The Flesh and the Spirit in Numbers 11
The Focus of All Scripture
Any proper understanding of the Bible should start with the following presupposition: This text is, ultimately, about Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, not many people that I’ve encountered begin their expositions of the Old Testament this way, choosing instead to preach simply a bald morality that is either completely divorced from the broader historico-soteriology that is unfolding before their eyes, or that only peripherally considers the Lord of Glory Himself – Jesus Christ. Maybe they do this out of tradition. Maybe they are zealous without knowledge. Maybe they are blind, and are merely seeking to establish their own righteousness. Maybe they want to use the Bible to bring others into submission to them (a timeworn tactic of cult leaders).
Whatever the case may be, we should address the text in a manner that is consistent with our Lord’s words in John 5:39, when He reprimanded the Pharisees for looking to Moses in order to justify their legalism while completely missing the fact that Moses wrote about Christ! “You search the Scriptures,” He tells them, “for in them you think you have life; and these are they which testify of Me.” This is a blow to the preaching of men who subject Christ to their moralism, teaching Him from the Old Testament only as an afterthought, when He Himself declares that HE is the central focus of all Scripture.
Hence, when we come to the passage before us today, we would be wrong to not first assume that the passage’s intention is to point us to Jesus Christ, to testify of Him, for as the Lord says in John 5:46: “…if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he about of Me.” In what sense, then, is this passage about Christ? Is it typological? Is it anticipatory? Is it prophetic? I’ll try to answer this in what follows.
What the text is not about: Complaining
Yes, complaining is a sin against the Lord, seeing as it is speaking against His all wise providence and, thereby, elevating oneself to the level that only God properly holds, and taking the Lord to task to arrange things in a manner that is pleasing to us. Yes, this is involved in this passage. But, no, this is not what the text is primarily about. If it were simply about God’s destruction of all men who complain against His divine providence, then we would at pains to understand why the Lord didn’t strike Moses down for complaining in vv.10-15, and for allowing Moses to live in spite of his unbelief and sarcasm in vv.21-22. Yes, this passage does show us that complaining is sinful. But is this the point of the passage? Are we to walk away from this passage and only see in it a demand for us to stop complaining or else? Or is it the case, rather, that what the text shows us is: (i.)God’s wrath against sin, (ii.)the true condition of men who lust after that which is carnal (i.e. meat), (iii.)how those who lust after the flesh have rejected the heavenly bread provided for them by God Himself, (iv.)God’s provision of a mediator between Himself and man, (v.)the Spirit of God in the salvation and guidance of His people, (vi.)the Spirit of God in judgment of those who are not His, (vii.)God’s rejection of those who walk according to the flesh, and (viii.)God’s salvation of those who walk according to the Spirit? Is this text about how to behave better? If it is, then to whom do we look? Israel complains against God, but so does Moses. Those who paint Moses as the hero of this passage are looking at it through scratched and foggy lenses, failing to see Moses’ own attitude and how the Lord did not kill him but rebuked him. If this passage is about God’s people complaining against God’s appointed servant, then why is the focus on (i.)what people lusted after (i.e. meat, carnality), (ii.)the difference between those whom God judged and those whom He favored and showed blessing to, and (iii.) salvation by God’s grace alone?
Don’t let a megolomaniac fool you; this passage is not about the great sin of speaking against Israel’s appointed authority. It is about those who lust after the flesh (literally!). Are they God’s people? No. But God has those whom He has given His Spirit to, through His chosen Mediator, who are His people even among the lost who claim to be following His Annointed One. This passage is soteriological, not ecclesiological. It is about Jesus Christ, as typified by Moses, and who His people are; it is not about your pastor and your church’s complaints level against his abuses of authority. This passages looks forward to the day when all of Israel is truly Spirit led and truly Israel – i.e. This passage looks forward to the New Covenant’s promise of outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all who call upon the name of the Lord (that is, all whom the Lord is calling from all manner of life, cf. Joel 2:32).
Moses and Jesus: Sending out 70 Just Prior to the Judgment
As Moses sent out the 70 elders, who were led and empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy and help Moses bear the burden of dealing with Israel (after the flesh, pun intended), so the Lord Jesus sent out 70 disciples, who were empowered by the Holy Spirit in their preaching, blessing, and condemnation of all who rejected the Gospel (cf. Luke 10:1-16). Do we see the parallel yet, or are we yet blind and unbelieving? The connection here is more than mere happenstance; we are seeing in both instances, the Lord’s judgment upon Israel (after the flesh, of course) who rejected the bread of heaven and, instead, sought to live in rebellion against God’s appointed Mediator. In both cases, Israel (after the flesh) is condemned and true/spiritual Israel are identified by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In both passages, moreover, it is God’s servant who chooses who will be annointed with the Holy Spirit, and who will serve in the ministry. The judgment upon wilderness Israel pales in comparison to the judgment that fell upon the unbelieving Jews who rejected the Lord God Himself! So we need to ask, again: Is this passage of Scripture primarily about complaining? Or does it point us to the fact that (i.)identification with Israel does not prove that one belongs to God, (ii.)those who do not belong to God reject the bread of heaven because they lust after the flesh, (iii.)there is only one mediator between God and man, (iv.)that one mediator is Spirit-led and imparts the Holy Spirit to those whom he has chosen for ministry, (v.)therefore, those who are true Israel are not those born after the flesh but those born of the Spirit (literally!), and (vi.)God gives hardened sinners over to their lusts (cf. Romans 1:21 & 24-25).
Isn’t this what both passages are really teaching us? The Old Testament narrative was a real historical event, but it points us to the greater reality in Christ, the bread of heaven who is rejected, the Mediator whose identity is denied, the One who prays the Father for the Comforter (i.e. Spirit), the One who gives the Spirit to those He wishes to, and the One who sends out His workers among all who call themselves “Israel.” The amazing thing about these passages is that the nature of man’s heart apart from the amazing grace of God is still the same: Man lusts after the flesh continually. No matter, whether it was Moses preaching the Law to them, or Christ displaying the loving kindness and patience of grace, they nonetheless sought to rebel against the One Mediator God had appointed. Wow.
Looking Forward to the New Covenant
What is staggeringly beautiful about this passage, but has been overlooked by those who seek to establish their own righteousness is very simple: Salvation is not by one’s lineage, or by one’s ability to not complain – it is all of God’s grace, and it is wrought by God’s Spirit. Why were those who were complaining about their lack of meat treated differently from Moses who complained, was sarcastic, and showed signs of unbelief? Grace alone
Here is another deathblow to Arminianism, for it is only those who are set apart by the Spirit of God who are not killed. And this setting apart is done by one person: Moses. Does this not strike a familiar Scriptural chord? It does. In Luke 10:22, we read:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one
knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is
except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wishes to reveal
Still think this passage is simply about complaining? It isn’t. Do not be deceived. Simply: It is about God’s mediator who has chosen, annointed, and appointed His elect to be Spirit led preachers of God’s coming judgment, and this has been done by pure grace. It is looking forward to the day when all Israel would truly be Israel. It is showing us the flesh/spirit distinction that unregenerate men falsely claim Paul the apostle stole from the Greeks. It is about how those who are unregenerate are they which lust only after the things of the flesh, and how they who are the Lord’s chosen are led by the Spirit. It is about man’s rebellion against God, and God’s grace to those whom He has chosen to save.
Anyone who reads this passage and tells you that it is about your obedience to them is lying to you. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ, His mediatorship,His glory, His Salvation freely given to His elect, and His judgment upon the reprobate.
Scripture is about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s read it that way.