The Book of Numbers has been tragically neglected in evangelical pulpits. Sermons from the Book of Numbers are usually limited to an occasional one on Balaam, the spy account, an occasional reference to the Nazirite vow, the bronze serpent, or Aaron's blessing. When people mention trepidation over completing a yearly Bible reading plan, it is often the Book of Numbers that constitutes their primary concern.
In the seminary preaching class, I teach, I often ask the class to raise their hand if they have never once heard a sermon from the Book of Numbers. The paltry number of hands lifted is startling. For evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant Word of God, the neglect of Numbers raises a theological alarm. The Book of Numbers is every bit as much "breathed out by God" (2 Tim. 3:16) as is the Book of Romans.
The best way to motivate people in the pew to embrace the value of Numbers is for pulpits to preach expository messages from the book. Preachers who do so will find Numbers to be dramatic, full of gospel truth, and helpful in clarifying the priority of living out the gospel's implications.
Historical Background to Numbers
One challenge with understanding the book's value is the title "Numbers" we find in our English Bibles, and the Greek Septuagint. It is a poor title for adequately describing the contents of the book. The reason for the name is the two censuses, which take place in Chapters 1 and 26. A frequent Hebrew title for the book comes from the first verse, "in the wilderness." Another Hebrew title of the book sometimes used is "the LORD spoke," which comes from the book's very first words. If we combine the two we have: the LORD spoke in the wilderness. Combining the Hebrew titles provides a clear and evocative way of representing this crucial biblical book's content.
The wilderness is a place one passes through, not a place where one stays. "In the wilderness" helpfully conveys the movement of the book, and it is true both geographically and spiritually. As the people of God rebelled against their redeeming God, they remain in this no man's land, wandering, and eventually meet their death there as well. Stephen also uses "in the wilderness" while referring to this period of time (Acts 7:38).
We, too, as believers on this side of the Messiah's cross, are "in the wilderness," a place that is not our ultimate home. As Peter writes, we are "elect exiles" (1 Pet. 1:1). Those who long "for the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). And we too live based on Yahweh's words, with our only hope of survival "in the wilderness" being the fact that he has spoken.
Numbers is the work of Moses (written between 1445 and 1405 BC) as the final verse of the book clarifies: "These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho" (Num. 36:13, see also, Mark 10:5, 12:26). Jesus referred to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as the "the Law of Moses" (Luke 24:44). This assertion is true even if we acknowledge that Moses had help from editors in places such as the last eight verses, which describe the author's death.
Moses had led the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the border of the promised land. Numbers bridges the gap between Egypt and Canaan. The Old Testament people of God were between the past and future, slavery and freedom, promise and fulfillment, as they passed through the Sinai desert. In Numbers, the Israelites are already redeemed but not yet living in the fullness of their freedom.
The Theme of Numbers
God's already but not yet saving grace, sustaining his people, with his presence, in the wilderness, not because of them, but despite them.
After Noah, Abraham emerges in the Genesis account as one through whom the covenant promise (Gen. 3:15) would advance. The Abrahamic promise included land, offspring, and a universal blessing (Gen. 12:1-3). The Book of Exodus begins with the promise unfolding as Israel is increasing in number despite persecution as captives in Egypt. The LORD delivers his people from bondage in Egypt and meets with them at Mt. Sinai to prepare them to experience the promised land.
The Book of Leviticus emphasizes the Lord's holy presence. He must be approached on his own terms but reveals his willingness to graciously forgive through the offering of sacrifices for sin. Numbers begins with a generation who should have entered the promised land but failed to do so because of disobedience and unbelief. Numbers ends with the census of a new generation who will inherit the land. The end of the story marks a new beginning.
The Book of Numbers summarizes about forty-years of Israel's history (1445-1406 BC) and focuses primarily on three events: the mission of the spies (Num. 13-14), the rebellion of Korah (Num. 16-17), and the threat of Balaam (Num. 22-25).
Numbers can be structured according to geography: Sinai (1-12), Kadesh Barnea (13-21), and Moab (22-36). Within these sections, there is also a reoccurring focus on correctly ordering God-centered living in the community, as individuals, in worship, and on the move.
Another way to structure the book, which more effectively explains its theological significance, is to simply divide the book between the two censuses, which mark two contrasting generations: the old rebellious generation dies (1-25), and a new generation of promise is birthed (26-36).
The approach I took when preaching through the book of Numbers was to divide the book into three primary sections with a total of thirty-five sermons:
Series Title: In the Wilderness with Jesus
Prepared (Numbers 1:1-10:10)
Text: Numbers 1:1-46
Title: Blessed Warriors
Big Idea: Numbers matter when they tell a story, especially when it is a story of God’s blessing.
Text: Numbers 1:47-2:34
Title: God-Centered Living
Big Idea: There is a world of difference between serving God and trying to use God.
Text: Numbers 3:1-51
Title: Dead Serious Worship
Big Idea: Worshipping a holy God is never safe.
Text: Numbers 4:1-49
Title: Do Your Job
Big Idea: When you serve a holy God, the issue is not your task, but your faithfulness to the task.
Text: Numbers 5:1-10
Title: Disorder in the Camp
Big Idea: We must have a God-centered view of every part of our lives.
Text: Numbers 5:11-31
Title: Disorder in the Home
Big Idea: Marriage unfaithfulness is unfaithfulness to God and harms the community.
Text: Numbers 6:1-21
Title: All for Christ
Big Idea: Giving yourself to God must be whole-hearted.
Text: Numbers 6:22-27
Big Idea: The best gifts come from God, in community, involve presence, and change us.
Text: Numbers 7:1-89
Big Idea: We give because he gave.
Text: Numbers 8:1-26
Title: A Holy Priesthood
Big Idea: Corporate worship always precedes mission.
Text: Numbers 9:1-14
Title: Our Passover Lamb
Big Idea: We are not merely rescued people, but people with a new identity and mission.
Text: Numbers 9:15-10:10
Title: His Presence
Big Idea: We must live our lives at the Lord’s command.
Sent (Numbers 10:11-25:18)
Text: Numbers 10:11-36
Title: Pilgrim Soldiers
Big Idea: God not only decrees the ends but also the human means to accomplish his purpose.
Text: Numbers 11:1-36
Title: Treacherous Tongues
Big Idea: Complaining disregards God’s glory, even when it is directed at people.
Text: Numbers 12:1-16
Title: Grumbling Against God
Big Idea: Grumbling says that God has not given me what I need.
Text: Numbers 13:1-14:45
Title: I Spy Something Bigger than God
Big Idea: Fear is almost always rooted in a lack of faith and shakes assurance.
Text: Numbers 15:1-41
Title: Grace for the Journey
Big Idea: We are saved by grace alone and we move on in sanctification by grace alone.
Text: Numbers 16:1-50
Title: Loose Lips
Big Idea: God can only be approached on his terms.
Text: Numbers 17:1-13
Title: Shut Your Mouth
Big Idea: God’s presence is available through his gracious provision.
Text: Numbers 18:1-32
Title: No Profanity
Big Idea: All things in worship of God are to be done decently and orderly.
Text: Numbers 19:1-22
Title: The Red Cow of Hope
Big Idea: A sacrifice is required for our cleansing.
Text: Numbers 20:1-29
Title: Just Say Something
Big Idea: The reach, seriousness, and consequence of the sin of anger before a holy God.
Text: Numbers 21:1-9
Title: I’m Snakebit
Big Idea: Our hope is in the God who fights for and provides for his people.
Text: Numbers 21:10-35
Title: Pilgrims March
Big Idea: Salvation and hope through judgment is God’s design.
Text: Numbers 22:1-41
Title: When a Donkey Talks
Big Idea: God is the Lord of history and he uses whom he wills to accomplish his purposes.
Text: Numbers 23:1-24:24
Title: Blessed! No Matter What
Big Idea: People God’s blesses cannot be cursed.
Text: Numbers 25:1-18
Title: Zeal and Hope
Big Idea: Our response to sin must always be decisive.
Text: Numbers 26:1-27:23
Title: Generation Next
Big Idea: God is faithful to bring his people to the promised land not because of them but in spite of them.
Text: (Numbers 28:1-29:40
Big Idea: All of our time must be sanctified to God for his glory.
Text: Numbers 30:1-16
Title: I Promise
Big Idea: God is a God of truth and his people are to keep their word as people of truth.
Text: Numbers 31:1-16
Title: Holy War
Big Idea: The people of God are called to battle and victory is to be total.
Text: Numbers 32:1-42
Title: Accommodation or Compromise?
Big Idea: The difficult task of knowing what it acceptable accommodation or unfaithful compromise.
Text: Numbers 33:1-34:29
Title: Look Both Ways
Big Idea: Living by grace always includes looking back at God’s faithfulness and forward to his promises.
Text: Numbers 35:1-34
Title: Cities of Grace
Big Idea: Faithfulness to God involves self-denial, patience, accountability, and grace.
Text: Numbers 36:1-36
Big Idea: It is God who gives and secures our inheritance, thus, we rest secure in his promises.
Each of these sections constituted a separate series of expository sermons. The three sermon series sections were not preached consecutively.
If someone wanted to preach through Numbers in nine sermons, one way to structure the series would be:
Series Title: Sand Trek
Text: Numbers 1:1-4:49
Text: Numbers 5:1-10:10
Text: Numbers 10:11-12:16
Text: Numbers 13:1-14:45
Text: Numbers 15:1-19:22
Title: Graced and Cleansed
Text: Numbers 20:1-21:35
Text: Numbers 22:1-25:18
Title: Blessed and Defiled
Text: Numbers 26:1-32:42
Title: Numbered Again
Text: Numbers 34:1-36:13
Title: Arrived and Renewed
Preaching the Book of Numbers is a challenge for many reasons: Numbers is a long book (36 lengthy chapters), it has obscure practices, pervasive violence, and the book possesses an enigmatic genre (narrative history with law, poetry, and prophecy). Those are not reasons to neglect preaching Numbers. Like most challenging things, the result when the challenge is met is a rich, soul-nourishing reward.
Here are some things to keep in mind when applying the message of Numbers, which possesses every literary genre found in the Old Testament.
While preaching through Numbers from beginning to end, do not be afraid to make the direct and indirect New Testament connections and model for your congregants how to read the entire Bible with Christian eyes.
Note the many examples to follow and examples to avoid throughout the book. As Paul clarifies, noting the Christ-centered focus in Numbers does not negate the opportunity to note ethical application, both good and bad (see Ps. 95, 106; Heb. 3-4; and 1 Cor. 10 for models). The key is that all ethical imperatives but be understood as a consequence of the gospel indicative.
Consider the examples Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 10:
Do not desire evil things (1 Cor 10:6).
Do not be idolaters (1 Cor 10:7).
Do not put God to the test (1 Cor 10:9).
Do not grumble (1 Cor 10:10)
Note the examples for us (1 Cor 10:11).
Have hope in the face of temptation and testing (1 Cor 10:13).
Note the pattern of narrative sections interrupted by sections of law-giving and instruction. Consider how this pattern is a call to constantly reorder our lives according to God's presence and his Word. Call listeners to consider Numbers focus on what proportion and order teaches us about a well-regulated life in the sight of God and also what disorder and excess teaches us about our view of God.
Note the continuing interplay between a focus on individual actions and the life of the community. Consider what this should teach us about our responsibility, first to God, but also to his people.
Tell the vivid, engaging story as a story. Resist the temptation to chop it up and over-principlize it in a way that loses the narrative flow—thinking in terms of calling people to apply their lives to what they are learning about God and his people rather than pulling truths out of the text as abstractions to apply to their lives. Rebellions, miraculous interventions, fire and cloud pillars, water from a rock, fiery serpents, and a talking donkey. Approach all of this with descriptive wide-eyed, Christ-centered wonder. What an incredible story we have to tell!
As stated earlier, Numbers' theme is God's already but not yet saving grace, sustaining his people, with his presence, in the wilderness, not because of them, but despite them. To consider the big ideas that shape the book's message, we are helped by the Apostle Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play." We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Paul clarifies that the message of the Book of Numbers is for us today as followers of Christ. Its message is not relegated to a bygone era of Hebrew history. Let us take our cues from Paul as he helps us understand the books big ideas.
In the Wilderness
Paul writes to the church in Corinth that the wandering Israelites "were overthrown in the wilderness . . . as examples for us" (1 Cor. 11:5-6). The wilderness was not a destination place but rather a place you pass through to arrive at a destination. It was a nowhere place between Sinai and the Promised Land. The description was both geographically accurate and spiritually accurate as well. According to Paul, these wilderness wanderings happened as examples and were written down for Christians. His point makes sense because we, too, live between the times as God's redeemed people. We are presently "in the wilderness" on our way to redemption, consummated in a new heaven and new earth.
The Faithfulness of God in Christ
The doctrine that undergirds the Book of Numbers is the Abrahamic covenant. Beginning in Genesis 15, we see covenant inauguration. As the narrative progresses, there is covenant obligation (Gen. 17), covenant sacrifice (Ex. 12), and covenant lifestyle beginning in Exodus 19 through the end of Deuteronomy.
The story of Numbers is ultimately about Christ. That is what Paul tells us (1 Cor 10:4, 9). The story Numbers tells demands resolution in the incarnation, life, crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Jesus the Messiah. From Egypt, the Israelites are being led by the Lord into the land promised to their fathers—to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants. The spiritual history recorded in Numbers is always pointing beyond itself to a hope to come. Consider the following:
Moses was the great prophet, and Jesus Christ was the final prophet worthy of more glory than Moses (Ex. 32:32, Num. 12:6-8, Deut. 18:15-18, Heb. 1:1-4, 3:1-6, 9:22).
The pillar of cloud and fire resting on the Tabernacle over the Holy of Holies guided the people. Jesus Christ came as the light of the world (Num. 9:15-23; John 8:12, 9:5).
Aaron, the High Priest, is portrayed as a type of the Lord Jesus, our great High Priest (Num. 16:46-50; Heb. 7:15-16).
The bronze snake was lifted up as the Son of Man would be lifted up (Num. 21; John 3:14-15).
The rock that provided abundant water in the wilderness was Christ, according to Paul (Num. 20, 1 Cor. 10:4).
Balaam's prophecy of a coming deliverer, "a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel," is seen as fulfilled in Jesus the “Bright Morning Star" (Num. 24:17-19; Matt. 2:2; Rev. 22:16).
The Presence of God and His Word
In Numbers, over 80 times, we read "God spoke to Moses," and we are told God spoke around another hundred times. In Chapters 1-10, there is a meticulous focus on doing everything in proper proportion and order according to God's word. Doing so led to blessings (Num. 6:22-27) and experience of his presence (Num. 9:15-23, 10:35-36).
The word of God is presented in Numbers as unchangeable and irresistible. Moses disobeys the word of God by striking the rock rather than speaking to it, and he is barred from entering the promised land (Num. 20:10-13). Joshua and Caleb's boldness in the face of obstacles and enemies came from clinging to the word of God, so they declare "the LORD is with us" (Num. 14:9). Balaam, a false prophet, wants to curse God's people for profit, but he cannot: "If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak'?" (Num. 24:13). Paul reminds us that "it is written" and "these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:7, 11).
The Unfaithful People of God
The primary characteristic of the people of God in the Book of Numbers is their disobedience. They grumble (Num. 11, 21), they refuse to enter the land (Num. 14), they defy Moses and Aaron (Num. 16), they commit sexual immorality (Num. 25), and they bow down to idols (Num. 25). All of the actions can be summarized as not trusting God's word and a failure to reckon with the presence of God rightly. The counter testimony to that of Joshua and Caleb is the Lord is not with us! The contrast between the faithfulness of holy God and the unfaithfulness of his people. The book explains the struggle of a people in desperate need of grace as they live between promise and fulfillment.
My Encounter with Numbers
I began preparing to preach through the Book of Numbers like I would guess many preachers do, a bit apprehensive. I started thinking about preaching Numbers several years before I finally did. I kept rereading the book over-and-over. At this point, I did not chase out the answer to any questions; I just kept reading and jotted notes down. I also asked others to read Numbers jotting down their questions about the book.
Eventually, noting all of the instances where other parts of the Old Testament referenced Numbers and each instance where the New Testament did as well. Then I made a provisional descriptive outline of the book. It was only after this work was done that I started reading overviews of Numbers and consulting commentaries.
I settled on the title for the series being, In the Wilderness with Jesus. I desired to fight against the natural impulse many people have about Numbers being boring and irrelevant. I wanted people saying to themselves, A wilderness journey with Jesus, is that really what Numbers is about?I thought it was just a bunch of boring lists.
I divided the series into three other sections; Prepared (1:1-10:10), Sent (Numbers 10:11-25:18), Renewed (26:1-36:13). I wanted my main headings to be applicational rather than merely descriptive. We are all being prepared, sent, and need to be renewed. Along with my other pastors, we decided to preach the three series as separate series rather than consecutively. In between each, we had shorter series from the New Testament.
I desire to preach the whole counsel of God's Word. I try to mix in a book of the Bible to preach that is largely ignored in contemporary pulpits regularly. Numbers had been one that I had been thinking through for several years. The more I studied the book, the more excited I became about preaching through it. One of my goals was to model how to handle faithfully the variety of genres found in the book. I also wanted to continue the process of encouraging my congregation that the gospel of Jesus Christ can and must be preached from the entirety of the Scripture.
I believe that the redundancy that some fear if Christ is preached from every text of Scripture will only occur if the preacher abandons a rigorously expositional approach. When exposition coaxes each passage to speak from the multiplicity of its contexts, human and divine, the hearers will see the gospel freshly in the diverse unfolding of the testimony of redemptive history. For instance, the gospel in Numbers and Romans is the same gospel. Still, their situations in the drama of redemptive history provide unique windows through which the preacher can proclaim the gospel message's beauty and glory.
My recommendations here begin with a lay-level popular commentary, then an exegetical commentary, and finally a more academic technical commentary.
Martin Pakula, Numbers: Homeward Bound (Sydney: Aquila Press, 2006).
John D. Currid, Numbers (Carlisle: Evangelical Press, 2009).
Gordon Wenham, Numbers, An Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham: InterVarsity, 1981).
David Prince is Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He is the author of In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and he blogs at www.davidprince.com.