We dare not trifle with the Lord of hosts.
I almost hurt when I read Numbers 20:2-13. In only twelve verses, God teaches a lesson that completely devastates a mindset I often unconsciously hold. There we find Moses, leading the people of Israel through the wilderness on their way back to the Promised Land. As was common throughout their journey, the people grew uncomfortable and began to grumble, complaining about their perceived lack in spite of God’s faithfulness and provision. In this chapter, the people cried out for water. God, rich in mercy and grace, met Moses and said,
“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”
Again, the people were grumbling. Again, God showed grace. But after years of shepherding these people, Moses was likely getting fed up with their constant selfishness. As he stood before the rock as God’s ambassador, he appears to have let his temper get the better of him.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
If I’m reading this correctly, I can relate to Moses here. He had put up with the people’s rebellion, with their hardness of heart, with their grumbling, with their disputes; he had served them like a father for decades, constantly calling them back to their God. And though he had no intention of leaving them, he did not attempt to hide his frustration. Instead of speaking to the rock as God had directed, Moses struck it twice. I have to believe this would have impacted the people. They likely would have realized that Moses was angry, and they presumably would have felt shame at how they had been acting.
So what’s the problem with this? Simply put, Moses disobeyed God. And as Moses disobeyed, he likely took the focus away from God the provider and caused the people to think only of Moses the angry. As much as we may sympathize with Moses’ frustration, his disobedience was not warranted, as we see in the next two verses.
And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy.
This hurts to read. Because of Moses’ sin, he was not allowed to enter the land he had sought for so long. I have often wondered at God’s response here. Why was his response so severe? Why didn’t Moses get a pass? Why did God take this so seriously? I don’t fully understand God’s reasoning here. But I see a truth I cannot ignore: God will be honored as holy, and he will not permit his people to treat him flippantly. Moses did not simply lose his temper (though that is no small thing itself); Moses blatantly disobeyed God before the people. Regardless of how faithful Moses had been, his sin was still sin, and, thus, it warranted God’s judgment.
We who know Christ can often fall into a trap. We assume that God will pass over our present sins because of our past faithfulness. We believe that because we have walked so well, God ought to give us a pass when we disobey. But such thinking misses the truth: all sin, regardless of context, is worthy of death (Romans 6:23). From the mass murders of terrorists to the littlest lies of youth, sin is rebellion against God. Though Christ has borne our sin on the cross, facing the wrath of God in our place, sin is still heinous and wrong. And God will not allow his holy name to be tarnished by the laxity of his servants. He will be honored as holy.
I’ve been thinking more about sin lately, and I’ve come to realize that I don’t take sin seriously enough. I am free in Christ from sin’s bondage, but I find myself still flirting with the former chains. I am called and equipped to live a holy life, but I fall far too quickly back into the old ways of death. And for every time I obey God by grace, I am tempted to assume that I have earned the right to sin a little. This is madness. May this story always remind us that even the heroes of the faith are not beyond the discipline of our holy Father. May we never assume we have license to sin. And may we live upright, holy lives by the power of the Spirit. As Paul wrote so clearly,
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.