The Day Mercy Didn’t Triumph Over Judgment

Reading: Numbers 14–16

Over the past few Sundays, we have been in James. Beginning in 1:19, James begins addressing our need to be quick to hear God’s word and practice what we hear, yet slow to speak God’s word in judgment on others and slow to become angry, executing wrath on others. God is slow to anger, which means mercy for us. We too need to “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” (James 2:12-13 NIV)

This past Sunday I illustrated the destructive power of evil speech from Numbers 12, in the account of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses (Numbers 12:1-10), and then in Numbers 13, with the evil report from the ten spies (Numbers 13:32-33). In what follow these events, there is a sad illustration of what it means to be quick to speak God’s word in judgment, rather than allowing mercy to triumph over judgment. I had hoped to cover this illustratively during one of the messages, but thought the wiser of it in regard to time. So that is the purpose of this post.

Moses Intercedes for the Assembly

In response to the evil report from the ten spies,

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:2-4 NIV)

Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in appeal to the people not to rebel against the Lord. The congregation decided to stone Moses and Aaron. The Lord intervened by appearing in His glory (Numbers 14:10). The Lord declares the consequences of their rebellion:

I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (Numbers 14:12 NIV)

Moses, however, interceded before the Lord on their behalf, appealing to the Lord with what the Lord had already revealed about Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Moses asks the Lord to do as he promised and demonstrate His power by being slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving the iniquity of this people (Numbers 14:17-19). The Lord pardons them, not wiping them out with disease and disinheriting them as He had declared He would.

Moses Instructs Aaron to Intercede for the Assembly

Allow me to fast forward to Numbers 16 and the story of Korah’s rebellion. I will focus on the end of that scene. Day one, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebelled against Moses and Aaron. Moses told them to assemble the next morning, and then separated those who were rebelling from those who weren’t. It wasn’t a pretty scene for those following Korah.

On the third day, the whole congregation grumbled against Moses and against Aaron and the Lord intervened once again. This time He told Moses to get away from the congregation for He was going to consume them in a moment (Numbers 16:41-45). Moses immediately instructs Aaron to make atoning intercession for the people and to stop the plague. It didn’t stop all the death, but it spared the vast majority of the congregation.

In each of these cases, the Lord declared His judgment, but was slow to carry out that judgment, allowing time for Moses to intercede. Then the Lord responded to that intercession despite what He had already declared He would do.

The Assembly Stones a Man With No Intercession

These two cases may help us understand an odd little story that is sandwiched in between them. In the midst of explaining sacrificial regulations, the difference between intentional and unintentional sins, and instruction to wear tassels on their garments, is the account of a man caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. It is a very short story and its shortness may reveal a problem.

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. 35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36 NIV)

Those who found this man brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole congregation. This is the same assembly that the Lord had just declared were to be struck with a plague and destroyed (Numbers 14:12), but were spared when Moses appealed to the Lord’s abounding love (Numbers 14:18). Once again, the Lord declares his judgment. This judgment, like the one He had declared against the assembly of Israel, was a just judgment. It is very similar to that previous judgment. But there is no delay by the assembly before stoning him to death. It is like there is something missing.

In the story before this, and the story following this, judgment was declared by the Lord for the assembly or congregation. In each case they are spared through intercession. But here, those who have received mercy did not extend mercy. Neither did they appeal to God in intercession for the one who had broken the Sabbath.

I am not suggesting that breaking the Sabbath was a minor sin, or one not worthy of punishment. I will suggest that it certainly was no more significant a sin than rebellion of the people against Moses and Aaron in the other two accounts it is sandwiched between. Mercy triumphs over judgment, but only for those who are merciful (James 2:12-13).

Is this small account given to teach us how severely we should punish Sabbath breakers? Is it an illustration of how quick the Israelites were to obey God? (If so it stands in contrast to everything else we learn about them in the books of Moses.) Or is it placed between the other two accounts to expose how incongruent their treatment of one another was in comparison to the mercy they had received. Even though they had the covenant, they failed to extend the mercy of the covenant to others. Might it be telling us that with the judgment they judged others with, that they too would ultimately be judged? (Matthew 7:1-2)

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,


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  • Elene Chase says:

    Hi Pastor — I do not know if the following article applies to your teaching from James — I confess to have only read this article; but I wonder what you think of the following — I happen to agree with the author but that may be due to my black/white outlook and also because of how many fellow Christians, even in my small Bible study, are being led astray by some of the “teachers” mentioned, especially the WOF crew. Thanks.

    May 8, 2014
    Does the Bible really say we’re not to judge?

    By Marsha West

    Some professing Christians become infuriated when a “watchblogger” has the chutzpah to report on a false teacher by name, as if naming names is unbiblical. High-profile leaders and bloggers who mention heretics by name are often accused of demonizing or judging them.

    For example, when I expose Rick Warren’s latest effort to unite with globalists, Catholics, Muslims, New Age/New Thought occultists, and when I examine his health plan and his penchant for twisting Scripture (he often uses it as a tool to cover his own ideas with a pretense of divine authority), complaints come pouring in by the truck load. Many of his defenders write to set me straight on what Scripture says about “judging him.” Others scold me for not giving him credit for all the good he has done, as if doing good deeds, meeting felt needs and ignoring doctrine and creeds is biblical.

    Invariably someone will cite Matthew 18:15-17 :

    If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    And then they’ll ask if I’ve gone privately to Rick Warren to correct him. My response is “Of course not!” Why? For the reason that Christian celebrities like Rick Warren are generally not accessible. Many are, in fact, akin to Hollywood celebs. No doubt some of them rationalize that their popularity affords them certain privileges, one of which is to choose not to have a dialogue with those of us who write anything negative about them.

    Yet the Bible says that those who are in sin (false teaching is sin) must be admonished. In 3 John 1:9 the Apostle John calls out Diotrephes and promises to publicly correct him upon his return. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul stands up to the highly esteemed Apostle Peter! He even got in Peter’s face for fearing false teachers. What resulted from Peter’s “fear of man”?:

    And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (bold added)

    In context the Matthew 18 passages (above) addresses the ways in which the leadership must go about disciplining a brother or sister in their church who has fallen into sin. It also provides the proper steps to take before excommunicating someone who refuses to repent. First, we are to go to him in private and if he refuses to repent we are to go a second time taking with us two or more witnesses. If he still refuses to repent, the pastor must go before the church and proclaim his sin. Ouch!

    It’s essential that elders are involved in the process.

    Likewise, the passages in Matthew 18 don’t apply to doctrinal issues nor do they apply to Christians who have put their work before the world. A person’s willingness to do so makes them fair game for anyone who wishes to scrutinize and even criticize his or her work. Consequently, Christians who can’t stand the heat should get out of the kitchen.

    But I’m drifting from my point.

    When believers make a judgment, we’re not to judge self-righteously. Moreover, we’re not to judge a person’s heart or motives. Those who do are sinning.

    Because I name names I’m often accused of being judgmental. All I can do is respond with Scripture:

    The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)

    What? You mean the true believer has the mind of Christ? Yes! This is a difficult concept to grasp to be sure, so I’ll point you to Matthew Henry’s commentary:

    The apostles were not guided by worldly principles. They had the revelation of these things from the Spirit of God, and the saving impression of them from the same Spirit. These things they declared in plain, simple language, taught by the Holy Spirit, totally different from the affected oratory or enticing words of man’s wisdom. The natural man, the wise man of the world, receives not the things of the Spirit of God. The pride of carnal reasoning is really as much opposed to spirituality, as the basest sensuality. The sanctified mind discerns the real beauties of holiness, but the power of discerning and judging about common and natural things is not lost. But the carnal man is a stranger to the principles, and pleasures, and actings of the Divine life. The spiritual man only, is the person to whom God gives the knowledge of his will. … And the apostles were enabled by his Spirit to make known his mind. In the Holy Scriptures, the mind of Christ, and the mind of God in Christ, are fully made known to us. It is the great privilege of Christians, that they have the mind of Christ revealed to them by his Spirit. They experience his sanctifying power in their hearts, and bring forth good fruits in their lives. (bold added – Source)

    In short, it is the spiritual man (regenerate) who possesses the mind of Christ and has received the knowledge of His will which is laid out for us in Scripture. Therefore, the believer who is truly walking with the Lord – in His will – has the authority to judge words and actions – especially when the teaching is unbiblical.

    How do we know when someone’s teaching is unbiblical? That’s easy! Test his teaching against the Word of God and if it doesn’t line up with what’s in the Bible, then what’s being taught is not from God! And if what’s being taught is not from God it’s from another source – the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places!

    Bible teacher and expositor John MacArthur cautions:

    It should be noted that [Matthew 7:1-5] has erroneously been used to suggest that believers should never evaluate or criticize anyone for anything. Our day hates absolutes, especially theological and moral absolutes, and such simplistic interpretation provides a convenient escape from confrontation. Members of modern society, including many professing Christians, tend to resist dogmatism and strong convictions about right and wrong. Many people prefer to speak of all-inclusive love, compromise, ecumenism, and unity. To the modern religious person those are the only “doctrines” worth defending, and they are the doctrines to which every conflicting doctrine must be sacrificed. (Source)

    In my experience, many professing Christians stubbornly stick to their position that those who expose the unbiblical teaching of Christian celebs are unfairly judging them so they play the Matthew 7:1-5 card: “Judge not, that you be not judged” followed by a resounding rebuke from verse 5: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye?”

    Christians who fail to grasp the notion that those who are Spirit-filled have the mind of Christ is mind boggling. Only believers can make this claim – no one else can. And that includes Miss Spirituality herself, Oprah Winfrey! Why? Since Oprah is unregenerate she cannot possible understand spiritual truth because her heart is darkened!

    God’s ways and His Word make little sense to the unsaved. Listen to what Paul says:

    The natural person [unregenerate] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)

    There is no other place we can learn about the things of the Spirit of God except in the Bible. Moreover, the Bible’s the final authority in all matters of faith. In 2 Timothy 3:16 we’re told that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” And 2 Peter 1:21 says “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Although every page of Scripture is God-breathed, a growing number of Christians choose to reject hard to understand Bible stories and doctrines. Two examples that come to mind are the Creation story in Genesis chapters 1 & 2 and our Lord’s teaching that hell is a place of fire, demons and everlasting torment. Some readers will be surprised to learn that Christ preached more on hell than all the other persons in the Bible put together!

    It’s unbelievable how many professing Christians don’t study their bibles. They may attend church regularly but because they’re biblically illiterate they have no clue if the pastor’s teaching God’s truth or outright heresy. In many cases they wouldn’t know biblical truth if it walked up and bit them on the nose!

    I regularly hear from Christians whose heart’s desire is to attend a healthy well-balanced church where they can be confident that they’re receiving good solid biblical teaching. They’ve searched high and low to find a gospel teaching church near their home but there are none. And they’re discouraged. The sad fact is that only a handful of ministers still preach the true gospel of Jesus Christ. My advice is always the same: “Don’t give up searching!” But this is a subject for a whole other article so I’ll move on.

    As if we didn’t have enough to deal with in the visible Church, a large number of ministers and so-called Bible teachers in churches and on the airwaves are selling a false gospel to consumers. Front and center is the word-faith/name-it-and-claim-it/prosperity charlatans such as Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer, to name a few.

    Be on the alert for the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) a heretical movement that holds to the view that God is restoring the lost offices of church governance such as the prophets and apostles. “Super Apostle” C. Peter Wagner is the head of the NAR and there’s a swarm of so-called apostles and prophets worldwide. The wolves and wolverines in this movement believe they possess the same gifts as the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. (Learn more about the NAR by visiting my website.)

    Other celebs to be wary of are Mark Driscoll, Beth Moore, Andy Stanley, James MacDonald, Tim Keller, Perry Noble and Steven Furtick.

    Again, we’re not to judge a person’s heart or motives, but we can certainly judge the fruit they produce! Jesus himself said:

    Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:17-20)

    Believers who read and study their bibles are far less likely to blindly follow false teachers. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility for mature believers who cease being Bereans to have the wool pulled over their eyes. For this very reason John warned:

    Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1).

    © Marsha West

  • Kristen says:

    Great points! Thanks for sharing.

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