The congregational meeting started off well enough. Prayer was said. A few announcements. However, as the evening wore on it was clear that there was unrest among the people. At a particular moment, as if choreographed beforehand, a well-known belligerent stood waving a petition of the names of others who were also displeased with the current leadership. Shouts rang out at the pastor in the front, “Who made you leader? Why should you be in charge?”
The people then began to let loose some real heat; grumbling spread throughout the people like wildfire. They lodged complaints about the food being served at congregational dinners. The old complained the music was too loud. The young complained the music was too archaic. Volunteers complained about the lack of support. They all complained about the misfortune of being located in an impoverished neighborhood.
When the leader down front tried to redirect their focus to what God had commanded for his people, there was a collective eye-roll. A prominent member stood with a pointed finger, “These long sermons are part of the problem! If we spent more time talking about fundraising, we wouldn’t be in this predicament.” A young family agreed, but for different reasons: “People won’t come until we have a better band—and a bigger kids ministry.”
Of course this sounds familiar. These episodes perfectly characterize the generation that perished in wilderness with their rebellion against God’s leaders (Numbers 16:1-3), incessant complaining (Numbers 11:1; 14:1-4; 20:2-5; 21:5), and blatant idolatry (Exodus 32:1-4).
Wait. That’s not it.
This reminds you of your church, you say?
The “crooked and twisted generation”—Moses’s words (Deut. 32:5), not mine—that were struck down in the wilderness are an antitype in the Scriptures, an antitype of unbelief. Jesus co-opts Moses’s moniker repeatedly in the Gospels to characterize people who reject him (Matt. 12:39-ff; 16:4; 17:7; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:41). So does Peter (Acts 2:40). So does Paul (Phil. 2:15; 1 Cor. 10:1-22). The author of Hebrews specifically cites the wilderness generation as an example of men and women who took for granted the astounding grace of God and perished in his wrath (3:13-17).
The point is this: If events in the life of the wilderness generation feel eerily similar to what’s happening at church, that’s a serious problem. Paul summarizes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
Seeing the Similarities.
Painful as it is, sometimes reading the book of Numbers is like looking in a mirror. Perhaps the primary way we mimic the faithless generation is in our complaining. Complaining is so common among God’s people that it’s almost treated like a favorite pastime. I’ve spent an hour talking with other Christians and only later realized most of our conversation was complaints about what was wrong with our churches! Those wandering Israelites could complain about anything and everything. So can we. Brothers and sisters, this should not be!
Furthermore, we often resent the authorities God has placed in our churches. Much like Korah and his compatriots, we assume we could do it better, we assign wicked motives to those who are making constant sacrifices behind the scenes for the good of God’s people, and we assert our liberty to do as we please. How many times do we resent the pastors and shepherds in our churches for simply calling us to obey God’s Word? Brothers and sisters, this should not be!
Worst of all, blatant idolatry can rear its ugly head in our churches. A golden calf is anything we proclaim the savior of God’s people other than Jesus. It might be a ministry program, a certain music style, or a political allegiance. I’ve even seen Christians turn a specific Bible translation into a golden calf! Ironically, many churches, both large and small, actually idolize their gold. We stockpile our weekly offerings and refuse to sow our resources into the kingdom of God through partnership and mission. We ignore the needs of the poor. Brothers and sisters, this should not be!
The Spirit Gives Us Hope.
The good news is that Moses, the leader of that hopeless wilderness generation, had hope for us. In Numbers 11, God put his Spirit on seventy leaders to help Moses. It’s at that moment that Moses realized the only hope for God’s people: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (11:29).
Moses believed that a Spirit-filled people would be a fundamentally different people. The grumbling would cease. The idolatry. The rebellion. Everything loathsome and burdensome about the people of God would change if only “the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” Moses longed to see our day—to lay eyes on a New Covenant people.
At Pentecost, Peter insisted the presence of the Spirit on earth was the sign of Christ’s reign in heaven (Acts 2:33). We actually become evidence of Jesus’s authority when by the Spirit we are different from that crooked and twisted generation. Conversely, when our churches walk in the flesh—when we behave like Old Testament Israel—we proclaim to the world by our actions 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 and hope is lost.
Is Jesus on the throne or isn’t he? Our churches will show forth the truth.
Let us keep in step with the Spirit instead of stumbling in the wayward footsteps of the wilderness generation. We are not the wilderness generation; 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