It is widely recognized that pastors are too interested in numbers. Buildings, budgets, baptisms, bums on seats: If it can be measured, church leaders will count it. Many define their success by it—or at least they used to, until COVID-19 made the exercise somewhat less reassuring.
It is less recognized, however, that pastors are not interested enough in Numbers. At dozens of leadership conferences over the past 15 years, I have only heard two passages from the book referenced: Aaron’s blessing (Num. 6) and the boldness of Joshua and Caleb (Num. 14). Otherwise, crickets.
In itself, that is not a problem. But Numbers is a gold mine of pastoral wisdom, with more to offer church leaders today than perhaps any Old Testament book besides 1 and 2 Samuel. For pastors in particular, it richly repays careful study. I say that for three reasons.
One is typological. From the apostles’ perspective, the wilderness period is where the church lives now (1 Cor. 10; Heb. 3–4; Jude). We have been rescued from slavery, redeemed by blood, and baptized in the waters, but we have not reached the land flowing with milk and honey. We have all the blessings found in Numbers—the presence, provision, and promises of God—but we face similar problems: grumbling, pride, idolatry, immorality, opposition, and death.
Another benefit is illustrative. Other than David, no leader in Scripture is presented quite like Moses, with his inner life exposed, his family rivalries laid bare, his faults, fears, failures, and frustrations made plain. If David shows us the struggles of waiting and the temptations of money, sex, and power, Moses shows us the mundane challenges of ordinary congregational life: the arguments about decision-making and leadership succession, the high points of blessing, victory, and miraculous provision alongside the everyday tedium of conflict resolution, moaning, and sin.
But perhaps the most striking feature of Numbers, when it comes to pastoral ministry, is the way it warns of opposing dangers at both ends of what we might call the confidence spectrum. Throughout Israel’s history, and indeed the history of the church, God’s people have tended to oscillate between overconfidence (pride, arrogance, self-importance) and underconfidence (unbelief, timidity, fear). Generations typically swing from one to the other, as young people see the flaws of their parents and overreact. Our generation is currently witnessing this sort of pendulum swing, prompted by high-profile examples of abusive and heavy-handed leadership.
Numbers highlights both dangers in a remarkably intricate way. Scholars identify seven major trials in Numbers. The first and last ones see Israel grumbling about their misfortunes (11:1–3; 21:4–9). The second and sixth ones involve a lack of faith that God will provide food (11:4–34) and water (20:2–13). The third and fifth see challenges to Moses’ leadership, from Miriam and Aaron (12:1–16) and from Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (16:1–17:13). And in the fourth and central test, Israel fails to enter the land because of unbelief (13:1–14:38).
Laid out like that, the twin dangers become apparent. In the second, fourth, and sixth trials, the problem is underconfidence: doubt, unbelief, timidity, and fear. In the third and fifth, the problem is overconfidence: defiance, pride, arrogance, and the desire for power. The way the narrative bounces back and forth suggests that both dangers will characterize Israel, and the church, well into the future.
There is a warning for pastors here: In responding to unbelief and fear, don’t overcorrect and become domineering bullies—and in responding to domineering bullies, don’t overcorrect into fear and unbelief. But Scripture is not fatalistic about this, as if we are forever doomed to swing between unhealthy extremes. In Luke 4:1–13, Jesus himself will endure the central trials of Numbers. He will be tempted to not trust God for provision in the wilderness, to perform miracles just to show off, and to seize power and authority before his time. Yet he defies the Tempter and leads in humble faith with neither fear nor pride. In his grace and by his Spirit, so can we.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and the author of God of All Things. Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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