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24. The Tragic Consequences of Unbelief (Numbers 14:11-45)

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Life of Moses (24)

August 12, 2018

Blaise Pascal (source unknown) said, “One-half of the ills of life come because men are unwilling to sit down quietly for thirty minutes to think through all the possible consequences of their acts.” The apostle Paul put it (Gal. 6:7-8):

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

You are free to sow whatever kind of seeds you want, but once they’re sown, you’re not free to reap something else—unless the amazing grace of God through the gospel floods into your life. But even then, sometimes God allows the consequences of previous sins to linger to teach us to hate our sins. Our text shows that:

If through unbelief you reject God’s gracious promise of salvation, you will reap tragic consequences; but if you respond in faith you will reap eternal life.

You may think, “The first half of that is kind of gloomy. Couldn’t you skip the negative and focus on the positive?” But except for the examples of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, Numbers 14 is a gloomy chapter. In chapter 13, the twelve spies had gone into the land. Ten came back with a doom and gloom report: “There are giants in the land! We were like grasshoppers in their sight! There’s no way that we can go in and take the land!”

But two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, tried to counter the negative report by saying, “If God is with us, we’ll eat those guys for lunch!” The people, however, sided with the ten faithless spies. They proposed appointing a new leader and returning to Egypt. They were about to stone Caleb and Joshua when God suddenly displayed His glory at the tent of meeting. The verses that we’re considering now report God’s pronouncement of judgment on that evil, unbelieving congregation. But even in judgment, God’s mercy shines through to give hope to all who respond in faith. We’ll consider five lessons:

1. If you repeatedly reject God’s grace, you may cross the line of no return.

In Numbers 14:11, the Lord asks Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?” In verse 22, the Lord says that these people who had seen His glory and the signs He had performed in Egypt and in the wilderness had put Him to the test, “these ten times.” The Talmud and some commentators count up exactly ten times that Israel had spurned the Lord (Ronald Allen, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:822). But ten is often the number of completion (e.g. the Ten Commandments, the ten plagues). So, “ten times” is probably a figure of speech meaning that they had filled up the measure of sin requiring judgment (John Currid, Numbers [EP Books], pp. 201-202).

Again (Num. 14:27), the Lord asks Moses, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me? I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel, which they are making against Me.” The people have crossed the line, so now the Lord pronounces judgment on that evil generation.

First, He presents Moses with the same test that He had given him after the incident with the golden calf (Num. 14:12): “I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them, and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.” Moses responds here as he did after the golden calf, arguing for God’s glory. The Lord relents from destroying this unbelieving people on the spot, but He does sentence all of the generation 20 years old and upward who had grumbled against Him to die in the wilderness. Only Joshua and Caleb, who had believed in God and His promise to give them the land, would enter in. So the chapter shows that people who repeatedly reject God’s grace may cross the line of no return. God is gracious and patient, but at some point, His judgment will fall on those who persist in unbelief.

This raises a serious question: “When does a person cross that line? Could I or one of my loved ones have committed the unpardonable sin?” I get so many emails from people asking that question that I should have written out a standard reply! The basic answer is: If you are concerned that you may have committed the unpardonable sin, you probably have not committed it! In other words, those who have gone beyond the reach of God’s grace couldn’t care less. Strictly speaking, the unpardonable sin involved attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, so it could only be committed during His time on earth (Matt. 12:24, 31-32). But the warning still applies, even if the exact sense cannot be duplicated: a person may repeatedly turn his heart away from the good news of Jesus Christ until he reaches a point where he is hardened beyond remedy.

You ask, “When does a person cross that line of no return?” God only knows, but clearly, rejecting God’s grace is not something to mess with! Proverbs 29:1 warns, “A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” Someone may say, “The thief on the cross got saved right before he died. So I’ll believe later, but for now I’m going to sow my wild oats!” But the thief on the cross may have encountered God’s grace for the first time as he was hanging there dying. A wise Puritan wrote (source unknown), “We have one account of a deathbed repentance in order that no man need despair; we have only one, in order that no man may presume.” As Paul exhorts (2 Cor. 6:2), “Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation.’” Don’t push the limits of God’s grace!

2. God’s promise of salvation is laid hold of by faith so that He will be glorified among the nations.

The problem with the crowd in Israel that wanted to return to Egypt was that they did not believe in the Lord and His promise to give them the land of Canaan (Num. 13:2; 14:11). As we’ve seen, God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt and His promise to give them the land of Canaan is a picture of our salvation. And the Bible is clear that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 4:4-5). Even faith is God’s gift (Phil. 1:29); if it were not, we’d boast in our faith!

It’s important to understand that the main reason God saves anyone is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). As He tells Moses (Num. 14:21), “but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.” His glory is displayed both in His grace toward those He saves and also in His judgment toward sinners who reject Him (Num. 14:17-18).

In other words, salvation is not mainly about us; it’s primarily about God and His glory. Moses understood this. When God proposed wiping out this evil people and starting over with Moses, Moses immediately brought up the matter of God’s fame among the nations (Num. 14:15-16): “Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, ‘Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’” I love the way Moses argued his case before the Lord, much as an attorney would argue a case in court! He continues (Num. 14:17-19):

“But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’ Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”

He’s praying the Lord’s own words from Exodus 34:6-7 as the basis for his request! He’s saying, in effect, “Lord, this is what You Yourself have said. Now, act in accordance with Your own words!”

In the same way, we should lay hold of God’s Word and pray it back to Him: “Lord, You have said that You take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezek. 33:11). You have said that the whole earth will be filled with Your glory (Num. 14:21). Please be glorified in saving [so and so] by granting him the repentance that leads to eternal life (Acts 11:18).”

Note one other point here: Moses knew that the pagan nations were paying attention to God’s dealings with Israel. If He slaughtered this people in the wilderness, the nations would wrongly assume that He lacked the power to bring them into the land. Forty years later, after Moses’ death, when Israel was ready to cross the Jordan and enter the land, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho. They lodged at the house of Rahab the harlot. She recounted to them how forty years before the Lord had delivered Israel through the Red Sea and how He would give them the land of Canaan (Josh. 2:9-11). The pagan nations were paying attention! Rahab believed in the God of Israel and begged the spies to save her life and the lives of her family, which they did. Later, she is listed as an ancestor of Jesus Christ and as a woman of faith (Matt. 1:5; Heb. 11:31). The application for us is: The world is watching us. Will we uphold God’s fame before unbelievers by trusting Him (Num. 14:15) or will we cause unbelievers to scoff at our God because of our unbelief?

3. Although the Lord may delay judgment, He does not necessarily remove the consequences of sin on us or on our children.

When the people heard about the giants in the land, they wailed (Num. 14:2), “Would that we had died in this wilderness!” They accused God of bringing them into the land so that their wives and children would become prey for the Canaanites. So the Lord solemnly declared (four times, Num. 14:29, 32, 33, 35), “Okay, you said you’d rather die in this wilderness, so you’ll die in the wilderness! You accused Me of wanting to kill your children, but I will bring them into the land which you have rejected” (Num. 14:31). So during the next 38 years, over a million adults who had come out of Egypt died in the wilderness. If you do the math, that amounts to over 26,000 deaths every year, or 72 per day for 38 years! Moses saw a lot of death during those long years in the wilderness (Ps. 90:5-7)! Two lessons:

A. There are temporal and eternal consequences for those who reject God’s salvation.

Israel’s main problem was that they did not believe in the Lord (Num. 14:11). The Lord also says (vv. 11, 23) that they spurned Him, which is a strong word meaning to despise (ESV) or have contempt (NIV) for someone. Twice (Num. 14:27, 35) God calls them an “evil congregation” who were grumbling against Him. As He declares (Ps. 95:10-11),

“For forty years I loathed that generation,
And said they are a people who err in their heart,
And they do not know My ways.
“Therefore I swore in My anger,
Truly they shall not enter into My rest.”

But, you may wonder, why does God tell Moses that He has pardoned them in response to Moses’ prayer (Num. 14:20), and yet He decrees that they all will die in the wilderness? And the ten unbelieving spies died immediately by a plague before the Lord (Num. 14:36-37). God’s forgiveness was not forgiveness unto eternal life, but rather it meant that He was delaying His judgment by not wiping them all out on the spot. God was promising Moses that His covenant with Abraham would not be abrogated (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 77). Their children would be spared, but the grumbling unbelievers would suffer the consequences of their rebellion. Not only would they not enjoy the abundance of the Promised Land; also they would die and face eternal judgment for their unbelief at God’s throne of justice.

The author of Hebrews refers to this incident and cites Psalm 95:7-11. He then applies it to his readers, who professed faith in Christ, but were tempted to go back to Judaism because of persecution (Heb. 3:12): “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” He’s saying that although like Israel in the wilderness you may be having some difficult trials because of following Christ, to go back to the world (Egypt) would indicate that you have an evil, unbelieving heart. To turn from Christ back to the world would be to fall away from the living God! If you do that, you will not enjoy the many blessings of knowing Christ in this life and you will face His eternal judgment when you die. You don’t want to do that!

B. There are temporal and sometimes eternal consequences on the children of those who reject God’s salvation.

Although God promised to bring the children of the rebels into the land, He said that they would have to be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years and suffer for their parents’ unfaithfulness (Num. 14:31, 33). They all would have to watch their parents die premature deaths and be buried in that desolate place.

While God does not condemn any person because of his or her parents’ sins (Ezek. 18:20), the sad result of the fall is that the sins of parents are visited on children, even to the third and fourth generations (Exod. 34:7; Num. 14:18). That means, if you love your children, kill your sin! If you don’t want your kids to reject the Lord, then you’ve got to deal with your hypocrisy, anger, lust, and selfishness. Show them daily the love and kindness of our Savior so that they will want to follow Him too.

So this chapter hits us with some bad news-good news lessons: Bad news: If you repeatedly reject God’s grace, you may cross the line of no return. Good news: God’s promise of salvation is laid hold of by faith so that He will be glorified among the nations. Bad news: Although the Lord may delay judgment, He does not necessarily remove the consequences of sin on us or on our children. Then there’s more bad news before some good news:

4. To attempt to bypass God’s way of salvation and use your own means of salvation will be ultimately tragic.

When Moses told the Israelites God’s word of judgment, they “mourned greatly” (Num. 14:39). But it was superficial repentance, as seen by the fact that immediately after they decided to go against the Lord’s command to set out into the wilderness (Num. 14:25). Instead, they determined to go up and enter the land (Num. 14:40). So when they had the promise of God’s presence to go into the land, they voted to return to Egypt. But now when Moses warns them twice (vv. 42, 43) that the Lord will not go with them, they think they are strong enough without the Lord to go up and conquer the Canaanites.

Outwardly, they profess to be obeying God by going in accord with Joshua and Caleb’s report (v. 40). But actually, they were disobeying what God had just pronounced in judgment against them. So they went up without the Lord’s presence (as represented by the ark) and without God’s mediator, Moses (Num. 14:44). The Canaanites struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah.

As such, these self-willed Israelites are a picture of those who reject God’s promise of salvation by faith in Christ alone and determine to get to heaven by their own way, trusting in their own ability. Alfred Edersheim observed (Old Testament Bible History [Eerdmans], p. 169), “The obedience which is not of simple faith is of self-confidence, and only another kind of unbelief and self-righteousness.”

It’s safe to say that people’s attempt to save themselves by trusting in themselves is the main reason they miss God’s offer of free grace through Jesus Christ. They mistakenly think, “I’m a good person. I don’t need a Savior because I’m not a terrible sinner!” But God’s standard is absolute righteousness. A single sin of thought, word, or deed is enough to condemn anyone. That’s why Paul wrote (Rom. 3:10-12):

“There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”

How then can anyone be saved from God’s judgment?

5. If you receive God’s salvation in the way that He has ordained, you will inherit eternal blessings.

The two believing spies, Joshua and Caleb, are the bright spots in this otherwise gloomy chapter. They believed in God’s promise to give the land of Canaan to Israel. They pleaded with the unbelieving majority (Num. 14:8-9),

“If the Lord is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they will be our prey. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

Of Caleb, who may have been the main spokesman in verses 8-9, the Lord said (Num. 14:24), “But My servant Caleb, because he has had a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land which he entered, and his descendants shall take possession of it.” Forty-five years later, Caleb approached Joshua and said (Josh. 14:12), “Now then, give me this hill country about which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day that Anakim were there, with great fortified cities; perhaps the Lord will be with me, and I will drive them out as the Lord has spoken.” The next verses confirm (Josh. 14:13-14),

So Joshua blessed him and gave Hebron to Caleb the son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. Therefore, Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite until this day, because he followed the Lord God of Israel fully.

The Bible is clear that God will bless those who trust His promises and follow Him fully. Giving the Promised Land to Caleb and Joshua, who believed His promise, is a picture of the eternal blessing that God offers to all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the cross, God’s mercy and justice met. Jesus bore God’s penalty for our sins, so that He can be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). It was the Father’s and the Son’s love that sent Jesus to the cross (John 3:16): “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

To receive God’s offer of forgiveness of all your sins and eternal life with Him in the indescribable joy of heaven, you must abandon your own way of salvation through your good works and believe in God’s way, which gives Him all the glory. As Paul stated (Titus 3:4-7), “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” If you will believe God’s promise, you will inherit eternal life as His free gift!


Robert Louis Stevenson (source unknown) observed, “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” Make sure that your consequences will not be God’s judgment because you have not believed His promises. Let your banquet of consequences be eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Application Questions

  1. How would you counsel someone who was worried that he had sinned so many times that he was beyond God’s grace?
  2. Why is it important to affirm that saving faith originates with God, not with the sinner? What Scriptures support this?
  3. Why does God sometimes allow the consequences of our sins to continue after He has forgiven us?
  4. Many say that we should set aside our differences with Roman Catholics and come together on our shared beliefs. In light of the Catholic view that we are justified by faith plus works, do we believe the same gospel? Can we join together with 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: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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