Text: Numbers 11:24-30 (Acts 2:1-21) Pentecost
“Would that All the Lord’s People were Prophets”
In the name of him who invites
thirsting souls to come to him that from them springs of living water might
flow, dear friends in Christ: I’m glad
that God did not give me Moses’ job. Oh
sure, some of the things he got to do would have been pretty cool; you know,
like turning your trusty old staff into a deadly cobra whenever you felt like
it (that would be a good way to make sure you won all your arguments), or
dividing the Red Sea so the people could safely pass through and then dropping
the walls of water on the heads of your pursuing enemies – that’d been
something to see, or going up on top of the mountain for a forty day personal chit-chat
with the Lord. Who wouldn’t want to have
done some of those things? The trouble is
that those high points in Moses’ career were relatively few and far
between. The vast majority of the time he
was in the Lord’s service was spent leading his people
Quite the opposite: it’s hard to imagine a group of people as
stubborn, faithless, whiny, and ungrateful as the Israelites. The series of stories that describe the
Then on the other side, several
times he finds himself having to defend the people against the wrath of
God. Take the incident of the golden
calf for instance. The Lord becomes so
angry with the Israelites for making and worshipping an idol after he has
just told them specifically not to do that sort of thing that he tells
Moses, “I’ve had it with these people. They’re
worthless. I’m going to wipe them all
out and start over. I’ll make a new
nation for you – people who are faithful and obedient – you can lead them
to the Promised Land.” Though he might
have regretted it later, Moses jumped in to intercede for the Israelites. “No, Lord, don’t do that! Why, just think how it would look to the rest
of the world. You said you’d take these people to
I’m pretty sure I would not have done that. After all the grousing and abuse they’d heaped on Moses, if that’d been me in his sandals I’d probably have said, “Destroy them and start over? Sounds pretty good to me.” Or if I were feeling particularly magnanimous I might have tried to talk the Lord into just destroying the worst offenders and maybe afflicting the rest with a plague of painful boils or something equally nasty. It certainly would not have been my inclination to offer to take the hit for them. But like I said, I’m glad that God didn’t give me his job.
As it turns out, the Lord was moved by Moses’ selfless prayer of intercession on behalf of his people and his willingness to sacrifice himself for them, and so he relented from the judgment he had proposed. And so Moses continued on leading that rebellious rabble that seemed so bent on testing the limits of his patience and forbearance—both his and the Lord’s. Moses was a great man, there’s no doubt abut it. I’m willing to admit that he was at least ten times the spiritual leader that I could ever be. But it needs to be said that even Moses could be stretched beyond his limits by the faithless behavior of God’s people.
That’s what happens in the lead up
to today’s Old Testament lesson. The
Israelites are now about three months out of
And you might think that with the
finish line so close there’d be a rising sense of anticipation – and perhaps a
willingness to put up with the temporary discomforts and inconveniences of the
march. You know, it’s the home
stretch. We can tough it out. But no; apparently that would be too much to
ask for. Instead there arises a general
complaint. It’s about the food
supply. Though God graciously provides ample
manna from heaven every day – which is actually pretty versatile stuff: you can bake it, boil it, and serve it up a
number of different ways – it’s suddenly not good enough. The people want meat. And it’s not like they go and pray to the
Lord and ask for it; they just start grumbling.
“We’re sick to death of this stinking manna. We can’t even bear the sight of it any
more. Oh, remember how terrific we had
And for Moses it’s the last
straw. He snaps. He goes to the Lord and says, “What did I do
to deserve this cruel punishment you’ve placed upon me? Am I these people’s mother? Did I give birth to them all? Is that why you think I should have to carry
them like two-year-olds throwing a temper tantrum all the way to
In response the Lord does two things for Moses. First he promises to send the people meat – so much meat, in fact, that they get sick of it and become heartily sorry they demanded it the way they did. The second thing the Lord does for Moses is what we heard in the reading. The Lord essentially says, “You’re right. You can’t bear the burden of all these people. So I’m going to distribute the load of leadership and responsibility you’re carrying on these seventy elders who have been appointed. And to equip them to do it I’m going to take some of the Spirit that I’ve placed upon you and I’m going to give it to them. Together, with them also strengthened and inspired by my Spirit, you’ll be able to endure.”
That’s what we heard about in the
reading, how the elders gathered around the Tent of Meeting, and how the Lord
descended in a cloud, took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and placed it
on the elders of
And speaking of speaking through him, another thing I’d point out is that the outward sign of the Spirit’s resting on these elders is that they prophesied. Now, that doesn’t mean that they were predicting the future. To prophesy simply means to speak on behalf of God. That’s what Moses did as God’s appointed spokesman: he spoke forth God’s Word. So he was a prophet. Now the seventy elders would be joining him in this task: many mouths, but the same Spirit speaking through all of them.
And finally it’s worth noting that the Spirit’s activity is not confined to a particular location. The main body of elders was gathered around the Tent of Meeting when the Spirit came upon them and they spoke God’s Word. Or say it another way, they were at the church. The other two elders, Eldad and Medad were still in the camp – which we might think of as being at home or at work. The point is that God’s Word isn’t just for the place of worship; no, it should be spoken, heard, and applied wherever God’s people happen to be. Apparently some people didn’t think so. When the runner from the camp reported it to Moses, Joshua, his aide, thought it somehow undermined Moses’ authority. “We can’t have people going around speaking God’s Word just anywhere. Moses, make them stop!” To his credit, Moses was quick to see that it was not only not a problem but actually something desirable. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that he’d place his Spirit on everyone.” Yes, imagine that: what if all God’s people had the Spirit of Christ living in them, speaking through them, and guiding their thoughts and actions. Moses saw that that wouldn’t make his life more difficult, it would make it a thousand times easier.
Unfortunately for Moses, it was not
possible at the time. Why not? Simply stated the problem was human sin. Recall that in the time before the flood, the
Lord looked down and observed nothing but violence and evil on the face of the
earth. He said, “My Spirit is not
governing their hearts and minds.” And
so he withdrew his Spirit from mankind in general. He let the various nations of men go their
ways, letting sin run its course in them, and letting it take them deeper into
spiritual darkness and depravity. Only
among one people, his chosen nation of
That is until the important day in the life of the Church that we’re celebrating today in which the very thing Moses wished for happened. God’s Spirit came down and rested upon all of his people and they all spoke forth God’s Word. What made the difference? Well, someone did what Moses couldn’t do. Moses, you will recall, complained that he couldn’t bear the burden of all God’s people. Even with God’s Spirit resting on him he couldn’t do it. Why not? Because of his own burden of sin. He was flawed and weak himself. The fact is that except for God’s grace he couldn’t have carried himself to the Promised Land, much less taken anyone else there. Nor could he have been accepted as a sacrifice for the people’s sin like he’d offered. One sinner can’t die for another or for others. He can only die for his own sin.
Only someone who was sinless himself could do the job; someone who was also big enough, so to speak, to carry the burden of all God’s people. I’m speaking of the Lord Jesus, of course. And what I’d have you see is that he really did what Moses couldn’t. He took upon himself all our rebellious complaining, wandering, idolatry, and sin. He let his Father place the entire burden on his shoulders without complaining that he should have to carry it all. This is what happened on the cross as he gave his perfect life an offering for our sin. And when he breathed his last, he sent forth his Spirit. With the atonement for sin completed, with our debt of death paid, his Spirit could once again dwell in us. So God took the Spirit that was on him and on Pentecost poured it out on all his people – now not just one chosen nation, but people from every nation and language.
And that would include each of us gathered here. It’s funny, Moses asked sarcastically if he had given birth to all God’s people; but the Lord Jesus did exactly that: he gave us birth in water and the Spirit when we were baptized, and now even though sometimes when our sinful natures get the upper hand and we behave like the spiritual equivalent of two-year-olds throwing temper tantrums, still he carries us in his grace and forgiveness to the Promised Land. But the point of Pentecost is that we don’t have to behave that way. He has given us his Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. With him we are to put to death the old, sinful nature and yield to the Spirit and let him have the upper hand in our lives. He’s been given to us to work faith in God’s Word, to lead, to guide, and to help us forgive each other and bear one other’s burdens. And, yes, to be his prophets. To enable us to speak forth God’s Word; here, naturally, as we assemble for worship, but also like Eldad and Medad: to speak it at home and at work where we can apply it to our lives. Today we celebrate the fulfillment of what Moses could only hope for. The Lord has given us his Spirit and made us his prophets. May we live in his Spirit, and with his enabling speak forth the might works our God has done for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!