Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
When we looked at LD 3, we did so using a courtroom setting. So I walked us through a court case where the 3 Q/As were the case for the prosecution. And we saw that we are guilty sinners, and that Christ’s work on the cross is the only way that our guilt can be dealt with. Well, one of the most common words in a court room is “objection!” And the 3 Q/As of LD 4 are three objections to what the Bible teaches about salvation: First, it seems unjust that God demands perfect obedience from those who can’t give it. Second, why can’t He ignore our sin? And third, Isn’t God merciful?
And justice and mercy are at the heart of these objections. And we get justice, don’t we. We believe that crime must be punished. And this is especially so when wrong has been done to us. We are all for justice then! But of course, when it is we who have done something wrong, well, then we really love mercy. Right? Now, we are all for lighter punishments, or preferably no punishment at all.
Well, what we are going to see today is that God’s justice and mercy are essential components of our salvation. And we are going to see against the backdrop of what we just read in Numbers 20. And get ready to see how we very similar to the people described in this account.
So, where are we in the history of the people of Israel? Well, v1 tells us that the congregation of Israel was t Kadesh. And it was at Kadesh, 40 years before, that because 10 spies and the people refused to trust God’s promise to bring them into the Promised Land, Moses was commanded to lead them in wandering about the wilderness so that the generation of unbelievers could die off. And as we come to chapter 20, that wandering is almost over. Israel is back at Kadesh and the events of this account take place.
So we will walk through the 4 parts of this account – the People and the Lord, the Leaders and the Lord, the Lord and the Leaders, and the Lord and the People.
- So first of all, from, vv2-5, the People and the Lord.
- The situation that faced the people was dire; they were a vast crowd and in this wilderness country there was no water. Now, I can remember being a bit thirsty at times, but I have never been what we call dying of thirst. How about you? The rule of thumb I have heard is that you can survive for three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. So it must have been around three days since they had passed a stream or run out of water in their water bags. So they were desperate for water. Now, it is very important for understanding this episode to note that this was not the first time that Israel has been in a dry place where there was no water. Exodus 17 describes a similar episode that took pace just before the 40 years of wandering began. And there too, Moses had struck a rock, water had flowed, and he had called the place Meribah, which means “quarrelling.” So what have the people learned from that episode and how the Lord has provided for them during their wilderness wanderings?
- Well, not much, it seems. For first of all, look at how they complain in v3: “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord.” They wished that they had died like the generation of unbelievers that died over the 40 years. And this is a disgusting complaint. How could they complain like this after everything God had done for them? Where was the memory of all His miraculous deliverances and provisions?
- But note also who it was that they complained to. They quarrelled with Moses and Aaron and said, “Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink!” It’s like they are pitting Moses and Aaron against God, all the while forgetting that the very reason they were in this situation is because of their unbelief and complaining, not Moses and Aaron. Again, it is quite shocking!
- And you will see that LORD is in capital letters in v4. So they use God’s special, covenant name, but there is little or no faith here. It’s as though the Lord should be their good-luck charm; that they don’t deserve troubles.
- But aren’t we so like these people? Aren’t we also so prone to blaming others for whatever happens or does not happen to us? And aren’t we also often so slow to remember God’s faithfulness when trouble comes along?
- We were talking about this at Homegroup on Wednesday and one of recalled a TV cartoon program where some terrible disaster happened. And there was a church next door to a pub. And when the disaster happened, all of the Non-Christians in the pub walked out and went into the church and all of the Christian in the church walked out and went into the pub. So whether it’s the pub or chocolate or lashing out at someone else, we can be as faithless as these Israelites.
- And as Q/A 10 of the Catechism reminds us, God has every right to be angry with their sin and our sin. His standard is perfect obedience. He says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them (Deut 27&Gal 3).” So our sins must be punished.
- Well, let’s continue on, secondly, to vv6-10 and the Leaders and the Lord.
- Having heard the people’s complaint, Moses and Aaron walked straight to the tent of meeting, or the Tabernacle, and they fell on their faces before the Lord. To their credit, they didn’t stand there and argue with the people; they sought the Lord and His response. And the Lord told Moses to take the staff, which is probably the staff that had budded and blossomed overnight to signify that Aaron was God’s anointed High Priest, and to tell the rock to yield its water so the people and their cattle can drink. And we will come back to this response of the Lord in our fourth point, but let’s continue on and note what Moses did wrong:
- God said, take the staff, and tell the rock, in the presence of the people, to yield its water. But look what happened in v9, he took the staff, so far, so good, and in v10, he gathered the people, so far, so good, but then he spoke to the people and said, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” oh oh! That was not a part of the Lord’s instructions, was it. God didn’t express anger toward the people; He just said go and tell the rock to yield water.
- And you can hear the anger in Moses’ words, can’t you. He is saying, Must I do this, again? Why are you so rebellious? So instead of the people seeing another example of the Lord’s patient and faithful provision, it comes across as begrudging and even angry. So Moses’ feelings got in the way of God’s glory.
- But note also that Moses spoke his own name when he should have spoken the Lord’s name. He said, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” instead of pointing to God as the provider of water. And asking it in the form that He did changed the sense from, fear not, the Lord will provide you with water, to something like, I don’t even know if I want to do this for you. I am sick to death of you. When will you learn?
- But then it got worse! For instead of telling the rock to yield its water, Moses struck the rock, with the staff, twice. And so now he was directly disobeying the command of the Lord. Psalm 106:33 offers some commentary on this episode: “[The people] angered [the Lord] at the waters … and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips.”
- You see, Moses was supposed to be a mediator; to stand between God and the people, in both directions. But now, the Lord was lost in the background as Moses delivered the water. And so, Moses robbed God of His honour; Moses got in the way of the Lord.
- But this too, is a sin we easily fall into as well. It happens, for example, when parents lose their rag with their children and fail to put the Lord at the centre of discipline. So rather than explain to their child that they are sinning against the love and mercy of God they just shout or hit or complain about how the child’s behaviour upsets Mum or Dad. But it happens even when we do kind deeds but we fail to say why we do it – because of God’s love to us in Christ. And so, God is robbed of His glory.
- And contrast with what we saw of the Lord Jesus in our sermons in John’s Gospel. He always gave the glory to the Father. He, who is God Himself, never got in the way of the Father!
- Well, in the third section, from v12, we switch focus to the Lord and the Leaders. And here we see that God is just and that He must punish sin, but that He is also merciful.
- And here it’s not Moses and Aaron approaching God but God speaking to Moses and Aaron. He said, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” So because of this sin, after leading the people out of Egypt and around the wilderness for 40 years, Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
- So what do you think when you read that? Do you think, Wow! That seems harsh? Poor old Moses. He put up with far more than I would have with that miserable bunch of grumblers. So, yes, He lost his rag a bit here and he smacked the rock with the staff. But who wouldn’t have? Isn’t it just a little over the top; to not let him enter Canaan?
- And if you don’t think that about Moses and his punishment, what about the story of Achan in Joshua 7. God told all the people, don’t take any of the plunder from Jericho. Achan did. And when he was found out, he, and his sons and daughters, and his oxen and donkeys and sheep, and all that he had, were burned with fire and stoned to death. Or what about Nadab and Abihu. All they did was offer strange fire to the Lord. And they were consumed by fire on the spot. And then there is Uzzah. Do you remember him, boys and girls? He just put out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant because it was slipping off the cart and he was destroyed on the spot. Was that really necessary?
- We often question God’s just judgment, don’t we? And when we do, we are raising the same objections raised in our Lord’s Day – how can God demand perfect obedience from those who can’t give it? And why can’t He just ignore our sin? Why can’t He just be merciful?
- But what has God said? Q/A 10 quotes Deut. 27:26: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” And after God spelled out the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience, He said, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” And in Deut. 8:1, God said, to and through Moses, “Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live … enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers.”
- And remember also that Moses was an office-bearer/leader. His sin was a leadership sin. Think about the uproar during lockdown when while we were all locked up at home, the Health minister went for a bike ride and a beach trip. What was the cry? That is unjust! So imagine what message the Lord would have sent to the people if He ignored Moses’ sins and punished theirs?
- Moses was supposed to represent God to the people and the people to God. Moses was supposed to point people to Jesus Christ. But instead, his sin taught the people a bad lesson about God. And so, that is why the consequences were severe.
- And congregation, this is not an OT/NT thing. Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” God’s just standards are no different today than they have ever been. A perfect God can only be satisfied with perfect obedience. God is just.
- And that is why Moses and we need Jesus Christ and His perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice. All that Moses failed to be and do, Christ is and Christ did. All that you and me fail to be and do, Christ is and did. And we will say more about this in a moment.
- But it is because of Christ that this word of judgment to Moses is not God’s final word to Moses.
- In Hebrews 3, Moses is described, twice, as “faithful in all God’s house.”
- In Hebrews 11, Moses is listed as one of the heroes of faith.
- And who was one of the two people that stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? Moses.
- So on the Day of Judgment, Moses will hear these words from the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
- So even though Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, He will live, eternally, in the Promised Land of heaven. Is God just? Yes. Is God merciful? Yes!
- And that is why we need to finish with our fourth focus, from v10, which is, the Lord and the people.
- For the fact is that despite the quarrel of the people and despite the anger of Moses, the Lord provided water! Even though they did not deserve it, the Lord was merciful. And He could be merciful and He is merciful, as the coming Lord’s Days will explore, because He dealt with the sins of His people on the cross of Calvary.
- And Jesus’ work on the cross was foreshadowed that day or hinted at by the water. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 talks about the people of Israel. It says, “[they] all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” So the believers there that day looked at the water and thanked God for it and confessed their sins and believed that God would send Messiah. And I want you to try and put yourselves in their sandals. What a hard faith to have! To look at a rock and somehow understand that in relation to Messiah? That’s tough.
But it’s not tough for you and me today. Jesus has come. And He died on the cross so that our sins could be washed away by His blood. Congregation, God’s justice and mercy are essential components of our salvation. And both are in view at Calvary – Jesus received the eternal punishment; God’s anger was satisfied; so that you could receive mercy!
And that is the message of Numbers 20. That is the message of the Bible. And that is why you owe God a huge debt of gratitude. Because Jesus received what He did not deserve – justice, you are free to receive what you do not deserve – mercy! Amen.