THE BOOK OF NUMBERS – LESSONS IN OBEDIENCE; JESUS DEALS WITH THE BARREN FIG TREE AND THE CORRUPTED TEMPLE
Today we start the fourth book of the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers. Congratulations!
Let’s keep on reading. No excuses. Don’t tell us that you were never good with Numbers!
You are going to love this book. The Book of Numbers contains some unforgettable lessons on the importance of obedience and the painful consequences of disobedience. Once again, we will see that God is faithfully pursuing His unfaithful people and mercifully providing them with a revelation of His grace.
Why the title ‘Numbers’? The Hebrews called the Book “In the Wilderness” (Bemidbar) because those were its first words in the Hebrew scroll. Today it is given the title “Numbers” in our Bibles because of the opening and closing events in the Book. Those that translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek in the second and third century BC in Alexandria, Egypt, (The Septuagint) gave it the title “Arithmoi” (from which we get Arithmetic). In the first chapter God orders that a census be taken so that those men over 20 years old who were able to fight in Israel’s army could be counted. The Latin Vulgate, a late 4th century AD version of the Bible, titled the book “Numeri”, which translates into English as “Numbers”. (The word ‘numbered’ occurs 83 times and ‘number’ occurs 44 times).
Moses is the Book’s author and scholars date it as being written in 1420 or 1220 BC.
At both the beginning of the Book and its ending, the Lord tells Moses to number the people. On both occasions it appears that the numbered armies of Israel are perfectly poised to enter into Canaan. Yet on the first occasion they will prove their unfitness to enter the land due to their lack of confidence in God. Sadly, there are thirty-eight years of wandering and murmuring in the wilderness before they cross the Jordan as a people into the Promised Land. And according to God’s Word, it was due to their evil hearts of unbelief.
God had gotten His people out of Egypt (representing their old life in the world system of unbelief) but He had not yet gotten Egypt out of His people. How do we live in the wilderness of this world of unbelief without having that world ruling our hearts? The Book of Numbers gives us many examples for our instruction, as the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6 1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. 6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.
Although it looked like the children of Israel spent 38 years going nowhere, in that time the Lord was making Himself known. His sovereign purpose was never thwarted.
The Bible is the best commentary on the Bible. The New Testament Book of Hebrews tells us what Numbers is about:
Hebrews 3:19 (NASB) 19 So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
The book of Numbers could be called “The Book of Wandering” or “The Book of Murmuring”.
As the Book of Numbers begins it has been only one month since the Tabernacle has been completed and filled with the manifestation of God’s glory. A residual doubt and distrust in the hearts of God’s people is about to fester and keep them from experiencing victory. Their lack of confidence in God is evident in their murmuring against Moses and their discontent with their current circumstances. They quickly loose an appreciation for the revelation of God’s glory in the Tabernacle (picturing Christ and His finished work of Redemption). They lose sight of their privilege to participate in God’s purpose.
How about you? What happens when you lose your vision of God’s glory, His perfections in Christ? What happens when you get your eyes on the difficult circumstances and lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s greater purpose?
The government of God is to be joyfully recognized and received through faith in the finished work of Christ.
- We saw the PROMISE of that work given in the Book of Genesis (The Promised Seed of a Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
- We saw a PORTRAIT of that work in the Book of Exodus (in the deliverance of God’s people from bondage through faith in the blood of the Lamb and God’s redemptive work on their behalf).
- We came to appreciate the PURPOSE of that work in the Book of Leviticus (to put away sin and make us holy).
- Now in the Book of Numbers we see God’s PATIENCE in that work!
He disciplines Israel for their disobedience. Those who are numbered as being over twenty years old in the first generation will perish in the wilderness, with the only two exceptions being Joshua and Caleb. God’s sovereign purposes will not be thwarted, even if He has to use only a remnant. Joshua and Caleb will be rewarded for their obedience to walk by faith and not by sight. Their faith is triumphant because it is rooted in what was said by God and not what was seen by man. Instead of living in evil reports of partial information of walled cities and Anakim, they lived in the full report of God’s Word and would not be deterred by doubt, discouragement, distraction or dismay.
The first verse of the Book of Numbers gives us a revelation on the Time and Place. The Lord speaks to Moses “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Numbers 1:1). Compare this to what we read in Exodus 40 when the Tabernacle is constructed:
Exodus 40:17 (NASB) 17 Now in the first month of the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected.
So, the Tabernacle was finished and filled with the glory of the Lord on New Year’s Day on Year 2 after their deliverance from Egypt. The Book of Numbers starts exactly one month later.
Why does God command that the people be numbered? They need to be organized and prepared for the conquest of Canaan. They needed an army. So, a census is taken, at God’s command. All in Israel who are able to go to war are counted. Aaron lists them, company by company.
First, leadership teams are organized from each tribe (Numbers 1:1-6).
Then, all those men over twenty are counted, tribe by tribe. (Numbers 1:17-44)
Finally, the results of the census are tabulated and we have the number of men who are able to go to war in Israel- 603,550 (Numbers 1:45).
The Levites were exempted from the fighting men. They had already fought for the Lord and were appointed to tend to the strict requirements in the transporting, maintenance and service of the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:47-51).
In verse 52 we read:
Numbers 1:52 (NASB) 52 “The sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies.It is interesting to note that an aerial photo of the tribes of Israel camping around the Tabernacle would be in the figure of a cross.
(Notice the chart that takes into account the proportions of the numbers of warriors in each tribe).
The prince of the power of the air, Satan, would be getting a warning of what was to come!
It is important to note that the reason for the army of Israel was a Divinely appointed one.
The story of the conquest of Canaan is not about the plundering of the weak by the strong. It was not a matter of domination by force. It was an act of obedience to purify the land in order that the people planted in it would bring forth the promised Seed through which all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
NEW TESTAMENT READING: Mark 11:1-26
In Mark 11 we have the New Testament’s second account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. First, we read Matthew’s account in Matthew Chapter 21, in which he referenced the Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 as it was being fulfilled:
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
Mark records the event in a way that would be most relevant to his Roman audience. He records the events in Jesus’ ministry, drawing from Peter’s accounts as he must have incessantly prodded him with the question: What happened next?
For this reason, not as many details are supplied. But the picture is stunning. Jesus is riding the colt of a donkey; just the opposite of what you would expect from those whose ideas of Kingship involve royal pomp. Instead of riding majestically upon a powerful war horse, he was mounted on a small colt of a donkey, as Tim Keller describes as more “fit for a child or a hobbit.”
Here is the Messianic combination of meekness and majesty, impeccable justice and boundless grace, absolute sovereignty and utter surrender. Jesus is not going by any script written by man. He is putting the entire weight of His trust in God.
Whereas Matthew records the elders testing ‘the Lamb’ once he came into the city, to see if they can find any fault in Him, Mark goes right for the action. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus makes an initial trip to the temple and looks around at everything, like Nehemiah prayerfully surveying its condition, centuries earlier. Because it was late, he returns with his disciples to Bethany a few miles outside the city.
On the next morning, as they are making their second trip to Jerusalem, Jesus is hungry. Although it was not the season for ripened figs, it was the season for the tasty nodules that grow on the fig trees that people find very appetizing. In the Song of Solomon, we read of these sweet delights as the fig trees ‘early fruit’ (Song of Solomon 2:13). It was one of the signs of spring. If a fig tree were not to produce these nodules once the leaves were sprouted, you would know that the tree was not healthy.
Mark 11:12-14 (NASB) 12 On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. 13 Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.
It sounds harsh. But it was a parable. Fruit trees are designed to bear fruit. If this tree had been healthy and doing its job, people would have been able to benefit from its presence during times of hunger. As it stood, however, it was all leaf and no fruit. The disciples eventually perceived that the fig tree stood for Israel, or those who claim to be the people of God but do not bear fruit for Him.
Jesus goes to the court of the Gentiles in the temple. The place is a beehive of activity as people come to the moneychangers. Instead of bringing their own sacrifices, people could come to the temple and conveniently buy a sacrifice to offer. It was not yet quite a ‘drive through’ temple, but the merchants were trying to make worship more ‘user friendly’. They were saying, “We’ll find the perfect sacrifice for you, you don’t need to worry. Money can buy you what you need.” Jesus saw that this kind of religion was all leaf and no fruit. Is it any wonder that He took the whip?
Mark 11:15-18 (NASB)
15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; 16 and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. 17 And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL THE NATIONS’? But you have made it a ROBBERS’ DEN.” 18 The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking how to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.
The temple area that Jesus entered was known as “The Court of the Gentiles”; part of the temple designated “for all the nations”. It was to be a place where the non-Jews could come and witness true worship and participate in prayer. But instead of witnessing worship and participating in prayer, they were witnessing a religious trade show. Jesus hated that. With a zeal for His Father’s house, He cleansed the temple of the merchandisers.
And the religious leaders hated him and wanted to kill Him.
Tim Keller comments:
“Either you’ll have to kill Him or you’ll have to crown Him. The one thing you can’t do is just say, “What an interesting guy.”
That evening Jesus and the disciples left the city once again. The next day as they returned the disciples saw that the fig tree that Jesus had cursed the day before had withered.
When the disciples drew this fact to Jesus’ attention, He responded by saying, “Have faith in God” (Mark 10:22) and then gave teaching on prayer. He speaks of having faith in God so mountains can be moved. In the entire course of Jesus’ ministry, He never did, literally, move mountains. But He did what He came to do- that is, to remove the mountain of our sin debt, so that we could be forgiven. And He expects us to remove any mountain of unforgiveness that stands in the way in our lives. For He sums up by saying this:
Mark 11:24-27 (NASB) 24 “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. 25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. 26 [“But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”]
READ: PSALM 46:1-11
This Psalm can be divided into 3 parts. The Refuge (v. 1-3) The River (v.4-7) and The Ruler (v. 8-11)
Psalm 46:1 (NASB) 1 God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Do you know this in your personal experience? Where is your security and sufficiency?
The river could refer to the Gihon spring in the Kidron Valley. King Hezekiah diverted the spring through a tunnel 1777 feet long, to ensure that Jerusalem’s water supply would not be vulnerable to the attack of the enemy. He completely covered the ancient spring so the enemy would not know that it is there.
Psalm 46:4 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
Do you know this inner source of refreshment? John 7:38-39 38 “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ 39 But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
Look to the Lord our refuge, our river, and our ruler! His perfect work of redemption makes it possible for your heart to be filled with His presence and ruled by His peace!
Here is a great word for the day!
Psalm 46:10 10 “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Proverbs 10:23 23 Doing wickedness is like sport to a fool, And so is wisdom to a man of understanding.
Is your idea of fun actually foolishness? Do you seek understanding? Be wise.
PRAY FOR THE NATIONS: Continue to pray for Bangladesh. Here is a good source to fuel your prayers for this country: https://prayercast.com/bangladesh.html
PRAYER: Lord, You are our Patience! Thank You for being patient with us! You are our Rock, our Refuge, our Resource, our River and our Ruler! Because we have repented of our own attempts at self-redemption and our works of self-righteousness, and because we have trusted Jesus to be our only Righteousness before You, our hearts are filled with peace!
Clear out anything in our lives that robs You of receiving Your glory! Make our hearts, and Your church, a house of prayer! In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
So, naturally, we proclaim Christ! We warn everyone we meet, and we teach everyone we can, all that we know about him, so that, if possible, we may bring every man up to his full maturity in Christ. (Colossians 1:28, J.B. Phillips paraphrase)
New Life Community Church, Concord, MA 01742