Because we all think in pictures, you have in your mind a picture of what it will be like at the end of your life. You created this picture from stories you heard, films you watched, sermons you listened to and books you read. Lot’s of us have a picture that’s a bit like this. We rise up out of our corporeal body and ride a long white escalator into the clouds, or walk up the stairs, or just float. We are greeted by someone at a gate who checks a book to see what is written in it about us. As well as from films, we get pictures like this from 2 Corinthians 5:10. “For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.”
This is a purely individual judgement about our personal relationship with Jesus, and the New Testament talks this way all the time. I talk this way all the time, and it’s what I believe. Whether or not you are allowed in depends on nobody but yourself. But it’s not the whole picture, nor the complete story. There is another picture in Matthew 25:32 of Jesus judging not individual people but entire nations like a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
Today’s reading in Numbers 14 tells us what happened when the Hebrew people led by Moses reached the promised land. We read in verse four, the people took one look at what was ahead and said, “Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” Reading on we can find that others argued that it was “a rich land flowing with milk and honey.” They advised, “don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us!”
One of our biblical pictures is that the Promised Land represents heaven. What then would you expect God to say in response to the argument at the gate? You might expect Moses to sort out all the people who are qualified and then let them in, while sending away the unfaithful people who are unqualified.
God tells Moses he’s just going to kill everyone, with a plague this time not a flood, and start all over again. After some bartering with Moses, God relents and decides on another course of action. We take up the story in verse 20. “I will pardon them as you have requested. But as surely as I live, and as surely as the earth is filled with the Lord’s glory, not one of these people will ever enter that land.”
Not even Moses can enter the Promised Land. All or none, but not just some. I suspect it will help us to understand that these pictures are part of a bigger and more complex picture.
Let’s go all the way back to Adam and Eve, and look at their first two sons.
Bad son Cain killed good son Abel, and then years of chaos and trouble followed. God tried again with Noah and his sons. This time bad son Ham lead astray and corrupted good son Shem. A time of chaos and trouble followed, leading up to the tower of Babel and Babylon.
From out of Babylon God called a man named Abram to start again. His bad son Ishmael did not corrupt his good son Isaac, who was faithful, but he went away from the home.
Isaac’s bad son Esau tried to kill his good son Jacob, who had to run away. Jacob eventually had a good son named Joseph, and at this point the pattern is broken. The eleven bad sons sell the good son into slavery, but many years later the good son rescues the bad sons.
From this point on God treats all the sons as one group and they are now the Hebrew people, the Israelites. All together they become slaves in Egypt, and they can only escape when they all agree to leave together under the united leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron.
All together as one group they are banned from entering the Promised Land, and made to wander around the desert for 40 years until everyone over 20 years old is dead
God noticed one special person among the many who would be allowed to enter the promised land, but only after the 40 years of trials had passed. He was named Caleb and God singled him out in verse 24. “My servant Caleb has a different attitude than the others have. He has remained loyal to me, so I will bring him into the land he explored.” God also made an exception for Joshua in verse 30.
From this point on whenever there were spiritual problems in Israel, everyone was punished. God dealt with them on a national level. The entire nation was sent into exile and ten tribes completely vanished.
Israel and Judah experienced a number of major exiles. The exile of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians took place in around 720 B.C. Their dispersal gave rise to the tradition of the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” In 597 B.C. the elite of the southern kingdom of Judah, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled by the Babylonians. After the time of Jesus the nation was again exiled until in modern times Israel was restored to where it is today. Although in Jesus’ time there were Pharisees and Essenes and Herodians and Sadducees, there was only one temple and they worshipped together as one people.
Two men who were like brothers, only six months different in age, were John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah. John the bad brother baptised his good brother Jesus and pointed him out to all the people as the Messiah of God.
We can look at this greater picture and see a pattern of God using the good brother to bless the bad brother and draw him into God’s kingdom. This is what God said he wanted Israel to do from the very beginning, as he told Abram in Genesis 12:2.
“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
In the present day, right now here in our fellowship, how is God looking at us? Does he see us as a single group of disciples, or as individual believers? I think you know what it says in Scripture, we are all one body as it is written in Romans 12, in Ephesians 1 and in 1 Corinthians 12:27.
“All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.”
All of us together doesn’t mean only all of us in this room, but also all of us believers in the entire world. One simple way to say what that means is that as each of us is in relationship to Christ, we are therefore in relationship to each other. If I am Christ’s brother, and you are Christ’s sister, then you are my sister. By creating relationships with himself, Christ creates the relationships in the body. There is only one body, not two or three. This is the body of the good son, who has been tasked by God with rescuing the bad son and bringing him into the blessing. What shall we reply when we are asked by God, where is your brother and where is your sister?
As the Hebrews stood on the edge of the Promised Land, it wasn’t any use them saying how good they were compared to others. God blocked the way for all of them. We aren’t God’s children if we say we want to enter heaven alone, leaving behind brother or sister because we don’t like them. We are God’s children when we love like God and live out that love by giving up ourselves to rescue the lost ones that God is seeking.
I think that as the body of the good son we are expected to have no prejudice toward the other son, only compassion. United in our love, reaching out to draw others into the love and to experience the glory of God. God has given his son for the world, not just for us.
“He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” (1 John 2:2)
What must be the most famous verse in the entire Bible is John 3:16.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Christ died for the whole world, the church exists for the whole world, for all the wicked and evil and unpleasant people you meet every day. It isn’t all about us and what is good for us, but about God and his love for every single human being.
I hope this helps you see the picture more clearly when you think about the purpose of your life and the meaning of the church.