infant needs to learn to settle themselves – or they are far more likely to need a bottle or a pill to get to sleep years later. A toddler needs to learn to clean up their toys, or they will find themselves on a job twenty years later without the proper tools in their bag. An elementary child needs to be able to make the sandwich and clean up the mess, or they will lack experience in the joy of caring for one’s self. Discipline, if handled properly, is a selfless act. A godly parent sets aside their desire to feel the short-term love and warmth of their child’s approving affections, in exchange for helping the child’s long term development.

Fathers: Paul returned to the men of the congregation and directed them to learn some tempering gentleness when dealing with their children. Roman fathers “accepted” or “rejected” a child immediately after birth when someone placed the child at the foot of the father. He was under no legal obligation in Roman society to claim the child, and could order the child abandoned. Such dictatorial power over even life and death for a child could have easily given them an un-tempered harshness with their children.

When fathers deal with their children sensitively, they show sensitivity to the Spirit of God, and obedience to His command.

The term “provoke” is “er-eth-id’-zo”, a word that meant to “stir up or provoke”. Dads were admonished not to stir up the child, in part, by setting a standard that is unattainable. We must press our children to accomplish more, but we dare not set a bar ever higher and higher with no reward or affirmation. Unable to reach our standard, children will turn their disappointment to disillusionment and anger. Toughness and harshness is not the same thing. We are to be tough (because life will be) but fair – and never harsh. As parents recede in expectation, children enter the work world without the benefit of truly understanding that they are not equal in position to their boss – a problem that is plaguing American business today.

Slaves: Paul told slaves who knew Jesus to serve Jesus by serving their masters. Though the rewards may not have come to them in this life, their real inheritance was beyond this life. Look closely and you will see some great principles for how God wants us to think when we are in unjust situations.

When slaves recognize that they can serve Jesus best by serving Him in the confines of where they have been placed – they can look past issues of injustice in this life and focus on honoring the God that made them.

Paul told them to serve Jesus in every task – and know He sees their labors. When we remember that we belong to the Lord, and He sees every moment and every thought – we can be encouraged. He misses nothing! He knows if we give our absolute best efforts at what we do. Others will “cut corners” – but we cannot and will not – for our “real boss” is watching. Every deed I engage has the potential to become a point of both worship and celebration – when I do it my best because I want to honor Jesus.

Masters: God’s Word to those who held power over others was to look up, and remember God had power over their lives!

When a master treated his servants well, he remembered that God was above him, and he was treated with greater grace than he ever deserved.

Common to all of these relational commands was the one idea that is so hard for the world to understand – other person centeredness. The Gospel is all about how Jesus saw our need as a greater value than His comfort (Phil. 2:1ff). Yet the world trains us to think in the opposite way – to think of SELF FIRST.

• A wife that thinks of herself first, will assert herself rather than place herself in a submissive role. Isn’t that what women learn in our world to do?

• A man that thinks of himself first will wander the internet with roaming eyes because his wife hasn’t been all he wanted. Is that so “out of the ordinary” in our day?

• A child that asserts him or herself instead of listening to those obtuse parents is seen as great leadership material for the future in our modern view.

• A father can’t possibly learn sensitivity – he is the MAN of the family and they need to understand the PRESSURE ON HIM and stay out of his path – isn’t that clear in modern life?

• No one needs to serve another – they need to GET what they can. Bosses need to know I have a life outside the office. Employees need to shut up and be glad they have a job…

In many places you look in modern society, SELFISHNESS is interpreted as LEADERSHIP and SERVANTHOOD is cast as WEAKNESS. The fact is, the opposite is true. Servants lead and other person centered thinkers are strong. When trouble strikes the nation, it isn’t selfish egotists we seek, but quiet servants. They pull us from the rubble, and they douse the fires we inflict on ourselves as a society.

Enter the room, two thousand years ago. Look at the reclining disciples, and watch the Savior move about the room. What was He doing? The Bible showed what Jesus did to show relationship and authority to the men:

“Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything; that He came from God and was on his way back to God. So He got up from the supper table, set aside His robe, and put on an apron. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of His disciples, drying them with His apron.” -John 13:3-6 (MSG)

The most prominent place for our faith to be lived in is our daily relationships.

Strength for the Journey: “Shaping a Better God” – Numbers 31:1-20

chiseling godIdolatry is the single most talked about problem in all of Scripture – but you don’t hear it that much in the western church. When we do mention it, we picture some primitive tribe far away, not people we see every day. According to the Bible, most people are idolaters. Now, I readily admit that in the modern world of the west, most do not think of themselves as idolaters – but in the Biblical terminology that is exactly how they would be described. This isn’t a new problem, but one that accompanies the ages. It was John Calvin who wrote: “Everyone of us is, even from our mother’s womb a master craftsman of idols.”

We may not build elaborate temples and construct vast sacrificial platforms. We may not bow to a statue of some hideous creature or sumptuous human form, but each of us serves something with vigilant allegiance – even if it is ourselves. The Biblical definition for idolatry is “anything that takes God’s rightful place in our life as it regards our hungers, choices and desires.” For some it is money, for others an inordinate craving for the love of another. For some it is surely power. Some yearn deeply for success and will cast aside any principle for the perks of material gain. For some the driving hunger is fame. For some, every waking moment seems to be a search for sexual gratification. Some make a god of their career, while others exalt their body to serve the god of image and strength. To a great many in our culture, the god of comfort and pleasure demands our highest allegiance. I have to agree with Kyle Idelman who wrote: “Behind every sin struggle that you and I have is a false god that is winning the war in our lives.”

We must be careful not to allow other things to come between us and God. The Bible warns us in many places concerning this – but there is another “twist” on idolatry I want you to notice – our modern attempts to re-shape God into something that is more acceptable to our sense of fairness and justice. We began to see this in the last chapter, where we noted the “modern clash of culture” we have with the text of Scripture regarding the judicial responsibility of women (Numbers 30). We noted the unchanging principles of God’s Word are sometimes openly offensive to modern sensibilities, and that in our day the church is quickly succumbing to the need to be loved by the world rather than firmly committed to holding the treasure of the Creator’s words above all else. If you have been listening, you know the media LOVES any church that wants to update and re-think the Bible’s most clear statements to conform with the morals of modernity.

I don’t want to obfuscate and sound so theoretical I skirt needed discomfort, so let me say it plainly: Our culture is at war with the God of the Bible as He is presented in the text. They don’t WANT HIM. IF they want any god (and many do not), they want to be able to shape what He cares about. They want to tell Him what the Bible SHOULD say. They want to re-make the rules on marriage, finance, sexual behavior, honesty – all of it. The parts of the Bible about God’s love are no problem. The problem is all the other things God says… God the Sovereign is being demoted to God the elected… and there is a reason.

Many Christians simply don’t understand that from the opening line, the Bible is deeply offensive to the modern sensibilities of our culture. Its pages open with a simple claim: “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth.” If that claim is true – if God DID in fact create all that is and then defined its purpose (as the rest of Genesis 1 claims) – everything finds its real meaning and definition in Him. He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth. Even more offensive is the notion that in such a case, God isn’t forced to act according to modern man’s ever flexing sense of fairness… a truly burning offense to modern man. Our culture cries out for a creator that can be shaped! Our nation seeks a god that blesses us without questioning our gluttony for endless pleasures and encourages us without challenging our flexible morality and unrestrained perversions.

A God that pre-existed the material world, a God that created all things– is fundamentally at odds with the gods of modern men. Why? If God created, He was not a creation of good men – He is the author, not the tale. If God created, He has by definition a Sovereign right to be recognized as Who He is. He cannot be forced into rules that His creation attempts to subject Him to, nor can He be shaped by men’s thinking, for we were shaped by His hands. He is the Untamable God – the writer of a story in which we find ourselves characters.

Key Principle: God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.

Let me challenge you with a story from the Bible that will help us see even our own temptation to shape God. Like the last lesson – this one challenges our modern definitions of fair and just, and forces us to rethink how our minds have been pressed into the world’s mold. There is much in the passage, so we will deal with it in two parts – this is the first installment.

Part One: The Last Battle for Moses

The first half of the chapter is constructed as a record of four scenes:

• God commands Moses
• Moses passes marching orders to leaders
• Israel’s army routs Midian
• Moses meets the returnees

This is a story about a war. It is the plan and execution of a surprise attack, initiated by God against a devious enemy that had caused problems in the past for Israel. It is a tough story to read – with butchery and blood of men and women, and the enslaving of children. It is a frank look at the rugged and brutal existence of God’s people long ago… and it is not easy to seriously contemplate.

Scene One – God to Moses:

It opens with God talking to Moses. Take a moment and pull in your focus to listen to a short and direct command from God given millennia ago:

Numbers 31:1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.

The opening line of the story is no doubt a summary of a longer conversation, but in the short two sentences we see the revelation of three facts:

First, God wasn’t willing to let the terrible abuse of His people by devious men who tried to destroy God’s plan in and through them remain unanswered.

When we read “take vengeance” as Christians, we are perhaps uncomfortable with a kind of call from God, since it seems contrary to the call of God to us – and it meant the brutal killing of human beings. Don’t you feel a reaction? Perhaps it will help if you recall the event that God was referencing in his command, and see if it puts this command in context. Numbers 25:1 reported: “While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel. 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.”

While observing this first fact – that God wouldn’t let the abuse go – it occurs to me that four ideas surface that we should take a few minutes to explore on the way to helping us make sense of this command of God for vengeance:

  • God called Moses in with the plan to pay back Midian for their sin. This wasn’t a political stunt, and it wasn’t done with a malicious heart on the part of Moses. Vengeance is God’s alone – and we are not to cook up ways to hurt people who hurt us. Moses was acting as the hand of God in a specific situation – and we aren’t Moses. We don’t have the history of the same kind of communion with God and don’t have the same responsibilities before God as he did.
  • We don’t recognize how hurt the people of Israel were concerning the resultant plague that decimated them, killing 24,000 of their family and friends (Numbers 25:9) directly because of that sin. These deceivers felt like cloaked terrorists, and the event felt like a 9/11 cataclysm to the people. America WANTED to fight after they were attacked. After Pearl Harbor, there was no ground swell of a peacenik American. When people are hurt and victimized, their sense of JUSTICE overwhelms them. God’s call probably satisfied many people who lost loved ones that were casualties of another’s misdeeds. Some of you may be keen to ask: “Wait! These didn’t die in an attack – the plague of the Lord took their lives. That isn’t the same thing!” (I want to address this, but I will do so later in the lesson).
  • We don’t recognize how deeply God abhors those who ensnare His people in idolatry and licentious living. To God, these tribesmen were like an ancient form of a street “drug pusher” – offering something free and getting people “hooked” – while steadily “milking” their life from them. If you have ever felt that there was a special place in Hell reserved for such people, you know a bit of the outrage of God over what they were doing. He HATES the deliberate perversion of a child. He DETESTS the beckoning of the tempter who creates enslaving pornography and traffics in human flesh of those held in bondage. He LOATHES the voices of those who arrogantly challenge His right to keep His people distinct from filth.
  • We must recognize that God worked with Israel in unique ways in the past in regards to national direction, and this view of “carnal warfare” is not the same in our nation and time in history. We follow a chosen value at Grace called “Non-resistance”. We are not pacifists, and do not believe that Jesus’ commands to individual believers translate to national instructions, but we do believe there is a profound difference in the way we should handle what our forefathers called “carnal strife” – fancy terms for “national wars”. Non-resistance in our doctrinal statement means essentially that we do not believe that our nation or our church are to involve themselves in battles that are designed to “carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them” as stated in Numbers 31:3. Serving in the country’s armed forces is not a problem for us – but it would be if our country tried to execute a war claiming it was the “arm of God”. In our time, we believe there is a distinction between the Kingdom “not of this world” that we serve, and the earthly kingdom to which we show allegiance as a matter of obedience to Romans 13 and those who are in authority. Our movement came from a time in European history when people were killing each other in the name of Jesus – and we don’t believe in that. We can and will defend our national interests as loyal citizens, but we will not defend the nation claiming it is “the command of the Lord” over another people. We make a distinction between our faith Kingdom and our earthly Kingdom that ancient Israel did not need to make.

God wouldn’t let it go, but there is more in this little reading of Numbers 31:1-2.

Second, Moses needed to care for the response and not let it pass to his successor. There would be plenty of fighting that Joshua needed to contend with – but God wanted this chapter finished by Moses’ administration. It wasn’t wise to place the clean-up operations on the shoulder of the new guy. As we slip out of a long-held role of leadership, sometimes we are tempted to “let things go” and not press to the final tape with our best efforts. It would have been easy to see how Moses could have felt it best not to “re-open a can of worms” and rather “let sleeping dogs lie” – the laissez faire (“leave it be”, literally “let do”) form of leadership. Because of that temptation, and because God wanted to balance the scales of judgment, He simply stepped in and instructed that Moses clean up this problem.

Third, this was the LAST big assignment Moses needed to face as leader. He would be “retired” after this war. Moses was probably looking forward to resting from the weight of the office, and since many of his friends were already gone, he probably knew it was time for a new leader. From what we can tell, the words of God didn’t threaten him, they comforted him.

Scene Two – Moses to Men:

There are more than two verses to consider in the story! Keep reading…The instruction firmly planted in his ears, Moses drew the people together and faithfully reported to him all that God told him to say:

Numbers 31:3 So Moses said to the people, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites so that they may carry out the Lord’s vengeance on them. 4 Send into battle a thousand men from each of the tribes of Israel.” 5 So twelve thousand men armed for battle, a thousand from each tribe, were supplied from the clans of Israel.

He told them to get ranked, dressed and ready for battle. He delivered the reason, just as God gave it to him – it was God’s idea, not his. The objective was given by the Most High, but the plan needed to be executed in their hands.

Scene Three – Men to War:

Gathered and ready, off they went to attack as they were told to do. They were strong physically, and walked with an emotional certainty knowing they were following the Lord’s command.

Numbers 31:6 Moses sent them into battle, a thousand from each tribe, along with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the priest, who took with him articles from the sanctuary and the trumpets for signaling. 7 They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. 8 Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. 9 The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

Moses SENT them, but Eleazar the High Priest ACCOMPANIED them with articles from the Tabernacle – the silver trumpets used to call them to war from its doorway. The men apparently attacked the Midianite encampment with complete surprise – and the slaughter was thorough. Every fighting man of that tribal encampment was killed. Five chieftains were encamped there – though the text does not inform us why they were all in that one camp. It looks like a “pow-wow” was interrupted at just the right time!

Did you notice that Balaam the prophet was also with them? At the end of his time with Chief Balak, Numbers 24:25 recorded: “Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.” What was he STILL DOING IN THE MIDIANITE CAMP? Truthfully, we do not know. It could be that he returned to his tent at the end of Numbers 24 with the intent of going home, but decided to stay around and see how the whole thing worked out. Some have even suggested that he set out to return to Mesopotamia, but was again summoned by tribesmen that wished to hire his services. 2 Peter 2:15 certainly left the door open to that when it recorded his legacy as: “forsaking the right way, they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.” I cannot prove it, but I suspect that he found himself seduced by the sensual cult that pervaded the camp of Midian, and he wasn’t willing to go back home.

Because I feel it inappropriate, I will not graphically remind you of the cultic practices, except to say they were sensual and orgiastic. The women captured by Israel’s raiders were some of the same enchantresses from the “cultic orgy” of Numbers 25 that drew them into trouble with God and His Word. It is also important to mention that the so-called “towns” or “cities” Israel burned in verse ten were “encampments” and “maqads” or safe havens – cave structures that stored food and water for the journey through their surrounding territory. Moses was trying to make it clear that every Midianite in the area was taken, and the raiders checked carefully the region around the camp. What they brought back was a rich trove of stored materials, and a certainty that there would be no immediate counter-attack.

Scene Four – Moses Met Returnees:

Collecting the spoils of the encampments in the region, and the supplies of the maqads, they returned to Moses – with flocks, herds, plunder, women and children. The reading that follows is a bit jarring:

Numbers 31:13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. 15 “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. 16 “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. 19 “Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20 Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood.

The record of the return reveals that Moses looked at what they brought back. He was, no doubt, relieved to see them all come home. Any leader would be. He walked out of the camp to meet Eleazar the High Priest, and address the commanders of the tribal warriors of Israel. As he saw them, dirt and blood still dried on their skin and tunics, his eyes scanned the crowd. He saw the spoils of silver and gold, the trinkets and treasures of a people now defeated and dispatched. Then the smile slipped from his face… His mouth dropped open. Could it be? Were the very women that stood before him those who had seduced the children of Israel and brought about the idolatry and plagues a short time before? What had his army done? Why had they let them live? Here is the question at the heart of the narrative’s application for our study.

When my unbelieving friends want to criticize the Bible, verses like the one we just read are the very ones they use. They sound barbaric. Any Pastor would rather avoid these texts and hide inside the warmth of the Gospels or the reasoned argumentation of the Apostle Paul. This record is sickening to anyone who is not calloused. We are speaking of the death of women and children. How can this be in our Bible?

Despite what my students may say, I am not an un-compassionate man. Seriously, I ache when I see scenes from Damascus today, or Egypt, or Libya, or Afghanistan or Iraq. I cannot easily endure the sight of killing – and I have seen it before, and handled fallen bodies with my own hands. When you really look at war, you learn that, up close, all wars seem like crimes – regardless of the point. Who can take the life of a child and not be changed forever by the taking? I watched in horror as the footage was released of those who were painfully gasping for breath as they suffered the effects of Sarin nerve gas in Syria.

You see, the burning desire for God to fit into our feelings, our inner barometer of justice – makes us vulnerable to a sinful reshaping of God. Do you recall the key principle I cited for the study?

“God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.”

Let’s remember when we read of this tale that God was leading the people through the journey to the Promised Land. They were following Him when the enemy attacked through a slick traveling preacher named Balaam and his suggestion to win their hearts through sinful compromise. He may have sounded like a man of god, but the rattle of a snake was present behind his voice. He didn’t seem like such an offensive character – he was not a vulgar and boisterous man. He did not stand on the hillside shouting obscenities to his foes. He sat in a meeting, and quietly planned seduction and destruction of God’s people. He laid out the plans with care and shared with tribal chiefs how they could make God’s people GIVE THEM a victory they knew they could not TAKE by force. That’s the way the enemy really works most effectively. Why assault us openly when he can lull us into conformity and then force us into slavery?

Let’s recall when we encounter this story that God directed the assault on the people and that God had the absolute right to do so. That is where the real justice issue plows into our culture. It is that same sense of justice that is causing the modern “church of tolerance” so pervasive in our day – to reshape the Bible on a narrative on the mention of Hell. It offends an American culture that doesn’t truly accept authority – even from a Creator. In our culturally accepted arrogance, we feel qualified to shake our fist at Heaven itself and demand that God get into the box of our sense of fairness. He can’t kill if we don’t think He has that right. He can’t demand a man to take his only son and place him on an altar and sacrifice him at God’s call. God doesn’t really OWN people – He isn’t really ENTITLED to do as He pleases with my life… do you see where this is going?

Here is the crux of the struggle. A believer cannot truly make sense of God’s commands if they don’t remember God’s position as Creator, Master and Sovereign.

When we compromise on the Sovereignty of God, we destroy the Bible. We declare God subject to human will. We make Him answerable to US and not us to HIM. We draw back in fear of rejection or hunger for acceptance from a broken and temporary world and do not represent the God Who is not intimidated by the strongest of men. We stand, like David’s brothers, quaking before a defiant Goliath as he mocked the God of Abraham.

I simply argue that I cannot make the God of the Bible palatable to the arrogant voices of modernity. I have no way to bend God so low as to serve men’s pleasures, or to flex His sayings to make what is popular right. If the work of the shepherd in a church is going to be measured in terms of common popularity, I suspect those of us standing with the plain reading of the text will not be deemed successful this side of Heaven. No matter. All I can do is be as kind as possible, but be true to the Word as well.

Given time, people will re-write and explain away every counter-cultural statement of the Bible – including the Gospel itself. I like something Pastor Tim Keller wrote: “The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. [God should weigh out the good I have done in my life and let me into Heaven.] The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him (Rom. 1:17). [God sent His Son to save us.] In short, to say a good person, not just Christians, can find God is to say good works are enough to find God. You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once. So the apparently inclusive approach is really quite exclusive. It says, “The good people can find God, and the bad people do not.” But what about us moral failures? We are excluded. The gospel says, “The people who know they aren’t good can find God, and the people who think they are good do not.” Then what about non-Christians, all of whom must, by definition, believe their moral efforts help them reach God? They are excluded. So both approaches are exclusive, but the gospel’s is the more inclusive …. It says joyfully, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.” (taken from “Preaching Today”).

One who embraces the God of the Bible recognizes a truth the world is blinded to. They grasp that there is no compassion in man greater than compassion found in man’s Creator – He invented love, He invented care. God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac without a plan to save both of them. God’s compassion was so great that HE GAVE HIS SON. He sent Jesus. He allowed Him to be nailed to a Cross. Then, in the midst of the agony and tears, God did the unthinkable. He left Jesus there. He allowed Jesus to experience the utter anguish of Hell – the separation from God Himself. Jesus had existed as ONE with the Father throughout the ages back to eternity. On a terrible early afternoon outside of Jerusalem as the sky grew dark, God turned His back on His Son. The separation tore at the universe on a molecular level. Jesus’ great punishment was not simply that He was stripped of His clothes in a body beaten nearly beyond recognition. His profound punishment was not simply that his skin was torn through by the piercing nails into his flesh. These things were horrible, but paled in comparison to the absolute horror of the tearing away of His Father.

Hell is exactly that. It is, at its essense, the removal of God’s presence. All the grace, gentleness and love evacuates like the day’s heat in the cloudless desert. The cold settles and the darkness envelopes the soul. The physical pains are real and descriptive, but the separation from God is the reason the thirteeeth century poet Dante Alighieri placed above the gates of Hell these words: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. Jesus did that for me and you – because that was required to save us from our mutiny.

You can try to make God fit into your mold – but God’s face will be shaped in your heart to look like your own. America is suffering from a need to have a man-like Christ in the place of a Christ-like Christian.

God isn’t forced to act according to our sense of justice – He defines justice. He defines goodness. He defines mercy. He defines truth… This is the truly offensive word of the Bible to modern man.