The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Lifted Up For Us

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life (John 3:14-15).

Jesus has been saying many difficult things to Nicodemus. This time Nicodemus probably understood the referent, but the application? How can these things be?

If we are to understand Jesus’ application, we must first understand Jesus’ referent. Jesus speaks of Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness, and such is the situation in Numbers 21:4-9. As usual, the Israelites are not acting graciously toward God, and so God punishes them yet again, this time with serpents. Many begin to suffer and die and cry out to God. To deliver them from the serpents, God commands Moses to create a likeness of the serpents; the people must look up at the image of the serpent to be healed. Deliverance from death thus comes by God’s power to those who look upon the image of the serpent.

Jesus indicates in John 3:14 that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also the “Son of Man” must be lifted up. What Nicodemus may not have understood at the time is made clear to us: as Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross.

Jesus knows full well the fate that will befall Him; He begins to describe the fate awaiting Him in Jerusalem at the Passover to the disciples in Matthew 16:21, and as He institutes the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-28, He describes the cup as the “blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). As the “Lamb of God” who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Jesus teaches Nicodemus the sober truth about His own fate.

The parallel goes beyond the simple act of being “lifted up”. Not only is Jesus lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent, but just as the Israelites were delivered from the power of the bite of the serpents, so in Christ all can find deliverance from the power of sin and death. Jesus had no need to die for His own sin or for any infraction that He committed, for in Him there was no sin, neither was there any deceit in His mouth (cf. Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:20-22, Hebrews 4:15, 7:27). He was lifted up for our transgressions, so that we could have the remission of sin in His blood, and have restored association with God (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:1-7).

The parallels do not end there. As the Israelites had to look up at the serpent in order to receive healing, so believers in Christ must look upon Jesus on the cross as well. It was predicted in Zechariah 12:10 that the people would look upon the Messiah and mourn for Him. This prophecy is directly fulfilled by the Roman soldiers who pierce the side of Jesus with a spear to verify His death (John 19:37), yet we must also internalize the prophecy for ourselves. We ourselves have pierced God by our sin, for He went to the Cross on our behalf for our transgression (Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6-8). We must look upon Christ on the Cross, the One whom we have pierced, and we should mourn for our sin and its terrible consequences. If we look upon Him in obedient faith, we gain our deliverance. Just as the Israelites looked to the image of the serpent to be healed of their wounds, so we must look to Jesus on the cross if we desire to be healed of our iniquities.

Jesus is not only “lifted up” on the cross. If it were so, His death would be meaningless, and we would still be lost in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-18). On the third day, however, the first day of the week, Jesus was again “lifted up” in the resurrection (John 20:1-29)!

Jesus is no less aware of His coming resurrection as He was of His upcoming death on the cross (Matthew 16:21, 26:29). In John 2:13-22, as Jesus cleanses the Temple in Jerusalem, He says, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). While everyone thought He spoke of the Temple, Jesus’ disciples would later remember the event and understand how He spoke of the “Temple of His body” (John 2:21), and understood Him to be speaking of His resurrection. No doubt Nicodemus also, reflecting upon his dialogue with Jesus as recorded in John 3:1-21 after everything had taken place, would also recognize how Jesus spoke of His death and His resurrection in John 3:14.

Nevertheless, how does Jesus being lifted up in the resurrection have anything to do with Moses lifting up the serpent? The connection may not be immediately apparent, but we can understand it if we look at the events in Numbers 21:4-9 as the type of the reality seen in the resurrection. God plagues the sinful Israelites with serpents; to deliver them from death, God commands Moses to make an image of the serpent. In this event, looking upon the image of the thing that kills brings life.

The serpent also represents a much deeper level of mortality. The serpent beguiled Eve into eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-6), incurring sin and death for mankind. God did not leave man without promise: one would come to bruise the head of the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3:15, Revelation 12:9). Through sin, Satan has successfully bruised the heel of all men and women, and we all are under the sentence of sin and death because of it (Romans 3:5-23). Jesus was the One who was able to bruise Satan’s head by conquering both sin and death, dying on the cross for the remission of sin and being raised to life again on the third day (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Jesus gained the victory, and we are able to be victors in Him (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness represents the type: the Israelites were bitten by snakes; by looking upon the image of a snake, they were healed, thus defeating the snakes. This points us to the resurrection of Jesus and our own victory: we have been bitten by sin, and by looking to Jesus who was lifted up in the resurrection, we have the victory over death, beginning in our baptism and ending in our resurrection on the final day (Romans 6:3-7, 1 Corinthians 15:20-58, 1 Peter 1:3-9). Let us look upon Jesus, pierced for our iniquities, and receive forgiveness of sin and the hope of the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sanctifying God

And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, “Because ye believed not in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

It was another waterless place in the desert (Numbers 20:1). The refrain had grown to be quite typical.

“Would that we had died! Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us by thirst?”

Numbers 20:3-6 sounds a lot like Exodus 16:3 and Exodus 17:1-2. The people grumble because their memories are quite short. Moses entreats God, and God provides the necessary food or drink.

Yet things are much different in Numbers 20. This time Moses and Aaron bear the brunt of God’s hot displeasure. It is this instance at Meribah that leads to the curse of Moses and Aaron. They will not enter the Promised Land.

But why did this curse come about? Why does God so strongly censure these two men who have experienced such indignity for so long at the hands of God’s people?

God told them quite specifically to speak to the rock, and the rock would bring forth water (Numbers 20:8). But Moses did not speak to the rock. He struck the rock– twice (Numbers 20:11).

Is this the cause of God’s hot displeasure? It’s entirely possible. But it would seem a bit odd. After all, this is the same Moses who killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and was quite recalcitrant about following God’s will (Exodus 3-4). Furthermore, at Rephidim, God told him to strike the rock (Exodus 17:6), so there was a sort of precedent for the action. Aaron, for his part, was complicit in the Golden Calf incident, even lying about the calf’s origin (Exodus 32:1-4, 22-24). These things seem a bit more serious than striking vs. speaking.

But Moses and Aaron did more than just strike the rock. They spoke.

And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them, “Hear now, ye rebels; shall we bring you forth water out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10).

Notice the way that Moses words this question: shall we bring water out of this rock?

We?

What powers do Moses or Aaron have to bring water out of the rock?

We cannot know for certain whether Moses’ use of the first person plural pronoun was a thoughtless remark or whether he was intentionally trying to present the idea that he and Aaron were in some way responsible for the water about to come from the rock. But we do know that God took great offense at the idea. The water was not coming from Moses or Aaron at all. It was coming from the hand of God.

The statement, however consciously uttered, demonstrates that Moses is identifying himself quite strongly on the side of the Almighty, and even presuming to have a hand in things that the Almighty is doing. For that he receives most deserved censure. Such a statement betrays a belief in the efforts of Moses, not trust in God. Moses and Aaron did not demonstrate to the people their own dependence on God. They did not sanctify the name of God among the people in this matter. And, lest there be any later confusion, Moses and Aaron would not make it to the Promised Land– there is a distinction between the LORD God and Moses/Aaron.

This is a good example for us (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-12). It is right and proper for believers in Christ to strive to be holy as God is holy and to seek to conform themselves to the image of the Son (1 Peter 1:16, Romans 8:29). Nevertheless, there is always a difference between God working through us and our working. There is only room for three within the Trinity– the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit– and none of us are any of these Three. It is not about us, our promotion of ourselves, or our work. In the end, it is all about God and His glory being proclaimed, and that, in part, through us (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-9, 4:11).

Therefore, we are never saved purely by our own effort– that is impossible (cf. Romans 1-3). We, ourselves, do not convert anyone– we are servants who proclaim the message, and God gives the increase (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-8). We are not the ones sustaining or nourishing the church, Christ’s body– we have the pleasure of being part of that body and being sustained by our Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).

The great sin of Moses and Aaron was that they got so caught up on being on the Lord’s side that they confused their own part with the Lord’s part. It is good and right for us to seek to be on the Lord’s side. But let us always remember who we are, and, just as importantly, who we aren’t, and do not presume that God working through us is our work that we can claim for ourselves. Let us always serve God, remembering to sanctify Him and not ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Chosen People

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men: and they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the congregation, called to the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them,
“Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Numbers 16:1-3).

With these actions and words Korah begins his rebellion. The motives of his rebellion are far from pure, and he may just be interested in a power grab. The logic of his argument, however, is a problem that Israel must deal with perpetually.

Israel certainly understood the message that they were God’s chosen people. Korah saw that God’s presence dwelt in the midst of Israel, and to him that meant that the people must be holy. If the people are holy, who are Moses and Aaron to condemn them?

This idea does not go away. Almost a thousand years later, the people of Judah do not pay sufficient attention to the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah. Instead, they trust in the fact that the Temple of God is in Jerusalem, and since God is in the Temple, the city and the Temple will not be harmed by Babylon (Jeremiah 7:4). After all, God struck the Assyrians when they drew near. Would He not again do so with Babylon?

In the days of John the Baptist and Jesus the Jews trusted in their lineage. They were children of Abraham– that was what mattered. They had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33)!

All of these made a similar mistake. Indeed, God chose Israel from among all the nations. Yes, God made a covenant with Abraham, and his offspring were the beneficiaries. Yes, God chose to dwell in the midst of Israel. But that was never enough. For God to continue to bless Israel, they had to be faithful. They had to obey His commands. They had to serve Him properly.

Yet they constantly sinned and rebelled. The earth swallowed Korah for his sin. The Babylonians came and ransacked Jerusalem and the Temple because of the sin of the people. Judgment again came upon Jerusalem 40 years after the death of Jesus.

We now live under the new covenant of Jesus Christ, through whom we have been reconciled to God if we have obeyed Him (Ephesians 2:1-18). Yet, just as in the days of old, it is not sufficient just to wear the name of “Christian.” We cannot expect that God will give us an easier time or that He will look aside as we commit sin just because we believe in Jesus. We cannot expect God to bless whatever we want or do just because we think we are part of Him.

Instead, we also must be obedient servants. We must do His will, not our own (Galatians 2:20, Romans 12:1-2). Do we think that somehow we will escape the same condemnation as Israel of old if we profess to be of God but do not obey His will?

“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Ethan R. Longhenry