Zero Degree of Separation

The focus of today’s taste of Torah is an incident involving Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites. It took place at a location called Meribah which means contention. The text is Numbers 20:9-13. 9 So Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, just as he commanded him. 10 He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” 13 These were the waters of Meribah, where the Israelites quarreled with the LORD and where he was proved holy among them.

Here’s what’s happening, here’s what’s going on. After 37 years the Israelites have returned to the wilderness of Zin and Kadesh. Previously, it was there that God judged the older generation of Israelites for not believing Him. Now God is going to judge Moses for the same thing. The leader will succumb to the same temptation that the people he was appointed to lead fell into.

The unbelief of Moses was not a failure to believe that God could, or would provide water for the people; it was a failure to believe that simple obedience to God’s command was the best course of action. Moses did more than God told him to do. He didn’t believe that God’s way was the best way so he took matters into his own hands. He was impatient with the Israelites’ complaining. He felt frustrated because the Israelites were slow learners of the lessons God was teaching them.

Instead of speaking to the rock as God told him and Aaron to do in verse 8 of this chapter, Moses spoke directly and harshly to the Israelites. He struck the rock twice with the staff that he had already done many miracles with. But just like those previous miracles, this miracle was not about the power of Moses, it was about the power of God! However, because he was frustrated with the people, Moses seemed to forget that he was not the performer of miracles but merely God’s instrument for bringing miracles into view so they could be witnessed by the Israelites.

Yet with the exception of this incident, Moses was a faithful servant of God. And if another person had committed this sin, most likely it would not have been so serious. But the reason it was this serious is because Moses held a high profile leadership position.  And with that came a greater degree of accountability. In this instance Moses set a bad example. If the Lord allowed his actions to go unpunished it would encourage this new wilderness generation to disobey and doubt God like their parents had done. Did God forgive Moses? Yes, absolutely! Did God hold Moses accountable for actions? Yes, absolutely! God shortened the term of Moses’ service and he was not allowed to bring the nation into the Promised Land because he harshly rebuked the people, took credit for what God had done, resented the Israelites, lost his temper, disobeyed God, did not trust God’s power, and failed to glorify Him. Plus, Aaron was also guilty because he didn’t prevent Moses from sinning. Evidently Aaron could have done that but chose not to and so God punished him as well. For these reasons verse 24 in this chapter says that both Moses and Aaron rebelled against God. Both men inappropriately took God’s place as the center of attention.

What should we learn from this? What does this lesson look like? How should it play out in our daily experience? Here’s a suggestion: Regardless of our age and spiritual maturity, we must guard against making foolish decisions that can hurt our witness for Messiah.  We need to understand that no matter how close we are to God, no matter how many answers to prayer we’ve experienced, no matter how much God has used us in the past, still, in a moment of weakness, in an flash of rebellion, in the act of acting out, anyplace, anytime, and for any duration of time; we are fully capable of failing to obey God.

So, what do we do when we’ve blown it? Let me encourage you with this: Messiah completely understands our emotions when we feel some degree of separation from God. I’m not speaking of our positional righteous standing by virtue of our trust in the finished redemptive work of Messiah; I’m referring to our moment by moment relational intimacy with God which is a direct by-product of our compliance to the promptings of the Spirit; promptings to confess and turn from sin.

Whatever relational separation we experience to a finite degree, Yeshua experienced to an infinite degree! When the Lord said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me;” there was unprecedented disruption of eternal fellowship because the second person of the Divine Tri-unity was bearing the entirety of past, present, and future human sin at that specific moment in time.

Here’s the deal, it’s not God changing His mind about us that causes a degree of separation from Him, it’s the unconfessed sin in our lives that’s incompatible with His absolute moral perfection that causes a degree of relational separation from Him. So, to maintain relational intimacy and effectiveness in ministry, our confession of sin needs to happen in immediate response to our conviction of sin. That’s how we stay on track, and that’s how we finish well with zero degree of separation.

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Conspiracy Leery

The location of today’s taste of Torah is Numbers 16:28-35. It reads: Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the LORD has not sent me. 30 But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.” 31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the realm of the dead, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!” 35 And fire came out from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.

The context of this judgment is the LORD is instructing His people about the importance of the Levitical priesthood. And the major story line here is that the Israelites are challenging the position of Moses and Aaron in relation to that priesthood; a challenge that’s decisively answered by Yahweh. The central point of this passage is clear. Rebellion against those whom God has chosen is rebellion against God Himself! And notice here that Moses makes a startling announcement. In effect he says, “Something absolutely terrible is about to happen. And the something terrible that’s about to happen is God’s confirmation of me! This confirmation will demonstrate that I’m the man He has chosen to guide and direct you in the Levitical priesthood He has sanctioned and established.

God’s response to Israel’s rebellion against the person He had chosen to serve in a priestly leadership capacity was a graphic and direct message to the nation that He would literally bury alive those who rebelled against His will. We know that because Sheol, the place of the dead, is pictured in this text as being immediately below the surface of the ground. However, having said that we also need to say this; this episode does not teach that leaders are always right! It’s simply but powerfully saying that if a leader is appointed by God rebellion against that leadership is rebellion against God. And so we see that in addition to causing the earth to consume the people who followed Korah, God also destroyed with fire proceeding from Himself, 250 self-styled leaders who arrogantly presumed to come before God’s presence without God’s authorization.

What is this saying to us? Well first it’s not a good idea to step into a sinkhole! But more importantly, with regard to inexcusable disloyalty, it’s saying we must never become a part of a conspiracy against godly spiritual leaders.  Just before this incredible display of God’s judgment, as this conspiracy is unfolding, as this rebellion is rearing its ugly head, verse 22 in this chapter says that Moses and Aaron fell “facedown.” What does this mean? It means that despite severe emotional pain, despite being deeply offended, they were not intimidated. They knew God would intervene. And not only that, Moses and Aaron cried out to God not to destroy the entire community! They exhibited genuine heart-felt compassionate intercession. Think about this for a moment. In a context of deserved judgment, they pleaded for undeserved grace, why; because they were godly spiritual leaders.

Here’s where I’m going with this: Over the years I’ve been blessed with some great friendships with pastors. And sometimes, to a small degree, because of the traveling aspect of my ministry as a guest speaker, I get to be a pastor to these pastors. To them I’m a safe place to vent and be real. And I’m genuinely honored that they trust me in this way. These guys are my heroes.

Unless you’ve been there and done what pastors do, and have dealt with what pastors deal with, you don’t really get their world. You don’t know what’s like it’s like to put yourself out there in a public vulnerable way because you love Jesus and sincerely want to serve Him. It’s a toe to toe fist fight with the world, the flesh, and the devil; a conflict that on this side of eternity never totally lets up.

Pastors get fired or are forced to leave their churches all the time for all kinds of unjustified reasons!  Don’t be part of that shameful mistreatment. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into a pastoral coup d’e’tat. Don’t be a hyper-critical immature/insecure consumer of ministry. Don’t drop out and say, “I’m going to do church at home by watching my favorite bible teacher on TV.” Disciple up, and be willing to do life with messy flawed imperfect people just like yourself.  Will you get hurt and disappointed? Of course you will.  And guess what, you’re going to hurt and disappoint people as well. So don’t secretly plot behind the scenes to try and remove a godly spiritual leader. If you’re internalizing the Word and cooperating with the Spirit you’re better than that. Love on these guys! They need it. And they deserve it!

Majority Retort

Today’s Torah taste is Numbers 14:4-10. It reads: 4 So they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” 5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel. 6 Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; 7 and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, “The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. 8 “If the LORD is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us– a land which flows with milk and honey. 9 “Only do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” 10 But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. Then the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel.

In this passage God’s covenant people fail to believe the faithful spies. After the leaders of the twelve tribes went into Cannan as spies, they reported back to Israelites the Land’s prosperity and the might of its inhabitants. Against the advice of Joshua and Caleb they became fearful and rejected the Lord’s Land gift. This resulted in God judging the older Exodus generation with death in the wilderness. And it resulted in giving the Land to the younger generation after forty years of wilderness wandering was completed.

There was no good reason for Israel not to trust God to lead them victoriously into Canaan. Since the nation left Sinai God demonstrated His supernatural power to the Israelites. He provided manna and the Spirit. And He bestowed the gift of prophecy on the 70 elders.

So Moses and Aaron try to persuade the people to enter the land. They pray for the nation when the nation is rebellious. Joshua and Caleb warn the people against turning back. They correctly identify their actions as rebellion against God and fear of the Canaanites. They remind the people that God is with them. Yet despite all this the community violently rejected their pleas to trust and obey God. In fact God Himself had to step in to prevent the people from stoning Joshua and Caleb.

What can we glean from this incident? Is there something here that has a bearing on how we live? Does it point to trials we can expect when we unashamedly put ourselves out there as Messiah followers? There is, it does, and it’s this: If we vocally express a minority conviction that clearly reflects what God has communicated in His Word, we shouldn’t be surprised if we experience some kind of push back from the majority who have little or no regard for the portion of God’s Word that has spoken to us. This phenomenon is self-evident across the board both within and outside biblical communities of faith. The majority opinion is not always right. Truth is not determined by cultural consensus, even if that culture claims to be evangelical. It’s determined by the totality of God’s Word!

Involvement in Messianic ministry is an expression of a minority conviction that clearly reflects what God has communicated in His Word. More specifically; recognizing the mandate of Jewish evangelism and the centrality of the Jewish people in the redemptive/ prophetic program of God is an expression of a minority conviction that clearly reflects what God has communicated in a significant portion of His Word!

In the predominantly non-Jewish Christian world, not only should we not be surprised by apathy and indifference towards such convictions; but also we should not be surprised by an increasing degree of resentment.  As we move ever closer to the unprecedented anti-Jewish persecution preceding Messiah’s return, most claiming to be aligned with the Jewish Messiah will not be living God’s will with respect to their attitudes and actions towards the Jewish people.

So how should we respond to people who don’t share or even resent our minority convictions? Well, like Paul told Timothy when Timothy had to deal with false teachers; we should initially respond with sincere patience and gentleness, reflecting the fruit of the Spirit. And since the Spirit lives in us, that kind of response is doable for us. And certainly in the days ahead, this is a response that we’ll increasingly need to demonstrate when expressing a minority conviction that results in a majority affliction.

Trading Insecurity for Maturity

The book of Numbers begins and ends with an official count of God’s covenant people. In between these two numberings are the wanderings of these same people in the wilderness. Twelve spies were sent to check out the Land God promised. Ten of these twelve spies came back with a very negative report. They said the people living in the Land were so numerous, and had such a strong military, that there was no way the Israelites could take possession of this territory. So despite God’s assurances of victory, His people rebelled by refusing to take possession of the Land promised to them. As a result nearly forty years were spent wandering in a desert wilderness.

Much of what we see in Numbers is a vivid contrast between the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of His people. God judged Israel’s disobedience, and, He also faithfully led them through the agonizing detour they had created for themselves. So despite Israel’s initial failure to enter and possess the Promised Land, which resulted in the death of the first post-Exodus generation in the wilderness, Yahweh demonstrated His commitment to the Abrahamic covenant by preserving and preparing a second post-Exodus generation to enter and possess the Land of promise.

Now in Numbers 8 through 10 there’s clear examples of obedience. Moses obeys Yahweh in commissioning the Levites to the service of the Tabernacle. The lampstands are arranged in the Tabernacle. The Levites are cleansed and dedicated. Israel obeys Yahweh in observing the Passover. Israel obeys Yahweh in departing from Mt. Sinai. But in chapters 11 and 12 there’s clear examples of disobedience. Yet Israel still experiences the LORD’s provision and guidance! Israel’s complaining results in fire from Yahweh, but it’s quenched by Moses’ intercession. Israel’s craving for meat instead of manna provokes Yahweh’s anger, but it also causes a display of God’s gracious provision. And the jealousy of Miriam and Aaron toward Moses is answered by an affirmation of the genuine humility Moses displayed.

Which brings us to today’s taste of Torah in Numbers 12:1-3. It reads: Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); 2 and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the LORD heard it. 3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.)

What’s going on here? In short, God’s exaltation of Moses in chapter 11 caused Miriam and Aaron to be jealous. God gave the 70 elders assisting Moses the gift of prophecy. And God gave the Spirit to the 70 elders who assisted Moses. And so in chapter 12 we see how these 70 elders caused Miriam and Aaron to be envious of Moses because of his exalted role as the Lord’s special mediator. Most likely Miriam and Aaron felt marginalized. Miriam was a prophetess. And as a prophetess she had led all the women in a song when they crossed the Red Sea (cf. Ex. 15:20-21). Aaron was a high priest. But now God gave the 70 elders the privilege of mediating His word. And no doubt that was a bitter pill to swallow.

What does this have to do with us? Well, like Miriam and Aaron, jealousy can cause us to rationalize. It can make us distort the truth. It can even cause us to engage in acts of violence. It destroys relationships. It leads to sin. Jealousy is not just a rebellious unbeliever thing; it’s a deeply embedded human thing! It’s woven into the fabric of our Adamic DNA. It basically says two things: “I want what they have, and I don’t want them to have it!” It’s selfishness on steroids. And this is why we must not allow jealousy to cause us to sin against God and our fellow human beings.

In 1 Corinthians 3 some of the Corinthians allowed envy to divide their congregation. How did Paul respond to this? He responded the same way he responded to all the sinful practices in Corinth; he said to the Corinthians, “Pursue love!” In other words practice other-centered love, sacrificial love, Messiah like love. This is the only way to counteract the spiritual poison of jealousy. The fact of the matter is, the only Person who has the right to be jealous and carry out vengeance is God, because only God deserves our undivided devotion.

When we have feelings of jealousy we need to ask God to help us pursue love. We need to ask God to not allow our feelings of jealousy to cause us to sin against Him and fellow human beings. In short, we need to disciple up already! This requires a commitment of the Spirit-empowered will to release our emotional grip on jealousy, resentment, and volatility. When we do that, we’re able to demonstrate in real time/real life that it’s actually possible to live in the moment with genuine contentment. In light of all that God is, and in light of all that He has done on our behalf; that’s what it looks like to trade insecurity for maturity.