Keys to Teaching Christ in Numbers
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
What comes to mind when we think of the Old Testament book of Numbers? For many, nothing comes to mind because they have had the unfortunate success of avoiding it altogether! This effort may be due to the name of the book itself; after all, how interesting could a book about numbers be? Nevertheless, while the title is derived from the censuses recorded in chapters 1-4 and 26, Numbers is really about the story of Israel’s 40-year journey in the wilderness from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. But that’s not all. The New Testament points back to Numbers as a book about Jesus and His pilgrim church in the wilderness of the fallen realm. So, it turns out that Numbers vividly proclaims the gospel because Numbers, like the rest of the Old Testament, is Christian Scripture!
Numbers 1:50 – The tabernacle finds a central place in the camp of Israel’s tribes and a central role in the Bible since Jesus dwelt (lit. “tabernacled”) (John 1:14) among us.
Numbers 11:11-35; 21:4-9 – God miraculously (and graciously!) supplies water and manna to the incessantly grumbling Israelites. The apostle Paul, who makes the most use of Numbers of anyone in the New Testament, reveals that these events occurred as “examples” and “instruction” for the church (1 Corinthians 10:2-11).
Numbers 20:10-13 – The miracle of God giving water from a rock is picked up on, again, by Paul who refers to this Rock as “Christ,” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4) meaning that Christ was present to provide for His people even in the wilderness wanderings of the Old Testament!
Numbers 21:4-9 – God sends fiery serpents as a judgment for Israel’s sin in the wilderness and Moses is instructed to raise a bronze serpent on a pole. Jesus points to this incident in John 3:14 as a foreshadowing of His cross.
Numbers 22-24 – The false prophet, Balaam, is referenced in Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation as the prototypical false teacher. Jesus comes as the true Teacher who comes not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28) and speak truth (John 14:6).
Tabernacle – Central to the Pentateuch is God’s presence dwelling in the midst of His people. The journey motif in Numbers is impossible to understand apart from the tabernacle in the wilderness pointing to the centrality of Christ as “Immanuel” (God with us) in the New Covenant and consummating in the presence of Christ with His people in the New Jerusalem.
Wilderness – The fifth word of Numbers in Hebrew is translated “in the wilderness” and serves as the Hebrew title and descriptor of the book. Since the New Testament frequently depicts the church in a wilderness-like journey, Numbers provides a wealth of material for Christian discipleship.
Land – Arriving in Canaan is central to understanding Numbers, beginning in the first chapter. Arriving at and crossing the Jordan River is the quest of the 12 tribes. God’s people receiving their inheritance in the Promised Land is at the heart of the book and this finds its ultimate fulfillment in the arrival of God’s people in the New Heavens and New Earth!
Descendants – God’s promise to Abraham that his family would be as numerous as the stars of heaven hovers over the significance of the censuses taken in Numbers. Jacob’s family of 70 who entered Egypt has 603,550 fighting men in the first census. The believing descendants of Abraham are represented by 144,000 (think 12 tribes and 12 apostles) in Revelation, a people purchased by Christ out of every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9; 7:4).
Timothy Ashley, The Book of Numbers in The New International Commentary on the OT series.
Raymond Brown, “The Message of Numbers” in Bible Speaks Today series.
R. Dennis Cole, “Numbers” in The New American Commentary series.
John Currid, “Numbers” in Evangelical Press Study Commentary series.
Iain Duguid, “Numbers” in Preaching the Word series.
Ligon Duncan, https://ligonduncan.com/scripture-reference/old-testament/numbers/
Gordon Wenham, “Numbers” in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series.
*Note: Gordon Wenham’s commentary is consistently ranked as the must-have commentary for studying the book of Numbers. Ashley and Cole should be high on the list as well.
The hymn writer William Williams wrote the well-known Welsh hymn, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, as a summary of the book of Numbers. The first verse mentions, Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more. The manna that fed the children of Israel in the wilderness culminates in the flesh and blood of the Son of God whom all of God’s children must feed on by faith (John 6). The Book of Numbers is filled with rich Christocentric imagery. The bronze serpent on the pole set in the midst of the people who are told simply to look and live powerfully depicts the One who knew no sin but became sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God by faith (2 Corinthians 5:21). The gospel undertones are rich in Numbers and the New Testament writers are not shy about pointing the church back to the wilderness wanderings to find gospel-saturated events as Christ’s bride treads the verge of Jordan. Though the first generation perished in the wilderness (minus Caleb and Joshua), God was faithful to bring their children into their inheritance. And that same God will be faithful to bring His church out of the wilderness and into their final inheritance in spite of themselves where God will dwell in the midst of His people forever (Revelation 21:3)!