ONE STEP FROM THE PROMISED LAND

by Imre Szőke.

Our Scripture passage is Numbers chapter 13, verses 1-3 and 16-33 (NIV).

My text is Numbers 13:30-31 (NIV)

“Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said: We should go up and take possession of that land, for we can certainly do it. But the men who had gone up with him said: We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters!

I bring you greetings in the name of our Lord from the members of our Reformed Presbyterian Churches in Central and Eastern Europe and also from our graduates and students at Károlyi Gáspár Institute of Theology and Missions in Miskolc, Hungary. It is a great privilege for me to be here and to preach in this church, especially knowing that you have been praying for the work in Hungary and — as the Apostle Paul writes in Phil. 1:5, you are our spiritual partners in the spreading of the gospel from the first day until now.

Before I start my sermon, I have to apologize to those of you who might have problem understanding my pronunciation. I will try to do my best, and I pray that the Holy Spirit might help you in catching up if you miss something.

Let us turn now to this Bible passage. I have to confess that somehow I did not understand what happened in this chapter. I mean, I did not understand the attitude of the Jewish people. Especially, if we are taking into consideration the previous events. What happens here is shocking, and indeed very sad, even if we are approaching it with the mind of an unbeliever, because what can we see here, brothers?

We see the Jews, God’s chosen people, being disobedient to God and not wanting to enter the Promised Land. Just think about it for a minute. Here is the land to which Abraham was called from Mesopotamia, the land about which they heard so many stories from their parents and grandparents while living in Egypt in captivity; here is the land after which they were longing for centuries; here is the land flowing with milk and honey, the land which was promised to them by God, the land of blessings where they are to become a great nation – and now they do not want to enter, to take possession of it. What an absurd attitude!

I think you will agree with me that they did not have any good excuse for this decision. Why? Because everything was working for them. All the circumstances were positive. They had God’s promises; Moses, their beloved leader, was with them, but above all — the Almighty God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was with them! The covenant-making and the covenant-keeping God was with them! The God who brought them out from Egypt in a miraculous way, the God who led them, protected them, cared for them and provided everything along the way — food and water, manna and the quails. Do not forget that the Israelites had been out of Egypt for about two years, and they were a big nation. God fed several hundred thousand people for two years in the desert! He cared for them, and He kept all of His promises. They did not have to suffer any privation! But in spite of this, they rebelled against God so many times and, here again, they refuse to obey Him. They refused to rely upon His promises.

But God did even more during those two years. He revealed himself again and again to them. He gave them His law; He renewed His covenant with them at Mount Sinai. He built them the Holy Tabernacle and thus He instituted the proper form of worshipping Him, and He was among them in a real way. They experienced God’s real presence and guidance. His presence could be seen above the Tabernacle as a pillar of cloud during the day and as a pillar of fire at night. When they were leaving a particular place, this pillar went before them.

Friends, try to imagine for a second this situation. God was with them permanently. He guided them, protected them, taught them, and cared for them. They saw God’s presence on a daily basis. How many times can we say this? I would give anything to be closer to God, to feel His presence, to have His Word speaking to me, and so on. As Christians we have a desire to walk with God, to feel His presence, to have Him speak to us through His Word, to know His will — have we not? The psalmist talks about this longing in these words: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10) The Jews were in His presence for two entire years, yet this was still not enough for them. How wonderful this would be to live in His very presence for two years! And they stopped one step from the Promised Land. They did not care how beautiful or fertile the land was. They forgot the grapes the spies had brought. (We know that Egyptian grapes were much smaller then those in Canaan.) They did not care about anything. They lost their feeling of security. What shameful behavior!

What is this, Brothers and Sisters, if not an offence of the Most Holy? What is this if not distrust toward God? Distrust of His Word, His promises, His protection, a lack of thankfulness, an open disobedience. They turn their backs on God. What was this if not pragmatism, a decision made by sight, not by faith.

And not only did they refused to walk into the Promised Land, but they intended to do exactly the opposite; they rebelled against God; they wanted to return to Egypt; they wanted to choose a new leader to replace Moses (see ch. 14:4), and they wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb (see ch. 14:10). Isn’t this tragic? Even according to the rabbis, these chapters, 13 and 14, are some of the saddest chapters of Old Testament Scriptures. You see, they wanted a new leader and a new direction. And this was the beginning of the end for that generation.

At this point Joshua and Caleb’s encouragement was in vain. They tried to remind the people that God was with them and they could take possession of that land. But the people just did not want to listen.

My Friends, before I go further, let me call your attention to the patience, the mercy and longsuffering of our Heavenly Father. He could have destroyed them so many times, and he would have been right in doing so. He could have said, ”This is enough!” or “This is too much!” Even here, God could have said – “This is enough.” But how merciful is our God! As one puritan father has said: “God needed six days to create the whole universe, but He needed seven days to destroy a city (referring to Jericho). He is so patient!

Now I have two sets of questions. One set for those who are in Christ, and another set for those who have not yet come to Christ:

First, you who are Christians, think on God’s mercies and longsuffering. And think not only on God’s mercy toward us in Christ, but also on his daily mercy and patience. The Greek text sometimes uses the plural form of “mercy” in order to emphasize how many times God is merciful to us. When was the last time you thanked God for this? Are you aware that He is merciful to you daily? How many times did you offend him last week, and he did not punish you? Do not take it for granted. This is longsuffering; this is patience. Are you thankful for this?

Second, those of you who are not in Christ, let me say to you, O man, if God’s holiness, justice and wrath do not move your heart of stone toward him, I urge you to pay attention to his grace, mercy and longsuffering. He is patient with you; He is inviting you to come and repent! Pay attention to the gospel! Come to Christ! Turn away from your sins! What is your response to this? “Or do you shown contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” as Paul says in Rom.2:4. What is your answer?

Now let us go on and see why they did not enter the Promised Land and what was the result of this. And, of course, as we are looking for the answers to these questions in Israel’s case, we should look for some application for ourselves as well. Because we believe that this is not only a historical narrative, but also a message for us today. This is God’s inerrent Word which is timeless and eternally true.

So why did they not enter? Basically, we have two answers to this:

     

  1. First, because of their iniquity and their sins, their unbelief, their cowardliness and their distrust toward God.
  2. Second, because they received a false report and were misled and discouraged by it.
  3.  


Now let me apply this question and our answer for today as follows:

Why aren’t people entering into God’s kingdom? Why aren’t they coming to Christ? Why do they not have a desire to please and glorify God?

     

  1. First, because they are sinners; they are in rebellion against God; they are following their fleshly desires; they like their own ways in the desert away from God.
  2. Second, because they are misinformed about the gospel, about who God is, about His requirement and man’s duties, about the consequences of their sins.
  3.  


These two issues are often misrepresented. A perverted view of man and a perverted gospel is dominating the so-called evangelical circles. I do not know exactly how it is here in the United States, but this is certainly true in Hungary and the adjoining Hungarian lands. This makes our job over there extremely difficult. Our message is so divergent from the other messages that people — even some of clergy — are ready to stone us. The people do not like Biblical teaching. They are looking for teachers who will say what their itching ears want to hear.

You might ask yourself why did I apply our text in this way. I am not in favor of allegorical application or interpretation, but in this case, I believe that the Promised Land is the foreshadow of God’s prevailing true Church and also of heaven.

Now let us turn back to the main question: Why did they not enter into the Promised Land?

Because of their sin and iniquity, their hardness of heart. After two blessed years with God, they were following their fleshly desires, their pragmatic thinking, and their human reasoning. And if this passage proves anything at all, it certainly proves the corruption of human nature – its total depravity and helplessness. This is true for our age too — when the autonomous man has his own solution to problems according to his own reasoning apart from the Word of God. The Jews were not very different from us. They possessed the same sinful nature; they had their own excuses for not obeying God. Listen to what Psalm 106 says in verses 24 and 25 about this: “Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his promise. They grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord.” This is an excellent, inspired picture or description of their attitude toward God’s Word and promises. Both Jews, believers and unbelievers had sin against God and against his Word. I am sure that there were among them many believers. They forgot completely what God had done for them in the past. They were no longer interested in what God had to say. It was their word against God’s word. And here our application should again be twofold.

For those who do not know the Lord, I say: “My Friend, this is exactly what you do when you hear about God, about your eternal state, about the gospel. You despise God; you think that His plan of salvation is not suitable for you; you do not believe His promises, and you grumble and refuse to obey. I am frank with you, so please be frank with yourself. Are you not recognizing yourself? Do not cheat yourself with cheap excuses like: “If God would be here, I would obey Him,” or “If I were in a better position economically, I would have more time for God, but I am too busy”. Come on. This is nonsense. The Jews had everything (food, clothes) and they saw Him daily and did not obey him. The real problems are your sins. That is why you do not have peace, that why you don’t find your place; that is why you do not find God’s proposal good enough. How long are you planning to still use these tactics? You may be very close to Christ, very close to the Kingdom of God. Take this step, and come into Canaan now. Rely upon His promises, and you will never be disappointed. Do not forget that God’s longsuffering and patience will one day cease. Christ once said to a more or less sincere Jewish teacher: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk. 12:34). What about you, my friend? Do not just walk out of that door without thinking about this. There is a desert out there. I know I have said some hard things, but I give you the solution. You need the Saviour! There are no solutions out there. Come, and trust the Saviour, our Lord Jesus! Come, and enter into the Promised Land now! You don’t even have to conquer it. Christ did everything, and he went ahead to prepare a place for you. And there is enough room in heaven for you. Come into the Kingdom of God. The only thing you have to do is to confess your sins, trust Christ and not your understanding, and rely upon His sacrifice.

But what can I say to those who call themselves Christians? Well, Brothers, some Christians do not like to hear the whole counsel of God or any preaching that might convict them of falling short in some areas of their lives. They are satisfied that they have eternal life and forget about glorifying God. And if God requires something more, they hesitate to do it. The believing Jews were satisfied with what they had. They did not want to take any risk, any walk in faith! They did not want to go and take possession of Canaan. “This is too much, to many risks” – they said. Of course you may say: “This is not my problem. I am already in the spiritual Canaan. I am in the Kingdom of God. I trust the Lord; I am a born-again man. What else must I do?” In one sense, you are right. But being in the Promised Land means more that simply being a Christian. It means taking some new responsibilities as a Christian; it means more commitment, more sacrifice and self-denial. This is what you want to run away from. With this attitude, you enjoy just marching along the border, and you are not interested in crossing over it! You try to avoid conflicts; you want an easy life. Do you think that this is satisfactory? Are you obedient to God’s Word in all aspects of your life? Are you hating sin, are you longing for holiness, are you ready for reformation, are you praying for revival, are you ready to have a part in greater undertakings? Or do you want to do only the minimum of what is required? Are you burying your talents in the ground? Do not forget that the revival and reformation go hand-in-hand with Christian activism. Yes, God is sovereign, but you should work and pray hard as if everything depended on you.

Even if you are not committing yourself seriously, you can still remain a Christian. You won’t loose your salvation. You can walk along the border. You can scrape along living from hand-to-mouth in the desert, but do not forget something! You can not expect great things to happen in the desert! Do not look for fruit or wonderful grapes! And do not blame God for the hardships, for the sandstorms! The blessings are related to the Promised Land! The blessings are for those who are obedient, those who are ready to testify about their spiritual maturity! The blessing and the promises are for those who want to glorify God!

Brothers, it is not enough to come out of Egypt, from the bondage of your sins, you should enter into Canaan. Are you ready to testify about your spiritual maturity? Or is your trust in God and in His promises shaken or undermined? Search your heart! Are you compromising in some areas of your life? Listen to Martin Luther: “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefields beside, is merely flight and disgrace if he flinches at THAT point.” Let me ask you now if you are confessing Christ?

You see, this attitude of wanting to just stay on the edge of the Promised Land is what we meet everywhere in Hungary. To give an example: No one can see the importance of being member of a sound church, a true church. The common view is that each Christian is an island. It is a myth or a dream to have churches with professing membership — they say. We are perfectionist — they say. You see, they got accustomed to the desert. They do not want to evangelize. They do not want to fight against liberalism; they do not want to stand for biblical doctrines. They want someone else to fight the battle instead of them. They do not like authority or Biblical discipline. This kind of shortsighted Christianity is very dangerous. I hope you realize why these issues are so important. And although you are in a much better situation than the Hungarian Christians – this can be temporal – if you are not serious about entering into Canaan, about committing yourself wholly to Christ. But if you are willing to carry your cross, to be faithful on small things, to work on harder projects; God will bless you richly. God did not say that this work would be easy, but He did say that He would be with you.

Now let us go back again to our main question: Why did they not enter into the Promised Land?

We said the first reason was their sin and iniquity, their hardness of heart. Now we want to consider the second reason – they got a false report and were misled and discouraged by it. Moses sent out one man from each tribe, and after a long journey of 40 days, they got back. They had enough time to investigate the land. When they returned they reported about the land, the cities and the people. But they gave two reports.

The first report (vv. 27 to 29) was a true report, objective and in accordance with the facts.

The second report (vv. 32, 33) was a false report with exaggerations, misrepresenting the truth. These spies said that the inhabitants of the land were very wild people. They were like cannibals, or at least people who were continually fighting and very bloodthirsty. There were all giants. (Notice in the first report they saw only a few giants, descendents of Anak!) Furthermore, they said they were like grasshoppers in comparison to them. This was enough to frighten and discourage the people.

Consequently, Joshua and Caleb could not convince them to enter the land. We know, of course, that God punished these spies who brought the false report. They died, struck down by God (ch. 14:37). These exaggerations, however produced their fruit. The people did not want to fight. They forgot one basic principle, namely: It is fine that the enemy is stronger than we are, but the question is, however: Is our Lord stronger that any of our enemies?

Brothers, the other sad thing in this story is that beside the corruption of human nature which does not seek God, sometimes people do not have the chance to hear any objective information about what they can expect or face over there. They are misled; they are getting a false gospel which is a completely false report about the spiritual Canaan and the way to it. Not only are  unbelievers given a false hope, but also the Christians who are not ready to digest stronger food and are misled. Listen to a few “little white lies”.

     

  1. When we talk in Hungary about the duty of Christians, that they should separate themselves from apostate churches with nominal membership – these modern spies say: there is no perfect church, in a few generation our church won’t be any better than any liberal church.
  2. When we talk about reformation, the need of purity in the church and worship, these modern spies say: “That is a hard thing; it is difficult to succeed; it is an unpopular thing to do; be more positive; see the good side of things; do not be critical; do not judge “etc.
  3. When we preach the gospel and talk about God’s holiness, justice and wrath, they say — that is the Old Testament God, but now the God of the New Testament loves everybody unconditionally. Everybody will get to heaven. Why preach then? Why did Christ die, if God loves everybody and forgives everybody?
  4.  

You see, small lies, half-truths, a very effective method which is used by the enemy.

Now let me ask you one other question, which this passage brought in my mind: Do we need spies today? And, again, I have a twofold answer.

In some sense, we don’t need spies today. We know exactly what is over there in Canaan. We know about heaven and hell; we know about God’s requirement; we know about Christ and the way of salvation. God revealed everything to us in His Word, which is true and complete — an inerrant report. Christ himself was the last Messenger from God, according to Hebrews 1:1. So, in this sense, we do not need spies. We just have to search the Scriptures if we have any questions.

But in another sense, we do need spies. We need men who saw what was there, who walk with the Lord, who testify about Him, who experienced a change in their lives, who have a call from God to preach the eternal, never-changing gospel. We need men who do not lie, do not exaggerate, who speak the mystery of Christ in love and truth. Men who will proclaim something similar to 1John 1:1 “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touchedthis we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” This is why we have our school in Hungary! We are training men to be faithful messengers who sense the responsibility of their message. Men who have experienced what John is talking about here. They may be young like Joshua and Caleb, and many might want to stone them, but the question is this: Is their message a true message? Because there are so many over there who preach another Jesus and a different gospel — as Paul puts it in 2Cor. 11:4.

That is why we need a few young men who say: “Go straight ahead and cross the border. You will certainly conquer that land. Why? Because God said so. Because you should rely upon His Word and promises. Because you can not turn back. You can not remain in the desert. Since your conversion, you must go in one direction only. If you stop, you backslide. You must go on, and Christ will strengthen you.” We need this kind of men who proclaim what the Bible teaches. And this should be your duty too.

I want to encourage all of you to be faithful witnesses of Christ. Good ambassadors of heaven. Do not keep for yourself what God has done in your life.

What was the result of not entering into the Promised Land?

What happened after the people stopped one step from the Promised Land? What will happen to us if we ignore such a great salvation? The result of their hesitation, of their speculation and disobedience was the 40 years of wandering in the desert. This is what happens to those who do not trust God and his Word. None of these people, except Joshua and Caleb, saw the Promised Land.

And if this happened to the Jews, with God’s chosen people, it can happen to any individual or community or church that does not follow God’s commandments. This is what happened with the Roman Catholic Church, with the Protestant churches that were penetrated by liberalism and it can happen to any church that is not serious about respecting God’s standards. These churches started wandering in a spiritual desert, and are still there. And you may start wandering in a spiritual desert too. Do not doubt God’s promises and His word!

There was one generation that perished in the desert, two generations perished in Babylon, and who knows how many generations who disobeyed God perished. And how many churches followed these generations. Church history is a continuation of this chapter.

My final question for you is this: To which generation do you belong? To which generation does this church belong? Are you ready to go ahead, or would you rather just spin your wheels, preferring to take a distant attitude? Are you satisfied with what you have achieved? Do you want to stop at the border? Do you doubt God’s promises?

We should be able to learn from the mistakes of our forefathers. We should learn something from the generations whose lives were stranded. And we should pray for generations that sense their responsibility toward God. May God give us the courage and the faithfulness to not shrink back, but to go ahead and believe.

May God help us to be ready to say with Caleb: “We should go up and take possession of that land, for we can certainly do it.” Amen.

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