In Stage One of discipleship (yesterday: Luke 8), Jesus took his apostles along with him to watch him at work in the towns and villages of the Galilee region. Today we see Stage Two, when Jesus sends these same men, under his own power and authority, to dispatch demons and heal diseases, whilst proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom. They were sent out in pairs.
This time there was no group of wealthy women to look after their needs; they were not even allowed to take any food or equipment but expected to entrust themselves to God’s care and the hospitality of the local people. Matthew 10 describes the arrangements in more detail: Go only to Jewish towns, search for a worthy householder who (literally) ‘loves peace’ and who presumably is in favour of their mission – at least in principle. Evangelise the whole town but stick to the same accommodation and host. The overall brief was to do as Jesus did, walk in the power of the Spirit, and trust in God for safety and provision. Afterwards, Jesus took the returning apostles away for a ‘debrief’ in a nearby town.
Only two miracles feature in all four gospels: the Resurrection and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The latter is recounted in a very ‘matter-of-fact’ way, without the ‘hype’ that would inevitably accompany it today! If there were 5,000 men, then the total number of people might have been nearer 20,000. Of all the four gospel accounts, this is the simplest. Five loaves plus two fish plus miraculous intervention produces more than enough for all the people, and with more left over than Jesus started with! There is something about seeing God powerfully at work in your everyday needs that is very compelling and convincing.
“Who do YOU say that I am?” (v20) was the key question from Jesus to his disciples. And that is really the key question for the whole world too. ‘Yes’, he was God’s Messiah, but not in the way that most of the local people interpreted this – they wanted a political / warrior type. The real Messiah would be rejected, tortured, executed, and would then rise from the dead on the third day. Similarly, real disciples must be prepared for the same sort of treatment: a kind of daily ‘dying’ to their own needs, wants and ambitions, in favour of God’s. To do any different is to deny the Master that we claim to follow!
A week later, Jesus, Peter, John, and James were at the top of (probably) Mount Hermon, praying. When you pray, you are changed (that is still true today!) and Jesus was no exception. Jesus was revealed in his glory, talking to Moses and Elijah about his departure (literally, his ‘Exodus’). Perhaps the symbolism referred to ‘succession’: Moses’ life’s work was completed by Joshua, Elijah’s by Elisha, and so what about Jesus’ ministry?
Perhaps the key is found in voice of the Father: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (v35). Peter, James, and John are representative of Christ’s Church – all of us! Luke’s second book – Acts – begins with these words: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen…” (Acts 1:1). Jesus began the mission for the world’s redemption, and we are now called to complete the task, alongside him. The secret of our success… “Listen to him” !
NUMBERS 31 and 32
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). When we read about acts of God’s vengeance in the Old Testament particularly, it has a strange ‘feel’ to it, so ingrained are we Christians about not retaliating. Jesus himself made it a key part of the Sermon on the Mount. So why is it OK here in Numbers 31 then?
If you re-read the first sentence (above), it speaks for itself: we must not take revenge on our own account because we get in the way of God’s perfect justice – it is rather like causing a commotion from the public gallery in a courtroom – it disrupts the orderly process of justice. God is the perfect judge who knows all the facts and the motives behind them; he alone in all the universe can be judge and jury, prosecutor and defence – all rolled into one. When he dispenses full judgment with its proper penalty, he does so dispassionately and impartially, taking everything into account and not taking things ‘personally’. None of us can do any of that. Therefore the only time we take part in an act of vengeance is on God’s behalf and at his command. Israel did just that.
This vengeance was in response to Numbers 25:1-3 and 8-19. We realise that Moab and Midian were acting together in attempting to entice Israel to worship other gods – by means of their women inviting some of Israel’s men to indulge in sexual immorality with them. We also learn that Balaam was responsible for putting them up to this plan and, later on, God held him responsible; what he failed to do by divination, he succeeded by a more basic method! So a token 1000 men from each tribe went into battle with the Midianites and absolutely routed them, killing every man. No-one from Israel’s side was killed at all – which is the kind of thing that can occur when the Lord is for you!
The virgin women captives were allowed to live (presumably they were no threat and they had not taken part in the earlier temptation of Israel. The remainder of the nation were put to death – which seems very harsh to our cosseted Western minds; an Eastern viewpoint would take the opposite line: to let them off without punishment would have been a gross injustice! The remainder of the spoils were divided equally, whether or not a soldier had actually fought that day; offerings were made to the Lord, followed by some freewill offerings by those soldiers who realised that their lives had been completely in God’s hands that day.
Chapter 32 describes the sudden decision by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Manasseh, to claim territory on the East of the Jordan river; this land was not part of the inheritance promised previously to Israel by the Lord. This passage reminds me of the account of Lot, many hundreds of years earlier, who had chosen his new homeland simply by what seemed pleasing to the eye. We need to learn the lesson that God’s plans for us are best and are made with hidden future advantages in mind. Big decisions of this type must always be referred to God, and his guidance taken to heart – if we know what is good for us! In the case of these ‘Transjordan Tribes’, as they are now called, they left themselves in a much more exposed position from a military point of view – not having the River Jordan as a defensive barrier.
Moses was more concerned that the withdrawal of many thousands of men would precipitate a mass rebellion amongst the whole of Israel, just as the ‘Spies’ debacle had done 40 years previously. He therefore got their assurance that the men would fight alongside their tribal brothers until all the land was subdued – before returning to their Transjordan territories. As a concession, they were first permitted to fortify some towns for their women and children. These lands were the captured territories of Og, king of Bashan, Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the land of Gilead. But all this still seems to be settling for second best! It didn’t do them any good, and it won’t do us any good either!