Numbers 16 & 17
During the long years of aimless wandering, it is hardly surprising that some of the Israelites become frustrated and resentful. A group of high-ranking men, led by Korah, misunderstand God’s insistence on holiness for everyone and assume that it means all should have direct access to His presence, just like Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3). But it soon becomes clear that they are interested only in the prestige conferred by holiness, and not in its responsibilities. Moses realises the implications of their demand, and is horrified. He himself would be as happy for all God’s people to be priests as for all of them to be prophets (Numbers 11:29); but these offices can only be bestowed by God – and they already know what is likely to happen to anyone who approaches Him without His authorisation. So if Korah and his supporters really believe that they can all be priests, let them put it to the test by offering incense, and see if God agrees with them!
At the same time, the Reubenites have a more prosaic complaint: that the Promised Land has not materialised. They too are resentful of Moses’ leadership (perhaps all the more so as their own tribe has been demoted from its ‘firstborn’ status), and accuse him of making the whole thing up in order to become a self-appointed tribal chief. They seem to have forgotten that it isn’t Moses’ fault but their own that they are stuck in the wilderness! They will not even respond to his summons, which is in itself a calculated rejection of his authority. It shows that they are not really interested in resolving their grievances, only in making trouble (Numbers 16:12-14). Since they will not come to Moses, he has to go to them. He doesn’t attempt to argue with them, for the opportunity for repentance has already passed. Instead he prophesies what God will do to them: a punishment without precedent, that will refute the charge that Moses has been acting entirely on his own authority. And no sooner has he finished speaking, than his words are fulfilled. Exactly as he has predicted, the ground beneath their tents suddenly gives way, and they vanish without trace, as if they had never existed (Numbers 16:23-34).
Meanwhile, Korah and his associates have had a whole night to reflect on the dangerous experiment they are embarking on. But none of them appear to have had second thoughts; all present themselves at the entrance to the Tabernacle, eager to act out their reckless ambitions. And they suffer the same fate as Nadab and Abihu, burned alive by the fire of God’s holiness (Numbers 16:35).
All this looks to us as though God takes delight in striking people dead just for being a bit ‘uppity’. But that would be far from the truth. We underestimate the importance of submission to authority: if this large mass of people are ever going to reach their destination safely and together, they must trust and obey the men He has chosen and appointed to lead them. And so, to put an end to the controversy (and to the fatalities), God offers them a sign that will confirm Aaron’s status and authority as high priest once and for all (Numbers 17). This time it won’t be a sign of death, but a sign of grace and life. Twelve staves (representing the twelve tribes) are left in the Tabernacle, in God’s presence, overnight. The one belonging to His chosen priest not only comes to life, but blossoms and fruits in the space of a few hours. At this clear miracle, the Israelites are finally convinced – and Aaron’s position is never challenged again.
In our day, in a culture that has become suspicious of all authority, church leadership (and indeed the whole idea of the church as an institution) is regularly under attack. We know that we are all given the Holy Spirit (I John 2:20), we latch onto the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers’; and some of us interpret these truths as a licence to plough our own individual furrows, independent of any recognised church – which means having no accountability, either in what we believe or how we behave.
But Scripture tells us to “have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Hebrews 13:17) God still chooses and calls certain individuals to lead His people – and for the sake of good order within the Church, the rest of us must submit to their authority, without jealousy or discontent. And now, as then, the best evidence of a divine call to ministry is the fruitfulness of that ministry. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)