The text from this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York is below. The title, “To Be Counted in the Wilderness,” has a double-meaning for it is the text of the census where this first generation in the wilderness was counted just as we are counted in church statistical reports but also because we are counted (i.e., considered to be) in the wilderness. You can find the audio at this link. My commentary on Numbers begins with the post found here. I recommend Iain Duguid’s commentary on Numbers, which you can find at this link. His commentary opened up to me how Numbers is a devotional book and pointed out some literary features that inform my commentary and this sermon. Next Sunday we will look at Numbers 1:47-2:34.
Your English Bibles call the book that I want to start looking at today the book of Numbers. That name may scare some away from wanting to read it. The word “numbers” evokes in us the thought of things like accounting, taxes, budgets, the census, and math. But perhaps that is unfair. Some people enjoy looking at sports statistics and some people keep a close eye on the stock market. Some people even find the census to be interesting because it gives them a window into the lives of our ancestors and our cousins. In this case the census is interesting because it tells us something about ourselves because in it we can read about our own family. You might consider this point when you hear the names and numbers in today’s text for these are our family in Christ Jesus—the heir of Judah. Thus when we read a census in Numbers we are to discover something about ourselves because it is our own family. However, the Hebrew name of the book is more accurate and comprehensive than the name “Numbers.” The Hebrew name is the first word of the book in Hebrew, which translated is: “In the wilderness.” The book tells us about two generations of the Hebrew people who lived in the wilderness. We will see in today’s text that the first generation started well, but as the story unfolds this generation shows itself to be an unbelieving generation. On the other hand, the second generation will be known for their faith. You may recall that the people of Israel were condemned to wander in the wilderness for 40 years so that a whole generation would perish before the nation entered the Promised Land. This book is about those wilderness wanderings when that generation perished and a new generation arose. So what do these wilderness wanderings have to do with us who believe in Christ today? Consider how the New Testament Book of Hebrews changes Psalm 95 for the sake of application. The author of Hebrews presents Jesus as a new and greater Moses. Therefore, just as Moses led the people of Israel through the wilderness so too Jesus now leads His people through our wilderness. Hebrews shows us the difference between the wilderness for Israel and our wilderness basically through changing one word so that in Psalm 95 the Psalmist is saying that God was angry with the people of Israel for 40 years and in Hebrews the mighty works of God last for 40 years. Hebrews makes this slight change because our wilderness wandering is not under the wrath of God—our wilderness wandering today is a time of blessing. In any case, I mention this because we are to be counted in the wilderness just as we will read the counting of Israel in the wilderness. Thus we should find this book not only interesting because it tells us about ourselves since it speaks of our family but we should also find this book helpful because we live in a similar wilderness setting.
- This list of names and numbers may seem boring and irrelevant to you, but this list of names and numbers means something relevant for us.
- At first you might feel like someone who isn’t a sports fan but is reading the baseball statistics like RBIs and ERAs in the newspaper. You might not recognize the names of the players and not know what the numbers mean. It may seem confusing and irrelevant. (Just in case you are now wondering how to read baseball statistics in the newspaper: here is the wikihow.)
- But I hope that you will come away from this feeling like the person who hears a baby has just been born and you want to know what the baby’s name is and what time the baby was born and how many pounds the baby weighed and how many inches long. After all, those names and numbers might seem irrelevant and boring to the outsider but they mean a great deal to us – especially, when it is someone we know. Consider too how it is often announced: baby’s name, date, time, pounds, and inches. If you were an outsider this might be a confusing list at first. But we know what it means. No one needs to explain to us that inches refers to the baby’s height at birth. (And this insider-outsider dynamic actually leads us to the next point.)
- This list of names and numbers of the first generation in the wilderness means that you are either in or you are out.
Sociologists call this kind of group an edge-bounded group. Some groups come together around shared interests like an interest in camping, but there are people on the fringes who move in and out of the group. But an edge-bounded group means that we are either in or we are out and everyone knows who is in and who is out. Families are naturally an edge-bounded group – you are either a member of the family or you aren’t. You might join the family through marriage or leave it through divorce, for example, but there is no confusion as to who belongs and who doesn’t. The order of the names of the tribes is fascinating and we’ll leave that for the next sermon, but there is no doubt as to which tribes belong to the family of Israel in the wilderness. The people represented by these names and numbers are the insiders and everyone else they meet are the outsiders. (This is relevant to us because we are no longer outsiders because we belong to the family in Christ Jesus.)
Indeed, the church is an edge-bounded group or we wouldn’t have read on Pentecost from Acts 2:41 that there were added that day about 3,000 souls and we wouldn’t have heard on Mother’s Day about how Jesus was assembling a new family. Jesus was tearing families apart to save some of those family members, but He is putting together a new family we call the church. His biological mother and brothers were waiting outside to speak to Him, but Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). I mentioned the saying, “Blood is thicker than water” meaning that family is more important than friends but we saw that we are more than friends for we are family. And in this new family, the daughters are not set against their mothers and the daughters-in-law are not set against their mothers-in-law. Instead, the mothers are discipling their daughters and the mothers-in-law (or better yet, mothers-in-the-gospel) are discipling their daughters-in-law (or daughters-in-the-gospel). For they are all following Jesus Christ. And then on Pentecost, the apostle Peter began exhorting the people so that some would repent and be baptized – and some 3,000 did that day and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Those being saved and, therefore, joining the family of Jesus on Pentecost were joining the ranks of Israel to be counted in the wilderness together with us today. Now in the visible church there are some who prove to be characterized by unbelief like much of this first generation in the wilderness. Their names may show up on the rolls of churches and they may be included among the numbers in the church’s statistical reports. However, you are really only in or you are out—you either belong to the family of Jesus and in which case these names and numbers in the wilderness are relevant because it is your family or you are an outsider who is separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (cf. Eph 2:12). If you are in Christ, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone of a new temple (cf. Eph 2:19ff). If you are in Christ, then you were drafted into the army of the Lord. (And the idea of a military draft actually brings us to the next point.)
This list of names and numbers of the first generation in the wilderness means we too are to stand up and be counted in the wilderness.
- There were no tax evaders or draft dodgers among the tribes of Israel. The two reasons for a census in the ancient world were for levying taxes and drafting an army. In Exodus there was a census so that they could raise the money to build the tabernacle. As a part of the community of Israel, you had to financially support the work of the ministry. The numbers here in Numbers 1 tell us the number of Israelites able to go to war. As a part of the community of Israel, you had to be willing to serve in the military. There were no exemptions. If you were twenty years old or older and you were able to go to war, then you were counted. They started out well because they were all willing to stand up and be counted. They were willing to serve and to sacrifice—to give and to fight. There is probably a correspondence between the numbers of the people of Israel in this census and the numbers known to the ancient Babylonian astronomy. No doubt this is because the people of Israel were the visible representation of the heavenly host – the heavenly army of the Lord. They were to be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen 22:17, 26:4). Nevertheless, the picture here is one of total commitment. It isn’t like the modern American who slips in and out of a mega-church unnoticed or who may show up for worship periodically but refuses to really be counted as a member. This first generation of Israel willingly stood up to be counted. But they weren’t counted as individuals – they had to belong to a family within the family. It has been noted that there were others who joined the people of Israel in leaving Egypt. Iain Duguid, to whom I am indebted for many of the observations I will make about the book of Numbers, says that the striking thing is that they didn’t constitute a new tribe but that they joined those families that were already among the tribes of Israel. And perhaps that is important for us Gentiles who have been grafted into Israel to remember. We aren’t a new tribe but we have joined one of those families in the tribe of Judah. It isn’t an accident that the tribe of Judah is the most populous of the twelve in Numbers 1 and that even adding the two tribes that were the sons of Joseph together still falls short of the total for Judah. (But the point is…)
- We too are to stand up and be counted in the wilderness. When Christians today try to argue that church membership is unbiblical one of the first places that I like to take them in Scripture is passages like Numbers 1. Of course, I can take them to those passages that talk about being members of the body of Christ. After all, the word membership comes from the Scriptural metaphor of body parts or members of the body. When other organizations talk about membership, they are borrowing the concept from the church and not the other way around. But those who are convinced that church membership is unbiblical have probably already been wrestling with those New Testament passages so I like to take them to a census like Numbers 1. Why? Because membership means being willing to step up and be counted as a part of the family. And membership means belonging to a clan and a house within the larger family of God. And membership means being counted among those able to fight in the spiritual warfare confronting the church today through prayer and sharing the gospel. And membership entails supporting the work of ministry with not only our spiritual but also our material gifts. And membership even means having a stake in the inheritance of the people of God. But we stand up to be counted not because we are able to do any of this on our own. We stand up to be counted because Jesus Christ has already single-handedly mortally wounded the enemy for us. We are not insiders because of birth or because we have passed a citizenship test. We are insiders by faith in Jesus Christ. And Jesus is leading us today through a wilderness. But unlike the Israelites who were wandering through the wilderness under God’s wrath or anger we are being led through the wilderness with His blessing to an inheritance that fades not away. Thanks be to God. Amen.