I remember being little and hearing my mom telling me not to do something. I don’t know what it was, but every time my mom would tell me not to do something I automatically wanted to do whatever it was that she did not want me to do. This, I think, is the purest evidence of our sinful nature from the youngest age. I remember riding somewhere with my dad. He had a new truck and in this truck was a cigarette lighter that was plugged into the electrical socket. You could push on the lighter and use the car’s electricity to light a cigarette. I didn’t know what it was. I’m not sure I even knew what a cigarette was. All I knew was that my dad warned me not to touch it. Automatically, this meant that I wanted to touch it. So, when my dad wasn’t looking, I pulled that cigarette lighter out of the electrical socket and touched it with my pointer finger. It was painful. My dad warned me. I did not listen to my dad.
In the first half of Numbers 13, we read that God had a plan and a purpose for His people. He is working all things together for the good of His people and for His own glory. As imperfect people, we have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. We do have a sin nature (Genesis 3). Do we have an automatic response to God’s direction because of our sinful nature? Is there a way that we can tell whether we are following God’s direction or our own?
Numbers 13:26-14:4 HCSB
The men went back to Moses, Aaron, and the entire Israelite community in the Wilderness of Paran at Kadesh. They brought back a report for them and the whole community, and they showed them the fruit of the land. They reported to Moses: “We went into the land where you sent us. Indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and here is some of its fruit. However, the people living in the land are strong, and the cities are large and fortified. We also saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites are living in the land of the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea and along the Jordan.”
Then Caleb quieted the people in the presence of Moses and said, “We must go up and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!”
But the men who had gone up with him responded, “We can’t go up against the people because they are stronger than we are!” So they gave a negative report to the Israelites about the land they had scouted: “The land we passed through to explore is one that devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of great size. We even saw the Nephilim there — the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim! To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them.”
Then the whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites complained about Moses and Aaron, and the whole community told them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to die by the sword? Our wives and little children will become plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.”
As we move into this passage of Scripture, we need to keep the previous part of the story in the forefront of our minds. Context is always key as we dive into the text of Scripture. In verse 2, God makes it plainly known that He is going to give the land to the Israelites. The Israelites have seen God’s power against Egypt. Thy witnessed God on Mount Sinai. God delivered them from slavery and to the border of the promised land. God’s chosen nation had every reason to believe God and no reason to question whether or not God would truly fulfill His promise.
The 12 spies went into the promised land, observed everything that God promised to give them for His purpose and glory, and came back to give their report to Moses. They told of the giant bushel of grapes, even showing it to the community. They told of the vast networks of natural resources that the land had to offer. It was a paradise flowing with milk and honey. Their report took a drastic turn. They told of the mighty fortresses and giant men of the land. The land was so evil that it devours its inhabitants. “We are like grasshoppers! The armies in the land would squash us like the grasshoppers we are!”
The Israelites had already forgotten who God was and what He had done to Egypt, which was a nation far superior to those located in Canaan. In reading this narrative, I discover that because of our sin nature, we often take our focus off of God and place it on our fears or our problems. We forget that God is sovereign and that He is the one working all things together. This is a message that clearly needs to be heard in the local church today, and every day. Jesus has stated that the fields are ripe for harvest. He has promised that those who abide in His word will bear much fruit. Christ has promised much for the church. Because of our sin or our depraved nature, we often shift all of our attention to the hurdles that must be overcome or the problems that we are experiencing. Our fear and current sufferings take control. This is what was happening with the Israelite spies, here. As local churches and as individuals, we constantly need to be reminded of what God has done and of what He promises to do. Every day, we wake up and surrender to Christ again. We come together regularly in faith community to be reminded again of God’s grace so that we won’t forget. When sin takes hold of a community of faith, a local church, and shifts our focus from God and to the problems that we perceive, there are very destructive forces that begin to work and we see these destructive forces in this story.
Caleb, one of the spies that feared God, silenced the people and stated that they should go up and take possession of the land! He had not forgotten God’s promise. He had faith that God could deliver on His promise. The other spies shut him down. They were fearful. They began to spread rumors and gossip to the other Israelites, giving them a bad report about the land. These men were not focused on God or His promise. They led themselves into fear, they began gossiping and slandering, they spread a bad report, they turned all of Israel against the one spy who declared that they needed to follow God’s plan.
When God is not our focus, we lead ourselves to do some pretty terrible things because of fear, or pride, or even because of pressure from others. Last week, there was a church shooting in Southerland Springs Texas. It was a domestic situation that carried over into the church and the man was mentally unstable. Bad stuff happens in this world as a result of sin and of human depravity. The local church, there, could decide to stop meeting altogether out of fear; or they could decide to take up the cross of suffering and follow Jesus. We need to be praying for our brothers and sisters in Southerland Springs. We also need to be praying desperately that God helps us all to keep Him as our central focus, especially as local church bodies. We can get so caught up in our security that we run from God’s plan. That is what the Israelites are facing. We can get so concerned with bringing people into a church to build our numbers, that we preach and teach something that is contrary to Scripture. We can get so caught up with entertaining people that there is no growth in holiness or obedience to Christ. We can be so concerned with comfort or control that we neglect doing things in accordance with God’s instruction. Sadly, too many organizations that call themselves churches are shifting their focus from God and are leading people into sin by, like these ten spies (Joshua and Caleb feared God) who turned the whole of Israel against God’s direction.
I love the show, “Worst Cooks in America,” on food network. Mainly, I just like to laugh at the horrible concoctions that people come up with when they have no idea what they are doing in the kitchen. They have coaches who come beside them and teach them how to cook; they give instruction. If the worst cooks don’t follow instructions, they never learn how to cook well. If they do, they could win enough money to buy their own promised land! Brothers and sisters, there is not one of us that knows what we are doing when it comes to being the local church, or when it comes to being Christ followers. It is important for us to strive to follow God’s direction. He knows what He is doing. He designed life and that makes Him the only authority for life.
We must never forget that we are saved by grace, through faith. When we know God, when we love Him, our focus is on Him, His plan, and His promise! In John 10:25-30, Jesus even said this:
“’I did tell you and you don’t believe,’ … ‘The works that I do in My Father’s name testify about Me. But you don’t believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish — ever! No one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’” (HCSB).
God first saves, Jesus directs, and His sheep hear His voice and follow. God, who gives Christ’s sheep to Him, is greater than all. This speaks profoundly about the ten spies who spread a bad report and about many people in the local church today. They are not part of Jesus’ flock. If we find that we are following our own direction instead of God’s, it may be time to surrender everything to Him.
What happens with the people of Israel at this point is the same thing that we see in too many local churches today. They chose to get riled up, grumbled against the human leaders that God had given them, and said, “We would rather things be the way that they have been for 400 years! We’d rather go back to Egypt than die in Canaan!” Mistrust in God caused the Israelites to want to go back to what was familiar even though it was a land of bondage. Since the God of the universe had already promised this land and promoted leaders who were willing to lead the way, they people even called God a liar and presumed to know more than God. How arrogant of them! How arrogant of us when we do the same thing. When I was a teenager, I even though I knew better than my parents and my teachers. I found out that they were right all along.
The people got to a point where they wanted to forsake Moses, a leader that God used to deliver them from Egypt and was going to lead them into the promised land, and wanted to choose for themselves a leader who would lead them back into bondage (to Egypt). I want to turn to the New Testament for a moment and observe a trend that was already invading the local church in Paul’s day, as he wrote to his student, Timothy:
“I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:1-5 HCSB).
After 1600 years (about the time between Moses and Paul’s letter to Timothy), human nature was the same: depraved. Still there are those who call themselves by Christ’s name who are not His sheep and who do not follow Him. We cannot simply will ourselves to follow Christ. 1600 years consisting of the same pattern in the human heart ought to reveal something very profound to us. We need a change of nature. We need a new heart. Only Jesus can replace our heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Only God can bring us into Christ’s fold. Notice from both the Old and New Testaments (before and after Jesus’ earthly ministry).
“When they arrive there, they will remove all its detestable things and practices from it. And I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, so they may follow My statutes, keep My ordinances, and practice them. Then they will be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:18-20 HCSB).
“I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:25-26 HCSB).
“Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the Lord’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33 HCSB).
“But this is the covenant
that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws into their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be My people” (Hebrews 8:10 HCSB).
Christ must give a new heart. We are unable to follow Him as individuals or as local churches without this new heart. We cannot be God’s people without a heart given by God. This is why I am so thankful for God’s grace in my life and in the life of His church. When people are sinful and when they completely reject God’s direction, we should not be surprised or react negatively. This is the sinful nature of humankind. Our objective is to, like Caleb, strive to follow God’s direction in spite of others’ sinfulness, hatred, and pride. It is to love others, even the worst of sinners, as Christ loves us: in such a way that He offers to take our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh.