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23. Persevering Faith or Temporary Faith? (Numbers 13:1-14:11)

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Life of Moses (23)

July 29, 2018

In the early 20th century, Robert Dick Wilson was a scholarly, godly Hebrew professor at Princeton Seminary. He could read at least 26 Semitic languages! One time after Donald Grey Barnhouse had graduated, he went back to the seminary to preach to the students. Dr. Wilson sat near the front. After the message, he went forward and shook Barnhouse’s hand. He said, “When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”

Barnhouse asked him to explain. Dr. Wilson replied, “Well, some men have a little god and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn’t intervene on behalf of His people. They have a little god and I call them little-godders. Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear Him.” He went on to tell Barnhouse that he could see that he had a great God and that God would bless his ministry (Donald Grey Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell, 1967], pp. 132-133).

In Numbers 13 & 14, we meet two men who were “big-godders,” and ten men who were little-godders. Israel was on the southern border of Canaan, poised to go into the land. Moses sent these 12 men to spy out the land. Ten came back with a bad report, focusing on the giants in the land. Two came back with a good report, saying, in effect, “We’ll eat those guys for lunch!” But the ten influenced the whole congregation to side with them. They voted to appoint a leader and return to Egypt. As a result, God decreed that they would all die in the wilderness; only their children and the two believing spies would enter the Promised Land. The message for us is that …

By faith, God wants you to persevere in His promise of salvation and not yield to temptations to unbelief.

There is an apparent contradiction between our text and Moses’ recounting of this incident in Deuteronomy 1:22-23. There Moses says that the people asked him to send out spies and he agreed. But here, the Lord tells Moses to send out the spies. Putting the two accounts together, probably the people, out of fear, asked Moses to send out the spies. He agreed, thinking that it would strengthen their faith to see that the land was good, just as God had promised. Numbers 13 shows that God consented to the people’s request, either graciously to strengthen their weak faith, or to reveal the unbelief that would disqualify them from entering the land. So we have examples here of persevering faith and of temporary faith turned to unbelief when faced with problems.

1. By faith, God wants you to persevere in His promise of salvation.

The exodus is the Old Testament picture of salvation or redemption. God brought His chosen people out of slavery in Egypt, just as today He brings His chosen people out of bondage to sin. The New Testament reveals that …

A. God promises salvation to all who truly believe in Christ.

In the Old Testament, salvation was restricted to Israel and those who by faith joined with Israel. Rahab, the harlot from Jericho, was saved because she believed in Israel’s God, harbored their spies, and put the scarlet cord in her window when Israel conquered Jericho (Joshua 2, 6). But in the New Testament, God promises salvation to all people who believe (Rom. 10:13): “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” The Bible ends on this open invitation (Rev. 22:17): “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” That invitation is open to you!

But, there were many in Israel who were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they only had temporary faith, not persevering faith (Rom. 9:6-8). At the exodus, they believed to the extent of putting the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts. But, as the subsequent history reveals, they did not truly believe in God or His promise to give them the land of Canaan.

In the same way, in the church today, there are people who profess faith in Christ and associate with the church, but they do not truly believe in Christ. Like the seed sown on the rocky soil, at first they receive the gospel with joy. But when temptation or trials come, they fall away because they have no firm root (Mark 4:16-17). In the same vein, the Book of Hebrews was written to some Jewish churches with members who had professed faith in Christ, but under persecution they were tempted to abandon Christ and go back to Judaism. The author exhorts them (Heb. 10:36), “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.” In Hebrews 3, the author refers to the generation that perished in the wilderness because they did not persevere in faith. He warns (Heb. 3:14-19):

For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said,

“Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.”

For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.

Thus we learn …

B. Those with genuine saving faith persevere, while those with temporary faith turn back to the world.

Many evangelicals do not understand this important point. Often parents will say about their adult child, “Yes, sadly he’s living in immorality, doing drugs, and he makes no profession of faith now. But when he was a child, he invited Jesus to be his Savior and Lord. So, once saved, always saved, right?” I would add one crucial word: “Once truly saved, always saved.” True believers may fall into sin, as David and Peter did. But they can’t be happy in sin (see Psalms 38 & 51). To be content in sin is not a good sign! Not all who make professions of faith are truly saved. As Jesus warned (Matt. 7:22-23),

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

In the context of warning about coming persecution and lawlessness, Jesus stated (Matt. 24:13), “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” The several warning passages in Hebrews make the same point. People may make a claim of believing in Christ and even for a time look as if they believe. But the test of genuine saving faith is perseverance, especially under trials. As Hebrews 10:38-39 warns,

But My righteous one shall live by faith; And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

But the good news is …

C. God’s promises and His power for perseverance are available to all who have trusted in Christ.

In Numbers 13:2, God reiterates His promise to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Obviously, God knew that there were giants in the land that Israel would need to defeat. He knew that there would be the temptation to compromise with the Canaanites, rather than kill them as He commanded. There would be the temptation to adopt the Canaanite gods and to intermarry with their people. The leaders of the tribes who were sent out should have known God’s promise and relied on it, but ten of them didn’t.

The only two spies that we remember are Caleb and Hoshea, whom Moses called, Joshua (Num. 13:8, 16). Hoshea means “salvation”; Joshua means, “Yahweh is salvation.” It’s the name God used at the burning bush. It’s also the name that the angel told Joseph to give Mary’s son, adding (Matt. 1:21), “for He will save His people from their sins.” Perhaps the change in Joshua’s name is mentioned here (even though Joshua was used earlier, Exod. 17:9; 24:13; 33:11; Num. 11:28) because his report shows that the Lord will save His people if they trust Him. The other ten spies died in a plague from the Lord because of their unbelief (Num. 14:36-37).

Joshua and Caleb report (Num. 14:7, 8) that the Promised Land was “an exceedingly good land … flowing with milk and honey” (a sign of abundance). The spies brought back the huge cluster of grapes as evidence. Even the ten unbelieving spies reported (Num. 13:27), “it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.”

In the same way, if God has saved you, He has given you many gracious evidences of His abundant goodness to help you persevere. He has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3). He has given you “everything pertaining to life and godliness” through the knowledge of Jesus our Lord and through “His precious and magnificent promises” (2 Pet. 1:3-4). He has promised to give you victory over sin as you walk in the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16). He promises to supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19). But He never promises that the Christian life will be easy and trouble-free. It is often pictured in terms of battle and warfare:

D. If God has saved you, perseverance is not automatic, but requires a fight of faith against difficult adversaries.

God could have sent a plague to kill all the Canaanites, allowing Israel to move in effortlessly. (He later did that with Sennacherib’s 185,000 troops, 2 Kings 19:35). But God allowed the Canaanites to remain so that Israel would learn to trust and obey Him and know His faithfulness and power in a deeper way. As you know if you’ve been a Christian for a while, the times when you’ve grown the most were when you were facing some really big giants and had to trust God like you don’t need to trust Him when everything is going smoothly.

But the options are not a difficult life as you face the giants in the land or a life of prosperity and ease if you go back to the world. The people’s plan to dump Moses, choose a new leader, and return to Egypt would not have been any easier than to go into the land and conquer the Canaanites. Going back to Egypt would have meant going back through the hot desert with no cloud to cover them or lead them, no manna to feed them, and no water from the rock to quench their thirst. If they even got back, they would have faced people who were angry with them because of the plagues, including the loss of their firstborn. So returning to Egypt wouldn’t have solved their problems!

So, as Jesus warned about the seed on the rocky soil and as the Book of Hebrews warns, there are many who profess to believe in Christ, but when trials hit, they bail out and go back to the world, where they foolishly think they will have an easier life. Thus,

2. To persevere in faith, you must overcome strong temptations to unbelief.

When God met Moses at the burning bush and promised to use him to bring Israel out of bondage in Egypt, He said (Exod. 3:8): “So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite.” Note both parts of that promise: the land is good, flowing with milk and honey, but it also has a bunch of strange, threatening people living there! The ten spies came back and reported both sides of that promise (Num. 13:27-29). But rather than believing God’s promise by going into the land to fight, they focused on the giants and rejected God’s promise. Their story teaches four things about persevering in faith:

A. To persevere in faith, you must realize that unbelief is a terrible sin.

If I asked you to give me your list of the worst sins, you’d probably mention murder, immorality, theft, child abuse, and the like. But would unbelief be on your list? It should be, because …

1) Unbelief is a terrible sin because it is the root of all sins.

Pride also may be regarded as the root of all sins, because pride and unbelief are inseparable. Pride does not believe God’s word that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves, so we must trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Pride says, “No, I can save myself by my good works!” That’s unbelief and it damns millions to eternity in hell. Unbelief is behind all sins, because it takes the same bait that Satan used with Eve (Gen. 3:1), “Indeed, has God said …?” Unbelief whispers, “Has God said that whatever you sow, you will reap? Come on, you can enjoy sowing some wild oats. God will forgive!” Any time we sin, we disbelieve what God has said.

2) Unbelief is a dangerous sin because it is deceptive and spreads easily and quickly.

Unbelief has a way of spreading as it plays on people’s fears. Note (Num. 14:1, 2), “all the congregation … all the sons of Israel … the whole congregation….” Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:332) describes the unbelief of the ten spies as “cowardice, disguised as prudence.” They seemed like the voice of sanity. They said, “These guys are really big! They are way too strong for us! If we try to fight them, we’re going to fall by the sword! The prudent plan is to go back to Egypt.” Their unbelief quickly spread through all the camp.

In our day, unbelief deceives God’s people and spreads quickly by saying, “The Genesis account of creation is just a myth. Science proves that evolution is true. And, by the way, there are many other myths in the Bible that you can’t take literally.” Pretty soon, faith in God’s inerrant word is undermined.

3) Unbelief is a blasphemous sin because it rejects God’s salvation and accuses Him of cruelty, deception, and weakness.

In Numbers 14:3, the people accuse God of bringing them into the land to die by the sword and having their wives and children become plunder! As John Calvin pointed out (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 3:65), they were accusing God of deception and cruelty, as if He were betraying them into the hands of the Canaanites where they would be slaughtered. And they were accusing Him of weakness, as if He were less powerful than these godless idolaters.

But professing Christians do the same thing when they have a major trial and accuse God of not caring for them. I’ve read a Christian counselor who told a young mother who lost her child, “You have a right to be angry at God!” That is encouraging blasphemous unbelief! None of us have a right to draw our next breath! To accuse God of cruelty because of our trials, or of deception because His promises aren’t fitting our expectations, or of weakness because He isn’t answering our prayers, is blasphemy!

B. To persevere in faith, you must resist the temptation to go along with the majority opinion in the world and sometimes in the church.

Faith in God and His promises is often not the popular view. To trust God, you may need to stand against the prevailing unbelief. Maclaren (ibid. 1:334) observes, “Not to believe Him unless a jury of twelve of ourselves says the same thing, is surely much the same as not believing Him at all; for it is not He, but they, whom we believe after all.” Modern unbelief says, “Being gay is not a sin; it’s just the way you were born. You can believe in Jesus and practice homosexuality.” That’s the majority opinion and many in the church are going along with it! The world is also rapidly endorsing the madness that you’re free to explore different genders or combinations of genders. Persevering faith takes God at His Word.

C. To persevere in faith, you must resist the temptation to exaggerate your problems and to minimize God’s power to keep His promises.

Maclaren (1:337) points out that the ten spies went looking “for dangers, and of course they found them.” When they came to Hebron, they encountered three descendants of Anak there (Num. 13:22). They should have recalled that Abraham had moved to Hebron right after God promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants (Gen. 13:18). Sarah and Abraham were buried in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron (Gen. 23:19). The spies should have thought about God’s promises and the faith of their forefathers.

But instead, all they could think about were these fearful descendants of Anak. By verse 33, these sons of Anak had grown into Nephilim (Gen. 6:4), so huge that the ten spies said, “We became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” Maclaren (ibid. 1:339) humorously observed that “fear performed the miracle of adding a cubit to their stature.” Problems have a way of growing when you’re not trusting in God!

In Numbers 13:27, the ten spies agreed that the land flowed with milk and honey and they showed the cluster of grapes as evidence. But by verse 32, they reverse themselves and say that the land “devours its inhabitants.” Commentators differ as to exactly what they meant. Probably it referred to the warlike people living there. But whatever they meant, the ten spies were maximizing the problems of taking the Promised Land and minimizing God’s power to keep His promises. Their view, which prevailed, was, “Let’s play it safe and go back to Egypt.”

D. To persevere in faith, look at the facts, but put them in the perspective of God’s promises and power.

Joshua and Caleb saw the same giants that the ten spies saw, but they saw the giants from the perspective of God’s promise to give Israel the land and His power to keep His promise, as seen in the exodus. The ten spies said, “These guys will devour us!” Joshua and Caleb said (literally, Num. 14:9), “They will be our food.” In modern language, “We’ll eat them for lunch!”

Maclaren (1:337) points out how the ten spies presented their findings as objective facts. He says (1:338) that they sounded like “an unbiased appeal to common sense, as if the reporter said, ‘These are the facts; we leave you to draw the conclusions.’” He adds (ibid. italics his),

To begin a perilous enterprise without fairly facing its risks and difficulties is folly. To look at them only is no less folly, and is the sure precursor to defeat. But when on the one side is God’s command, and on the other such doleful discouragements, they are more than folly, they are sin.

The ten spies and the two spies had the same experiences and the same facts. The ten interpreted the facts through unbelief; the two interpreted the facts through faith in God’s promises and His power to keep His promises. We face the same choice when we encounter giants in the land: Look at the facts, but then look at our God. Are the giants going to eat you, or are you going to eat them by persevering faith in God’s promises and His power?


So ask yourself, “Am I a big-godder or a little-godder?” There are giants in this evil world! God calls you to conquer them through persevering faith in His promises and power. As Hebrews 11:6 affirms, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

Application Questions

  1. If genuine faith perseveres, how can a believer be assured of salvation, since we don’t know in advance whether we’ll persevere when trials hit?
  2. How would you counsel a professing believer in sin? Should you assure him of his salvation or warn him of perishing?
  3. A Christian tells you that he struggles with weak faith and asks, “How can I grow in faith?” Your reply?
  4. What giants are you currently facing? What practical steps does God want you to take to conquer them?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Temptation

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