In English we call the fourth book of the Bible “Numbers.” This is a translation of the Latin title of the book, Numeri, which is a translation of the Greek title Arithmoi.
If you read the first several chapters of the book, it’s easy to see why Greek-speaking, Latin-speaking, and English-speaking people gave it a title that includes the ideas of arithmetic and numbers. The first several chapters consist primarily of long lists of numbers and mathematical calculations to record the total amounts of various countings: how many men in each of the twelve tribes; how to set up the camp according to the tribes; how many men in each of the families of the Levites; how many shekels of redemption money to collect; how many of each item that each of the tribal leaders brought as an offering, etc., etc., etc.
Reading all the numbers in the first several chapters of Numbers can be rather tedious. Especially chapter 7, which repeats the same long list of items twelve times in a row. Things do not start to get exciting until around chapter 11, when the Lord gets angry and starts smiting the children of Israel for their complaining and lusting after the foods which they “freely” ate in Egypt.
Even though all the numbers in Numbers make for rather boring reading, there are some practical lessons we can learn from all this numbering. When you read how all the individual people were counted, and how the tribes and the Levites were organized and assembled around the Tabernacle, you get a picture of order and harmony. Every individual knew his place. All of the people knew who they were. They all knew to which tribe they belonged and they knew where their tribe belonged. They knew who their leaders were. They knew who had authority over whom. They knew what their duty and their tasks were. They each knew what was expected of them. They knew what they were supposed to do and how to do it. If they were unsure, they knew who to consult to ask for clarification. Each person knew where he fit in as a member of that called-out body of people known as Israel.
I think that most Messianic disciples today know that their faith in Israel’s Messiah makes them a member of that called-out body of people known as Israel. However, many Messianic Israelites do not know where they belong in the Body of Messiah. They know that they are members of Messiah’s Body, but they do not know where they belong or what they are supposed to be doing in that Body.
One reason that some people do not know what they are supposed to do in the universal Body of Messiah is because they are not joined to a local body of Messianic disciples. They struggle along on their own and feel like misfits who do not fit in. But the reason they do not fit in is because they refuse to get in. They make excuses and remain isolated from local congregations of believers. If you feel like a misfit, my advice is: “Git in, and you’ll fit in!”
Some people want fellowship and friendship from a local community, but they will not commit themselves to a specific local community. They might attend a congregation or a weekly Bible study for a season, then disappear and start meeting with a different group, then later re-emerge at a group that they had formerly attended. They randomly wander from place to place, back and forth, like a carefree butterfly fluttering from flower to flower, and they never have any roots. They never develop any meaningful, long-term friendships with fellow believers.
There is nothing wrong with visiting various congregations and study groups. On the contrary, you can be blessed and you can be a blessing to others by visiting various groups. But a believer who just hops around from group to group, without being committed to any specific local assembly, makes himself a candidate for fruitlessness, friendlessness, frustration, and possibly even deception.
“Deception? Why do you say that?”
Because the Biblical norm is every individual believer being a member of a local assembly, and being accountable to the leadership there. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
The above verse (and all the other verses in the Bible about authority and leadership in the Body) presupposes that every individual believer will be in a local assembly and will be accountable to the leadership of the assembly. Hebrews 13:17 does not say “If you happen to be part of a local assembly, obey them that have the rule over you.” It’s a given that you will be part of a local assembly. If you are not accountable to the leadership of a local assembly, then you have no way to obey this commandment, and you have no shepherd to watch for your soul. Therefore you are a candidate for possible deception by the Enemy.
“But the Lord is my shepherd,” some people object. “He watches for my soul. I don’t need any imperfect earthly shepherds when I have Yeshua, the Good Shepherd.”
The problem with this attitude is that the Good Shepherd tells you in His Word to obey them that have the rule over you, and to submit yourselves, for they watch for your soul. The perfect Good Shepherd above watches for your soul by appointing imperfect men to lead local assemblies below. He expects you to be in a local assembly and to be accountable to imperfect leaders. It is impossible to obey Hebrews 13:17, or any of the other verses that give instructions about submitting to leaders, if you are not accountable to leaders in a local assembly.
In the early chapters of the Book of Numbers, we see order and harmony. Everybody knows his place, and everybody knows who is in charge. The Levites are camped around the Tabernacle. Moses and Aaron and Aaron’s sons are camped on the east side, in front of the entrance, and the Levitical families of Gershon, Kohath, and Merari are camped along the sides and the rear of the Tabernacle. The Gershonites, Kohathites, and Merarites are told which items of the Tabernacle each of these families will carry.
Each of the twelve tribes is assigned their place to encamp, and each of the tribes has one man who is the head of his tribe. The twelve tribes are told the order in which they are to march. Everything is organized and orderly. All things are done decently and in order.
We see order and harmony in these early chapters of Numbers. We do not see individual Levites deciding for themselves which tasks they would like to do in the Tabernacle, or which items of the Tabernacle they would like to carry. We do not see individuals deciding for themselves which tribe they would like to join. We do not see tribes deciding for themselves where they would like to encamp, or which position they would like to be in when they march. We do not see individual Israelites deciding to usurp the authority of their tribal leader and appoint someone else to be the leader.
This is what we see in the early chapters of Numbers. Unfortunately, this order and harmony does not last very long. In chapter 11 we see the people complaining about the manna and lusting for flesh. As a result, the anger of the LORD is greatly kindled and He smites the people with a very great plague. In chapter 12 we see Miriam and Aaron criticizing Moses for marrying an Ethiopian woman. Miriam is smitten with leprosy for her murmuring. In chapter 13 we see ten of the twelve spies bringing back an evil report to discourage the people from going into the Promised Land. In chapter 14 the LORD pronounces His judgment of forty years of wandering in the wilderness because of their refusal to go into the Land. In chapter 15 we see a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath, and he is stoned to death by the express commandment of God. In chapter 16 we see Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rise up to challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron. These rebels and their families go down alive into the pit when Yahweh causes the earth to open its mouth and swallow them. As we continue to read, we see more and more examples of the children of Israel being chastised and smitten and killed for their murmuring and their sin.
When the Apostle Paul writes about the children of Israel’s wilderness wanderings and murmurings, he says that “all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
That means: “Don’t do those foolish, dangerous things that the children of Israel did in Numbers. If you do, you’ll get in trouble.”
You would think that Messianic Israelites, who are usually more familiar with these stories than most mainstream Christians are, would take this to heart, but they don’t. Instead of living in order and harmony, with everyone in their proper place and everyone knowing what they are supposed to do, Messianic Israelites follow the same pattern of the rebellious children of Israel. They murmur and complain and criticize leaders. Like the ten spies, they bring evil reports and discourage the people from following the leaders who want to bring the congregation into a land flowing with milk and honey. Like the man who decided to pick up sticks on the Sabbath, they decide for themselves what is right and wrong. Like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, they challenge the right of leaders to lead. They try to undermine and usurp the authority of leaders.
Most people go to congregational meetings for two primary reasons. On the vertical plane, they go to worship God as part of a community. On the horizontal plane, they go to find fellowship and friendship with believers.
Based on my many years of observation and experience, I believe that the best and the sweetest worship is expressed in a community where order and harmony are the norm, in a community where there is stable leadership, a common vision, and sincere love for the Lord and for one another. And I believe that the best fellowship and friendship can be found in congregations where brethren are loyal to one another. True friends are loyal friends. The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus is not part of the canon of Scripture, but I love what it says about friendship:
“A loyal friend is a powerful defence: whoever finds one has indeed found a treasure.
A loyal friend is something beyond price, there is no measuring his worth.
A loyal friend is the elixir of life, and those who fear the Lord will find one.
Whoever fears the Lord makes true friends, for as a person is, so is his friend too
Do not desert an old friend; the new one will not be his match.
New friend, new wine; when it grows old, you drink it with pleasure” (Ecclesiasticus 6:14-17 & 9:10).
The Lord does not want you to be lonely and friendless. He wants you to have friends who are loving and loyal. When I think of friendship, I think of David and Jonathan. The Bible says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1). The New Testament talks about the hearts of believers being “knit together in love” (Col. 2:2).
Garments can be loosely knit or tightly knit. In a world-wide, universal sense, all believers are loosely knit together with one another. As members of the universal Body of Messiah, we are all connected to all believers of every location and of every generation. But the Lord also wants you to experience tightly-knit friendships in the here and now.
Let me add to my earlier advice of “Git in, and you’ll fit in.” Now let me say unto you:
“Git in, and you’ll fit in, and you’ll become knit in.”
I know a lot of people, so I have lots of friends. But I have had only a few friendships in my adult life that I would describe as tightly-knit, like David and Jonathan’s friendship. Besides my biological brother and sister and my wife and my immediate family, I can think of only about eight men with whom my soul has been tightly knit, and two of them are now dead. Of the remaining men, there are two whom I still see on a regular basis.
I once read somewhere that some of the men who fought in World War 2 said that they “missed” the war after they returned home at the end of the war. It was not the killing and the carnage of war that they missed. The thing they missed was the camaraderie, the knitting together of souls in a battle against a common enemy that needed to be defeated and destroyed. They could not find that sort of camaraderie in civilian life.
Much of the numbering in Numbers was to prepare the people for war. If you will get in fellowship and find your place in the Lord’s war against wickedness and live like a soldier of Messiah, your heart will become knit together in love with others. You will enjoy the camaraderie that only soldiers can experience by warring together against a common enemy.
If you want friends, you have to go to a place where friends can be found. If you want to enjoy good fellowship, good friendship, and good worship, don’t neglect these lessons from Numbers. Don’t be numb to Numbers.
Learn more about the importance of community, and the fruitfulness of fellowship and obedience to God's commandments in this inspirational book by Daniel Botkin: A Heart to Pray & A Mind to Work - Inspiration & Instruction From Ezra & Nehemiah. You'll learn how these two great leaders brought a remnant of God's people together and led them back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, and taught them how their obedience and unity would lead to restoration.
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Image (top): Passover 2, by Daniel Botkin, from his Exodus Gallery on his art website, DanielBotkin.com