Starting and Ending Our Pilgrimage with God
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Scripture Readings: Numbers 10:11-36 (Text); Matthew 11:28-30
June 21, 2009
Song: “O Praise the Lord, for He is Good” (click here for words and tune)
Remember that the children of Israel have been at Mount Sinai since their arrival from Egypt back in Exodus 19. From Exodus 19 to the end of the book, then through Leviticus and the first nine chapters of Numbers, God had been instructing these former slaves about their worship and conduct of life at Sinai. Beginning in this second part of Numbers Chapter 10, Israel starts their march towards the Promised Land. Note three central themes in our text:
Firstly, our text shows Israel’s full obedience to God’s commandments on what they are to do as they travel. Do you remember back in the first few chapters of this book, God went into tedious details about how they were to camp, how they were to march, and how the Levites were to disassemble and reassemble the Tabernacle? Here, Moses not only repeats and summarizes how God wanted them to march in a very orderly fashion towards the Promised Land, but also how Israel fully obeyed God’s commandments.
Secondly, Moses recruits a Midianite to serve as their guide. Even though God will lead them through their journeys, Moses saw God’s providence in providing someone who can greatly help them find the best paths, oases and campsites. Moreover, inviting a foreigner to join Israel to join them in their pilgrimage to the Promised Land has some implications for us today.
Thirdly, already at the start of their pilgrimage, we see that the final goal of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is the land that God will give to them, a land in which “the Lord has promised good to Israel,” “a resting place” for their weary bodies and souls.
This afternoon, we shall consider this theme, Starting and Ending the Pilgrimage with God:
1. In Full Obedience
2. Inviting Others to Join Us
3. Towards God’s Rest
In Full Obedience
At the historic date that God ordained for them to start their pilgrimage, Israel set out, ”In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle of the testimony, and the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 10:11-12).
Here in verses 11-28, Moses repeats Israel’s full obedience to what God had previously told them all throughout their sojourning at Mount Sinai. Now they were ready to move out “at the command of the Lord by Moses” (v 13). The prophet summarizes the order of their procession:
The Ark of the Covenant was at the head, followed by the tribe of Judah. The Tabernacle parts were next, with the Gershonite Levites leading with the curtains, followed by the Merarite Levites with the poles and other framework, and the Kohathite Levites last with the furniture, the most holy parts. The other tribes followed, with the Rubenites leading and the Danites as the rear guard.
Why is Judah’s tribe first? Because Christ, the greater Moses, would come from their tribe. Why is the Ark of the Covenant leading the march? Because God leads his people in their journey to the Promised Land. Why is the Tabernacle in the middle of the procession? Because the worship of God is the center of their lives.
Moses recounted these details that he had previously written about in Chapters 2-4 so that we, as God’s people today, will be reminded that Israel did everything that the Lord had commanded at the beginning of their pilgrimage. We also see here that when Israel fully obeyed God’s Word, their journey went well.
God shows us the importance of obedience to his word way back in creation, when the serpent tempted Adam and Eve (Gen 3). Satan deceived them with his lies: if they wanted to satisfy their worldly desires and to know good and evil like God, they need to disobey God’s word. And our first parents listened to Satan’s lies rather than God’s true word.
In stark contrast to Adam and Eve is Jesus, who was also tempted by Satan. While Adam had everything in Paradise, with God as their daily companion, Jesus endured fasting in the desert for 40 days, with no companion except the wild beasts. And when Satan came and tempted him, what was Jesus’ response to Satan? “Man shall not live by bread along, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God… Be gone, Satan!” (Matt 4:4, 10)
Because Adam was not able to keep God’s word, he failed in his role as the head of God’s covenant of works with mankind, plunging all of us into sin. But Jesus fulfilled God’s requirement to be our Covenant Head and Savior because he was perfectly obedient to God’s Word, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin“ (Heb 4:15). Jesus set his face like flint in his obedience to the mission set before him by his Father, as he repeatedly told his disciples, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me“ (John 6:38).
Satan says, “If you want worldly pleasures, disobey God!” But Jesus says, “If you want eternal life and heavenly blessings, follow me!” As our Redeemer, he tells us that there is a broad way to worldly pleasure and narrow way to heavenly blessing. But the ends of those two paths is completely opposite: “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few“ (Matt 7:13-14).
This was true for Israel during their wilderness journeys: when they obeyed God’s commands, God rewarded them with joy and salvation. But already in the next chapter, we will see that many of them craved the pleasures of life back in Egypt and as a result, they were not satisfied with God’s provisions and promises, and so disobeyed his commands. And ultimately, none of those who came out of Egypt, except for Joshua and Caleb, were able to enter the Promised Land.
The righteous delight in God’s word as he meditates on it day and night. Many people today, including Christians, think that the word of God is a killjoy: no fun and games. And so, many preachers tell their flock that if you are a Christian, you are supposed to have wealth and health and all kinds of material blessings. Why spoil the fun with God’s restrictive commands?
This is especially true in the matter of the worship of God in most churches. It is very difficult for the average evangelical to accept that their worship is disobedient to God’s word. Why? Because their worship gives them pleasure, entertains them, and tickles their ears. This is the “broad way” of worship where the church does anything that is fun and entertaining, as long as the Bible does not prohibit so. Compare this with Biblical worship consisting of confession of sin, prayers, and reading, singing and hearing God’s word. How boring can that be? This is the “narrow way” of worship where the church can only do in worship whatever God’s word says, which strictly means singing, praying, reading and preaching God’s word.
It is interesting to see that God’s word says that the way of righteousness, delight, and reward is in God’s word itself:
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. Â More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Â Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward (Psa 19:8-11).
Israel started their pilgrimage by fully obeying God’s commands. As God’s redeemed people, we too are to fully obey God’s commands too.
Inviting Others to Join Us
Secondly, if we are to obey God’s word, he shows us in this text that we are to invite others to join us in our pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
In verses 29-32, we read that God’s providence supplied Israel with a person to help them reach their goal: Hobab, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, who had valuable knowledge about the way to Canaan. He knew the paths, the obstacles, the best places to rest, the weather, and the people along the way of their pilgrimage. Moses tried to convince this Midianite to come along with them because Moses knew his value to them.
Using Providential Means
Why should they get help from an alien? Are not God’s presence and their obedience enough to get them through the barren wilderness into Canaan? And as a Christian, is your faith weak when you seek the help of others in your times of need?
Yes, God’s presence and their obedience were sufficient for them. However, here we also have a picture of Israel’s faith and obedience being supplemented by God’s provision of assistance through a Gentile. God’s providence means that he uses his almighty power to govern his creation and control the hearts of human beings in order to provide for the needs of his people. So it does not necessarily imply that your faith is weak when you seek God’s help through the instruments that God sends your way to help you.
We see this all over Scripture. God could do anything he wants to save his people so he did not need thousands of years to accomplish his redemptive plan from Adam’s fall to the death and resurrection of Christ. He did not have to use men to write Scriptures for a period of 1,500 yearsâ€”he could have dropped down the whole Bible to some person in an instant. He does not need preaching and sacraments to save his peopleâ€”the Holy Spirit could change the hearts of everyone he wants to save without these means of grace. God uses means to accomplish his purpose, and to save and teach his people so his name would be glorified in all creation.
In verses 31-32, Moses pleads with Hobab, “Please do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. And if you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you.” Although Moses does not tell us the rest of Hobab’s story, there are hints elsewhere in the Bible about the result of Moses’ pleadings with him.
Moses calls him a Midianite, from a nation who became Israel’s fierce enemies (Numbers 25 and 31), in Judges 1:16 and 4:11, but Hobab’s descendants are also called Kenites. In Judges 1:16, we read that the descendants of Hobab “went up with the people of Judah from the city of palms into the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the Negeb near Arad, and they went and settled with the people.” In Judges 4, Jael, the wife of a Kenite, was the one who drove a tent peg into the head of Sisera, the commander of King Jabin, Israel’s enemy. These two verses then indicate that Moses’ entreaty to Hobab bore fruit.
And so Israel’s obedience coupled with the use of God’s providence were instrumental in completing Israel’s wilderness journey and conquest of the Promised Land. Thus, obedience and faithfulness to God do not necessarily imply not using human means, especially our common sense. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, do not say, “Because I trust in the Lord, I’m not going to consult a doctor.” If you’re having problems with your spouse or children or parents, do not say, “No, I’m not going to my pastor or any other counselor. I’m just going to pray that God will solve my problems. Children, if you don’t understand your math homework, and your Daddy is a math wizard, don’t say, “No, I’m not going to ask my Dad; I’m just going to pray and ask God to give me the answers.” Or in the church, don’t say, “We’re not going to invite others to join us, because I know that God will save them whether we invite them or not.”
This brings us to our other subpoint: inviting others to join the church. As God’s people, we are also his instruments in his work of building his heavenly kingdom.
Moses was insistent that Hobab join the Israelites in their pilgrimage. Hobab was not like Ruth, a Moabite woman who willingly went with Naomi to Israel, saying, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God“ (Ruth 1:16).
As Christians, we are to have this desire to invite others to come to Christ for their salvationâ€”not only our family, but our friends, officemates and schoolmates. If we lose this desire, it means that we are losing our love for God, because God commands us to tell others about Christ.
What do we tell others? We invite them to willingly come join us for worship, Bible study and fellowship, especially on the Lord’s Days. What else did Moses tell Hobab the foreigner? “If you do go with us, whatever good the Lord will do to us, the same will we do to you“ (v 32). If Hobab joined them, he will have a portion of whatever good the Lord gives to Israel. This is exactly what we read in Judges 1:16â€”after Israel conquered the land, Hobab’s descendants were also given inheritance in the land that God gave his people.
Thus, when we invite others to our church, and they join us by receiving faith in Christ, whatever benefits we receive from Christ, they will also receive: forgiveness of sins, being counted righteous in Christ, adoption as children of God, living holy lives, and finally, being glorified when Jesus returns in glory. And because we invited them, they will also be invited to join us in the heavenly places and together we will be praising God for his grace and mercy, for being with us through our pilgrimage, and for guiding us to our heavenly resting place.
God uses means to accomplish his purpose in the church; God uses us as instruments to invite outsiders to join his kingdom. And together, we will all come to our Promised Land of rest.
Towards God’s Rest
Finally, when we are fully obedient to God’s word in our pilgrimage, and when we invite others to join us, God promised to bring us together to our Promised Land, a place that will be for us a “resting place.”
The Bible says that from the time of Adam and Eve, God has promised a land of rest for his people. The word “Noah” means “rest.” The word “Sabbath” comes from a verb which means “to cease,” thus implying cessation from work. In creation, God “rested” on the seventh day, and this is why he calls the Sabbath a day of rest, setting it apart from all other days of the week, thereby making it holy. He commands us to rest from all our work, signifying to us that all our work for saving ourselves is in vain; he himself will provide our rest.
After the flood, Noah’s Ark found a resting place, symbolizing that after his people go through their pilgrimage and testing, God will take them to a place of rest. The Promised Land for Israel is a resting place, a land of milk and honey, and a land of no warfare. We know that God, in giving the land to Israel, kept all his promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses:
“Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass“ (Josh 21:43-45).
The Lord gave them rest on every side after they settled the land and all of their enemies were conquered.
Jesus invites you to come to him as rest for your souls: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). When you’re weary from all the spiritual struggles in your life, he will give you rest. When you’re weary from all your troubles and worries, he will give you rest.
Not that all your problems will go away when you become a Christian, and then you’ll be singing, “Celebrate, Jesus, celebrate!” for the rest of your lives. No, he promises that he will give you joy and peace even in your darkest days. He will uphold you with the peace that surpasses all understanding in your most anxious days. He will give you joy unspeakable in your most sorrowful days. He will strengthen you with his word when you are weary of this life of suffering.
But God also warns those of you who do not put God at the center of your life, those of you who do not have God guiding you in your earthly journey: you will never reach your Promised Land of rest. When you hear the gospel of Christ, inviting you to believe and trust in him, come to him and he will give you rest. If you don’t, you will never find rest, as the writer of Hebrews Chapter4 says about those Israelites who rebelled during their wilderness wanderings,
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.Â For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, â€˜They shall not enter my rest'” (vv 1-3).
If you are like Israel who disobeyed soon after they started their pilgrimage to the Promised Land, you will not enter God’s resting place. You will die in the wilderness outside of the heavenly places; God has promised you never will.
Therefore, God appeals to you not to wait any longer, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7). He invites you, “Strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb 4:11). And if you do, asking God to give you faith and repentance, Christ himself will be your Great Guide in your pilgrimage to the Promised Land of rest, his heavenly kingdom.
Beloved friends in Christ, God demands complete obedience to his word. Not out of compulsion, but out of our love for and delight in his word.
In our obedience, God also requires responsibility from us. We are to use the means that he providentially supplies for us to accomplish his purpose. And one of the ways in which God uses means is by using his people as instruments in inviting others to come to Christ, to join us in worship and fellowship, and in our earthly pilgrimage.
And when they join us, they will also share in the benefits that await us in the kingdom of Christ. Then we will all finish our pilgrimage to God’s Promised Land of rest.
O praise the Lord, for He is good,
His mercies still endure;
Thus let His ransomed testify,
From all their foes secure.
He has redeemed His captive saints
From adversaries’ hands,
Has gathered them and brought them back
In peace from hostile lands.
They wandered in the wilderness,
By want and hunger pressed;
In trouble when they cried to God,
He saved their souls distressed.
He made the way before them plain,
Himself became their Guide;
He brought them to a city strong
Wherein they might abide.
O praise the Lord, ye sons of men,
For all His goodness shown;
O praise Him for the wondrous works
To you He has made known.
The longing soul that turns to Him
He fully satisfies;
He fills with good each hungering one
That for His mercy cries.
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