In Numbers 14 we read the consequences of the Israelites rebellion. Caleb and Joshua alone seem to have the right perspective:
“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”
In other words:
God has good things for us
Do not rebel against him
Do not be afraid
Remember God is with you.
That little summary seems like a good guide to life, but they Israelites are not convinced:
10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.
And God is not pleased:
Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. 11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.”
It’s then that we see the incredible boldness of Moses who has the audacity to tell God that it’s a bad plan.
13 Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. 14 And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, Lord, are with these people and that you, Lord, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. 15 If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’
There are a number of beautiful points here. First, that God seems to allow himself to take a different course of action than the one he originally “intended.” I say “intended” because perhaps all along, within the compass of his sovereignty, there was a range of possible actions acceptable to him, and he wanted Moses to plead for his people, and understand the importance God’s reputation.
We’ve seen this before when Abraham was pleading for God to spare Sodom (Genesis 18) and bargained God down from 50 to 10 righteous ones. Either we believe that in these incidences God changed his mind, in which case we have to deal with the tricky problem of Abraham, or Moses having a better plan than God. Any change implies a change from better to worse or worse to better, and if God is without error, then he can’t move from worse to better, and if he is good, he could not move from better to worse. Or we believe that God has a range of possible actions open to him, all of which are equally pleasing, and within that range he allows scope for human influence and intervention. That’s an encouraging thought, that there is flexibility in the plan of God, and that we can move him with our pleas.
The second thing that strikes me is the importance of God’s reputation, which it seems, according to the way the text is written, Moses has to remind him of. “God, what will they say about you if you can’t keep your promise to deliver your people and bring them into this land? What kind of reputation will you have then?”
God seems to accept this argument, and modifies his judgment on the people from a deadly plague which will wipe out all but Moses and his family, to one which ensures that few who came out of Egypt will enter the Promised Land, but their children will.
Again this has some theological complexity to it. Can God forget about the importance of his reputation? Can the actions of God be damaging to God? Does he really need someone to remind him about the potential consequences of his actions?
I can’t go too deeply into answering that here (as if there is an easy answer) but one thing is clear. The reputation of God is of prime importance. Moses understands it, and we should too.
When we bear the name Christian, we reflect to people what Christ is like. A friend of mine says that every one of us is an example. We are either a good example or a bad example, but we are an example. And when people look at us, they are supposed to see something of the God in whom we believe. Something of the grace, mercy, “abounding in love, forgiving of sin” character of the God we follow and represent. We are walking billboards for Christ, our life the only Bible some people may ever read.
I remember hearing about a soldier being brought before Alexander the Great, on charges of desertion. He had fled in cowardice when his troop faced the enemy. Terrified he kneeled before Alexander who bellowed, “Soldier, what is your name?” At first, the soldier was so intimidated he did not answer, but then he croaked out, “Alexander.”
Alexander the Great looked down at him and declared, “Then change your name, or change your behavior.”
We claim the name of Christ. Do we need to change our name or change our behavior?