Summary: It is amazing to look at how even the arrangement of the camp in Early Israel provides a message about the need for leadership, vision, and devotion among God’s people.
Many churches are going through difficult transitions, whether due to the graying and silvering of their constituents, the changing demographics of their neighborhoods, the scheduling demands of a time-shifting society, a change in leadership, a change in vision, a merger with another congregation, or a need to start a mission effort outside the four walls of the church. Fortunately, such shifts or crises afford us an opportunity to examine who we really are as the people of God.
Now, a lot of you are going to think I’m crazy for going to the Book of Numbers for insight on this. Some ignore this book because it’s full of a lot of details that seem far removed from anything that could possibly be useful to modern believers. Some ignore it because they think God’s New Covenant in Jesus has set aside so much of God’s Revelation in the Old Covenant that we don’t have to bother. Even evangelical Christians who claim to believe the whole Bible often go through their entire lives without considering these chapters. But what’s the use of believing in the value of a book if we don’t bother to consider it, if we never listen to what it might say to us? So, I feel led to point out a few things about the People of God in the Old Covenant in order to allow God to speak to us about what it means for us as the People of God in the New Covenant.
The New Testament writers perceived the church as the New Israel, as did many of the early church fathers. So, if Israel is a picture (however limited) of the church as God’s People, what can we learn from them? First, we can look at the way the book opens. It opens with God telling Moses what to do and Moses organizing the people to do it. God commands a primary leader to organize the people for survival in the midst of their enemies and before they’re through, God has had a say in everything down to the building and grounds committee and the handling of the Old Testament equivalents of offering plates and Lord’s Supper dishes.
So, this immediately causes me to wonder, “What kind of say does God have in our churches?” Do we really look to God’s Word to determine how to organize? Do we look to the latest corporate model and see how we can fit it into our church structure? Do we really ask what God wants or do we settle for denominational tradition? Do we ask God to show us the needs we are to meet and organize for that mission or do we ask ourselves how we can staff an organization for our convenience? Do we have people in church offices because we’ve always had them or because some book says we need them or do we have offices and positions because God has put a desire to minister in our hearts? Are we serving because “somebody has to do it” or because God called us to do it?
In the Hebrew text of Numbers 1:2, God’s command has the literal idea of “Lift up the heads of all the congregation of the sons of Israel.” Now, of course, that literal idea means to take a census in our vernacular and most translations use that verb. But I kind of like the literal sense of going out among all the people and seeing who is WILLING to stand up and be counted. Find out who is willing to stand up for God.
You see, I don’t think there’s any chance for us to function as a church until we give people a chance to stand up and be counted for God. In the old days, people in my denomination literally let people stand up and be counted. We had attendance boards at the front of our churches, we kept records on who studied their Sunday School lessons and who did their Daily Bible Readings, and we asked folks to total up the number of contacts they made every week. There was accountability and there was an expectation that we all had responsibilities.
In our text, the men of Israel were expected to stand up according to their tribal affiliation and their extended families (father’s houses). Frankly, this wasn’t like the old roll calls we used to have on the first day of school where the teachers would call our names in alphabetical order and we’d respond with: “Present!” “Here!” or “Yo!” (depending on our level of respect for the teacher or the process). This census was actually draft registration. God wanted the people to know how big their clan militias could feasibly be.
Now, I realize it was only a little bit ago that I preached on David making a bad decision to take a census, so I’d better clarify the difference. In II Samuel and I Chronicles, David takes the census because HE wanted to know what kind of military resources he had. Here, God orders the census so the people can plan for their defense. I think we can clearly see that when David decided to have a census taken on his own (and was warned against it), he expected Israel to rally around him as the king. In Numbers, as God orders the census, we quickly see God direct the layout of the camp around the ark of the covenant—the physical symbol of His Presence in the Old Covenant.