Strength for the Journey: “Acceptable Rebellion” – Numbers 16:20-50

boys in trouble“If you two don’t stop it, I am coming up there with a belt!”, my dad hollered from the bottom of the stairway. I have to say this: it wasn’t really ALL our fault. You see, it was summer, and our bedroom was very HOT. The sun didn’t go down until very late, and we went to bed at what seemed to be a ridiculously early time. We were sweaty and bored. Russ (my older brother) and I didn’t MEAN to get into trouble – it just happened. We would start quietly, talking, laughing, joking… and then things would escalate. A pillow tossed from my bed to his; a sock rolled up and thrown back. Before you know it, there was a brawl, and then noise, and then my father’s voice. It seemed inevitable that we would be punished, because we just COULDN’T seem to do what we were told and go to sleep.

We can all smile, and even nod at the idea that such things are the memories of growing up, and they are so common that we have come to accept rebellion as a fact of life. It seemed harmless, and the sound of the story seems almost PETTY. The truth is: it was neither. It was a sign that two boys cared more about what felt natural at the time, and less about respecting their father. Though we all understand it, we don’t all recognize how serious even the simplest rebellion truly is. We grow up in a world of selfish mutineers, and our eyes adjust to the darkness of the room. Rebellion doesn’t SEEM like such a big deal – but it is to our Father in Heaven. It is “like the sin of witchcraft” the Prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 15:23) told King Saul long ago.

Here is a critical problem that even believers must soberly consider: We have become so familiar and so at ease with rebels and rebellion that we have grown tolerant of its grip in our walk with God. We allow “deviations” from His Word to go un-checked in our heart. We laugh at the lewd comment, congratulate the destructively sarcastic voice, and even entertain in our heart the necessity of deceiving others. We don’t discipline our thinking, and we, at times, openly rebel before God – even though others cannot see it. God’s Word convicts; and we suppress it. God’s Spirit leads; and we quench His pull. God’s people need; and we deny them in cold selfishness. All the while we use the cover of God talk to keep others from knowing how very rebellious our heart has become. Rebellion, for many of us, has become acceptable at some level. We have forgotten that God has no acceptable level of rejection to His authority in our lives.

Key Principle: Rebellion has real consequences – and God is the One who brings those results to pass. He gives opportunity to repent, but that has a limited time.

“It is no secret what God can do”, the old song goes. The writer was talking about His mighty acts and wonderful grace – but that isn’t the whole story. We often forget what God can and will do in our rebellion. We walk as if there is no judgment, and live as if there is no reckoning…but there is.

As a Pastor, I get to share much about God’s rich love and grace to the undeserved. He certainly cares for us, and we certainly don’t deserve His tender mercies. At the same time, some parts of the Scripture are designed for one purpose – to remind us not to presume on God’s grace. We are not to assume that God will stand by and say nothing while we play in our sin. We must not misread His great patience with either overlooking our sin, or approving of our choices. His delay is our opportunity to change – not to play as the mice without the cat.

I know that God is incredibly patient and wonderfully loving. I also know He is, popular sentiment aside, the Final Judge of all. In the context of His Word, the term “judgments”, or MISHPATIM normally refer to the repentant remedies for sin in passages like:

Psalm 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. 9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.

Passages like these are more referring to God’s way of restoring us in His Word, then being our JUDGE. At the same time, there is a concerted effort in some quarters of the church today, to stop being clear that God IS a Judge – and an absolutely untainted and Holy One at that. It is inescapable for a follower of God’s Word. Near the end of all things in the Bible is the setting recorded in Revelation 20:

Revelation 20:11 “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is [the book] of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one [of them] according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The passage includes these details:

1. There is coming a time when God will judge all that have refused to follow Him in this life.
2. They will try to flee, but there will be no place to hide.
3. It won’t matter how much money they controlled on earth, or how much of a celebrity they had become in this life.
4. The fact that they were not in the Lamb’s Book of Life – the book of those who have surrendered their life to Christ – determined their destiny.
5. The works they did in this life – whether attempting to be altruistic or overtly evil – will determine some aspect of their eternal place apart from God.

So before we look at our text today, it is essential that I make one thing perfectly clear: God DOES love you – but there is a time limit on your response. Our lives WILL end. We will stand before our Maker. There is no choice about that. There IS a choice concerning the Lamb’s Book of Life. Your name, my name, anyone’s name CAN be written there – but that will only happen if we respond to God’s loving gift – the life blood of His Son – killed as a sacrifice Lamb on our behalf. NO bargaining takes place at the throne of God. NO ONE gets in without the condition of surrender in this life. Listen to the Words of Revelation 20:15 again: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Why start with such stern warnings? When you approach critical concepts in an ever-bending moral environment – absolutes must be carefully highlighted. A RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS sign is an absolute. If you ignore it – it will hurt and eventually KILL you. You cannot negotiate with the results of defiance against the sign. Your intentions aren’t the issue. It is an absolute. So is the judgment of God against rebellion. Let’s take a look at an example from our story with Moses in the desert:

We are standing at the tent of meeting. Korah, a few Reubenite friends, and two hundred and fifty well known leaders have rebelled against Moses. They have forgotten God’s call of the man, and they have overlooked God’s power through the man. They are SURE they could overrule him and do a better job. God responds powerfully in seven ways:

1: God is not silent in rebellion – He will stand up against wrong (Numbers 16:20).

Numbers 16:20 Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying…

The Lord spoke out. That was comforting to the follower of God in the scene, and is still comforting to a follower today. We treasure that God will set aright the maligning accusations against our faith and our Lord. We struggle to stomach, sometimes, the filth people say about our Savior, and their Creator. It is HARD to muster up real compassion toward people that flaunt their rebellion in our day – but we must have God’s heart for them. When we want to use anger, we need to ask for GRACE. It was that grace that brought us to Christ – and we must no wish hell on anyone – regardless of how much their actions taunt us.

Let me remind the skeptics among us that God’s judgment on our lives and even our nation is not always immediate. It is often not as pronounced as a thunder from Heaven – God has MANY tools in His toolbox – and often He allows things to play out. I cannot help but be reminded of God speaking to Abraham.

Genesis 15:12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror [and] great darkness fell upon him. 13 [God] said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. 16 “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

There it is. God said the Amorites in the land of Canaan were not “done sinning”. They needed more time for rebellion – but the clock was ticking…

Dear ones, God is not forever silent on rebellion. Every day we wait to repent is an imposition on an uncertain grace period. The Lord spoke in HIS TIME to Moses and Aaron.

Let me ask a pointed question: If Jesus walked in to the room where you are seated, right now, would you be HAPPY to see Him? Would you shrink back because there is something you are involved in that HE KNOWS and YOU KNOW dishonors Him? Is there a quiet rebellion that you are hiding, that when you see HIM will be startlingly and clearly uncovered? Are you presuming on God’s grace today?

2: God’s call to His people in rebellion is to get away from the defiant (16:21).

Look at Numbers 16:21 “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.”

God told Moses that toleration of blatant rebellion among the people of God is dangerous, and can draws us into sinful responses. God’s words were intended to underscore the way God felt about the mutiny of His people. He did not act on them, but He COULD act – ask Ananias and Saphira! God is perfectly capable of immediately ending the rebel and his or her rebellion – don’t forget that. All of us are only a few heartbeats away from seeing God’s face.

God told Moses, “Step away and I will fix this right now!” Don’t be shaken, God was not only at work on the people – He was at work on the leader. Moses rose to the people’s defense, and God used this to allow him to again grow in love for the people – no matter that their rebellion was also a personal attack against MOSES. Think of it! The story began with them illegitimately putting Moses on trial – and soon spiraled into the ACCUSED defending the ACCUSER before the Judge. What a scene!

Stop for a moment, though, and recognize the principle involved in God’s pronouncement to STEP AWAY. Toleration of sin is not the best strategy – dealing forthrightly is. Churches that pride themselves on LOVING past sin should consult 1 Corinthians 5 and recall that moral perversion, when allowed among God’s people, does more damage than asking the rebel to LEAVE.

“Judgy!” the world will charge. “Intolerant!” they will say. Yes, it is true. Stepping away seems harsh, and unloving. So did God’s striking down the liars in the Book of Acts. When did the REBEL get more rights than responsibilities toward God in our thinking? When did their right to continue to rebel start to seem more important to us than the recognition that not challenging them would hurt the next generation? I suspect we know that our churches have been deeply eroded in unbiblical ideology of the flawed tolerance.

The words to Moses were: “Step away!” I have a work I am about to do. Moses pleaded for the people, but it the end he backed away from the tents of the leaders. Today’s church needs to consider this pattern and be forewarned.

Let me ask you: Are you mixing with people who claim to be believers but are defiantly acting in rebellion to God’s Word? Plead for them, but don’t act like God is ok with your compromise of “loving them past their sin” – because He is not.

3: God can choose to show mercy, and we should always desire that He would. (16:22).

Numbers 16:22 But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be angry with the entire congregation?

Let me take a moment and switch sides. While God’s people are not to compromise with rebels, and while we should not let them walk in our ministries unchallenged – we also need to learn to LOVE THEM. God doesn’t want to stir anger in us, or make us a people who seeks vengeance. He wants us to be distant from sinful actions, but tender toward people. Moses looked beyond those who were involved in transgression (which is hard to do when we are attacked) and spoke of those who did nothing wrong. They may have been followers, and they may have been deceived by the leaders. Yet, Moses pleaded for their safety and rescue.

When we lump people together – an offender and those with the same ethnicity, same physical features, same background – we forget that the people we are lumping are people too.

• I believe that every person that rejects God as their Creator in favor of some pseudo-science model of evolved star-dust is WRONG. I will oppose their view. At the same time, I must not demean them – but show LOVE.

• I believe that every person that has been raised to believe the Bible is wrong and the Koran is right is terribly WRONG. I oppose their view – as they oppose mine. At the same time, I will not summarily call them vicious names. I will address their IDEAS, but I must learn to practically and carefully speak the truth in LOVE.

• When the gay pride activist accuses me of intolerance – I will accept honestly that I do not believe it is correct for me to tolerate behaviors I believe Biblically are deviations from God’s design. I will not make fun of them for their lifestyle choices. Nor will I sit idly by while they foist their notion of amoral sexuality on our school systems. I will defend our children, speak the truth of God’s Word, and stand in defense of truth – but not without LOVE. My gay neighbor won’t be won to Jesus if all they see are my placards and all they hear is my defense of marriage.

The best ‘defense of marriage act’ I can endorse is building a good marriage in my own home. It is being a good and loving husband. It is building up my wife. I cannot be enraged at the White House’s position on marriage if the position in my own house isn’t sharp and clear.

There is a loving way to communicate truth, and there is a self-satisfying way to swipe at people and push them away. San Diego Gay and Lesbian Community News reported this:

The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, has sparked national outrage because of the protests it has staged at military funerals, which have included showing up with signs that read “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates you.” The church argues that U.S. war deaths are God’s punishment for the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality. Whether a soldier was actually homosexual is not an issue for the church’s leaders.

Can I lovingly but pointedly suggest that their tasteless and harsh comments do nothing to help the cause of Christ? Jesus doesn’t need a HIT SQUAD – He is perfectly capable of making His own point. He did it at the Cross. That group may or may not be a part of God’s church – but they just don’t get it. I suspect their actual ANGER is not FOR GOD’S WORD – but because they HATE that people are messing up their country. I think if you look closely, there is more of SELF in their statements than SHARING.

Go back to Moses’ response in verse 22. He fell on his face. He dropped to the dust before God for the people that HATED his leadership and wanted to boot him out of the camp.

Let me ask you this: Do you get so mad at people as a group that you cannot see them as individuals that need Christ? Thank God He didn’t take us as a group – one size fits all.

4: God responds to our learning – but still will ultimately judge sin (16:23).

Numbers 16:23 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “Speak to the congregation, saying, Get back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.'”

Now I must switch sides again. I must not get so lost in love that judgment fades. Not to spoil the movie, but the ground was about to rumble in our story…We must understand that God is not only patient, He is just. He will not allow flaunting rebellion to go on and on. There is a last day for those who will not yield to Him.

Look carefully at what the Lord said to Moses. He NAMED the leaders. He marked the houses. He wasn’t unsure about what happened in the camp, and He wasn’t unclear about WHO was leading the charge. It is FOOLISH to attempt to hide from an ALL SEEING God.

5: God knows His people get tangled in rebellion – that is the purpose of His warnings (16:25-26).

Numbers 16:25 Then Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram, with the elders of Israel following him, 26 and he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin.”

There are two aspects to this moment that I think are worthy of mention.

First, God made clear He was about to act, and wanted those who had been passive and followers to make a choice to distance themselves from those involved in active rebellion. God’s warnings are purposeful. When we camp with rebels who claim to be speaking for God’s direction, we offer a tacit nod of approval to their foolishness – and others who are less discerning are drawn in without challenge. Let me clear here: God warned Moses, and Moses warned people… “Step away. Don’t take any of what they have with you. Step over the line and don’t go back.” We must be LOVING but we must be CLEAR. Great is the temptation for leaders of our day to be inclusive and non-confrontational – even when boundaries are crossed. Leaders must lead. They must draw lines and live with them. They must make every effort to help people see the beauty of God’s truth – but that can only happen if we present it clearly and without compromise.

Note the end phrase “swept away in their sin”. Had the church in my generation held the line on the horror of divorce among believers; would our statistics be so close to that of the world in failed marriages? I don’t think so. When we soften out of warped tolerance, we spread disease in the camp for the generation to follow.

Second, He was publicly pronouncing the last moment for the rebels to surrender. Here is the richness of love – that even in warning there is opportunity. What would have happened if Dathan or Abiram would have looked to Heaven, rent their garb and cried out for mercy to God? Do you honestly believe that would change the end of the story? I KNOW you do – because it changed the end of many of our life stories.

6: God validates His work – if you will take the time to watch (16:27-35).

Numbers 16:27 So they got back from around the dwellings of Korah, Dathan and Abiram; and Dathan and Abiram came out [and] stood at the doorway of their tents, along with their wives and their sons and their little ones. 28 Moses said, “By this you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. 29 “If these men die the death of all men or if they suffer the fate of all men, [then] the LORD has not sent me. 30 “But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.” 31 As he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open; 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah with [their] possessions. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 All Israel who [were] around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth may swallow us up!” 35 Fire also came forth from the LORD and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense.

There is little I need to say about God’s moment to act. It happened in the scene, and it will happen in our country, and in our lives. I am not saying that California will collapse into the sea – though I don’t rule it out. I am saying this: The longer we continue to ignore God’s opportunities to step back from our rebellion and rejection – the worse the conditions will get for those who know what RIGHT and WRONG are.

7: God’s call to righteousness and His judgment of sin should be remembered by His people (16:36-50).

Look at the last part of the chapter. Numbers 16:36 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 37 “Say to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest that he shall take up the censers out of the midst of the blaze, for they are holy; and you scatter the burning coals abroad. 38 “As for the censers of these men who have sinned at the cost of their lives, let them be made into hammered sheets for a plating of the altar, since they did present them before the LORD and they are holy; and they shall be for a sign to the sons of Israel.” 39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers which the men who were burned had offered, and they hammered them out as a plating for the altar, 40 as a reminder to the sons of Israel that no layman who is not of the descendants of Aaron should come near to burn incense before the LORD; so that he will not become like Korah and his company– just as the LORD had spoken to him through Moses.

God defended the integrity of His Word among His people. He did it dramatically – but it wasn’t over yet. People can be traumatized one minute and forgetful the next. God told them to make a memorial. They were to put it at the place of the altar, where sin was dealt with. It was to be a clear reminder to FOLLOW THE ONES GOD PUT IN CHARGE of the offerings for sin and celebration. People WILL forget great moves of God. Hadn’t they already overlooked the MANNA, the CLOUD, the PILLAR OF FIRE, the PARTING OF THE SEA – just to name a few.

Let’s be honest… when God isn’t interrupting our day with powerful judgment, we forget that He can… and He will. Very quickly we start explaining away what God did, and often misplace the power.

Strangely enough – the blame is often misplaced on someone other than God. Keep reading:

Numbers 16:41 But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’S people.” … 49 But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah. 50 Then Aaron returned to Moses at the doorway of the tent of meeting, for the plague had been checked.

Moses made it clear in 16:28 that what God was doing was NOT man’s work, yet the people blamed him anyway. We see this phenomenon with Ahab and Elijah – the misplacing of the guilt.

Our society tempts us constantly with the siren’s song of victimization:

• It isn’t your fault you lost your property – it was the market that made you speculate and take the risk.

• It isn’t your fault that your marriage failed – you didn’t have good role models growing up.

• It isn’t your fault that you lost the job – the work was hard and your boss wasn’t very understanding…

We even excuse our choices and behaviors in pregnancy, as if we didn’t understand our actions and the results! We are trained to look for someone to blame and not take responsibility for our actions.

• If you are poor – you lacked opportunity.

• If your school work is substandard – your teacher was not understanding enough.

Believers need to step away from that system and take responsibility for our choices in life. We have a heritage of those who DID:

Ambrose the historian passed a tradition about St. Lawrence who was martyred in the year 258 CE. A persecution against the church was going on, and the Governor of Rome took the Roman Bishop Sextus captive and demanded, “Where is the treasure of the church?” He would not tell, and they tortured him and beheaded him. Soon after, Roman authorities took a Deacon now called St. Lawrence captive. He held the purse for the distribution to the poor and needy. “Where is the treasure of the Church?” his captors demanded, threatening with the same fate that befell Sextus. Lawrence replied, “Governor, I cannot get it for you instantaneously; but if you give me three days, I will give you the treasure.” The governor agreed. Lawrence was released. Three days later he walked into the governor’s courtyard followed by a great flood of people. The Governor walked out onto his balcony and said, “Where is the treasure of your church?” Lawrence stepped forward, and pointed to the crowd that accompanied him – the lame, the blind, the deaf, the nobodies of society – and said, “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown.” He was killed for the answer. A popular tradition shared that he was grilled on a gridiron for the cause of Christ.

Gutsy, wasn’t he? Not really. He was convinced that God chose him for that hour. The same Jesus that saved him was giving him a chance to present God’s treasure of people to lost men and women. Who knows? Maybe in doing so, some who watched and listened were saved. Maybe their eternal fire was quenched under the grill of his temporal one!

Sin has real consequences – and God is the One who brings those results to pass. He gives opportunity to repent, but that has a limited time.