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25. Serving God Wrongly or Rightly? (Numbers 16:1-50)

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Life of Moses (25)

August 19, 2018

When I was a pastor in California, we experienced what I call a lateral: Our social chairwoman lateraled leadership to someone else without running it by the elders. So all of a sudden, we had a new social chairwoman. We didn’t want to offend the new woman by removing her from the position at the outset, so we let her stay to see how things would go.

As Christmas approached, this woman told me that she wanted the church to have a Christmas ball. I tried to explain that a Christmas ball wouldn’t fit with our church, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Finally, an elder’s wife met with her and tried unsuccessfully to steer her in a different direction. So reluctantly the elder’s wife had to tell this woman that she needed to step down as our social chairwoman.

When I got home from church, the woman’s husband called, irate that we had done this to his wife. I could hear her sobbing in the background. This couple stopped attending the church and for years, whenever I would see them at the post office or market and try to greet them in a friendly way, they would look away and not return my greeting.

While we all should be serving the Lord in some way, that story illustrates that it’s easy to serve the Lord for the wrong reasons. Many in churches across America, including some in full-time ministry, are serving for what they can get out of it, not for the Lord and His glory. That’s the situation in Numbers 16. Korah, a Levite, organized some disgruntled Reubenites, along with 250 leaders of the congregation, to rebel against Moses and Aaron. Their contention was that they and everyone in Israel, were holy to the Lord. Therefore, they all should be able to serve as priests. They accused Moses and Aaron of going too far by exalting themselves over Israel. So they were challenging God’s appointed leaders, demanding equality for all. The chapter relates this rebellion and its aftermath, where God vindicated Moses and Aaron and brought frightening judgment on these rebels. The lesson for us is:

We serve God wrongly when we serve for ourselves, but rightly when we serve for Him.

Motive is everything in our service for the Lord. Why do you do what you do for Him? Often your true motives are uncovered when you feel that you should have a higher position of service or more recognition than the church has given to you. You resent those in leadership and think that you could do a better job if you only had the chance. The text reveals four ways that we can serve wrongly, as exemplified by these rebels; and, four ways to serve rightly, as seen in Moses and Aaron.

1. We serve God wrongly when we desire power and prestige for ourselves, but rightly when we’re content with the gifts He has entrusted to us, using them to serve Him.

A. We serve God wrongly when we desire power and prestige for ourselves.

The rebels were Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On (who is not mentioned again; perhaps he repented). Korah was a son of Kohath, a Levite, a cousin of Moses. The sons of Kohath had important duties in the tabernacle, including setting it up and taking it down when Israel changed locations in the wilderness (Num. 4:1-20). But the Kohathites were a notch below the Aaronic priests.

The other men were from the tribe of Reuben. Reuben had forfeited his preeminence as Jacob’s firstborn when he slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (Gen. 35:22; 49:4). The Levites and the tribe of Reuben shared adjoining campsites on the south side of the tabernacle (Num. 2:10; 3:29), which may account for their collusion here. Korah may have appealed to the Reubenites, “Because you’re descendants of Jacob’s firstborn, you should have a higher role in Israel than Moses has given to you. He just wants preeminence for himself! We’re organizing a group to confront him and his arrogant brother. Please join with us!”

Also joining Korah and the sons of Reuben were “two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen in the assembly, men of renown” (Num. 16:2). So this was not just a few complainers! It was a large, organized rebellion, made up of top leaders. The pretext for their complaint was (Num. 16:3): “You have gone far enough, for all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?”

Like all heretics, Korah and his fellow rebels emphasized one legitimate truth to the exclusion of other truths (Gordon Wenham, Numbers [IVP], p. 134). It was true that all Israel was to be holy unto the Lord (Exod. 19:6; Lev. 11:44; Num. 15:38-41); but it was also true that God had appointed Moses to be the leader over Israel and Aaron and his sons to serve as the officiating priests. Israel was to be a nation of priests before the Lord (Exod. 19:6), but that did not exclude Moses as God’s appointed mediator and Aaron as the appointed high priest. So their appeal for “equality” for all the people sounded right, but was out of balance.

So Korah and the rebels disguised their real motive for wanting to serve in more prestigious positions by claiming, “We just want to follow the word of the Lord, that we’re all holy in His sight.” But the real reason they demanded more preeminence was jealousy and the desire for more power and prestige for themselves. Moses unmasks them with the truth (Num. 16:8-11):

“Hear now, you sons of Levi, is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the rest of the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the service of the tabernacle of the Lord, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them; and that He has brought you near, Korah, and all your brothers, sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking for the priesthood also? Therefore you and all your company are gathered together against the Lord; but as for Aaron, who is he that you grumble against him?”

The application for us is: Constantly guard your motives for why you serve the Lord! It’s easy to cover pride under the guise of, “I just want the Lord’s kingdom to increase under my ministry!” But when you peel away the veneer, the real reason you want your ministry to grow is that you want more power and prestige for yourself. Certainly, we all should strive to do our best in whatever God has called us to do, but be careful not to do your best to promote yourself. God looks on our hearts. John the Baptist’s well known statement when his disciples were worried that Jesus was gaining more disciples than John is always appropriate (John 3:30): “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

B. We serve God rightly when we’re content with the gifts He has entrusted to us, using them to serve Him.

In Numbers 18:1-7, the Lord makes it clear that He has entrusted to Aaron and his sons the ministry in the sanctuary, but the other Levites were a gift to Aaron, performing the service for the tent of meeting. But they could not enter the holy place. God tells Aaron (Num. 18:7): “But you and your sons with you shall attend to your priesthood for everything concerning the altar and inside the veil, and you are to perform service. I am giving you the priesthood as a bestowed service, but the outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” “Bestowed service” is literally, “a service of gift.” In the context, the “outsider” refers to not only the other Israelites, but also to the Levites who were not priests.

The point is, God has assigned gifts and roles to each person and they are to view those positions as gifts, entrusted to each one to be used in serving the Lord. That’s exactly the point that Paul made to the Corinthians, who were boasting in their gifts, rather than humbly using them to build up others in the body. He told them (1 Cor. 4:7), “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Later, he reminded them that God had given each person different gifts to serve the church, much as the human body has many different parts that serve for the overall well-being of the person. He wrote (1 Cor. 12:4-7):

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

So we shouldn’t be jealous of the prestige of those who have more popular ministries than we have, but rather rejoice that the gospel is being preached and the body of Christ is being built up. And we shouldn’t despise or neglect the gifts that God has entrusted to us, but use them to serve Him with thankful hearts.

2. We serve God wrongly when we do not fear Him, but rightly when we fear Him above all.

A. We serve God wrongly when we do not fear Him.

These rebels were wicked men who had spurned the Lord (cf. Num. 14:11, 23, 27, 35). Their problem was that they did not have hearts that loved and feared God. Moses met their challenge that they deserved to be priests on a par with Aaron first by falling on his face and then challenging them (Num. 16:5-7),

“Tomorrow morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Himself; even the one whom He will choose, He will bring near to Himself. Do this: take censers for yourselves, Korah and all your company, and put fire in them, and lay incense upon them in the presence of the Lord tomorrow; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the one who is holy. You have gone far enough, you sons of Levi!”

Moses fell on his face because he rightly feared the Lord. If the rebels had even a twinge of fear for the Lord, they would have responded to Moses’ challenge by saying, “Uh oh! We’re literally toast if we go through with this challenge!” Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were legitimate priests by birth, had taken “strange fire” in their censers and offered it before the Lord. Instantly fire came out from the Lord and consumed them (Lev. 10:1-3). These rebels, who weren’t of priestly lineage, should have connected the dots between that incident and Moses’ challenge and fallen on their faces in repentance. But they didn’t.

The next day, when they assembled at the doorway of the tent of meeting with their censers in hand, the glory of the Lord appeared to all the congregation (Num. 16:19). Again, they should have dropped their unauthorized incense offerings, fallen on their faces, and begged God for mercy. But they didn’t. As Paul characterized the ungodly (Rom. 3:18; cf. Ps. 36:1), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Even after the Lord opened the earth to swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, along with their families and He sent fire to consume the 250 men offering the unauthorized incense, the entire congregation had the audacity the next day to accuse Moses and Aaron of being responsible for the death of these godless men, whom they called (Num. 16:41), “the Lord’s people”! You would think that after seeing God’s power in the plagues in Egypt, parting the Red Sea, and the fire and thunder on Mount Sinai, the Israelites would have respected God’s power, but they didn’t. This shows that even seeing powerful miracles is not enough evidence to convert sinners. The hearts of skeptics are so hardened that they can see miracles and rather than fall on their faces in the fear of God, they accuse God and His servants of cruelty.

B. We serve God rightly when we fear Him above all.

The immediate response of Moses and Aaron to Korah’s rebellion and later to the whole congregation’s accusation that they were responsible for the rebels’ deaths, was to fall on their faces (Num. 16:4, 45). They feared God because they knew that He is the righteous Judge who has legitimate grounds and the power to destroy on the spot all who challenge His right to rule.

This story shows that the God we serve is not to be trifled with! If you say, “Well, this is the Old Testament; we’re under grace in the New Testament,” my reply is, “Remember Ananias and Sapphira!” They died instantly because of their hypocrisy with their financial gift. While thankfully that was a unique occurrence, the result of it was (Acts 5:11), “And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.” These stories are in the Bible so that great fear would come over us as we serve the Lord!

Fearing God as you serve Him is crucial because it keeps you from compromising the truth because you fear what others will think. In confronting the Galatian heresy, Paul asked (Gal. 1:10), “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” You can’t serve God rightly if you fear people and their approval more than you fear God.

So, we serve God wrongly when we desire power and prestige for ourselves, but rightly when we are content with the gifts and calling He has given to us, using them to serve Him. We serve God wrongly when we do not fear Him, but rightly when we fear Him above all.

3. We serve God wrongly when we are not submissive to proper authority, but rightly when we serve in submission to His properly appointed leaders.

A. We serve God wrongly when we are not submissive to proper authority.

One telltale sign of people who are not in submission to proper authority is that they blame the leaders for problems that they (the people) have brought on themselves. The rebels ask Moses (Num. 16:13), “Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us?” They’re calling Egypt, where they were enslaved and mistreated, “a land flowing with milk and honey”! Incredible!

Then they add (v. 14), “Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” By “putting out the eyes of these men,” the rebels are exaggerating, claiming that Moses wants to blind men to his true intentions (Ronald Allen, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:838). So they’re blaming Moses for not bringing them into the Promised Land when it was they who sided with the ten faithless spies, resulting in God’s judgment that they would all die in the wilderness.

Then later (Num. 16:41) the whole congregation blamed Moses and Aaron for the deaths of the rebels, whom God killed by miraculous displays of His power. Sinners like to blame everyone but themselves for the troubles that they encounter due to their own sin (Prov. 19:3)! But at the root of their blaming Moses and Aaron for problems that they brought on themselves was that they were not submissive to the authorities whom God had appointed. You can’t serve God rightly if you’re in rebellion against the leaders He has put in place over you.

B. We serve God rightly when we serve in submission to His properly appointed leaders.

Of course Moses and Aaron and later the apostles had unique positions of authority in God’s kingdom. But we have the apostles’ inspired, authoritative writings in the New Testament, which tells us (Heb. 13:17), “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” And the entire church, including the leaders, are to be in submission to the Lord and His Word of truth. One requirement for elders is that they are not self-willed (Titus 1:7). We serve God wrongly when we are not submissive to proper authority, but rightly when we serve in submission to His properly appointed leaders. Finally,

4. We serve God wrongly when we don’t care about God’s people, but rightly when we care about His people even when they treat us wrongly.

A. We serve God wrongly when we don’t care about God’s people.

It’s evident that the rebels only cared about themselves. Their pretext was that they wanted equality for everyone, but their real motive was that they wanted more power and prestige for their own glory. Preachers who take advantage of people by using their donations so that they can live a luxurious lifestyle are not serving God. They’re false prophets who are serving themselves at others’ expense (2 Pet. 2:14-15; 1 Tim. 6:5)!

B. We serve God rightly when we care about His people even when they treat us wrongly.

Although Moses was one of the greatest and most godly leaders of all time, he had to deal with constant grumbling among the people. He had many reasons to ask God to wipe out these ungrateful people, but he didn’t succumb to that temptation. With Korah’s rebellion he and Aaron asked the Lord to spare the rest of the congregation (Num. 16:22). With the rebellion of the entire congregation, Moses directed Aaron to take his censer and make atonement for them, so that the plague would be limited. Aaron ran to save lives! Even with this intervention, 14,700 died, besides those who died on account of Korah (Num. 16:49). They cared for these rebellious people even when they had falsely accused them.

Aaron was the high priest, standing between the Judge and death for the guilty sinners (Num. 16:48). Ironically, even though the people resented Aaron and his priestly role, his fulfilling his duty as the high priest saved their lives. As such, Aaron is a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement for our sins even when we were His enemies (Rom. 5:6-10)! His example of loving us when we opposed Him should help us to love those who may treat us wrongly when we are serving Him (Eph. 5:2).


I’ve shared this unforgettable story before, but I share it again because it illustrates how wrongly and rightly to serve God. At a pastors’ conference, Bill Mills told about when he was speaking to a group of Wycliffe missionaries in South America. On the last evening as he ate dinner with the director and his wife, she told him how years before they had been assigned to translate the Bible into one of the native tribal languages. This is a lengthy and tedious process which, before computers, often took up to twenty years.

During that time, the translators were teaching the Scriptures and seeing a new church emerging among the tribe. But as the translation was almost done, the tribal people were becoming more and more involved in selling their crops for the drug trade and less and less interested in the Scriptures. When they finally finished the translation and scheduled a dedication of the New Testament, not even one tribal person came! This missionary wife was angry and bitter. She had given twenty years of her life so that these people could have the Scriptures, but they didn’t even want it!

Then with regard to Bill’s ministry of the Word that week, she said (in, Finishing Well in Life and Ministry [Leadership Resources International], p. 190):

God has … opened my eyes to see this all from His perspective. I am just beginning to realize now that we did it for Him! That is the only thing that makes any sense in all of this. We did it for God!

Mills concludes, “That is the only thing that makes any sense in ministry. We do it for Him.” Amen! We serve God wrongly when we serve for ourselves, but rightly when we serve for Him.

Application Questions

  1. Besides prestige and power, what are some other wrong motives for serving the Lord?
  2. How can a person who is by nature a people-pleaser become a God-pleaser?
  3. When is it right to challenge those in authority over us in our service? What safeguards leaders from becoming an authority unto themselves?
  4. Should church leaders always absorb mistreatment? When (if ever) is it right for them to confront those who falsely accuse or attack 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: Christian Life

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