Scripture: Numbers 12:1-14
Sermon prepared by Rev. Ken Vanderploeg, El Paso, TX
“Some must follow, some must command, but both are made of clay.” wrote Longfellow.
That is a profound summary of who is who in the world. Everybody wants to feel important, worth something. Typically men find their worth in their accomplishments, in their work, in their status, by their possessions.
1. Pride: a Pitfall for Leaders
The greatest stumbling block to humility is pride. Moses had plenty of reasons to be puffed up with pride as anyone could have. He had claim to fame, to status: He had been raised and educated in Pharaoh’s court like one of Pharaoh’s own kin; he was a skilled soldier, a knowledgeable scholar, a statesman.
As a matter of fact, it appears at one time that Moses was a proud man, overly self confident, presumptuous about his ability to lead and that his own people would recognize him as a leader: Exodus chapter 2 pictures Moses as an avenger, a self made liberator, ready to kill the Egyptian taskmaster, and ready to lead his own people. There was a good measure of pride in being a Jew, but also in being skilled as a soldier and in the use of a sword. It appears that he felt ready to liberate his people, confident that they would accept his leadership because of his position of privilege and power in Pharaoh’s court, while at the same time he had proven his undivided loyalty to the Jews. But that proved not to be the case when one of his own people questioned his self promotion as their liberator and judge, and he was overcome with fear.
Nor can we say that there are any demonstrations of humility as he liberates the oppressed daughters of Jethro, the Midianite Priest.
2. False Humility is Really Pride in Disguise
But when God calls Moses to go back to Egypt, Moses presents excuses: He has a false sense of humility. False humility at the root is really pride in disguise. False humility looks at the self as the source of strength and value just as pride does. Moses does not humble himself before God and willingly submit to God’s plan for him. Instead he counter argues. How does he dare argue with God, except that he thinks that he has something to say about the inadequacies of God’s idea? That is pride. He argues that he is not the best choice, he doesn’t have the gift of clear speech, he doesn’t have the qualities of a leader that inspire others to follow. People will only question him with, “Who do you think you are?” just like the first time. But he forgot that the first time he was not sent by God to deliver Israel at that time. He had taken up the bid for himself the first time. So in his false humility, he declined God’s order. Mutiny, refusing to submit to the captain’s authority, is a daring thing to do and it comes from pride, from the idea, “I know better than you do.”
3. Other Sources of Pride
Once Moses began his journey with God, there was still a danger of falling back into the sin of pride.
Look at the accomplishments he had achieved: by the authority of his word and by the power of his hand, ten plagues had come upon the land of Egypt. By his out stretched arm the waters of the Red Sea parted in front of Israel, but fell upon their enemies to drown them. By his word and staff, water sprung forth from solid rock. Through Moses, Israel was freed from the oppression of the Egyptians.
But even greater than all of these accomplishments was the status and privilege that God had given him. Look at what the text says: God informs Aaron and Miriam that usually he speaks to prophets through visions and dreams, but not so with Moses. With Moses he speaks face to face, not in parables or mysteries, but in strait talk. Moses was one of a kind. He had even seen the form of God! Never since Adam had anyone seen the form of God in the same manner as Moses.
C. Visible / Public Affirmations
So close was he to God the Bible says in Exodus 34:
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. Moses could easily have taken on a “holier than thou” attitude.
3. True Humility is Shaped by Recognizing God’s Greatness
In the process of liberating Israel, Moses’ character had changed considerably. He had come to the point in his relationship with God where he not only submitted to every order from his Lord and Master, he also loved him as a father. He was jealous for God’s honor. He realized that honoring God is what true humility is all about.
A. True Humility Defends God’s Honor
Moses could have allowed all of these things to boost his own ego. He could have pretended to be better than everyone else. He could have chosen to keep to himself the powerful position he had. He didn’t even have to share it with Miriam and Aaron. They had privileged positions simply because of their kinship with Moses, but these were privileged positions. Aaron ought to have considered that God could have wiped him right out for having made the golden calf. Moses could have agreed with God’s plan to wipe out the entire nation and start all over with just himself. (Exodus 32:1-15) But instead he pleaded for the lives of the people for the honor of God’s name, lest the nations get the wrong picture of God.
B. True Humility Shares Responsibility and Honor
Moses wasn’t in this historical endeavor to free the Israelites in order to make a name for himself. He didn’t try to cling to the position of power he had because it made him feel superior to everyone else. Instead he begged God to give him helpers to share the burden of responsibility for these people.
Let’s look at Numbers 11 for just a minute:
14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” 16 The LORD said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.
Then we jump to verse 24:
24 So Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the Tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again. 26 However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” 29 But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” 30 Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Moses exemplified the attitude which Paul talks about when he wrote Philippians 2: 5-11 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
To take a lowly position does not mean we are of less worth in God’s sight. Instead we become of even greater value or importance in the sight of God. Peter in his first epistle, chapter 5:5-6 wrote,
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
C. True Humility is God’s Objective for All of Mankind Including the Pagans
The entire episode of the ten plagues in Egypt was intended to humble Pharaoh who at first refused to acknowledge the God of Israel as anyone worth his time to listen to. In Exodus 5:2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” By the third plague, in v.19, his magicians were saying: “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen. After the seventh plague, God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?
That is the question that God has for all of us. For all who want to do their own thing, do things their own way, who think that they know better than God how things ought to be done. You would have thought that Aaron would have learned that lesson by this time. After all that he had witnessed from the beginning, and especially after having misguided the people and yielded to their desire to “create another god” for them to follow since Moses had gone up on the Holy Mountain for more than five weeks. Surely that event which is recorded for us in Exodus 32 demonstrated Aaron’s weakness and his own sense of insecurity, wanting to maintain a position of favor with the people, a position of influence and power. He would rather comply with the whims of the people than risk his life to do the will of God. He would rather be popular than obedient to God. He really wasn’t worthy of trust for such a position of authority and power.
4. Pride / Envy Stand in the Way of Humility
Here stands Aaron and Miriam just at the point in time when the Lord is about to send them into the Promised Land. And they think they haven’t had sufficient honor for themselves. And what honor were they short of? Is Miriam jealous that she wasn’t one of the 70? Why would she need to be? Miriam was recognized as a prophetess, according to Exodus 15 (v.20). What more prestige was Aaron looking for? Aaron was chosen by God to serve as High Priest along with his four sons, and he was appointed to be Moses’ spokesperson (Exodus 28:1). How much more could Aaron and Miriam want? Well, they wanted to be revered in the same way that Moses was revered by the people. They were envious of Moses. Their attitude is very much like that of Adam and Eve after Satan had lured them into desiring to be like God. Being vice president wasn’t enough; they wanted to share the president’s chair with him. “Note, striving to be greatest is a sin which easily besets the disciples themselves, and it is exceedingly sinful. Even those that are well preferred are seldom pleased if others are better preferred. Those that excel are commonly envied.” wrote the Matthew Henry.
A. The Consequences
How much heart ache is caused when someone pursues a position of advancement that is given to another? They can no longer greet that other person with sincere kindness. They certainly can’t find it in themselves to celebrate someone else’s promotion. Anger and resentment suddenly come in between two people who had nothing against the other before.
Then there are the hard feelings against the chiefs of staff that made the decision. Aaron and Miriam, without realizing it, are angry with God himself for not promoting them. Perhaps they only considered Moses to be the object of their envy. But the truth is, they were disappointed with God for not having given them equal status.
The end result is that God is angry with them: Verse 9 says, “The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them.” To be the object of God’s wrath, to be left abandoned without him, that is the definition of hell itself. Hebrews 10:31 reminds us what a terrible thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Miriam was about to find out the hard way.
But notice what the text says about the source of their envy. It was not just a desire to be equal to Moses himself. Instead it was based on the observation that Moses’ wife was Cushite. We know that Jethro, Moses’ father in law was a priest of Midian (Exodus 2:18-21). So what is this about Moses’ wife being a Cushite? There are two possibilities that have been proposed: The first is that Moses took for himself a second wife, an Ethiopian woman who came with the Egyptians during the exodus from Egypt. Numbers 10 tells us that two years have gone by since Zipporah had been reunited with Moses after the exodus. Could it be that she has died during this time, and that Moses therefore had taken on an Ethiopian woman to be his new wife?
Another possibility is that Zipporah, Moses’ wife, may have been of dark complexion and that in this instant Miriam and Aaron, who look down upon this foreigner of darker skin color, are only calling her a Cushite, which in Hebrew also means black. Perhaps her mother was Ethiopian. So they may have been using this term not so much in reference to her nationality, for which it is normally understood, but more in a figurative sense in reference to Zipporah’s dark skin.
If this is in deed the case, then the punishment very well suits the crime. Look at the punishment Miriam receives for her criticism. Verse 10 reports, 10 When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam—leprous, like snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had leprosy;
For one to look down upon another because of their dark skin color, this was a very appropriate punishment: that Miriam’s skin should be made white as snow with infirmity. Perhaps she thought she was better for being light skinned, but being made very white with the illness of leprosy is like getting the death sentence, only leprosy, like AIDS, can take years to accomplish its fatal work. Leprosy is a disease that destroys nerve endings, in addition to killing the tissue it infects. Having no nerve endings might sound great; no nerves, no pain. But the fact that you cannot feel any pain is not as great a blessing as you might think. It means that though you are rubbing your skin till it peals off and bleeds, you don’t feel it, won’t even know that you are wounded and bleeding, so you are not likely to tend to it, to clean it, or to protect it from further injury. If you pick up a hot frying pan that has been sitting over the fire, you can be branding your flesh and not feel it. But wherever you have an open wound or rotting tissue, infection can easily set in, leading to gangrene, then amputation, or a staff infection and death.
Leprosy was also a humiliating disease because you had to be isolated from the community, like an outcast. If you wanted to approach anyone, you had to shout out loud, “Unclean, unclean!” as you advanced so that people could get away from you and keep you at a safe distance. If that is how they treated Cushites, then it would do well for Miriam to experience that same kind of humiliation.
Again, the root of prejudice is pride. For that there is nothing better than a reminder that we are but clay ourselves in order to humble us and bring us back to our senses.
What is interesting to note is that Moses is not the one who got offended in this case. As on other occasions, Moses showed no signs of anger or resentment that his own family was envious of his position. Even so it must have hurt to think that his own siblings thought that he had slighted them somehow, that he had kept them from sharing the seat of honor at the tent of presence. Like Christ he remained mute before his accusers.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “When God’s honor was concerned, as in the case of the golden calf, no man could be more zealous than Moses to defend it; but, when his own honor was touched, no man could be more meek: as bold as a lion in the cause of God, but as mild as a lamb in his own cause.”
Moses was a fore runner of Jesus Christ. Just as God told Moses to chose 70 elders upon whom the Spirit of God would rest and equip for leadership, Luke 10:1 tells us that Jesus Christ also sent out 70 disciples in teams of 2. Now some of you are going to say, “But my Bible here says 72.” Take a look at the note on the bottom of the page where you find the letter “n” if you have an NIV translation, and it will show you that some original Greek manuscripts have 70. As a result if you have some another English version like the King James Version, or an American Standard Version, or a Spanish text based on the Reina Valera, your text will agree with the number 70, and might also have a note on the bottom informing you that there are other manuscripts with the number 72 instead.
But allow me to inform to you that 70 is a number of significance in both instances. I believe that Luke is making a connection here of Jesus to Moses, for God told Moses that after him would come another prophet. Deuteronomy 18 says
17 The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
Now look at what Luke has to say in chapter 10:
16 “He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me. 17 The seventy returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
So just as Moses had seventy elders consecrated to receive the Holy Spirit to prepare them to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land to conquer it, so Jesus does the same and commissions his 70 to spread the Good News of salvation, of healing, and of power in the Kingdom of God, conquering the enemy that is resident there. Luke wants you to know that Jesus is that prophet. He has called his followers to conquer new territory in the power of his name. He continues to raise up leaders for his kingdom work. That is why God has been drawing you into His presence, into this place. Listen to Ephesians 4, beginning at v.11:
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
But it is essential that these leaders have the Spirit of God in them. They must not rely on their own power and strength. They must not credit their successes to their own account and say, “My, haven’t I done a great job. Look at my accomplishments!” They must have the same attitude of humility that Moses had, an attitude that recognized that it was God who accomplished everything, and if God was not to go with them, then he didn’t want to go either. Moses was humbled having spent time in God’s presence. Without God he knew that he was nothing (Exodus 33).
We need an attitude that is zealous for the honor of God! We must have an attitude of surrender to God’s will. Are you being shaped into a humble servant for His honor?
Prayer of Response (based on the Heidelberg Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer)
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Help us to really know you,
to bless, worship, and praise you
for all your works
and for all that shines forth from them:
your almighty power, wisdom, kindness,
justice, mercy, and truth.
Help us to direct all our living—
what we think, say, and do—
so that your name will never be blasphemed because of us
but always honored and praised.
Your kingdom come.
Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way
that more and more we submit to you.
Keep your church strong, and add to it.
Destroy the devil’s work;
destroy every force that revolts against you
and every conspiracy against your Word.
Do this until your kingdom is so complete and perfect
that in it you are all in all.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Help us and all people
to reject our own wills
and to obey your will without any back talk.
Your will alone is good.
Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to,
as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Do take care of all our physical needs
so that we come to know
that you are the only source of everything good,
and that neither our work and worry
nor your gifts
can do us any good without your blessing.
And so help us to give up our trust in creatures
and to put trust in you alone.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Because of Christ’s blood,
do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are,
any of the sins we do
or the evil that constantly clings to us.
Forgive us, just as we are fully determined,
as evidence of your grace in us,
to forgive our neighbors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
By ourselves we are too weak
to hold our own even for a moment.
And our sworn enemies—
the devil, the world, and our own flesh—
never stop attacking us.
And so, Lord,
uphold us and make us strong
with the strength of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may not go down to defeat
in this spiritual struggle,
but may firmly resist our enemies
until we finally win the complete victory.
For yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory forever.
We have made all these requests of you
because, as our all-powerful King,
you not only want to,
but are able to give us all that is good;
and because your holy name,
and not we ourselves,
should receive all the praise, forever.
Heavenly Father, forgive our pride; the desire to be revered, recognized as more than who we are. Give us the spirit of Humility. Lord we recognize your awesomeness. May your glory over shadow us so that we might always honor you in our humble service, for without you we are nothing. Prepare our hearts to be your faithful, humble servants in your kingdom. Amen.
Order of Worship
O God, by your power may we, with all the saints,
comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth
of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that we may be filled with your fullness. Amen.
—based on Ephesians 3:18-19
Songs of Praise:
choose at least two songs that highly exalt God / Christ as the king of creation: God’s Law: As our King, he has generously given us clear instruction on how we must honor him by keeping these basic ten commandments: Read Exodus 20:1-17
Prayer of Confession:
Almighty and merciful God,
we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
O Lord, have mercy upon us.
Spare those who confess their faults.
Restore those who are penitent,
according to your promises declared to the world
in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
And grant, O merciful God, for his sake,
that we may live a holy, just, and humble life
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon in song:
#262 “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” or
#267 “And Can it Be”
Prayer for the Word.
help us to hear your holy Word with open hearts
so that we may truly understand;
and, understanding, that we may believe;
and, believing, that we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience,
seeking your honor and glory in all that we do.
Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Scripture reading: Numbers 12:1-14
Sermon: Our Humility: God’s Honor
Prayer of Response
Song of response: #287“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
Words of Invitation
What shall I return to the LORD
for all his bounty to me?
I will give what I have promised
in the presence of all God’s people. (from Psalm 116:12, 14, NRSV)
Prayer of Consecration and Thanksgiving
To him who is able to keep you from falling
and to present you before his glorious presence
without fault and with great joy—
to the only God our Savior
be glory, majesty, power, and authority,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen! —Jude 24-25, NIV
Doxology: #638 “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”