By The Numbers, 5


Numbers 9:15 – 23

At this point in the book of Numbers, the Israelites had been gloriously delivered out of the bondage in Egypt by the supernatural hand of God. The people had been numbered, organized, sanctified, and been given spiritual leadership and direction. They had made offerings and sacrifices to God and celebrated the great Passover feast. As far as God was concerned they were finally ready for their journey to the Promised Land. One thing remained: the Israelites needed to understand who was really leading them. Moses was certainly a powerful, towering personality. He was aided by spiritually endowed elders. And yet, they were not the ones the Israelites were to look to for guidance. The journey they were about to undertake was a serious one; the fulfillment of a promise God made to Abraham generations ago. Such a journey demanded the Israelites pay strict attention the God and God would make sure they couldn’t miss His presence.

Still, if you and I could could go back in time to watch the millions of Israelites trudging across the trackless desert, we might think them mad! Their journey seemed to be a hit-or-miss thing. One day walking straight, the next going round in circles, the next day going backwards. Yes, the journey from the Red Sea to the Promised Land was taken by the longest, most roundabout way possible, but it was the right way because it was God’s way. He was leading them by His very Presence. There’s a minor lesson here for Christians to take note of. Sometimes – maybe most of the time – God asks His people to do things or go places that don’t make a lot of sense to the natural mind. Sometimes God leads His people in a straight line, other times He makes them stand still, yet He’s still leading them. Sometimes it may seem as though God has left His people but we know nothing can make that happen.

For the Israelites, God’s presence looked like both a cloud and fire:

On the day the Tabernacle was raised the Cloud covered it; and that evening the Cloud changed to the appearance of fire, and stayed that way throughout the night. (Numbers 9:15 TLB)

Let’s consider God’s presence for a few moments.

Where did He come from?

The “cloud” was a powerful symbol of God’s presence among His people. Of course, God doesn’t really look like a “cloud.” This was the Shekinah glory, a term that is not found anywhere in the Bible. It was actually coined by Jewish rabbis from a Hebrew expression meaning, “he caused to dwell.” Throughout the Old Testament, God speaks of His intense desire to have a meaningful, intimate relationship with His people. The so-called Shekinah – variously described as a brilliant light, a cloud or mist or fire – refers to God’s accommodation to man. In other words, God made a way to make His presence seen and felt in our world. God is not a resident of our world, but in His love and concern for us, He found a way to “cross over” from His world to ours.

It took Solomon, writing long after the events of Numbers, to come to this inspired conclusion:

But can you, O God, really live on earth? Not even all heaven is large enough to hold you, so how can this Temple that I have built be large enough? (1 Kings 8:27 GNT)

This was not poetry. It was not merely the confession of a humble man. This is a statement of deep, theological fact. No tabernacle, no Temple, no locality on our planet is capable of containing our Almighty God. Trying to contain God would be like trying to bottle lightening. It can’t be done.

And yet, God made it happen to benefit His people. How this cloud was formed is unknown – we have no idea how God made it happen. Like the body of Jesus, everybody could see it and experience it, but there was a mystery about it. This cloud was God. He was not only IN it, He WAS it. The mysterious, ever-present cloud was to the Israelites the visible body of God.

Can you explain the Incarnation? Can you explain how the Son of God became the Son of Man? Can you explain the mystery of God appearing in the flesh?

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.” (John 14:9, 10 NKJV)

The Israelites were to look to the cloud for direction. We are to look to Jesus for direction. The cloud hovered over the Tabernacle. We have this to think about:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 16:9a NIV)

No Christian ever needs to look for the presence of God. There is, in fact, no place on earth a Christian may hide from God. God is IN you. The glory of God is IN you. All you have to do is learn to experience His presence and hear His voice. But that’s easier said than done. Remember this?

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 9:11 – 13 NIV)

Like the prophet Elijah, some of us are looking for God all over the place, but we don’t without realize He’s already within us.

When He came

Numbers 9:15 indicates the presence of God came to the Israelites ONLY after everything and everybody had been put in order. When the people had done everything God had told them to do, He came. This is not insignificant because it is the same with us today. God comes to us only after we have surrendered our wills to His. When a sinner does that, God takes up resident in Him.

But let’s consider the Christian for a moment. Why do you suppose so many born again believers, from time to time, feel as though God has jumped their ship? The answer to that question is actually another question: Has that born again believer jumped God’s ship? God certainly never, ever abandons us – the story of the Prodigal Son proves this to be true – but we Christians find it far too easy to abandon Him. When we do that; when we choose our way at the expense of God’s will, we will feel as though He has moved away. He hasn’t, but that’s how we feel. God has put that feeling in us to give us a clue. Yes, feelings are important when we learn how to understand them. If you feel as though God has left you, check to see where you are in your journey of faith. It may well be that something – some sin, some habit, some attitude – has come between you and God. God is still there, but you are unable to feel Him. The best remedy to that sad situation is simple: get right with God! Root out and dispose of whatever it is that is shielding His presence from you.

His Character

Two important Hebrew verbs are employed to describe the character of God’s presence. The first one is the verb which means “to cover,” and it’s used in verse 15. The second is the Hebrew verb meaning, “to settle,” in verse 17. Let’s read these two verses together:

On the day the Tabernacle was raised the Cloud covered it; and that evening the Cloud changed to the appearance of fire, and stayed that way throughout the night. (Numbers 9:15 TLB)

When the Cloud lifted, the people of Israel moved on to wherever it stopped, and camped there. (Numbers 9:17 TLB)

The expression, “wherever it stopped,” uses the verb sakan, from which those Jewish rabbis get their idea of the “Skekinah glory.” To understand the Jewish idea of the presence of God is to understand their concept of how God came and went, came and went, came and went. The Shekinah glory always moved ahead of the Israelites, guiding them, showing the way. When it came to rest – when it stopped – it hovered above the Tabernacle. When you stop and think about it, that’s really kind of sad. The Jewish understanding of God’s presence reveals something that breaks the heart. The cloud and the fire of His presence in the Old Testament symbolized God’s nearness to His people, but also His remoteness. Yes, the cloud could be seen, but it was always hovering above the Tabernacle. The Israelite could look at it and certainly see God’s presence, but he couldn’t get close. To that same Israelite, God was as near as a fire, but like a fire, he could only get so close.

Aren’t you glad Jesus came the way He did?

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NIV)

This really is a phenomenal verse. The verb “became” means something very special here. It’s not “became” in the sense that when Christ became a man he stopped being what He was before. When Lot’s wife “became” a pillar of salt, she stopped being Lot’s wife, but when Lot “became” the father of Moab, he was still Lot. That’s the sense of what John wrote here. Christ, the eternal Word, became a man but He remained what He was before: the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Word of God. It’s a mystery, how these two natures – one Divine the other human – ever existed in one body, but they did and that was God’s accommodation to us.

Pause for a moment. Think about those Old Testament Israelites. We’re not all that far removed from them. They had all the same problems we have today. They had to feed their families. They had to face sickness and death. They faced an uncertain future. Some of them weren’t happy with their national leaders. Those were real-life problems they faced and they’re real-life problems we face, too. God came to them, after a fashion. He appeared as a cloud and as a fire, yet God wasn’t really any of those things.

And then there’s Jesus. God in the flesh. All God yet all man. Who can explain it? The declaration made in 451 AD known as “The Symbol of Chalcedon” does a pretty good job of it:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man…in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ...

That’s the difference between God merely appearing as a cloud or as a fire and actually coming to us as the Son of Man.

But there’s more. John tells us that He “made His dwelling among us.” That’s a funny way of referring to “the Word became flesh.” The idea behind that phrase is that the Eternal Word, which assumed the human nature permanently (though not in its sin-weakened condition permanently) “pitched His tent among us.”

Yes, in the Incarnation, God dwelled among men for a time. But unlike that cloud and fire, God is still among us. But He doesn’t hover over us like a cloud. He doesn’t move ahead of us like a fire, lighting our way. He’s right inside us. In the Person of the Holy Spirit, God dwells within every single born again believer. You and I have something the Old Testament Israelites could only dream of: the abiding presence of God.

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