Sinful people do not want to live in God’s holy presence
Numbers 21:4-9 ESV
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
We are listening to God’s story, the story of his glory in Jesus Christ through salvation and judgment. Last week in the third book of the Torah, which we call Leviticus, we saw how God invited and made the way for his old covenant people to live in his presence. Today we will see in Numbers that sinful people do not want to live in God’s holy presence. To sin means to reject the Holy God as one’s God, to refuse to love the Holy God, and to rebel against the Holy God and his will. At the root of what happens in the story in Numbers is the dreadful reality that the people that the living God had rescued from terrible slavery in Egypt did not have a heart for God (Deut 5:29), for God as he revealed himself.
Some features of the fourth book of the Torah.
 It is called “Numbers” in Christian printings of the Bible, because of the counting of the men in chapters one and twenty-six. In Hebrew printings, it is called “In the Wilderness”, which emphasizes the geographical setting.
 Some sections are out of chronological order, such as the first census recorded in chapters one through four. Students have discerned reasons for these misplacements, but in this quick telling of the story we lack time for these explanations.
 Both the narrative and the instruction the Holy Spirit interweaves advance the storyline to prepare God’s people to enter the Promised Land.
 The rebels of the first generation rescued from Egypt quickly disappear from the story after Korah’s rebellion (Num 16-17). They are condemned to die in the wilderness and the story does not talk more about their lives. The Apostle Paul’s comment about them in the NTS is chilling (1 Cor 10:5). In fact, we know little about 37 years of those empty years of wandering.
 This book demonstrates what the law covenant could and could not do (Rm 7:5; 8:3). It is a lesson on the truth that the letter of the old covenant kills (2 Cor 3:6). As the story makes clear, the second generation was not going to enter the land because they were better, but because of the grace of the Lord.
The basic structure of Numbers
 The first generation prepares to leave Sinai (1:1-10:10)
(1)The first census (1-4)
(2)Instruction and events about being set apart to the Lord (5:1-10:10)
 In the wilderness (10:11-21:35)
(1)The failure of the first generation to believe and obey (10:11-14:45)
(2)Rebellion and instruction as the first generation dies in the wilderness (15-19)
(3)The end of the first generation (20)
(4)The first failure of the second generation and a great victory from the Lord (20)
 The second generation prepares to enter the Promised Land (22:1-36:13)
(1)The threat from Moab (22-25)
(2)The second census (26)
(3)A review of the journey and preparation for entry into the land (27-36)
I.The story from Leviticus to the rise of the second generation
A. The story occurs under the intense light of the blessings and curses of the law covenant. God had provided the law with its sacrifices, the priesthood to administer them, and the way of life required for people living in God’s presence. But their relationship with God depended on their obedience to God’s word. Three crucial points:
1.If they obeyed God, he would greatly bless them (Lev 26:3-13).
2.If they disobeyed God, he would certainly punish them severely (Lev 26:14-39).
3.If they confessed their sins, God would certainly remember his covenant of promise made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and restore them. But notice carefully that their restoration is not based on the works but on God’s sovereign grace (Lev 26:40-45).
Point: The way to really change your life is not to try to change but to trust God who is able to change you.
B.Two years after the exodus, God led them away from Sinai to the borders of the Promised Land (Num 10:11-12:16). When the silver trumpets sounded (Num 10:1-10), there was reason to celebrate! The next part of the journey had begun.
1.The Lord personally led them with the cloud of his glory (10:11-12, 33-36; cf. 9:15-23). They journeyed as well as camped in the presence of the Holy God.
2.The people begin to complain against the Lord and Moses, who was God’s appointed leader. When the people grumbled during the exodus journey, God did not judge them. But now they are under the law, and God begins to punish them for their rebellion. Their complaints and God’s responses in judgment and grace start from the edges of the nation and work toward the core. Yet, by God’s grace, his unmerited favor toward people who deserve his wrath, they reach the borders of the Promised Land. The mood is noticeably darker at this time. Being under the law was starting to arouse sinful passions in them, so that they produced fruit for death (Rm 7:5).
C.The Lord ordered Moses to send a man from each tribe of Israel to explore the Promised Land (13:1-14:45).
1.All twelve saw the goodness of the land, but only Caleb and Joshua believe that God can give them the land. The other ten gave a bad report (13:17-33). Strangely, though Caleb and Joshua were from the two leading tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the people do not follow their leadership. The “conventional wisdom” fails again!
2.The people accept the “majority report” of the ten faithless men. They were filled with fear, treated the Holy Lord God with contempt, and threatened to kill their leaders. God swiftly stepped in to punish the people (14:1-38). All the fighting men counted in the first census, except Caleb and Joshua, are doomed to die in the wilderness. Why were they spared? They had a heart for God (Num 14:24, 30). God was gracious toward these two men! But God struck the ten men who incited the people to rebel with a plague and they immediately die. The story of God talks about both grace and judgment.
3.The people assume that they can enter the land on their own strength and they are completely defeated by the inhabitants of the land (14:39-45). We must follow God’s words in faith exactly.
Point: We may not try to rewrite God’s story so that it is more to our liking. Listen and believe!
D.The people continue to rebel (15:1-21:3).
1.Led by Korah, they attacked the set apart to God priesthood, claiming that all the people are set apart. They receive God’s judgment and live in fear (16:1-17:13).
2.They grumble again about many things, especially the lack of water. The Lord tells Moses to speak to the rock to give water. But anger finally overcomes Moses and Aaron, and the rock is struck. God tells the brothers that neither will enter the land. The chapter is bracketed by the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, both of whom earlier had complained against Moses (20:1-29). The time is the fifth month of the fortieth year (33:38). The first generation is gone.
3.Yet in grace, when a Canaanite king tries to attack Israel, the Lord rescues them (21:1-3). God’s story is filled with many instances of grace toward sinful people.
II.The Bronze Snake (21:4-9) – The part of the story arrives in this event.
God’s judgment fell on the first generation, as he had said. But the second generation is ready to receive the fulfillment of God’s promise to them (Num 14:31). We might think that they were a much better sort of people. The human heart likes to imagine that God blesses nice people and curses naughty people. This imagination comes from human pride. People like to brag about their accomplishments, but God acts in a different way (1 Cor 1:26-31). This event shows that the second generation would only receive the promise by God’s grace, not by human merit.
A.Their sin (21:4-5)
1.The occasion of their sin was the long trip required to go around Edom and their impatience over this aspect of God’s sovereign providence. God had given this southern area to Jacob’s brother Esau and his descendants (cf. Deut 2:1-8). Many sins have come because people don’t like that God has given something to one person or group and denied it to another. For this reason they became impatient.
2.When we are impatient about how God is directing the affairs of our lives, we can easily start to complain and grumble. They followed in their parents’ footsteps by complaining about the exodus, the lack of bread and water, and the manna. Think about this for a moment. God had given them freedom and was giving them free groceries and they didn’t like it.
Comment: We all should think about the sins that we have learned from our parents and turn away from them. “But my mama and papa always complained about the manna!” Yes, we know, and their bodies are buried somewhere out in the wilderness, too. If you’re a Christian, stop following your parents sins and start following Jesus Christ. And there are a lot of parents who need to repent of the sins that they taught their children.
B.God’s judgment (21:6-7)
1.God sent venomous snakes among the people. Why did he? God did it because they tested God (1 Cor 10:9). They tested him by complaining against what he graciously did for them. Beware of grumbling. Many were bitten by the snakes and died. Sin’s partner is death (Rm 5:12); the wages of sin is death (Rm 6:23).
Point: If you challenge God, he will accept your challenge. He will win; you will lose.
2.The people confessed their sin, and cried out to their mediator Moses to intercede for them. We must also pray to our mediator, Jesus Christ (1 Tm 2:5), to intercede for us. When we confess our sins, we receive forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9).
C.God’s grace (21:8-9)
1.God answered Moses’ prayer and told him the way that people could be healed and live. Notice carefully that this had nothing to do with the law covenant made at Sinai and renewed after the Golden Calf. Not a word is said about bringing a sacrifice or keeping the commands of the law or about committing oneself to be a good Israelite from that day on. No, God’s grace provided the only way and the sure way to life.
2.The Lord Jesus said that the incident pointed to what he would do (Jn 3:14-15). If people are to be saved, to enter God’s saving reign, to be saved, they must believe in the Son of Man, the Messiah. As anyone who was bitten by a snake but looked and lived, so everyone who believes or trust in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.
Point: You may receive the free gift of eternal life by relying on God’s grace and salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. The story of God’s glory leads you to him and life in him.
Ideas to transform our lives:
- The way to really change your life is not to try to change but to trust God who is able to change you
- We may not try to rewrite God’s story so that it is more to our liking. Listen to God’s word and believe him
- Turn from your parents’ sins and follow Christ
- If you challenge God, he will accept your challenge. He will win; you will lose
- Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved
Pastor Dave Frampton
The faithful and spiritually profitable labors of Dave Frampton are featured here at CMC. As a Bible teacher he excels. Teachers and student alike will profit much from his labor in the God’s Word. Visit Newtown Square Baptist Church.