Image Credit: The Pastor’s Pages
This post is based on a sermon I preached at Murray River Baptist Church on July 10, 2016.
In Deuteronomy 1:6-46, Moses recounts the Israelites’ first attempt at occupying the land God had promised them. Israel’s rebellion prevented them from occupying the land the first time. God punished the Israelites by making them wander in the wilderness for 40 years until the entire generation that had rebelled had died (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb).
We, both individually and as the Church, are like Israel in many ways. We regularly rebel against God and forget what God has done for us. We sometimes place our faith in people and things rather than in the Creator. In the New Testament, Paul tells us to learn from Israel’s rebellion so we can avoid the same pitfalls and temptations (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). The writer of Hebrews tells us the same thing in Hebrews 3:1-4:13. Jude 1:5 says, “So I want to remind you, though you already know these things, that Jesus first rescued the nation of Israel from Egypt, but later he destroyed those who did not remain faithful“, referencing the very history recounted by Moses in Deuteronomy 1. With this in mind, we can learn a few things from Israel’s experience.
The Importance of Action
“‘You have stayed at this mountain long enough. It is time to break camp and move on.'”
Those are the first words God speaks in Moses’ recollection of the Israelites’ first attempt to occupy the Promised Land. The wording makes it sound like the Israelites were stuck at Sinai. Sinai is where God spoke to them, making a covenant with them and setting them apart as a holy nation that belonged to God (Exodus 19), but the people couldn’t stay there. Sinai wasn’t the land the Lord had promised to them.
The Importance of Leadership
Once the Israelites reached the edge of the Promised Land, Moses did not rush in to occupy it. He first asked the Israelites to select wise and respected leaders who would become their judges and officials. The people had become numerous and Moses was finding it impossible to keep up with their needs and demands. He was mediating fights among the Israelites and helping them solve their problems. To ease the burden of leading the people, Moses passed the Lord’s instructions on to the leaders so they could handle the easier cases and he could focus on the more difficult ones.
The Importance of Preparation
After the leaders were appointed and trained, Moses took Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He encouraged them to go into the land and occupy it just as the Lord had commanded and promised. The people thought it was best to send scouts to explore the land first to figure out the best route to take and the towns they should enter. Moses agreed and chose twelve spies to go into the Promised Land first.
The Importance of Right Focus
Everything was fine for the Israelites until the spies returned from the Promised Land. The first report was, “The land the Lord our God has given us is indeed a good land” (verse 25). Such a good report and the promise that the Lord was giving them the land should have been enough to spur the Israelites to action. But that’s not where the people put their focus.
“The Lord must hate us. That’s why he has brought us here from Egypt—to hand us over to the Amorites to be slaughtered. Where can we go? Our brothers have demoralized us with their report. They tell us, ‘The people of the land are taller and more powerful than we are, and their towns are large, with walls rising high into the sky! We even saw giants there—the descendants of Anak!'” (verses 27 and 28).
“The Lord must hate us”?!? The Israelites had seen God fight for them when they left Egypt. They had seen how God cared for them as they travelled through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They knew that God had promised the land to them and that God would be going into the land ahead of them. They heard the scouts say that the land God had given them was a good land.
Their conclusion? “The Lord must hate us.” Why? “Our brothers have demoralized us with their report.” Which part of their report? The part about the tall, strong people in the large towns with tall walls. Instead of focusing on all the great things God had already done for them and basing their trust in God on what they had already seen, they focused on the people and towns that were large compared to them but puny compared to their God who had already done so much for them.
The Importance of Reconsideration
All was not lost yet, however. Moses did his best to remind the people of everything that God had already done for them. Israel had a chance to reconsider their decision but they had already made up their minds and wouldn’t listen to Moses. The people continued to rebel against the Lord and refused to go into the Promised Land.
Everything that had happened up to that point — the delay while Moses appointed and trained leaders, the delay while the Israelites scouted the Promised Land, and even the Israelites’ initial refusal to go into the land after receiving the scouts’ report — did not cause the Lord to become angry. The Lord only became angry with the Israelites when they continued to refuse to go into the land even after they had been reminded of everything the Lord had already done and everything the Lord had promised he would do for them. That was when the Lord made a new promise: “Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see this land because he has followed the Lord completely. I will give to him and his descendants some of the very land he explored during his scouting mission. … I will give the land to your little ones—your innocent children. You were afraid they would be captured, but they will be the ones who occupy it” (verses 35-36, 39).
The Importance of Obedience
The Israelites’ next decision only made things go from bad to worse. It was bad enough that they didn’t obey the first time but they immediately made another decision to disobey the Lord.
After hearing that the Lord was not going to allow them into the Promised Land anymore, the Israelites decided to go into the Promised Land and fight for it anyway. They picked an area they thought would be easy to defeat and began to prepare for battle. “But the Lord told [Moses] to tell [them], ‘Do not attack, for I am not with you. If you go ahead on your own, you will be crushed by your enemies’ (verse 42). In their rebellion and arrogance, Israel ignored the Lord’s command a second time and went out to fight. What happened? The people living in the land came at them like a swarm of bees and chased them out of the land.
The embarrassed Israelites returned to their camp in defeat. They wept before the Lord but now it was the Lord’s turn to refuse to listen to them. The Israelites were now stuck again like they were at Sinai — they stayed where they were in Kadesh for a long time (verse 46).
The New Command and Promise
Today, the Lord hasn’t promised us physical land. Jesus makes it clear that God isn’t bound to a particular sacred place so it doesn’t matter where we worship (John 4:19-24). Jesus gave his followers a new command and promise that has nothing to do with land but everything to do with people:
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Every one who believes in Jesus is expected to obey this new command with the assurance from the new promise that Jesus is always with us. The Israelites’ experience shows that we are free to get training and instruction to equip us for the task of making, baptizing, and teaching new disciples and to do the necessary preparations to ensure that we use the best routes and approaches to accomplish the task. We start to get in trouble, however, when we start to focus on fears and obstacles rather than on the assurance that Jesus is always with us. The Lord is patient with us, however, and gives us opportunities to reconsider the decisions we make that prevent us from obeying his new command for us.
Jesus has a stern warning for those who hear his commands but refuse to obey them:
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
As long as you’re on this side of the ground, it’s never too late obey Jesus’ command to make new disciples. Do you need to reconsider some decisions or assumptions you’ve made that are preventing you from obeying Jesus? What fears and obstacles have been stopping you? What training would help you have confidence in your ability to make disciples? What do you need to know and/or do before you take the first steps to reach others for Christ? Don’t get stuck, however, gathering knowledge and figuring out the ideal disciple-making methods. Move forward with the knowledge and abilities that you have now and the confidence that Jesus is always with you.
“Don’t be shocked or afraid of them! The Lord your God is going ahead of you. He will fight for you, just as you saw him do in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 1:29-30).