Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Good Question: Moses' Punishment

In Numbers 20:1-13, Moses did not obey God and was punished by not being the one to take the Israelites into the promised land. How is this applicable to me today? My understanding is that I receive grace from God for my disobedience through Christ's sacrifice and my repentance. Is the importance of the passage in Numbers to signify the consequences of our actions? Is this relative to the time when I will stand before God and my works will be tested with fire to see which remain - 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. The passage in Numbers struck me because my perception of Moses is that he was a holy man who was faithful to God, but also was disobedient like all men are. To have the entrance into the promised land taken away because of one disobedient act seems large and makes me think about my disobedience and resulting consequences.

This is a very good and very important question. I will try and answer as straightforwardly as I am able. Sorry if I am a bit verbose. But then, I am a pastor.

The question essentially is this: In Numbers 20:1-13, Moses did not obey God and was punished by not being the one to take the Israelites into the promised land. How is this applicable to me today?

I think that we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the RIGHT question?’ before we try and answer it. In many ways I think, “How is this applicable to me today?” is the wrong question to ask until we ask and answer a lot of other questions. Of course, I am sure that as part of your individual study you have done some of this spade work. I am frustrated sometimes by bible studies that don’t call for much study and prep and often jump to conclusions and applications of God’s Word in a pretty facile way.

But, let’s walk through some good questions for biblical interpretation:

1. How is this applicable to MOSES then?
2. How is it applicable to God’s people then (in the day of Moses)?
3. How is it intended to be applied to God’s people who first read this story?
4. How is it intended to be applied (or has been applied) in other references to this story in
5. Scripture? (or, how do other Scriptures deal with this passage or similar ones?) How did God’s people interpret this and apply it through biblical and church history?

Now, when we ask these questions, we do not always get the answers we might think we need or desire. That is part of the process. We also need to recognize that just doing all this work doesn’t always insure better interpretation. All of it is a work of the grace of God as we patiently submit to His Spirit in trying to understand and apply His word. What we are doing when we ‘interrogate’ the text this way is trying to keep from ‘subjectivizing’ (made up word) Scripture, or the ‘what does this mean to me’ syndrome. We need to know what it means to ‘me’…but you can’t get there without first finding out what it means to them, what it meant to others, and then what it means to us.

Let’s look at question 1. God had given specific instructions to Moses as the leader of the people. He was to follow God’s instructions specifically and truthfully. Many others (Egyptians, rebellious Israelites) were manipulating God’s people with proud displays of power and authority in order to bring glory and honor to themselves. In the context of the wilderness wanderings, where the daily survival of God’s people is at stake, not to mention the future plans of God to make a kingdom of priests to serve Him, it is crucial for God’s leader to be faithful. This breach of faith, as silly or trivial as it seems to us (and I agree, it doesn’t seem to be too grievous a sin from my limited perspective). But God, who sees into the thoughts and intentions of the heart, saw that Moses was acting against the holiness of God in the sight of the people. And there were consequences for such sin. God did not bar Moses from heaven. God did not curse Moses for generations. God simply said that because of this sin (and I believe a complex of sin and rebellion in the people as well) there would be a delay in entering the Land, and that generation as well as the leader of that generation would not enjoy the temporal blessings of the land of Canaan.

In answer to questions 2-3: I believe that Moses (and an editor after him) recorded this episode in order to warn the Israelites who would read in the next generation and generations to come that their sin has real, physical, and ultimately eternal consequences. God asked for covenant faithfulness, to obey his law, to worship Him only, to bring offerings and seek reconciliation and restoration through sacrifice as God had instructed, to not harden their hearts. Moses was a great man, favored by God, godly and righteous. But he presumed upon the power of God, he manipulated the word of God, he dishonored the holiness of God. There were grievous consequences for such actions. This is a serious warning for all of God’s people throughout Scripture- but most certainly a direct warning to those who first received these stories and were just entering the land or just establishing themselves as a nation set apart for God.

Now for questions 4-5. There are a variety of passages that speak to this period in Israel’s history. They might not directly refer to Moses’ sin but they do generally point out the sin and rebellion of Israel in the desert. Psalm 95 and its commentary in Hebrews 3-4 (also 1 Corinthians 10) are important for us to read. The writer of Hebrews is calling us to be faithful to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If there were consequences for the disobedience in the wilderness, then what about those who have seen and heard Christ and rebel? This is an argument from the lesser to the greater. I think sometimes we use the grace of Christ as a license for sin. It should be just the opposite. The grace of Christ should compel one redeemed not to sin but to serve. Does this mean we will never sin? Of course not. It means we will respond to our sin with tender hearts. We will honor the holiness of God revealed and applied to us in Christ with hearts seeking forgiveness and grace. If we know the grace of Christ, will we harden our hearts? What does it mean when one says they have believed in Christ and understand His wonderful work on the cross as payment for sin and abiding power to love and serve the living God? This is a grave situation. Worse than the rebellion of Moses and God’s people in the wilderness. This question is not ‘will you sin’? It is, what is your heart’s response to sin? Is it a broken heart that seeks grace and mercy? Or is it a hard heart, presuming on God’s grace and mercy? This hardness of heart on this side of the cross is a dangerous position. Paul says it well, ‘shall we go on sinning that grace might increase? May it never be’. God’s grace is inexhaustible, because it is sovereign, and not dependent on our action but our faith. And even this faith is a free gift of God. If we harden our hearts, it is not that we need more grace, or have somehow exhausted God’s grace, it is that, perhaps, we have not received that grace.

All of this is a question of grace from first to last. God is the God of grace. And He is the sovereign who sees men’s hearts and accomplishes his glorious will in our lives according to his mysterious and incomprehensible plan. This is why we find these seemingly weird punishments for sin. Why does God do this to Moses? Aren’t these consequences harsh? Why is God easier on David (it seems, though there are some rough consequences for his sin)? David committed adultery, murdered a man, and much, much, more. Yet, he continued as king. And what about poor Uzzah in 2 Sam. 6:7? God struck him down for trying to keep the ark from falling! It seems to me that I’ve sinned worse than that!

The ultimate answer to these questions must be that God did it all for His glory. He graciously applied these ‘punishments’ in order to accomplish His purposes. He did it to reveal his holiness and power. He did it to work graciously in the lives of people for years to come. He did it according to the ‘kind intention of his will’ (Eph. 1).

Your final statements are very important to consider:

The passage in Numbers struck me because my perception of Moses is that he was a holy man who was faithful to God, but also was disobedient like all men are. To have the entrance into the promised land taken away because of one disobedient act seems large and makes me think about my disobedience and resulting consequences.

Moses was a ‘holy man’ only insofar as his holiness is found in Christ, like yours and mine. And even the slightest disobedience before a righteous God is deserving the gravest judgment (Matthew 5:22). The entrance to the promised land was by grace. Moses didn’t ‘deserve’ it. No one did. Moses received the temporal consequences of his sin. And even that was a gracious act of God! And God brought great glory to himself in applying them. But, I believe that Moses will be in heaven. By grace.

Let’s look at this in terms of our own sins and the ‘consequences’ we might experience because of them. Let’s say I go out this evening with a group of friends and have a few beers (of course, this is all hypothetical!!!!). I don’t feel all that inebriated and think I can drive home ok. On the way home I am pulled over. I fail the sobriety tests. I am cuffed and taken to jail. I am convicted of a DUI. I am removed from my position as pastor, or put under some sort of discipline by the elders of the church. There is shame and embarrassment upon my family and the whole church. Now, can I get angry with God? Can I say, ‘God, others have done worse than me! Why am I experiencing all this for such a trivial thing as one beer too many? This is too harsh! I don’t deserve this!’

I think that the word would tell us that we don’t deserve any of this in the first place (Romans 12:3)! And what about the infinite ways in which God would use such a situation to bring glory and honor to himself? What of the gracious activity of God in such a situation that I don’t see? What if I had crashed my car and killed innocent people or myself? Perhaps God desired that I not be in ministry but in some humbler situation because of my sin in order to learn his grace and power in a more profound way? All of this would be his gracious discipline in my life (Hebrews 12) for His glory. As we begin to ponder all of this, we certainly recognize that His ways are not our ways! And His ways are far greater and more wonderful than any design of ours. We see that his grace is at work in all things! The Christian is driven to love and embrace God’s grace in the most difficult and confusing situations and experiences. This is why the Christian faith is not about ‘deserving’ but about humble repentance and brokenness. A broken will and repentant heart. Brokenness over our sin, rather than an indignant heart over its consequences. Humble submission to God’s purposes and plans rather than proud assertion of our designs and expectations.

So, Moses was repentant of his disobedience. He accepted the plan of God in the discipline he received. And God graciously and gloriously uses it all to work powerfully in our hearts and in bringing honor to Himself. God used Moses’ sin and situation to provoke you to consider your sin. God used it to call you to lean not on your righteousness, but to lean wholly on God’s grace through faith. God used it and other warnings in the word (1 Cor 3:12-13) to consider your life and actions and decisions in light of their eternal value. None of this is particularly easy or simple. It is not always fun. But it is glorious. And God is honored in it all.