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Author:Rev. Rinze IJbema
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Title:A clear manifestation of the glory of the Lord and of his grace.
Text:Numbers 2:34 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Rinze IJbema, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,

chapter 2 of the Book of Numbers is a clear manifestation of the glory of the Lord and of his grace. At first sight, we may easily overlook this glory and this grace of the Lord. We, people who are used to reading twenty-first century papers and modern-time novels, what we read here is a list of names and numbers, and the question may well arise: what is this all about? What is the message of the word of the Lord in this chapter of the Bible? I say the message is: the Lord places his people in a place of honour in the middle of the desert. By doing so, He proclaims both his glory and his grace. Because this is what happens, when the people of Israel is told to gather around the Tabernacle during their travels through the desert of Sinai. So they share, by his grace, in the glory of the Lord.

Now there is some distance between the names and the numbers of Numbers chapter 2, and you. What we will do is the following: by reading closely and by explaining carefully some of the important details in this chapter, we will look for what the Spirit wants to tell us. What does the word of the Lord mean here – exactly. But we will also broaden our horizons. We will do so by comparing those important details in this chapter with other Biblical information about the subject of this chapter: the tribes of the people of Israel before the face of the Lord. And by this close reading and by this comparing with Biblical information, we will learn more about the Lord, about his glory and his grace. For us.

Any place near the Tabernacle was, of course, a place of honour. But it’s interesting to see a certain graduation in the different places of the different tribes of the people of the Lord. Nowadays, in human sports for example, if you’re the winner, your place is number one. Then you hear the national anthem and it is all for you: the winner takes it all. If you’re second, well, you’re still a silver medal winner. Well enough. Or even, being third, well, there is still some glory left for you. But, please, never be number four. You’re a loser, there is no honour for you. That’s how it is nowadays. In the days of Israel in the desert, there was another cultural concept of ‘places of honour’. The first place was in the east. East is the main direction for orientation. East is where the sun rises. When you are placed in the east, you are number one. The second place is south. South is at your right hand, when you’re facing east. At the right hand: a place of honour. Third is west. And fourth is north. If your place is in the north, you are, well, number 4.

In Numbers chapter 2 we see four groups of tribes in each direction of the wind. Each group of tribes, each division, is constituted by three different tribes. But within each of those groups of three, one tribe is placed in the middle. Those four centre tribes can be considered to represent their division. Those four ‘leaders’ are Judah in the east, Reuben in the south, Ephraim in the west and, number four, Dan in the north. We will consider these four tribes, their place and the reason for their placement. We will consider them one by one, counter clockwise, starting in the north. And this is also the division of this sermon. The theme of the sermon is: the Lord places his people around the tabernacle in a place of honour in the middle of the desert. Number four: Dan. Number three: Ephraim. Number two: Reuben. Number one: Judah.

1. The tribe of Dan, together with two other tribes in his division, receives the place least honoured in the camp around the Tabernacle. At the foot. In order to understand why the Lord gives Dan this place, we must consider what other two tribes receive a place in this division of Dan in the north. Those tribes are Asher and Naphtali. Now Dan and Naphtali were both the sons of Jacob and Bilhah. Bilhah, so we read in Genesis chapter 30, was the slave of Rachel, Jacob’s second wife, whom he loved most. After some time Leah, Jacob’s first wife, gave birth to four children, four sons of Jacob. You probably know them: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Those sons of Leah made Rachel unhappy, because Rachel did not give birth to a child, boy or girl. This grief of Rachel is quite natural. She would love to be a mother, but the Lord didn’t grant her any children. Her emotion is understandable. But her reaction, what she did, was wrong. She didn’t wait for the Lord, but came up with her own solution, a wrong solution. She gave her slave to Jakob, in her own place. So that the children of Bilhah would be considered the children of Rachel. And Bilhah gave birth: Dan and Naphtali. They were the pride of Rachel. ‘God has vindicated me’- that’s the meaning of ‘Dan’. ‘I have had a great struggle and I won’- that’s the meaning of ‘Naphtali’. Now Leah feels she has to take action too. So she gives her slave to Jacob. Zilpah is her name. And she gives birth to: Gad and Asher. ‘Happy’ and ‘happiness’ is the meaning of their names. Because Leah is happy again.

But the Lord is not, as we can understand. He had made Abraham wait for a hundred years, before He gave him a son. Then the granddaughter of Abraham should not be surprised when she has to wait some years, before the Lord gives her a son. Of course she can come to the Lord with her grief. But she has to put her faith in Him. Leave it to Him, to what He gives. And this kind of foster-motherhood is not what He gives. So here in Numbers chapter 2 we discover in hindsight the judgement of the Lord on this totally out of place battle of the sisters. Now the Lord places the children of Bilhah and one of the children of Zilpah at the lowest place in the camp of the Lord in the desert.

Not only was this place the lowest place, it also was the most dangerous place. This northern army division, the division of Dan, always was the last to march. They were always at the rear. And guess where the blows are dealt? Exactly: at the rear. You may remember the war against the Amalekites, as mentioned in Deuteronomy, chapter 25: their terrorist attacks come exactly from the rear. Attacks against Dan and the other two tribes. And even further on in history: in the promised land Dan again gets a place in the north. And again: where does the enemy come from? Syria, Assyria, Babylonia, those enemies all attack from the north. North is the place were the blows are dealt.

But. Don’t focus too much on this least honoured and most vulnerable place the Lord gives to them. Please focus on the fact the Lord grants them a place at all. They may be the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, they are still children of the covenant, they belong to the Lord. Apparently the grace of the Lord is rich enough and the glory of the Lord is strong enough to take this all too human behaviour in the battle of the sisters, and to give it a place with Him, within his Kingdom, around His place of dwelling. In comparison with the others, the place of Dan and his division may be the last, it still is absolutely a place near Him. I want you to understand the good news of that: they belong to the Lord, even Dan and his brothers.

So this is the way the Lord deals with those tribes around Dan. What does this reveal about the way He deals with us? It is important to realize, the Lord did not change the way He acts toward people. Now I am quite sure there are among you people who sometimes feel like you belong to the tribe of Dan. People who, for one reason or another, think, they don’t count too much in the church, nor in the eyes of the Lord. People who have reason to think they are always in the place where the blows are dealt. The attacks from the enemies from outside: people who mock you for being such a strange Christian. Or maybe, even worse, attacks from within: lack of respect within the church. You feel like dirt. So what do you do? Maybe you feel like deserting. What can you do?

I don’t claim it feels good to be under attack because of your faith. I absolutely don’t say it is a good thing to disrespect brothers and sisters within the church, because they, well, are not as bright as you are or are not as rich as you are or do not come from noble birth. Because within the church, the body of Christ, every member is needed. Especially the common people, ‘not many … wise by human standards; not many … influential; not many … of noble birth.’ Every member is needed. Let there be feet, let their be a back, as long as you walk with the Lord and as long as you catch the blows in His name, you do have your place: near the Lord, within His congregation. Look at it from a bright side. You’re not just the foot folk, you’re servants in the name of the Lord. Just as father Jacob had prophesied, Genesis chapter 49, about one of Dan’s partners, of Asher: ‘Asher’s food shall be rich and he shall yield royal dainties.’ Not just servants. Royal ushers! By the grace of the Lord you share in the glory of the Lord. What can be dishonouring about that?

2. We turn counter clockwise and we meet on the west the tribe of Ephraim. To the division of Ephraim belong the tribe of Manasseh and the tribe of Benjamin. You may well know them. Manasseh and Ephraim were both the sons of Joseph. In fact, Manasseh was the elder one and Ephraim the younger brother. But grandfather Jacob had blessed them crosswise: Ephraim at his left knee with his right hand and Manasseh at his right knee with his left hand. And you know what the right hand means: extra honour. So Ephraim first. And Manasseh second. And Benjamin next. The three of them: the sons or grandchildren of Rachel. Jacob’s favourites.

Jacob truly had great expectations, first of Joseph, later on of Ephraim. The blessing he gives them in Genesis chapter 48 makes them in advance an example in Israel: ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ Let’s face it: history made Jacob’s words come true. So deeply true, that after some centuries the words ‘Israel’ and ‘Ephraim’ almost became synonyms. In earlier days the Lord had used Joseph to keep his people of Israel, so small in number, alive, when they had to flee to Egypt, because of the famine. In later days it is the role of Ephraim to maintain the parental tradition. The backbone of Israel.

But take a second look at what happens in the history of Israel. Ephraim is blessed. Ephraim is strong. But instead of using his strength to serve the Lord and to serve and protect the people of the Lord, Ephraim wants to go his own way. Ephraim wants to dominate – but this the Lord can’t tolerate. In the history of Israel, one king stems from the sons of Rachel. It was king Saul, who came from the tribe of Benjamin. But when he doesn’t understand that being a king is always to be viceroy in the Kingdom of the Lord, the Lord takes the kingdom away from him. Then David, from the tribe of Judah, becomes His man. But look, Ephraim keeps on going it’s own way. Away from the Lord. And not even a century later in history, the schism is a fact. Ephraim at one hand, Judah at the other.

Maybe you think: that does not come as a surprise to me. Ephraim against Judah, Ephraim opposite of Judah. Where did we see this before? Wasn’t it in the desert; were their places around the tabernacle not in opposition? The Lord Himself puts one against the other. Judah above, Ephraim at the foot. Who could be surprised when they turn out to be rivals? Who could be surprised this all ends in war? Did the Lord Himself not see this coming? He could have prevented all the misery, you might think. By granting them both an equally honoured place. Both at His right hand, something like that. A lot of misery could have been prevented.

But don’t underestimate the wisdom of the Lord in the way He places the twelve tribes in the desert. Don’t underestimate the wisdom of the Lord in the way He places Ephraim. The Lord does not simply place him and Judah in opposition, as two great adversaries. He places them one here one there around the Tabernacle. Around His place of dwelling. They should not stand one against another. They should stand hands folded towards the Lord. They should not focus on their place, as compared to the other one. They should focus on their place near the Lord. And indeed, Ephraim receives a secondary place. Under Judah. As a helper fit for him.

The way the Lord places those two opponents both at one side of his place of honour in the desert, the same wisdom can help you to rethink your position in some battles you may fight. There always will be contrasts, even within the people of the Lord. And they still may be the cause of schisms as well. In our church history, in the past century, we have seen it happen. The point is, before it comes to a division, you have to take care not just to be in opposition of one another. Remember to look up to the Lord and raise your hands in prayer. This also goes for discord within the church . Judah and Ephraim both have to realize that they, each in his place, are totally depending from what happened in that Tabernacle, dependent on the presence of the Lord, dependent on the sacrifices brought there. Because the Tabernacle was the place of atonement. That should be their common ground. That still is our common ground, where we meet one another. At the sacrifice, of Jesus Christ. And only if our discord is in truth a disagreeing about Him, division is a fact. Húman discord doesn’t count. If you’re one in Christ, you are in truth one.

3. Point three: the second place. The second place belongs to Reuben. Reuben was Jacob’s first-born. ‘See, a son,’ is the meaning of ‘Reuben’. A Man to be proud of. And he became a man of outstanding character, with a good sense of responsibility. Was it not Reuben who prevented the murder of Joseph by his other brothers? Was not Reuben the first one to answer for the wellbeing of Benjamin, in case Jacob decided to send him with his brothers, back to Egypt? Reuben, first class. So why does he end here second place, south of the Tabernacle, not east?

Because he, Reuben, was a capital sinner. He had slept with Bilhah, the slave of his aunt Rachel, the wife of his father Jacob. That’s a sin, because it’s incestuous. But apart from that, it’s a sin, because by doing so Reuben claims in advance the place of his father, the place of Jacob. Again someone who’s not willing to wait for the Lord, to give him his share. Again someone who wants to do it himself, in his own way. Whatever the price may be. And his brother in arms, Simeon, he is just like him. Let’s face the facts: why on earth are those sinners welcome at all, near the place where the Lord dwells, at the right hand of the Tabernacle, when you face east?

This, beloved brothers and sisters, is the grace of the Lord. Yes, you are a sinner. No question about that. Hear the curse of Jacob, when he blesses his sons in Genesis chapter 49. He curses: ‘Cursed is their anger for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel.’ Jacob said. But then the Lord comes and apparently He knows a way beyond the sins. Apparently there is a place at His right hand – for sinners. Because the Son of God left His place at the right hand of God, to make room for us. So that the sons of Jacob, all twelve of them, so that the children of Abraham, all one hundred and forty four thousand, receive their place of honour near the Lord. Do you want to know what grace means, what forgiveness is? Look at Reuben. His father told him he was cursed. And still the Lord says: be welcome at my right hand. Do you understand?

4. Fourth: Judah. Royal class. Jacob tells him, Judah: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.’ And Judah became king. David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijam, etcetera. For Judah: the ultimate place of honour. The royal tribe. So, what does this position of Judah have to do with us? Nothing. I can say: maybe the Lord treats you like He treated Dan, or Ephraim, or Reuben. But I can’t say the Lord treats you like He treated Judah. Judah is unique. There is no direct link between him and us. The way God deals with Judah, is a prophecy about the way He acts in Jesus Christ. He is our orientation, He is our glory, He is our head, in heaven. Only Jesus Christ.

Yet we belong to Jesus Christ. And thus, His glory, and His place of glory, is ours, but indirectly. Just the way Issachar and Zebulun accompanied Judah, in that same way we may share in the glory of the King of kings. Issachar and Zebulun - well, Judah became famous, real famous. But Issachar and Zebulun are lost in history. Those tribes found their place in the holy land somewhere near Naphtali etcetera. In the north, you know. In the dark province of Galilee. A dark province? Not at all. Remember the word of the prophet, of Isaiah. ‘There will be no gloom for her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have a seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.’ The light of Jesus Christ, the great son of Judah, the King. He was raised in Nazareth, near the border of Issachar and Zebulun. Thanks be to the Lord. In His grace, He lets us share in the glory of Christ.

5. Before we say ‘amen’, I want to add just one other point. This sermon is about the Lord, who places His people in a place of honour in the middle of the desert. But I can’t finish this sermon in the desert. The desert: in the days of Moses, it was the desert around the Tabernacle. In our days, the days of Jesus Christ, it is the world surrounding Jesus Christ, the world that rejects Jesus Christ. The Bible speaks about our days, about the church in this world, in the Book of Revelation. This book reveals us Jesus Christ, the lion from the tribe of Judah. This book reveals Him, as He is: standing in His place of honour, before the throne of God, God Himself in the presence of the Father. He is surrounded by four creatures, one for every direction of the wind, a creature like a lion, a creature like an ox, like a man and like an eagle. They surround Him, on His place of honour.

But don’t think the Lord retreated from the earth, as if the earth had become a deserted place in His eyes, like a place He doesn’t care for. Listen to what is written in the Book of Revelation, chapter 7: ‘After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east [from the sunrise], having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah [the first one] 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben [the blessed one] 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.’ Sealed. Save on their glorious place near the Lord, even in the desert.
One tribe is missed. The tribe of Dan is not mentioned in this list in the Book of Revelation. Some say it doesn’t mean a thing. Those lists vary throughout the Bible. Yet I see a warning in this omission. This omission makes clear: the place of honour near the Lord is not without limits. Being a member of the people of the Lord, being a member of the church, it does not guarantee your citizenship in the Kingdom of the Lord. This is a serious warning. A warning, to focus on the core meaning of Revelations chapter 7: the Lord protects His people. You all belong to the people of the Lord, through faith in Jesus Christ. If He is the orientation of your life, the light of the Lord in a dark dark world, then you are safe near Him, safe in His glory.
Let’s not forget: we are on our way through the desert towards a new Jerusalem. The Book of Revelation reveals the glory of the new city of the Lord. John sees it coming: the holy city, the new Jerusalem. And he sees ‘a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.’ Do you see it also? The Lord in His grace gives His people a place of glory in the desert. And there was no longer any desert.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Rinze IJbema, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Rinze IJbema

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