The Gospel in Numbers

This article is part of the Christ in All of Scripture series.

To the Promised Land

The book of Numbers narrates the wilderness journey of Israel on the way to the Promised Land. Its application, then, is especially relevant for life “in the wilderness.” With the oppression of Egypt behind and the bountiful land of Canaan before, the wilderness is a place of transition and testing. It is therefore a time when the people of God must exercise faith, trusting daily in his guidance and provision.

Though an arduous journey, fraught with trials and failures, every step of the trek testifies to God’s faithfulness. First, that the people of God found themselves in the wilderness at all is evidence of God’s saving grace, or with mighty signs and wonders he had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt and brought them through the waters of the sea. Second, this journey through the wilderness to Canaan was itself a part of God’s fulfilling the gracious promises he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen. 12:1, 7; 26:2–4; 35:12).

The Christian is one who has been delivered out of the bondage of sin and brought through the waters of baptism into the pilgrim life of the church.

Third, because of these promises, God’s people in the wilderness could truly say, “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Ps. 23:1), for he provided them with a supply of water from the rock, and with manna and quail. He protected them from enemies. He sustained them so that neither their clothes nor their sandals wore out for forty years (Deut. 29:5).

Fourth, to be among the people of God in the wilderness meant, above all, to have the Lord God dwelling in their midst—his tabernacle was pitched at the heart of the Israelite encampment, a sure sign of his desire to be with his people, to atone for their sins, and to guide them into the land flowing with milk and honey.

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Because the New Testament consistently describes the church’s life in the present age as being “in the wilderness,” there is much application in Numbers for us to glean. The Christian is one who has been delivered out of the bondage of sin and brought through the waters of baptism into the pilgrim life of the church, journeying to the promised new heavens and earth. With this comparison in mind, the author of Hebrews warns the church that many in the wilderness never entered into God’s rest due to the disobedience of unbelief (Heb. 3:7–4:13). The apostle Paul similarly explains that the wilderness generation serves as an example to us, noting how the Israelites had been baptized in the sea and had eaten spiritual food, and how, remarkably, the spiritual Rock from which they drank was Christ himself (1 Cor. 10:1–11). Ultimately, then, those who did not enter the Promised Land failed to do so because they neglected God’s gracious provision for the wilderness journey—namely, Christ. As believers in the wilderness, plagued by the deceptions and enticements of the world, we should avail ourselves of the “means of grace” God has provided for sustaining us throughout this journey. Through the ministry of the Word and sacraments, Christ feeds and nourishes our souls with himself, supplying us with grace to press onward in joyful hope.

The People of God

Finally, any mention of the wilderness generation almost immediately conjures up the dysfunction and sinfulness of God’s people, expressed repeatedly as “murmuring” (or grumbling) against the Lord. Yet while many of the Israelites were consequently judged for their rebellion, the overriding message of Numbers is that, because of God’s longsuffering love for them, there is nothing better than to be identified with the people of God. For, to the praise of his grace, his people will indeed enter the land since he has determined to bless them and not curse (Num. 22:12; 23:20). In the additional light the New Testament places upon such grace, the church more clearly perceives that God is able to bless his people through their struggles with sin and circumstances only because of the work of Jesus Christ. By his righteous obedience in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11), and by his atoning death on the cross for our sins, God’s people will assuredly enter the eternal splendors of the new creation. So, through all the church’s storms down through the centuries, the people of God are still worthy of Balaam’s inspired acknowledgment, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5).

This article is adapted from the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible. Browse other articles in this series via the links below.

Old Testament

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New Testament

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