Numbers 11: Graves of craving

Dear church,

True Christians will notice when their natural cravings begin to overtake and override the satisfaction they get from the gospel. We experience, from time to time, a desire for something even more than God gives us in this moment. Eternal life does not seem to be enough for us. 

“strong craving” comes over us. It might be for some old habit or for some physical pleasure. It might be a craving for money or fame or worldly approval. Whole churches can suffer from these cravings as easily as individual Christians.

The important thing for us to do in these moments is to pay attention. God is very gentle with us. “The fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” A Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit will notice the burning. It is a warning. We ought to repent. 

The worst thing is to persist in the craving to the point that God turns us over to it, and we receive so much of the ungodly thing we crave that it destroys us. “Therefore God gave them up …” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).

Contentment is a spiritual gift that pulls the mask off our craving and allows us to rest in Christ alone. True contentment only comes from Jesus (Philippians 4:10-13).

Our desire for variety in our life of faith – to spice things up – can lead us to places we don’t really want to go. It is better to rest in the traditional gospel as it was handed down to us by the apostles – the gospel we read in black and white in our bibles. We ought to get our fill only from Jesus. 

“For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This is the bread we must eat every day, now and forever. 

Chris

Numbers 10: Faith

Dear church,

The great people of faith find meaning in seemingly inconsequential things. The world doesn’t know what to make of our bread and cup, of our songs, of our gatherings, of our “fellowship.” It also won’t know what to make of the sound of the trumpet. 

These things are given to us by God. And only the faithful know Him. 

“And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31). 

The people of true faith will find meaning in these things. They take the bread and cup and remember the cross – and discern the body. They sing the songs as people longing for a home. They gather knowing they always will gather – forever and ever. They fellowship and listen to other stories of the faith. 

And when the trumpet sounds, they will know what that means.

The faithless, of course, will roll their eyes. Moses knew this very well (Numbers 11:1). The faithful person stands in the midst of that faithlessness and remains strong. Perhaps he or she even ignores the whispers and grumblings. 

“Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you. … Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.” It is a picture of faithfulness – to say that every time among the doubters, no matter what, even when the way looks blocked or after the day has been hard.

The people of faith find meaning in this, and the world doesn’t know what to make of it. 

Chris

Numbers 9: The command of the Lord

Dear church,

The Israelites had to learn how to be obedient to the clear commands of God – to stay and to go. “At the command of the Lord the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they camped.”

They must have looked on with wonder as the cloud lifted and moved forward. The Levites would spring into action, and the people would pack their bags. It feels good to be moving forward, to be going somewhere.

And the Israelites must have looked on with equal wonder as the cloud remained in place over the tabernacle. Day after day, turning into week after week sometimes – the people may have looked for signs that it was time to move. But God’s sovereign and mysterious purpose was to remain. And so the people remained. 

For the people, the important thing wasn’t the timing of the travel or the direction of it. The important thing also was not that they understood it all. The important thing was that they followed the perfect command of God, whatever that happened to be. “At the command of the Lord they camped, and at the command of the Lord they set out.”

Soon the traveling would come to an end. The tabernacle would make its home in the Promised Land. A temple would be built. There would be no place left to travel. The people then would follow God’s command to celebrate – to hold the Passover and the other festivals. At the “appointed time,” the people could come to the temple, bringing their gifts. This was the Lord’s command. 

The Christian worships the same God – the God who both moves us forward and brings us to halt. This is the God who seems to be ever moving and ever resting. His people do the same – moving forward and remaining in “camp.”

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). We remain in camp, doing the things required of us in camp life – taking care of the needs of those around us, of our brothers and sisters in the church. We remain with them. We love them. We must not forget about the clear and perfect command of the Lord that we love those in the church. 

But as we remain, we also should find ourselves moving, following the unseen cloud of God’s glory. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). We do not simply camp. We also go.

These are the commands of the Lord. We camp, and we set out. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The “tabernacle” goes with us everywhere we go.

In this age of Christ and his church, we want to choose one or the other – to camp or to go. But the command of the Lord is to do both. 

Chris

Numbers 8: Light of the blessing

Dear church,

Of all the things on this earth God has created and taken interest in, the most special is the church and the people who comprise it. 

Understandably, we forget this. We live in a world that chews people up and spits them out and forgets all about them. We do this, too. We encounter long-lost friends and struggle to recall their names. 

But God never forgets us. His light is shining on his people always. “When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” The light showed forward and fell upon the 12 loaves of bread in the holy place of the tabernacle. Those loaves of bread symbolized the 12 tribes of Israel. At all times, the light of God’s blessing was upon his people. 

“The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25; also Zechariah 4:10).

The life we live as Christians is a life spent walking in the light (Isaiah 9:2; 1 John 1:7). God has given his church something the rest of the world may only dream about, if it knows anything about it at all. We live under the blessing of God and in the presence of God.  

The things we do and say no longer are done and said in darkness and with a lack of knowledge. They are done in the light of God’s presence. He is with us. He sees us and never forgets us. He shows us about ourselves, and we know right from wrong. We can see where we are going. And we can see things that others, perhaps, cannot – all because we are living our lives in the light of God’s blessing. 

This brings with it a special responsibility on our part. We must remain in the light. We abide here in this place, moving neither too quickly to outrun the light nor too slowly to be left behind in the darkness. 

Am I still in the light today? Am I depending on the presence and power of God in my life?

Chris

Numbers 7: Receiving the blessing

Dear church,

The twelve tribes received the blessing of God by remembering their place in his kingdom and giving themselves freely to Him. “The Lord bless you and keep you …” The famous blessing was followed immediately by the steady stream of gifts to God – “the chiefs of Israel … approached and brought their offerings before the Lord.”

God is not so harsh with us that he expects us to move blindly toward him. Our acts of faith are in response the revelation of God’s blessings toward all of sinful humanity. Everyone has been blessed – “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45) – and all are equally obligated to respond. 

And a Christian will respond. “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8). Once we receive the blessing, we step forward with our gifts. No one is exempt. All have benefited from the body and the blood. The worship of the church emerges from everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian. 

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Sometimes we might be tempted to sit back and let others do the serving and the giving. We might think our offering isn’t worth all that much. But all are obligated equally, if they are indeed children of God, to give of their lives to the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:12).

We must respond to the blessing given to us by Jesus Christ. Our offerings may look different from one another, but none of us is exempt from taking up our crosses and following.

Chris

Numbers 6: Special vows

Dear church,

Men and women throughout the history of the church have felt, at times, they have wanted to do more for God. They understand the saving acts of God – the painful death of Jesus on the cross – and they are unsatisfied with their level of commitment and sacrifice for the Lord. They want to do more for him.

Out of this desire spring missionary endeavors, new churches, extravagant financial gifts, and whole new ministries. People set themselves aside for God’s use, and they are unsatisfied with only a little sacrifice and only a little service. They want to do more.

The Nazirites lived like the high priests in the way they set themselves apart from all others, and they did so voluntarily. Their long hair was a mark of their decision to give themselves over to God. The expensive offerings at the conclusion of their “separation” were evidence of their seriousness, even at the end. 

In the Old Testament, Samson and Samuel were Nazirites. Some believe John the Baptist was, too. And the apostle Paul may have taken a Nazirite vow at one point in his life (Acts 18:18). Such vows did not seem contradictory to life in the early church (Acts 21:23-24).

The fact of the matter is, there always are some who want to do more for God – to give their lives fully over to his use. They aren’t interested in only a Sunday morning ritual or writing out a tithe check each month. They want to do more, to give all they have.

Of course, some remain rightfully and quietly tethered to their “worldly” vocations. The world continues to need farmers and teachers and nurses and administrators and real estate managers and telephone repairmen. God can be glorified in all of these.

We come to Jesus Christ like a Nazirite, whether we frame it in these terms or not. The cost of following Jesus is a steep one. And Jesus warns us of this cost. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58).

And yet, we still are called to come, to take up our crosses, and to follow. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

The danger, as Christians, is to look to those who want to do “more,” and say, “That is not me. I have not been called to anything like that.” And we may try to separate our working life from our worship life, and our recreational life from both of those. 

But all of these things belong to God, who is “over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:6). These things – in fact, all things – were given for our sustenance and our enjoyment. And in all of them, we can bring glory to God. We can give all of them to God.

The Nazirites rightfully understood their obligation to their Creator and Redeemer. We do that, too, wherever we are.

Chris

Numbers 5: Breaking faith

Dear church,

I break faith with God when I consider the eternal blessings of God and then look out toward the temporary enticements of the world – and I choose the latter. We are constantly tempted to break faith with the Lord. But our eyes should be fixed only on Jesus, the one who forgives our sin and constantly invites us back into relationship with him. 

God’s people are wedded to Him. They always have been, and they always will be (Hosea 2). For generations, Israel acted like an adulterous wife, always turning away from God, always breaking faith. And God sought, in his own wise way, to draw his bride back into relationship with him. “I will betroth you to me in faithfulness” (Hosea 2:20).

But the act of breaking faith always is revealed.

Our rituals remind us of certain truths we hold dear – like the body and blood of Christ in the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. A bitter cup of dust and water had meaning in Israel. Later, they would discover there is a cup of God’s wrath (Isaiah 51:17).

Marriages have meaning, too. Today, they remind us of our sacred relationship with Jesus – the one to whom we must be faithful. Unfaithfulness is not consistent with the calling and character of Christ, who is faithful to his own “bride” all the way to the end (Revelation 18:7-8).

And in all this, we remember Jesus drank the “cup” for us (Matthew 26:39). He died for our sins, and he covered over our dark moments of breaking faith.

We all from time to time break faith with Christ. We are guilty, and we might as well admit it. And we listen to his hope-filled words to “adulterers” caught in the act: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Chris

Numbers 4: The service of bearing burdens

Dear church,

The story of the Levites was the story of the divine prerogative. They were given their tasks by God himself. The Kohathites carried the sacred contents of the tabernacle. But only the priests were tasked with preparing those things for travel.

The Gershonites and the Merarites could load up on their own the things they were given to transport. Those things were less holy. Male Levites from 30 to 50 years old were given these tasks. 

All of this was directed by God himself – just as God instructed the men of the 12 tribes, from 20 years old and upward, to be ready to serve in battle when called upon. 

God established these things. And God’s people were to work with seamless precision, fulfilling the greater body’s mission as a holy nation, chosen and set aside by God.

You have been given a gift and a calling as well. The principle remains the same in the New Covenant. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

God first appointed the apostles – another set of 12 – to carry out the mission of the kingdom. Then came the prophets, evangelists, elders, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). They build up the body of Christ. And you are part of that body. 

You do not select your gift, and it may have nothing to do with your acquired skills or natural talents. It is a divine gift for you to discern and then to carry out – so that “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).

As with the Levites, this service is a service of “bearing burdens.” The new tabernacle, the church, requires maintenance and support – willing hands and feet. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

The church languishes when its people do not recognize their gifts and when each part is not working “properly” – when burdens aren’t being carried along by those who were designed to carry them. Sometimes, it is appropriate to ask God, “To what ministry have you called me?”

And then do what God says.

Chris

Numbers 3: Keeping guard

Dear church,

The Levites were stewards of the things of God. From time to time, they moved the tabernacle and its contents – a holy and heavy burden. But the most pressing and constant job was that of “keeping guard.”

This was a matter of life and death. “But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” The holiness of God was so pure and so severe that the unclean and unholy could not come near the tabernacle. To disregard the holiness of that place would be to put the entire congregation at risk (Leviticus 10:1-2).

In reality, it seems the Levites were guarding the people from the tabernacle – from the holiness of God – and not the other way around. “To protect the people of Israel,” God had told them. The people, too, were the things of God.

These holy guardians, we would hope, were revered. Without them, the people were in grave danger of transgressing God’s holiness. 

Did you know you have this role today as a royal and holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9)? In a New Covenant kind of way, we must watch out for each other with all gentleness, and our church leaders have the sacred task of keeping watch over all of our souls (Galatians 6:1; Hebrews 13:17). 

The stakes remain the same, even if instant physical death is not necessarily the punishment. The holiness of God cannot be transgressed by sinners. The blood of the Son of God was spilled so that we could draw near – and that blood is altogether holy (Hebrews 10:29).

Are we treating the things of God in this way? The holiness of the tabernacle has now been infused into the congregation of God. Are we sufficiently guarding the good deposit entrusted to us – that is, the Spirit-powered church (2 Timothy 1:14)?

Chris

Numbers 2: The Center

Dear church,

As a Christian, if you were to dig down into the very center of your life, you would find Jesus Christ. His influence and his power would be overwhelming. This is what it means to say “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). 

If the center is Christ, then the “outer” layers of our lives ought to reflect the one who has made his home in our hearts. Our thoughts and actions – and our reactions – ought to emerge from our life with Christ. Everything is organized around the Center.

The ancient Israelites shaped their camp as a square, organized around the Center, the place where God’s glory dwelt. Each tribe was oriented toward the tabernacle – “They shall camp facing the tent of meeting on every side.”

The people never were to forget God, the one who brought them out of Egypt. They were to watch for the movement of God, to know which way to go – when to start out marching and when to stop. And even in the marching, God remained the Center. He was the very heart of the life of Israel. 

So it is with us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …” (John 1:14). That is, the Word “tabernacled” among us. This Emmanuel, God with us, has made his home in the very center of our lives. We orient every aspect of our lives around the Center. We go when he goes. We stay when he stays. We face the Center.

It will be this way now and forever. Someday, the New Jerusalem will descend in glory – a great cube out of heaven. The old Israelite camp will become three dimensional (Revelation 21:10-21). But the Center is the same. “The glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). 

Chris