6 Reasons You Should Preach Through Numbers

Article
06.22.2018

“Letters belong in books, and numbers belong in math—not the other way around!” Maybe that’s your reaction when someone tries to convince you that you can add x to something. A lot of us feel a similar shock when our Bible reading brings us to the first three census-taking chapters in Numbers. “What’s with all this math!? Is there any spiritual good in counting 46,500 Reubenites?”

Numbers may start and (almost) end with eye-glazing head-counts. But between those inspired government documents, it traces Israel’s journey from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. Furthermore, it narrates a journey full of hope and warning that every Christian needs to heed. Here’s one way to summarize the main idea of the entire book: Numbers teaches us that when God is with his people, the only thing they need to fear is their own sin.

With this main idea in mind, I want to offer six ways you’ll serve God’s people by preaching through the book of Numbers.

1. You will help them read the entire Old Testament.

Here’s what I mean. Every kind of Old Testament writing is found in Numbers. Alongside those tedious census records are some of the most well-known Sunday School stories (talking donkeys, anyone?). We also read law codes, psalms, and prophecy—and they’re all mixed in together, sometimes jarringly so, like when the great tragedy of the rebellion at Kadesh is followed without comment by ritual recipes for food offerings.

So, as you work through the book, you’ll help your congregation grow in their ability to understand and apply all the kinds of writing they’ll encounter in the Old Testament. Plus, the built-in variety means just when your head is starting to hurt from making sense of the red heifer ritual in Numbers 19, you’re only one chapter away from the high drama of the waters of Meribah.

2. You will give them a crash course in biblical theology

The apostles regularly make reference to the wilderness generation without comment or explanation. When Paul is warning against idolatry, three of his four illustrations come from Numbers (1 Cor. 10:7–10). Balaam’s story comes up several times to make a variety of points: immorality (Rev. 2:14), greed (Jude 11 and 2 Pet. 2:15), and Messianic expectation (2 Pet. 1:19). The comparison in Hebrews 3 draws on Numbers 12. And Jesus points Nicodemus to his crucifixion by assuming he knows Numbers 21 (John 3:14).

Of course, you don’t have to know the backstory to understand the apostles’ points. But working through Numbers start-to-finish and repeatedly making those New Testament connections models for your people how to read the Old Testament with Christian eyes.

As you and your congregation grow in that skill, New Testament apostolic instruction packs a greater wallop. For example, in The Avengers Tony Stark nicknames Thor “Point Break” without explanation. My kids think that’s odd. But I think it’s hilarious because, as a child of the 90s, I understand the reference. So when Paul says, without explanation, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents” (1 Cor. 10:9), our people will do one of two things. They’ll think, “That’s odd—how did they test Jesus?” Or, they can think, “Telling Jesus he’s not doing enough could kill me!” (Num 21:5)! Teaching through Numbers will help cultivate the latter, more biblical response.

3. You will show them the seriousness of sin.

That’s one point of those census-record bookends: by the time Moses took the second census, everyone in the first census was dead. They died under judgment for their faithlessness at Kadesh (Numbers 14). So, when you do more than just dip in for a few stories, you unfold the plot of God’s centrality among his people, and their persistent and ultimately fatal failure to trust him.

You see that their great sin of God-rejecting rebellion was the fruit of their seemingly mundane sin of God-rejecting grumbling. You see Moses demonstrate that one act of presumption is all it takes to be justly condemned. You see that intentions are important but not ultimate: unintentional sin is still sin. You see that God’s holiness is the great threat to God’s people because we are decidedly unholy. In an easy-believism culture, Numbers reminds us that those called by Christ’s name should be holy and hate sin. Those who merely wear the label “Christian” while persisting in faithless rebellion will only end up dead—for eternity.

4. You will sharpen their image of priesthood.

Priests’ provisions and purposes are a recurring theme in Numbers—perhaps most notably the priestly duty to protect. Eighteen times Aaron, his sons, and the Levites are said to be keeping guard over their priesthood, over the tabernacle, and over the other tribes (Num. 3:7). But this raises a question: what were they guarding the congregation from? From God!

To approach a holy God un-called and unclean means death. The priesthood, therefore, served the nation of Israel by preventing presumption and carelessness in approaching the Lord. In many contexts, the priesthood of a believer has been used to separate believers from one another: “If we’re all priests with access to God through Jesus, then why do we need to go though someone else?” This is correct, but can be misapplied. Numbers will hopefully reshape your congregation’s image of the priesthood into what it was meant to be, that is, an office to serve each other by growing in godliness together.

5. You will fortify their confidence in a hostile world.

Israel’s journey exposed their own faithlessness, but it also demonstrated God’s power. Plenty of things should have destroyed this nation of recently-freed slaves with no military training and no provisions for a desert journey. But they survived. The hostile barrenness of a wilderness without food, the hostile aggression of veteran armies out for easy prey, and the hostile prayers of a prophet with a successful track-record—none of it posed a problem for Israel’s God.

Here again, the census records instruct, only this time with hope. Despite his people’s sin, God’s purposes never changed. The first generation was disqualified, but Numbers ends with a string of second-generation victories anticipating their success under Joshua. The only thing we have to fear is our own sin, but that’s the only thing we have to fear. God will preserve his people through every worldly threat against them. Almost the entire first generation died in the wilderness, but two faithful, God-fearing spies—Joshua and Caleb—were spared. God knows how to keep his holy ones from eternal harm, both then and now.

6. You will celebrate our security in Jesus. 

If the great threat to the people of God is God’s own holiness, then our great hope is Jesus’s righteousness given to us. If the only threat to the people of God is our own sin, then what’s left to fear if we’ve been forgiven in Christ?

God forcefully demonstrated that anyone who presumes to approach him without coming through his anointed high priest does so at the cost of his life (Num. 16). But then God went further, demonstrating that he would do more than merely stave off death though the high priest. God would use his high priest to make dead things live again (Num. 17).

When a holy God is with his people, the only thing we need to fear is our own sin. This is why it’s such good news that our humble God became flesh and lived and died among his people to make atonement for their sin. But Jesus did more than just keep us from dying in God’s presence. His resurrection gives us hope that we will live with him one day—securely and forever.

* * * * *

A Note on Commentaries:

I found Dennis Cole’s commentary on Numbers (New American Commentary series) to be helpful for some of my more detailed questions, but Teaching Numbers by Adrian Reynolds was by far the most helpful resource I used for putting the whole story together. Of course, the most authoritative resource is all the apostolic uses of Numbers in the New Testament. You can’t go wrong wrestling through those!

* * * * *

More articles in this series: