The prepared text of this morning’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below. I’m sure you can finish the saying, “The more things change, ….” Indeed, at this point in the book you may have thought that several times. You would be right to do so. But this message won’t leave you in that depressing place. The sermon audio is available at this link. My commentary on this part of the book starts at this other link.
Several sayings may come to mind when you hear Numbers 20. Duguid mentions a few, such as, “Those who don’t remember the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them,” or the definition of an expert is someone who recognizes his mistakes when he makes them again, or the words of one unbelieving philosopher, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” Any of those sayings would work for us today but I prefer the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” A lot has changed from Numbers 1-20. The people of Israel eventually left Mount Sinai and now, almost forty years after they first entered the wilderness, they are near the Promised Land. With the exception of only two men who brought a faithful report, the whole generation counted in Numbers 1 chose to believe the other ten scouts who said the Promised Land was an evil place (cf. Num 14:37). They preferred to die in the wilderness than to trust God and follow Him into the Promised Land. Now most of that generation had gotten their wish. Some died earlier from a plague while eating quail meat. The ten faithless scouts also died in a plague. Many more fell by the sword trying to invade the land on their own strength. The man picking up sticks was stoned to death. 250 chiefs of the congregation carrying incense burners died when fire came out from YHWH and consumed them. The households of Dathan and Abiram—not to mention Korah—were swallowed by the earth. After that, another 14,700 died in a plague. Nevertheless, with all of these changes and other spectacular signs, so much stayed the same. We’ll hear in our passage that the people of Israel will again assemble themselves against Moses and Aaron. They even say that they wish that they had died when their brothers before them did. We will hear them repeat the charge that is a combination of Korah’s accusation and Dathan and Abiram’s words. You may recall how the very next day after the affair of Korah the people confronted Moses and Aaron, grumbling, “You have killed the people of YHWH.” They use a few more words this time, but they are grumbling with the same complaints in our passage today. In today’s passage you will even hear the people grumbling against Moses and Aaron that the wilderness was an evil place without grain, figs, vines, or pomegranates. You will remember, of course, how it took two of the scouts using a pole to carry back the cluster of grapes from the Promised Land and how they also brought back pomegranates and figs. And yet, the people believed the report of the ten scouts that the Promised Land was evil and refused to enter the land. The people were blaming Moses and Aaron because the wilderness wasn’t like the Promised Land that they themselves rejected as evil. In other words, they were trying to shift the blame for their own sin from themselves onto Moses and Aaron. Things weren’t as bad in the wilderness as they claimed either. The reason the more things changed the more they stayed the same is that grumbling always looks on the past as a golden age, can see only the negative in the present, and cannot imagine a future. But it is actually worse than even this recap of the last twenty chapters suggests. Let me suggest that we go back to one of the earliest scenes after the people of Israel left Egypt and entered the wilderness. The scene is Exodus 17:1-7. Exodus tells us, “There was no water for the people to drink” (Exo 17:1). And the people grumbled against Moses saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” And YHWH told Moses to take his staff and YHWH Himself would stand before Moses on the rock at Horeb and Moses would strike the rock and water would come out of it and the people would drink. This is the place that would come to be known as Massah and Meribah because the people quarreled with and tested YHWH, saying, “Is YHWH among us or not?” With these things in mind, much of this passage may sound familiar:
Not only do the people of Israel repeat their previous mistakes, but so do Moses and Aaron, and the wages of sin is still death.
It isn’t the first time that Moses grumbled because of the people of Israel, but this time Moses and Aaron went further and repeated Israel’s biggest mistake. I briefly mentioned the scene when the people complained about not having meat to eat and God said that He would give them enough meat to eat for a whole month. Moses found it hard to believe that God could provide enough meat for that many people for that long a time. Indeed, it was because he succumbed to that unbelief that he failed to intercede for the people in that scene in the first place but instead grumbled about them. If that’s not enough to convince you that for Moses and Israel “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” then consider this: in Exodus 17, when Moses struck a rock for water the first time, the people were grumbling about the lack of water and Moses said, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Even back then, Moses succumbed to his unbelief and grumbled about the people. At least in our passage today Moses and Aaron went to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces (Num 20:6). They are getting pretty good at that. Moses and Aaron started well, but unfortunately they did not continue well. YHWH gave them specific instructions to take the staff and assemble the congregation and speak to the rock to yield its water for them and their cattle. Moses indeed took the staff, as commanded, but then when Moses and Aaron gathered the people together before the rock, Moses grumbled about the people. He said, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Num 20:10). Noteworthy in this rhetorical question is the absence of YHWH. Moses speaks as if Moses and Aaron are the ones giving the people water. And instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff. And the text calls these the waters of Meribah because the people quarreled with YHWH, just like all the way back in Exodus 17. I said earlier that YHWH Himself stood before Moses on the rock at Horeb in Exodus 17. What I didn’t explain was that by striking the rock, Moses was striking YHWH. It was a prophetic sign of the death of Jesus Christ. Now here in Numbers 20, Moses struck the rock in unbelief twice as if Christ would need to die again. His act of rebellion was like the time the people of Israel decided to believe the report of the ten scouts instead of the minority report of Caleb and Joshua. The Promised Land was now almost within grasp and Moses repeated their biggest mistake. As YHWH said then, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num 14:11). When Moses grumbled and struck the rock again, he was despising YHWH and not believing in Him. Thus YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Num 20:12). Now you will recall that when Moses told the people that they weren’t going to go to the Promised Land, they tried to go on their own. Moses repeated this mistake too. After YHWH told Moses that Moses would not bring the people of Israel into the Promised Land, Moses tried to negotiate with the king of Edom to let them pass through to it. If it was of YHWH, the fact that the people of Edom came out against them with a large army would have been no problem. But Moses was trying to get there on his own strength. That entire scene of Numbers 20:14-21 was a continuation of the rebellious unbelief of Moses. (But things wouldn’t turn out any different for Moses and Aaron than they did for the first generation of Israel in the wilderness.)
Moses and Aaron would die before the second generation entered the Promised Land. The chapter is actually bracketed by two deaths. At the beginning of the passage, we heard about the death of Miriam. At the end of the passage, we heard about the death of Aaron. They are reminders that the wages of sin is death. It makes sense to expect that they would die before Moses—not because they are older than Moses but because Moses was the prophet with whom YHWH spoke mouth to mouth. The text explicitly tells us the reason for Aaron’s death was, “because you (plural, speaking to Moses and Aaron) rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah” (Num 20:24). Like Moses, Aaron succumbed to unbelief and failed to uphold YHWH as holy in the eyes of the people. This failure to uphold YHWH as holy is probably the reason then that the text gives a lot of attention to stripping Aaron of his priestly garments. When Korah accused Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves, Moses had said that YHWH would show who is holy, “the man whom YHWH chooses shall be the holy one” (Num 16:7). Of course, the subsequent stories show that YHWH chose Aaron to the be the holy one. But in the end, Aaron would suffer the humiliation of having those priestly garments stripped from him and then die there. And at the center of our passage that begins and ends with these deaths is the part we’ve been discussing at length—YHWH told Moses that he would not live to enter the Promised Land. (Thus Moses and Aaron repeated Israel’s biggest mistake when they allowed their unbelief to take over and they rebelled against YHWH—so they too would die in the wilderness. No amount of law keeping could change this. In fact, the collection of laws in Numbers 18-19 with its focus on the priests and Levites gave Moses and Aaron knowledge of their sin, aroused their sinful passions, and now brought God’s wrath. In the end, sin used the good law of God to put them to death before they could enter the Promised Land. However, it may also be worth pointing out that this one episode of disobedience did not consign Moses and Aaron to hell. Indeed, in the New Testament book of Jude we’re told about the archangel Michael disputing with the devil about the body of Moses (Jude 9) and everyone knows that Moses appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. Acting in unbelief was out-of-character for Moses and Aaron. Yes, they struggled with unbelief like many genuine believers do and sometimes they succumbed to that unbelief. That doesn’t make them unbelievers. I doubt any serious Biblical scholar would argue that Moses and Aaron weren’t genuine believers. It stands to reason, that they will inherit the Promised Land with us—not only within the borders of the land of Canaan, but the new heavens and earth. After all, Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth and we’ve seen in Numbers that there was no one more meek on the earth in Old Testament times than Moses. And yet, I still do not mean this in the sense of law. That is, Moses doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land with us because he was meek. He gets to enter the Promised Land with us by faith in the one to whom he pointed. The reason Moses was meek was his faith in the Christ to come. The meek who inherit the earth are those who believe in Him. I say this by way of a rather extended transition because…)
Jesus has overcome the saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
God gives us the victory over this saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” through our Lord Jesus Christ because of Christ’s death and resurrection. The deaths of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses saved no one for they had their own sins. They were types of Christ and at times like our passage they were types of Israel’s rebellious religious leadership. But the crucifixion of Jesus Christ that was sought by the rebellious religious leadership of Israel, saved everyone that belongs to Him for He was without sin. Indeed, when Moses struck the rock in Exodus it was a prophetic sign of the death of Jesus Christ. It was a prophetic sign fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross and the soldier pierced His side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water (John 19:34). It was a sign of the blood and water that would cleanse our hearts and give us new life. We’ve seen repeatedly now that the problem Israel had was that they were a new creation without a new heart. We’ve also seen how Israel wandered the wilderness constantly seeking for water that would satisfy their thirst but they were never satisfied. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross both cleanses our hearts and satisfies our thirst such that we will never be thirsty again. Of course, the death of Jesus Christ does this inseparably from the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very antithesis of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” And Jesus is making all things new. Unlike all of the signs that ultimately point to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is His death and resurrection that is the spectacular sign that marks the beginning of everything changing.
Like Moses and Aaron, and all of the genuine believers of the Hebrew Scriptures, faith in Christ applies this victory to us already but we will only enjoy the full victory over this saying when Jesus comes again. Christ does not need to be crucified again, as Moses struck the rock again, and, thanks be to God, Christ’s death even atones for our Moses-like-mistakes and makes our faith perfect in the eyes of God. It is when we look at our old age self that continues to practice sin that we can admit, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” But that’s not the whole story. We are also in the new creation where we no longer hunger or thirst. Thus whenever you might be discouraged, thinking, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” remember the words of the apostle Paul, “Anyone who is in Christ [is in the] new creation—the old things have passed away, behold, the new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). And, at the same time, when you get discouraged, thinking, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” remember that there is much more change to come for Christ is the way to the Promised Land. You may even look at the society and institutions of this present evil world-age and think, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It is always better to begin with our own selves, lest we be tempted to take the position of a judge and say, with Moses, “Hear now, you rebels!” Indeed, there are many things happening all around us that are discouraging. But it isn’t the whole story. Jesus is making all things new. Let’s imagine that by faith and let’s invite the people around us to picture it and even to begin to build it with us. Amen.