by T. Austin-Sparks
Reading: John 3:9-18; 4:10,13-15,23-24; Numbers 21-26.
The thing which we must bring into our view as we come to this word, is the movement of the Lord's people toward the Lord's goal. The goal of God for His own is the gaining of Christ. To put it in the words of the apostle Paul, words which in their completeness have a very apt and fitting application to this whole matter in these chapters of the book of Numbers, "Forgetting those things which are behind... I press toward the mark of the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus"; "I count not myself to have attained... this one thing I do"; "I count all things as refuse that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of mine own...". The picture is of a man just stripping off and leaving behind everything that would in any way impede, arrest, check, hold back or discourage in this way in which his heart is set; with his eye upon a goal, and that goal is expressed in the words: "That I may gain Christ...". That is the very fulness of Christ, the goal of God for His people.
That is what is in our view as we come to Numbers 21 to 26 and note a progressive movement in relation to God's end. In chapter 21 we have what the apostle Paul called a tempting or a trying of God. He puts it this way in 1 Cor. 10:9: "Neither let us tempt the Lord, as some of them tempted, and perished by the serpents". This twenty-first chapter of the book of Numbers brings in the fiery serpents: "And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died". Paul says that that was because they tried or tempted the Lord. In what way did they tempt the Lord? The words are these: "And the people spoke against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?" (verse 5). God's thought was anything but that. God never brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. God's redemption is unto life and not unto death; unto salvation and not unto condemnation. And so they interpreted the very redemptive activities of God as representing exactly the opposite of God's thought and God's intention. They attributed to God, in His very mercy, evil rather than good. They turned salvation round in the form of a charge against God, to their own detriment.
That is a very serious thing. That is what the apostle, writing to the Hebrews, calls: "Treading under foot the Son of God and counting the blood of the covenant an unholy thing". That is a most solemn thing to do, "There is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread" (verse 5). Speaking so of God's manna, despising the manna. And seeing that God's thoughts are always spiritual thoughts, and in God's mind in giving the manna there is always the foreshadowing of something else - the Lord Jesus, as the Bread of Life - it is in spirit the despising of the gift of the Lord Jesus as the very life of God for His people, and saying: "Vile bread" (RV margin).
You say: Would ever anyone do that? Yes! If you look further you will see that it was the mixed multitudes who were guilty of this, and that phrase: "mixed multitude" gives you the key to the whole situation. It means people who were not really out for the Lord, who had mixed motives and interests and whose hearts were divided and very largely all the time back in Egypt. They had never come right out for the Lord's sake. And if there is a state like that, we shall always be making comparisons and saying the people of the world have a better time than we do; those who are not professing Christians have a much better time than those who are. That entirely depends upon whether your heart is wholly out for the Lord or whether it is a divided heart. Those who are wholly out for the Lord find Him wholly true and know what His joy and His satisfaction are. If the heart is divided there will be a very imperfect apprehension of what the Lord can be.
So the mixed multitude tempted the Lord in this way and the Lord, of course, can never bring people like that to His goal. Something must happen in such people before they can come to God's end: the fulness of Christ. There is only one thing that can happen to people like that; that is that they should die. God sent fiery serpents among them who bit the people and many people of Israel died. Then a cry of penitence went up, truly a confession of sin, and an entreaty to Moses to pray for them; and the Lord commanded that he make a serpent of brass and set it upon a pole, so that all who had been bitten of the serpents, looking upon it, should be delivered from this judgement and from this death.
That is explained for us in John, chapter 3. The Lord Jesus says that He is speaking heavenly things and He gives the heavenly interpretation to the serpent lifted up in the wilderness. He says: "No man has ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up". The heavenly Lord will explain in a heavenly way the meaning of the serpent. One has come from heaven, to take the place of the sin-stricken, serpent-bitten people, and to be made a curse for them. And there is nothing which more clearly symbolises the curse than the serpent. Just as the thorns are a symbol of the curse, and they were put upon His Head, so Christ has been made a curse for us. And faith's gaze upon a substitute bearing the consequences of our sin, and being made a curse for us, is the way of our deliverance and our salvation. That is the way, and the only way, by which it is possible for us to come to God's end, the fulness of Christ - that we have recognised that we lie under a curse and that it is true that the bite of the serpent has left the poison of sin and death in our very natures. From birth it is there, and yet God has called us unto His eternal glory.
How shall sin-indwelt, Satan-infected humanity come to God's eternal glory? Only as it dies; and it dies in its Substitute, in its Representative: the Lord Jesus. The first necessity to gain Christ is that we recognise our death in the Lord Jesus, His death as ours; judged, cursed, yet delivered through His death. That is all the simplest Gospel truth, but we take nothing for granted, and there are always those who are not clear upon the simplest things of the Gospel. We would make provision for any who might not have seen that that is the first step; the basic thing, the initial thing. If we are coming to God's end of Christ's fulness, we have to recognise the utterness of our condition by nature: cursed, ruined, lost. The Lord Jesus has taken that place to deliver us from judgment. God's thought was never our destruction and God's will was never our judgment; God's thought always was our salvation, our glory. It is unbelief that has involved us in the other.
That is just where we begin in Numbers 21. Life out of death; salvation out of condemnation; deliverance from judgment through the death of a Substitute - and what a Substitute! He that came out from heaven!
When that has taken place, the next thing becomes possible as the next thing in the course of progress toward God's end. That comes in in the same chapter in verses 16-18. Having been delivered from death, through faith in the work of the Lord Jesus in His cross, we come to the place of the well of water springing up within. John 3 passes to John 4: "...the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up...". Numbers 21:17 is: "Spring up, O well...". The Holy Spirit, as resultant from the death of the Lord Jesus, becomes the inward life of the people of God. Nothing is possible until that takes place. Everything is possible when that does take place. The Holy Spirit dwelling within is the guarantee to faith of God's end being reached. All you have to do is to repose your faith in God, and allow the Holy Spirit to have His way in your life, you will reach God's full end once you are on this side of death and of the cross. The Holy Spirit takes up the work within the believer immediately that work of the Lord Jesus in His cross has been accepted.
That, again, is very simple, but it is foundational, and to all of us it is a great comfort. You may be very much ahead of me spiritually, but I confess to you that my own heart leaps at that thought that this matter is in the hands of the Holy Spirit and will be carried through to perfection as long as I move in the obedience of faith, in harmony with the Holy Spirit. The reaching of God's end is just that; the answer of faith to the inward working of the Holy Spirit; the cooperation of faith with Him.
From the springing well we pass to Numbers 23. When we have been brought from death unto life, and have become the recipients of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Who is the Springing Well) then the next thing is that the Lord's chosen people are brought out into the light. Or, to put that another way, then it is manifest who are the Lord's people. Who are the Lord's people? What is the elect? They are those who have come from death into life, and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and that you find as you come to chapter 23.
This chapter is the beginning of the work of Balaam. Balaam was hired by Balak to curse Israel. We know the story; how he went out for gain to curse Israel. The angel of the Lord withstood him on the way; the ass saw the angel, and showed that he had more intelligence than his master. It is an indication of how utterly blind spiritually people can be when they have got fleshly ends in view; that even a beast can be more noble in instincts than a man who is out for personal gain at the expense of God's people. But that is a little aside.
Balaam came with his intention to curse, and the Lord arrested him and put the bridle upon the jaws of Balaam, put him on the rein, and told him that he could go, but he was to say only the things which God put in his mouth. He became, willingly or unwillingly, the prisoner of the Lord. The first time that Balaam opens his mouth he brings out something very blessed as a fresh movement in this spiritual history of God's people. Do you notice what he says in verses 7-9? The Lord has brought right out into clear distinction that this people is His elect; He has made it manifest that this is His peculiar people. "A people that dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations", (verse 9). Super-national, outside of the world, God's elect! How constituted? Because they are brought from death unto life and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Balaam had not originally thought of saying a thing like that. But that is the first thing that he has to say, and, being the first thing, it carries its own significance, that he puts a hedge around this people, in effect, and says: They are God's people in a peculiar and particular way, and who can touch them? It is a great thought, to be of that people. God, for that people, turns every curse into a blessing. God sovereignly rules so that every design against them is turned for their good. They are a particularly separated, preserved, watched-over people: "The Lord knows them that are His."
That is, again, on the way toward God's end and we have to recognise that. To come to the fulness of Christ we have to recognise that we are God's people - utterly separated unto Him, His own peculiar treasure, and that we are not in any way reckoned among the nations and are not to reckon ourselves as being in any relationship whatever with the world.
Another thing that comes out is even more magnificent than that. It is in chapter 23 verse 21. What does that say? That is just a declaration of what poor, weak, sinful, imperfect, unreliable men and women (so far as they themselves are concerned) are. It is a declaration of what they are as seen by God's eye when they are in Christ. Supposing the Lord came to you and said: I have not beheld iniquity in you; I see no perverseness in you. You would say: Well, Lord, you see very differently from what I see in myself. We know the perverseness and the iniquity of our own hearts, and for the Lord to say: "I have seen none of it, and I see none of it", makes us wonder whether we are right or wrong in this matter. The Lord would sit down at our side and tell us what it means to be in Christ, and would say: "I no longer look upon My saved ones as what they are in themselves, but as what they are in My Son. I look upon Him: He provides Me with all that is lacking in them; He covers all that is in them that I cannot look upon." "He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither has He seen perverseness in Israel". It was all there, but to be in Christ brings us into a place where God has found all that He needs of satisfaction for us in His Son. That is, again, on the way.
We shall never come to God's fulness until we have come to an appreciation of what Christ is for us before God. If we are forever, even as the Lord's children, going to be circling round ourselves and be occupied with our own imperfections and taken up with an introspective analysis of our own faulty beings, instead of keeping our eyes upon Jesus and thanking God for what He is for us; we shall never make progress. There are so many whom we know who are not moving a bit spiritually, and when you come to talk to them they have nothing to talk about but their own miserable selves. It is one continuous string of miserable "I's", and they are not rejoicing in the Lord. We have to learn how not to condone or make light of failure, but, on the other hand, when grieved over failure and confessing it to the Lord, we hold on to the position that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and that the Lord Jesus is accounted to us for righteousness - we rejoice in that. That is an important factor in spiritual progress, in getting to God's end; rejoicing, not in what we are not in ourselves, but what we are in Christ as in the eye of God.
Having got that far, we come to chapter 25. The atmosphere changes here, and this is a terrible chapter. Whom the devil could not curse, he tricked. To frustrate the realisation of God's purpose for His people, sinners are put in the way and these sinners are in the nature of links and associations with unholy things. Spiritual advance is always arrested by an association, a contact, a link with an unholy thing. The apostle, writing to the Corinthians who had been arrested in their spiritual growth, said: "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers... for what fellowship has light with darkness; and what concord has Christ with Belial?" It was those unholy links that arrested the Corinthians and their spiritual growth. And these daughters of Moab represent unholy things with which Israel became associated; and all with a view to arresting their progress.
We must always be very watchful and very careful about a link with an unholy thing, for that is one of the things that the enemy is constantly trying to bring about. It is the spiritual people whom he is out to ensnare in this way, and it is a remarkable thing that very often the people who are spiritual are tripped up in this way. When you come into this kind of a relationship with the Lord, you come also into relationship with other spiritual things and they are out to trip up, to ensnare, to get a contact with something unholy in order to cut right in and break spiritual progress. So the daughters of Moab were the subterfuge used by the enemy when an open curse had been rendered impossible. If the enemy cannot work openly to bring us immediately under judgement, he works secretly to get some kind of relationship with unholy things.
Let us remember that this is in the path to God's end. These are the things that we meet on the way, and it is the true children of God who meet these things. The way of the Lord's highest purpose is the way most beset by perils and it is the way in which most watchfulness is necessary. When you get to an Ephesian position (chapter 6) of conflict in the heavenlies, the final word is: "praying at all seasons in the Spirit, and watching thereunto..."
Out of this comes something very fine. In this twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Numbers, verses 11-13, there is that which speaks of a very special blessing for those who will have nothing to do with unholy things. The Lord secures unto them very special promises and very special blessings; for those who, like Phinehas, will have no compromise with unholy things. Phinehas, as you notice, saw this relationship with a Midianitish woman taking place, in the very act, and he took a spear and thrust both man and woman through and slew them and so he prevented God from breaking out because that thing was coming into the presence of the house of God. God's wrath was stayed, and Phinehas turned aside judgement. It was an uncompromising attitude toward something which was unholy, and to all such the Lord gives very special promises of blessing. There are great blessings for those who will remain absolutely clean and clear for God. God is with them in a very special way.
In Chapter 26 you have the people numbered. When you get to the end of that chapter you notice: "These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest... But among these there was not a man of them that were numbered by Moses and Aaron the priest; who numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness...". This is a fresh numbering with a view to the inheritance (if you go right through chapter 26 you will see it is the inheritance that is in view). As the last verses point out, it is the numbering of a fresh people. It is not the original Israel, who came out of Egypt. It is the new generation coming into their possessions and into the inheritance. It is that company who have come by the way which we have indicated: from death into life, indwelt by the Spirit - God's own peculiar people, separated from the world, overcoming the snares of entrapping and involving in evil relationships. That is the people now marked out and numbered and named for the inheritance.
Yet our last word shows that there is a relationship between the former and the latter. Do you notice what the last verse of chapter 26 says? Caleb and Joshua were the link between the first race and the second race, the first generation and the second generation. The spiritual application demands some explanation.
How does the fact that one generation died in the wilderness and did not go into the inheritance, and another generation arose and did go in, apply to us? There is a sense in which the first generation went in with the second generation. It was the kind of generation which existed at first that died. Let us put it this way: If we are in Christ there is both an old man and a new man in us, an old creation and a new creation. This old creation has been brought out of Egypt, not any part of us is in Egypt, in the world, but we have accepted God's attitude toward the old creation, that it is ruled out. And yet, in a sense we are going to take this old creation through. This body of ours is a body of the old creation, and it has got to go through. But that which is evil in it has got to be left behind, to perish. What is the link? It is that represented by Caleb and Joshua. What do they speak of in this connection? They speak of the principle of faith. Caleb came to Joshua when they were in the land, and said: The Lord - away back there forty-five years ago - promised me this land; all the people have died, and I have survived; give me what the Lord promised me. What is that but faith? Faith, forty-five years old, holding on, when everything is going into death all around. All is perishing, and yet faith says: I do not give up what God has promised, and I stand on God's promises.
So Caleb and Joshua were a link between an old generation and a new. It is the principle of faith that carries right through to God's end. What is not of God goes, but all that can be for God is carried through by faith. What do you say about even your mortal body? Well, faith says: This mortal shall put on immortality, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption; this body shall be changed and made like unto His glorious Body. I am going to take a body through to glory; I am not going to be a disembodied spirit, floating about in space. Faith carries through all the creation which can be purified by the Blood of the Lord Jesus to the inheritance.
We are only saying that in order to indicate what we mean by Caleb and Joshua being a link between the first and the second generations, because there is that which is of us which is still with us, and which is being changed and carried through, a part of the old creation, but the evil principle of the old - the body of the flesh - is left behind, is cut off. None of that will go through.
We find there these eight stages mentioned in these five chapters, the points in the progress toward God's end:
It is always interesting to notice that, great man as he was, Joshua is not mentioned in chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews. With all the heroes of faith in the Old Testament, Joshua is left out. Perhaps you say that is unfair on Joshua; there were men mentioned of much smaller stature than Joshua in comparison - Samson is a poor thing, and he is mentioned. Perhaps in comparison Barak is very insignificant. Others who certainly did not reach the standard of Joshua are mentioned there, and Joshua is not included. And you say: Evidently the Holy Spirit forgot something very important! Why was Joshua not mentioned? Simply because Joshua is a type of the energies of the Holy Spirit, and the energies of the Holy Spirit are behind all the other people mentioned so that Joshua is in every one of them. Joshua, in principle, is behind Abraham, Isaac and the whole list. When you speak of the Holy Spirit you do not put Him amongst the heroes of the faith; He is responsible for all the faith. If Joshua is a type of the Holy Spirit in energy toward the inheritance, he will not be mentioned particularly, because He covers the whole.
May we not fall short of God's end, God's goal. May we press right on and right through by this way to all that God has intended for us, and rejoice that He has given us His Spirit to see us through. May we enjoy more the reality of: "It is God who works in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure".