This is a message for my own generation, but it applies to every generation. Are we to bear the sins of our fathers? My generation almost left the organized church altogether. I intend this message to be taken with deep thought about what we are doing as the church in our time. In large scale, my generation was raised in a church environment where Christianity was shallow. From most pulpits, we heard a therapeutic moralism that contradicted entirely what we read in the Bible. In Romans 3:28 we read that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law (by faith alone). In James 2, we read that works were evidence of genuine faith. Yet, growing up in church many of us were taught that we had to will ourselves to be good enough (this is either works added to faith or works without faith as a means for justification and is contrary to God’s word). We were taught how to have dating relationships that honored God. We were taught that we had to listen to a certain type of music. We were taught that drinking was wrong and that we should avoid terrible places. We were taught that sex before marriage was the most terrible sin that we could commit. As true as some of these things might be, they were shoved down our throats by people who were trying to change our behavior and the Gospel was neglected. I guess many of those teaching completely missed Paul’s words in Colossians 2:20-23, which states clearly that commands like the aforementioned commands have no value against the lusts of the flesh. We cannot simply will ourselves to change our behavior. These types of outward commands will not change people into better, or more godly, people. There is a heart issue that, in large part, my generation was not taught because the former generation neglected to share the Gospel of Christ. Not everyone in this former generation was this way (I have some great mentors who are part of the generation before me), but many were.
The reformers felt like this about the Roman Catholic church of their day. The second Generation of Israelites in the wilderness, who would inherit Canaan, felt this way about their parents. Doubtless, the generation rising up after my own will similarly bear the consequences of the decisions that my generation makes. During this message, I want to ask that you spend serious time in reflection regarding your own life and your own heart. Be completely and entirely honest with yourself as we examine God’s faithful and perfect word together.
Numbers 14:20-38 HCSB
The Lord responded, “I have pardoned them as you requested. Yet as surely as I live and as the whole earth is filled with the Lord’s glory, none of the men who have seen My glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tested Me these 10 times and did not obey Me, will ever see the land I swore to give their fathers. None of those who have despised Me will see it. But since My servant Caleb has a different spirit and has followed Me completely, I will bring him into the land where he has gone, and his descendants will inherit it. Since the Amalekites and Canaanites are living in the lowlands, turn back tomorrow and head for the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea.”
Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron: “How long must I endure this evil community that keeps complaining about Me? I have heard the Israelites’ complaints that they make against Me. Tell them: As surely as I live,” this is the Lord’s declaration, “I will do to you exactly as I heard you say. Your corpses will fall in this wilderness — all of you who were registered in the census, the entire number of you 20 years old or more — because you have complained about Me. I swear that none of you will enter the land I promised to settle you in, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. I will bring your children whom you said would become plunder into the land you rejected, and they will enjoy it. But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds in the wilderness for 40 years and bear the penalty for your acts of unfaithfulness until all your corpses lie scattered in the wilderness. You will bear the consequences of your sins 40 years based on the number of the 40 days that you scouted the land, a year for each day. You will know My displeasure. I, Yahweh, have spoken. I swear that I will do this to the entire evil community that has conspired against Me. They will come to an end in the wilderness, and there they will die.”
So the men Moses sent to scout out the land, and who returned and incited the entire community to complain about him by spreading a negative report about the land — those men who spread the negative report about the land were struck down by the Lord. Only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh remained alive of those men who went to scout out the land.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve talked about human nature as we have observed this generation of Israelites. We’ve stated that we need to have a new heart. We’ve discovered together that Christ is the only one who can regenerate us. Without this regeneration, first, we cannot will ourselves to be more Christlike, to have enough faith, to do the right things, or to be good people. In this part of the story, this idea is reinforced for us again. God is sentencing this generation of Israel righteously, and declares Caleb to be righteous because Caleb had a different spirit in him. The different spirit in Caleb enabled him to follow God fully. God recognizes a different spirit first, and only then recognizes the godly work of the person. Our works play no part in our justification before God. Have you ever had someone in your life who you tried and tried to please to no avail? For me it was a girlfriend; for others it might be parental figures or teachers. This is like our relationship with God, and if you’ve ever tried to merit a good relationship with God, you know what I mean. We can try and try on our own and never come to a place where we please God. Our being made righteous, though, brings about good works in us. It is only when God adopts us as children that He takes great delight in us despite our imperfections! This has been true from the very beginning. It is not just a New Testament idea. God justifies. God regenerates the heart and the mind. We can’t just be good enough. As the church, we can’t add anything to what Jesus gives: only He can give the gift of a regenerate heart.
This is one of the stories in the Old Testament that helps us to understand the New Testament. We cannot understand the new without the old. We need to, in our study, be diligent to approach doctrine, like the doctrine of justification, systematically. What this means is that when we consider our stance on a theological position, we do our best to consider how all of Scripture informs that position (not just one verse or passage out of context). With this in mind, we look at Romans 9:18-24:
“So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden.
You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory — on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (HCSB).
In the context of Romans 9, Paul states that God raised up Pharaoh as a vessel of wrath (preparing him beforehand as a vessel of wrath) to bring glory to God’s own name, that God’s power would be made known. Here in Numbers, we can know that God was preparing the first generation beforehand as vessels of wrath at this time, so that He would glorify His own name. The second generation suffered from the sins of their parents. Because they saw what it meant to rebel against God, they glorified God and would follow Him forty years later into the land of Canaan. God was preparing the second Generation beforehand as vessels of mercy or grace for glory. The Apostle Paul, who was a Pharisee trained in the whole of the Law, found this to be the correct reading of the Old Testament text. God is preparing every person in every group (Jews and Gentiles in Romans 9, Jews and Catholics and Baptists and Lutherans and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, etc… in our day) beforehand for either wrath or glory. God is the one who transforms hearts for the glory of His own name.
As people created by God, we do have responsibility. No one is denying that and no one should. That would be akin to us developing a sort of doppler radar system to measure whether days in advance. After developing this system, we step outside, lick our finger to measure the wind, go back in and input the answer: not allowing the radar to genuinely accomplish the purpose for which it was created. Paul, as he makes his argument following chapter 9 gets to chapter 12 where he spells out exactly what he believes human responsibility to be. God has built gratuity into His grand design. I don’t think all events are predetermined (predetermined is a different idea than predestination or election for salvation). There is free choice (libertarian free will). For the Israelites, the first generation had the freedom to choose to follow God, but did not. They did not have the right spirit to do so. The second generation would make the decision for itself. God would use the wrathful generation to produce a generation for glory to inherit the promised land. He would give the second generation, as He did Caleb, a different spirit. No matter what sin we choose, God elects, God carries out His plan in the fashion that He has set forth, and God brings glory to His own name. When He gives us a new spirit, we are then able to follow Him closely as Caleb did.
There is a human responsibility, but the faith does not begin with human responsibility. It begins with God. So, I notice something else in the organizational church. When we begin with human responsibility in our theology, we end up dictating rules on top of rules without giving a reason for the rules that we might have. Growing up, my mom would state a rule and I would ask why! “Because I said so,” was always the answer. I love my mom, but that sort of answer in the church accomplishes nothing. God explains to the Israelites, here, exactly why they are being punished and exactly why the sentence is what it is. We want to know why we have any responsibility before the God of the universe. It is because God regenerates our hearts for His own glory. There is no prescription in all of Scripture that commands us to will ourselves to obey. Our responsibility follows the regeneration of our hearts by God because God is the one preparing vessels of grace for glory.
God enables us to make decisions that are honoring to Him. Without basic surrender, enabled only by God, before the God of the universe, we are as lost as the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness. Why do we honor God with moral action? It is because God gives us a heart that yearns to honor Him. Why can we not just teach our teenagers to listen to the right sort of music the right way? Because they need a regenerate heart that yearns to honor God in the way they listen to music. Therepuetic moralism has no place in the church because it is contrary to God’s word and character and accomplishes nothing (Col. 2:20-23). Combining faith with works as a means to justification has no place in the church because it is contrary to the text of Scripture and encourages therapeutic moralism (Romans 3:27-28). We are not merely to be a house of religious rules. That is shallow! We are to be a house of grace. That grace, the grace of God imparted to us, enables us to honor God in our action and in church structure, in marriage, as parents, and as we do the things we do in this life.
To my generation in the time that God has given us, I make the following plea. I make the same plea to every other generation in their time on this earth. In Numbers 14:39-44, the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt finally responded to God after receiving their sentence for their own decision:
“When Moses reported these words to all the Israelites, the people were overcome with grief. They got up early the next morning and went up the ridge of the hill country, saying, “Let’s go to the place the Lord promised, for we were wrong.”
But Moses responded, “Why are you going against the Lord’s command? It won’t succeed. Don’t go, because the Lord is not among you and you will be defeated by your enemies. The Amalekites and Canaanites are right in front of you, and you will fall by the sword. The Lord won’t be with you, since you have turned from following Him.”
But they dared to go up the ridge of the hill country, even though the ark of the Lord’s covenant and Moses did not leave the camp. Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that part of the hill country came down, attacked them, and routed them as far as Hormah” (HCSB).
By their own lack of faith, this generation received the consequences of their action. By their own refusal to follow God, they rejected the promises that God had for the nation on this earth. When they tried to gain those promises without God; when they tried to obey God on their own, they failed miserably.
In each generation, the people must choose who they will follow. Either by faith alone we will follow after God or by our own merit we will try to achieve some sort of heaven for ourselves. The second generation of Israelites saw God’s faithfulness through their parents’ rebellion. We have seen how God has interacted with the generations before us. The question, then, for us is this: are we being prepared as vessels of wrath or vessels of mercy? Will God gain glory as He long-suffers in our rebellion, or will He be glorified in the faith that He produces in us? Have we left the organized church, expecting it to recover on its own? Have we chosen already not to be instruments in the redeemer’s hands?
To every generation together, we must recognize the absolute beauty of God’s sanctifying work in the generations. What the older generations get right, they can impart to the younger. When the younger generations notice something wrong, they can raise their questions. We need both the answers and the questions along with humble enough people to ask and answer genuinely. Each generation must experience its own reformation. This is discipleship. God uses each generation, as we see in this text, as an example to another (whether or not that example is good).
In Matthew 24, Jesus is predicting several things including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of the world. Caligula came to power shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion. He restarted the Roman games in the colosseum. Ironically, his nick name from a young age means “little boots” (later, he could not live up to his uncle Tiberius’ legacy). Emperor Nero (Caligula’s nephew) began burning Christians in his front yard. Vespasian, before becoming emperor, burned Jerusalem and the temple to the ground. There would be a time of great tribulation and Jesus was predicting that it would be seen before some of those hearing Him had died (Matthew 24:34). Jesus laid it all out there. When we arrive at verse 45 and 46 in Matthew 24, Jesus asks a question of His audience:
“Who then is a faithful and sensible slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give them food at the proper time? That slave whose master finds him working when he comes will be rewarded” (HCSB).
Who among us will serve the master by faith in the season that God has placed us in? In my generation and the next and the next, who will be regenerated and faithfully serve Christ? Those who are found to be serving genuinely will be rewarded by the grace of God! It is not too late for my generation, yet. Will we return to Christ? Will we be the church? Will we live as regenerate people and regenerate local churches? Will the generations before us leave us to rot? Will we abandon the generations coming after us? Or, will we strive with everything we are to abide in Christ and in His word? Will we, by God’s grace, produce much fruit that only comes from Christ (see John 15)? Will we be sons and daughters of a righteous God?
Let me clarify something. The organized church should never change to match the culture. It should, however, change so that it can faithfully serve God in the current season. Who among us will be a faithful servant in this season?