It is clear that we are living in exceptional times, I do not need to elaborate on that, really, save to say that they are times which cause us to ask what the Lord has in mind in what He allows, and I trust also to ask what we are gaining from what He allows. I do not suppose that any of us would claim to have full answers to those questions, but in thinking about our recent experiences and about this occasion it came to me that the experiences of the children of Israel in the wilderness may have some bearing on the lessons that we, too, may need to learn. Perhaps we have learned them, in which case it would do no harm to go over them again. But if we have not learned them fully yet – and I may well be among those – perhaps it would be good to go over them again. There is of course no prospect and no need to try to go over everything that happened in the history of the children of Israel in the wilderness, but there are two or three episodes which I thought might have a particular bearing upon our needs and the Lord’s interests at the present time.
Chapter 16 of Exodus refers to the first giving of the manna. It comes quite soon after the wilderness journey began. And of course there have been other matters that have gone before it, as to the waters of Marah and the springs of water and the palm trees of Elim. But this is very distinct, because it was something that they needed then and they were going to need the whole of their journey. You will notice that the gift of the manna follows one of the early rebellions. There had been really a previous one in regard of Marah when the people murmured against Moses, and there was again a murmuring at the beginning of chapter 16. And God’s remedy for that murmuring and meeting the needs of the people for daily food was to provide a supply of manna.
Now I had no thought nor ability to expound the gift of the manna in great detail, but it does serve to remind us that we need God’s provision for us every day. The particular provision which God has made for our daily need is the manna in the way that it refers to the history of our Lord Jesus Christ here on earth. He is God’s provision for us day by day. This is not in the context of our needing first of all to be saved from our sins. That would call on other references in Scripture. But this is the needs of believers day by day: individually and indeed together, so that we might be sustained on the wilderness journey.
Over these months while there have been features of much encouragement, there has been also what would tend to cast down: we feel for those of our brethren, indeed for our fellow men, but we feel particularly for our brethren who have lost work and have had to face daily problems of that kind. We feel also for those where there has been bereavement that has been traceable, at least in part, to what has been amongst us. And the question arises, what would God give us to support us day by day? And if I know the answer to that question, am I drawing upon it?
Now, the Lord Jesus is given to us, as I say, to support us day by day. And it is to call to our mind how He was here. We do not lack for record of what He was: we have four gospels to tell us in a good deal of detail, and when the fourth of those evangelists had finished what he had to write he said that if he had tried to write it all down the world would not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25). So, there is ample recorded and we might say that what is recorded is among the choicest of what there would have been, because we can be assured that what God has left for us would be the best and what we most need.
There are a number of features that marked the Lord Jesus when He was here and I cannot go over them all now. But one prime matter with Him was to be faithful to God. There is no doubt about that whatsoever: every page of the gospels tells us about some feature of the Lord’s faithfulness. And yet, you see, it did not hinder Him in any way from being gracious or compassionate because He was being faithful to the God that He knew so well. He had to speak faithfully and truthfully. His words were in grace. It says of Him that, “grace and truth subsists through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). It has often been remarked that grace comes first but the two are needed together. If we only had the truth maybe that would have been a disaster for us if we were judged by what is right on its own, we come far short. But grace came first and you see that grace as the Lord goes through the gospels. You also see One who, as He says Himself rightly, was meek and lowly of heart (Matthew 11:29). These are all things, dear brethren, that we can seek to learn from.
It is an interesting question in its own right: if I started without a Bible at all and no knowledge of the things of God and if I was to be asked, if God were to be seen here in this world what would I expect to see? I only have a true answer to that in the scriptures: there I see God coming down in grace to make Himself known and to draw near to those in distress, to touch their hearts, to support them, to be available through death for the forgiveness of their sins. And then, not only so, but to assure them that He would be faithful to them even when He was gone on high. You will see that spelt out between chapters 14 and 17, I think, of the gospel of John in particular.
So we stand in need of the Lord Jesus as our daily food. I am not going to enlarge on that much more save to say that what should be precious to us is undoubtedly precious to God Himself, because when you come to the end of the chapter, Moses said, “This is the thing which Jehovah has commanded: Fill an omer of it to be kept for your generations; that they may see the bread that I gave you to eat in the wilderness” and so forth. “Take a pot, and put in it an omer full of manna, and deposit it before Jehovah, to be kept for your generations”. That is a sure reminder, not only that it was for the blessing of God’s people to be reminded of the manna, but that God set a special value upon it. If you look at the gospels you will see the value that God set upon seeing one Man here, the only Man that ever was completely committed to the will of God and in whom God could find His delight. I do not need to say more about that.
I would like to turn to chapter 21 of Numbers. I am conscious that in between there have been many experiences that would be profitable for all our souls, but we can only go into so much in one occasion and these are the scriptures that I felt laid upon me for this time.
In Numbers 21 we are nearing the end of the wilderness journey. And something that has struck me as I have been looking at these chapters is that it has not taken many chapters to get from the spies being sent to spy out the land and their coming back with that, on the whole, adverse report and the penalties that had to be paid for that; the long journey through the wilderness and the death, indeed, of those that had brought the adverse report – it is not many chapters before we are getting to the end of the journey, and what do we find?
They are going round the journey and the soul of the people became impatient on the way. Well, dear brethren, it is not for me to make charges against any one and I have no call to do so other than against myself. But I expect that some of us at least will have some idea of what it is to become impatient on the to just become impatient in the circumstances in which we currently are: they can be trying. I do not want to make too much of that, because what we have in Numbers 21 is very serious: they were impatient with the whole of this journey. They spoke against God and against Moses, and they complained about what the wilderness had been like: no bread and no water and worst of all, “our soul loathes this light bread”. That is to say that they had become tired of God’s provision for them.
It almost comes to being tired of being a day to day Christian. I trust that would not have to be said of any of us. It is a very grave situation and God rebukes it in perhaps the most solemn way that we find in the wilderness journey. He sent the serpents and the result was that, “much people of Israel died”. But it did have its immediate effect, and fear can be very effective.
The people did not know what to do so they say, “We have sinned, in that we have spoken against Jehovah, and against thee”. They ask Moses to plead with God. I think they had come to know they needed Moses as an intercessor. A lot fell upon Moses in that journey and interceding for the people was one of his, I would say, major burdens and responsibilities.
So he prayed for the people. It is interesting to see that reference to his prayer. And God gave him a remedy, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, and looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, … and it came to pass, if a serpent had bitten any man, and he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived”. Now, dear brethren, you do not need me to attempt to make any interpretation of these verses, they are well known.
What I would call attention to is that they come towards the end of the journey. It does not have to be at the end of the Christian journey. The Lord Jesus Himself was free to take up these verses in His first known conversation with Nicodemus, so it is possible and indeed very desirable that the experience of these verses should come very early in our history and I commend it surely to everyone.
Young brethren – I do not see you, of course – but if there are any listening I would commend to you that you face up to the story of Numbers 21 early in your soul history. But, you see, there is a passage in the New Testament which rather corresponds with it and that is to be found in the epistle to the Romans chapter 7 where I have read.
Now, let me just say a word about chapter 7 of Romans. I would be the first to accept that it is not an easy chapter to find our way through, and it is not actually speaking about a very easy subject. When you get to the end of it you might well wonder why Paul ever saw the need to write this chapter of the epistle because, as the last verses of the chapter make so plain, he actually at the time that he wrote knew what the remedy was. But nonetheless it was evidently an essential feature that he needed to bring before the saints in Rome. And if this epistle has been preserved to us – as it has – it is evidently needed for us as well.
I am not seeking to expound this chapter verse by verse. That has been ably done by those who have gone before. But just to draw some simple thoughts from it. One is that you have here someone who has got light from God and desires to do what is right. He acknowledges that God has shown him what is right: He has provided the law, and the law is to be found amply set out in the Old Testament. The Lord Jesus Himself commended it and fulfilled it Himself. And yet this seems to have left a man like the apostle Paul in great trouble, because it really was tearing him apart in the way that he puts it here: that he knew what was right and he had no wish to say that it was anything but right. He said it was holy and it was just and it was good. So God could not have done better in what He gave by way of the law. And yet Paul says that it only drew out the worst in him. It certainly drew out a lot of sorrow and pain in him. And, dear brethren, I am not speaking, I accept, of any thing that is very advanced in Christian truth. But over the years we have heard at least a certain amount and maybe some have heard much about something called deliverance. Well, you will find that in this chapter. But first of all I just want to say to my fellow Christians, as I have to say to myself – Have I looked within and been thoroughly disappointed and discouraged at what I find?
These last few months have given time for reflection which perhaps we have not all had or certainly availed ourselves of. But if you have time, and especially as you get older, to look back and you can recall – I can recall – many mercies that the Lord has shown me and I give thanks for them. But I also find that I recall a good many mistakes that I have made in things that I have done that I would accept are wrong. And you can become discouraged and burdened, certainly I readily say at my own age, you can become distressed at what you find in yourself.
It is a great relief then when in grace the Lord Jesus reminds you as He has reminded me, I would say, that He was never looking for me to improve in any case. He has died on account of what I am and on account of what I had done. So He is not looking for any improvement there at all. My place and security does not lie in myself making a better fist of things. It lies in Him and I give thanks for it.
Dear brethren, if any of you have ever or recently had that same kind of experience, I commend to you what the apostle Paul has to say here. He says, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?” But then he says he has an answer. At that point he does not go any further. All the self-analysis is over. He says, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord”. And I think it is interesting to know that he does not say, I thank the Lord. He says, “I thank God”. He traces it all to the goodness of God and the giving of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a very good echo there of what we have in John’s gospel chapter 3 in relation to the word to Nicodemus. Those very familiar words “that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” It was God who did it. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord”. That is the One who has given the blessing and salvation that has come, and so he is now able to make a distinction in his mind from what he knows about himself – and that, of course, keeps us humble. So that he can say, “I with the mind serve God’s law”. He can be free to do what is right.
And then just into the next chapter which follows so quickly upon it, “There is then now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus”. That is because God is not looking for any good or improvement in me. My place before God is “in Christ Jesus”. The scriptures have perhaps become very familiar to us and I trust we are, at least in measure, in the gain of them. But it must have been remarkable light to those Christians in Rome to whom the apostle was writing. They had been taken through these seven chapters and they are now brought to the point that there is no condemnation to any of them that are in Christ Jesus.
If it is a question of the law it is no longer a matter of the law of Sinai, it is the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which he says, has set me free from the law of sin and of death. You will notice in the first verse he says, “those in Christ Jesus”: it is available to all. But then he reverts to his personal experience: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and of death”. And that was what Paul could say for himself. It did not mean that he had become perfect. The Acts of the Apostles faithfully records some mistakes that he made. But he now knew his place before God as in Christ.
You know, dear brethren, although there are scriptures in the Old Testament that have a bearing upon this, to be in Christ Jesus is a distinct privilege of those of us who are Christians and believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a wonderful favour that God sees us not according to our own shortcomings and failures, He sees us as in Christ. The apostle had come to that as a reality in his own soul. And I am sure it would be the Lord’s desire that it should be our present experience and enjoyment now.
I just wish to refer to one more Scripture and that is in the book of Joshua.
A good deal has happened between Numbers 21 and the book of Joshua. They have passed, of course, by way of the well. That follows very quickly on the relief by way of the brazen serpent. They have also encountered Balaam and his enchantments and all that he did to spoil their experience. And they have come to the Jordan and God has prepared them for the crossing of the Jordan.
Moses has gone, of course: Moses’ service has ended. They have a new leader, one who has been learning from Moses all along the way. But they have a new leader in the shape of Joshua: they have got as far as the river Jordan and they have had the experience of the Ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth making a way through the Jordan for them even when the Jordan was at its height.
They have had the experience of 12 stones being taken up out of the Jordan as a permanent reminder that they have had to pass that way and that all 12 tribes have actually been identified with the crossing; and, of course, they have also been reminded they have seen Joshua leave 12 stones in the Jordan as a reminder of where they have been and what they had to experience to reach the other side.
Now, I am not now seeking to expound any of that in any detail, simply to remind ourselves that they have had a great many experiences and they have now come to this place of Gilgal on the other side of the Jordan which is a jumping off point, if you put it that way, for the entry, the militant entry into the land of promise.
There is a good deal in this chapter which I did not read but to which I just refer briefly. There was a need before they entered into the land for the cutting off of the flesh. That is something for us all to remember: that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom” (1 Corinthians 15:50). The flesh has no part in the things of God. It also then enabled them to hold the Passover and something new was provided for them now; the old corn of the land. Well, again, much has been said about this, I do not need to repeat it save that they were given a taste of what the land was like. And then, we heard about the manna, well, the manna ceased. It was not what was needed for the land. There is something for us to think about there, dear brethren. The manna; it has its place, a very proper and needed place. But it is what is needed to bring us through the wilderness journey. There are other provisions for the land itself and I think the old corn of the land would remind us of the Lord Jesus: no longer in the humble place that He had here on earth but something of His present place of exaltation in glory.
But I mainly wanted to call attention to these last three verses because, you see, they had had all these experiences, and Joshua had had these experiences, but now he has something very personal to learn. He has more or less reached Jericho and there is going to be the first challenge there: where is the power to remove the opposition of Jericho. Where is the power to come from?
“And … he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, there stood a man before him with his sword drawn in his hand.” Well, that would provoke great interest in Joshua because it would be an evident mark of some divine intervention. “And Joshua went to him, and said to him: Art thou for us, or for our enemies?” That is simply to say, whose side was he on? And the answer to that is actually in one word. The answer is, “No”. The rest of the sentence is important, of course. He explains the “no”. He says, “as captain of the army of Jehovah am I now come.” Joshua had to learn that these were not his wars, they were the wars of the Lord, and he had to be identified with the Lord’s interests and not just with his own.
I just feel, beloved brethren, that we might freshly take this home to ourselves. As we embark upon the Lord’s interests there is no further room for our own interests. There is no room for any party spirit or feeling: no place for desiring that the Lord should support us as opposed to any one else.
Remember, 12 stones were taken out of the Jordan and all of them represent the people of God on the right side. Yes, as the journey went on through the land there were many shortcomings. There is much to learn from them. But one lesson for us all to learn is that as to the privileges that are ours and the responsibilities before the Lord, they are His interests and not ours. I think we do well to remember that.
It had an immediate effect with Joshua. He “fell upon his face to the earth, and worshipped”. And then he asked, “What saith my lord unto his servant?” He placed himself at the Lord’s disposal. And the captain of Jehovah’s army said to him, “The first thing for you, Joshua, is to remember – realise perhaps for the first time – you are standing on holy ground, you are having to do with the things of God.”
I might just say before I close, dear brethren, that many of you, I am sure, will know that many years ago, as long ago as 1896 in fact, our brother Mr Raven gave a very solemn word on this chapter. You can readily find it in his ministry. I ought not to pick and choose among the ministry which the Lord has given to His people, but I would say that there are few passages of ministry that have affected me so much over the years as what was said on that occasion.
Everyone would be able to bear testimony to what has helped them particularly and distinctively, but I just refer to that. I am aware that I have referred to this before but I feel free to bring it before the Lord’s people again. That passage is entitled – and it speaks for itself – Responsibility for the Maintenance of the Truth. And nobody, no Christian, can exempt themselves from that responsibility.
You and I are all responsible for the maintenance of the truth. We may not feel up to much. We may not feel we know much and we do not know very much. But let us be faithful to what we do know and prove the Lord’s help as we do, for His name’s sake.
Address on Zoom byDavid Burr, 12 December 2020