What Good is the Book of Numbers?

serpentFew books in the Bible hide their riches better than the book of Numbers. Concealed by an accountant’s title (‘Numbers’) and begun with a lengthy census (ch. 1), the casual reader of Numbers may come to the honest, but mistaken, notion that this is a boring, impractical book.

However, Paul has the exact opposite feeling. In 1 Corinthians 10, he says that the events of Numbers (along with everything in the five books of Moses) “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11). Specifically, Paul lists Israel’s sexual immorality at Baal-Peor in Numbers 25 (vv. 7–8), the incursion of serpents in Numbers 21 (v. 9), and the grumbling of Israel which occurred throughout the exodus journey (v. 10).

In truth, Paul reminds us that these ancient words are ever true and that in God’s wisdom they were written down for me and you. To put it more generally, the book of Numbers is not simply a book of Jewish history, a record of priestly duties, and medicinal wound care for scabs and leprosy victims. Oh no. It is more. It is a book of Christian Scripture that points us to Christ.

All Scripture is God Breathed and Profitable

In general, the New Testament apostles speak very highly of the Old Testament. Whereas many modern people agree with Henry Ford that “history is bunk,” the inspired followers of Jesus are more correct. Speaking of the Old Testament Scriptures, Paul says that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” In fact, he goes further. Without the Old Testament Scriptures, the man (or woman) of God cannot and will not be equipped for any good work (2 Tim 3:16–17).

Peter agrees. Writing of the prophets, he says that they came to the conclusion that their message was not for them, but for the church (1 Pet 1:10–12). And again Paul is so bold to say, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction” (Rom 15:4; cf. Rom 4:23–24).

Likewise, the book of Hebrews is another testimony to the ongoing importance of the Old Testament. Citing and interpreting numerous ‘proof-texts’ from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, Hebrews shows how necessary the Old Testament is for the church of Jesus Christ. In fact, by listing a bevy of Old Testament believers, Hebrews 11 indicates the kind of faith needed in the church. Importantly, salvation in both testaments comes in the same way: by faith in the gracious promises of God and trust in the redemptive work of Christ.

Painting by Numbers

The book of Numbers is like the rest of the Hebrew Bible; it is given to the church for the sake of instruction and warning. In the context of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul returns to his argument from chapter 8 against idolatry. Sensing the common temptation between the church in Corinth and the “church in the wilderness” (those are Stephen’s words, Acts 7:38), he employs the latter (Israel) to instruct the former (us).

He mentions three things in particular that plagued Israel: sexual immorality, idolatry, and grumbling. What could be more relevant in today’s church? Today, we are inundated with images that champion sex as the one, true and living god. Medicine, technology, and Google have supplanted God as our modern saviors from disease, difficulty, and ignorance. Whereas before, God provided life, wisdom, and knowledge, now iPads and iPhones have become our iDols.

And what about grumbling? Who doesn’t struggle with an internal voice of discontent? Television commercials don’t sell you products; they preach a gospel of liberation from discontentment. Why do we need what we need? Probably because some television commercial sowed a seed, that reaped a desire, that produced an action, and led us to the altar of their product.

Today, we need the book of Numbers more than ever. By introducing us to a nation full of redeemed sinners, we are warned against treating God lightly. At the same time, as God delivers his stubborn people from their sin, we see his patience, mercy, and wisdom.

In short, Numbers preaches the gospel to us. It gives us a clear vision of God in his holy splendor and scandalous grace. Therefore, in a world tossed and twisted by every wind of doctrine, nothing is more applicable than the book of Numbers.

For more on the book of Numbers, see the second-half of my sermon series: The Holiness of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss