There are times for humor, and then there are times when a wink and a nod are devilish.
When our churches begin to exhibit some of the worst characteristics of the Old Testament Israelites, we should know better than to “aw shucks” it away with a light-hearted joke. Change a few names, and the stories from Exodus and Numbers could have been lifted from the meeting minutes of thousands of churches today. Golden calves? Rebellion? Grumbling? Mistrust? Ungratefulness? Hard-heartedness? Like I said, many of us are repeating history in the worst way.
On the one hand, it’s good to recognize the ways we imitate the wilderness generation. After all, confession and repentance begin as the Holy Spirit reveals our sin. This often comes through biblical narratives that hit too close to home. It’s God’s grace when we hear our own complaining in the mouths of the Israelites. It’s his mercy when the wilderness generation shows us our distrust of the God who saved us.
However, it is satanic to see those clear parallels between our churches and the Israelites…and to joke about it. We make light of people idolizing carpet colors or church programs (Exodus 32). We chuckle about men and women in the church who refuse to submit to God’s appointed authorities (Numbers 12, 14, 16). We poke fun at members who tend to be grumblers (Numbers 11:4-6, 14:1-4, 16:41).
Let me be clear: there is nothing funny about New Covenant people acting like Old Covenant people. If your church looks and feels like the wilderness generation year after year without any heartfelt repentance, you might not be living among a New Covenant people.
A Wicked and Perverse Generation.
The New Testament actually refers to the wilderness generation pretty often. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses describes the people he led for forty years with these words: “They are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5). Jesus takes up this moniker over and over again in the Gospels–to characterize the people who reject him (Matt. 12:39-ff; 16:4; 17:7; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:41). So does Peter: “Save yourself from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). So does Paul: “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
Jesus and his apostles aren’t doing anything novel. Even the Old Testament writers penned damning commentary about the wilderness generation: “For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways'” (Psalm 95:10). Read all of Psalm 106. After that, go back and read Numbers, and you, too, will come to loathe the Israelites for their ungrateful, arrogant, prideful, rebellious, callous-hearted, hateful, unloving, self-centered idolatrous wickedness.
What is more, Paul and the author of Hebrews specifically cite the wilderness generation as examples of men and women who experienced the astounding grace of God and yet perished in his wrath (1 Corinthians 10:1-22; Hebrews 3:13-17). Certainly not what I want for my church–nor yours.
The point is this: When we recognize similarities between ourselves and the wilderness generation, we should (1) loathe them and (2) flee them. Paul summarizes,
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” -1 Corinthians 10:6
The Old Covenant Cries Out for a New Covenant.
Even Moses himself, the mediator of the law, recognized the real issue. In Numbers 11, the people are complaining (as usual). The grumbling drives Moses to the point of utter desperation: “I am not able to carry this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. if you [LORD] will treat me like this, kill me at once…” (11:14-15).
The LORD then commands Moses to gather seventy elders together: “I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the the people with you.” (11:17). And that is what the LORD does.
When Moses sees it, he realizes the true shortcoming of the Old Covenant: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (11:29).
Moses saw it: The Spirit makes all the difference.
This is why we cannot tolerate churches that look and sound and feel like the wilderness generation. We are a New Covenant people. Moses longed to see our day. He realized that a Spirit-filled people would be a different people. The grumbling would cease. The idolatry. The rebellion. The disobedience. Everything loathsome and burdensome about the people of God would fundamentally change if only “the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
When we tolerate wilderness behavior in ourselves and our congregations, we proclaim to the world that the Spirit has not come. And if the Spirit has not come, then Jesus has not been exalted to the right hand of the Father. Peter insists the Spirit’s presence in God’s people is the visible sign of Christ’s reign:
“Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” -Acts 2:33
So, brothers and sisters, the question is this: Is Jesus on the throne or isn’t he? Let us keep in step with the Spirit–and not in the wayward footsteps of the wilderness generation–because this proclaims his kingdom come. We are fundamentally different from the Israelites–we have the Spirit of the Risen Christ. What Moses tasted we now drink with cups running over. Therefore, let us heed the warning of the writer of Hebrews:
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” -Hebrews 3:12-13
(photo credit Michael Chen)