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Sermon Message

"The 'Nevertheless' of Unbelief"

Numbers 13-14
Theme: We must beware of failing to seize the opportunities of faith God sends our way through unbelief.

(Delivered Sunday, November 3, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


There is a statue, attributed to the ancient sculptor Lysippus. It's a bronze figure of a young man with winged feet - poised as if about to fly away from the earth, but looking as if he were inviting the viewer to stop him. He holds in his hand a tiny sword; and most strange of all, he has a pony-tail - not hanging from the back of his head, but rather from the front. Lyssipus explained his unusual statue from the standpoint of the viewer speaking directly to it:

Who are you?
A moment of time seized, holding sway over everything.

Why do you stand on tiptoe?
I am constantly moving about.

Why do you keep winged sandals on your feet?
The light breeze carries me hither and thither.

In your right hand is a slender razor. Pray, why?
This symbol teaches that I am keener than every blade.

Why the tuft of hair on your brow?
So that I can be seized as I approach.

But tell me, why is the back of your head bald?
If someone once lets me go, swift as I am, I cannot then be captured by my hair.

It is for your sake that the artist has made me with such skill, stranger;
and that I may be a warning to everyone, I am placed in an open hall.

This statue by Lyssipus is a marvelous depiction of "opportunity" - "a moment of time seized". It's an artistic warning that opportunity is swift and keen; and can only be seized when it comes. Once opportunity takes flight and leaves however, it cannot be seized from behind; it is gone for good and the chance to seize that "moment in time" is lost.

* * * * * * * * * *

I thought of that strange statue as I came to this morning's passage. It's the story of opportunity lost - certainly one of the most tragic stories of opportunity lost in all the history of Israel. This very important, very instructive story of opportunity lost is found for us in Numbers 13-14.

The children of Israel had been delivered from their bondage in Egypt. They had seen the mighty power of God on display in such a way as to leave no question of the greatness of His majesty and power. They saw God discipline the mighty Egyptians with plague after plague; and they beheld Him gain a final victory over the armies of Pharaoh as He clapped the Red Sea shut over them. Then, they daily saw His protective hand over them through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night as they traveled across the wilderness. They saw His providential care for them through the daily provision of manna, and of water in the desert. They heard Him thunder as He gave His commandments to Moses; and they beheld His majesty as He appeared before them on Mt. Sinai.

God did all these things for them because He had made a promise to their father Abraham. As he wandered a stranger in the land to which God had called him - the land of Canaan - God promised poor, childless Abraham, "To your descendants I will give this land" (Gen. 12:7). And now, just two years or so after Abraham's decedents were delivered out of their bondage in Egypt, they at long last approached the land God had promised. They were about to be called upon to rise up and possess their possessions. They were about to be called upon to seize the inheritance God had promised to their fathers. They were about to be given the opportunity to take the land He was giving to them.

And incidentally, it was an opportunity that was guaranteed to be successful if they would simply go in obedience and seize it. Shortly after they were delivered from bondage in Egypt and had passed through the Red Sea, Moses wrote a song under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and in this song, he spoke of the people groups who inhabited this land and the surrounding nations. He wrote;

The people will hear and be afraid; sorrow will take hold of the inhabitants of Philistia. The chiefs of Edom will be dismayed; the mighty men of Moab, trembling will take hold of them; all the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away. Fear and dread will fall on them; by the greatness of Your arm they will be as still as a stone, till Your people pass over, O LORD, till the people pass over whom You have purchased. You will bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance. In the place, O LORD, which You have made for Your own dwelling, the sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands have established. The LORD shall reign forever and ever (Exodus 15:14-18).

So, what a great opportunity from God this was! They would have to rise up and fight for this land militarily; but it was a battle that they were sure to win! They would have to enter in and take possession; but it was a land that they were certain to possess! It was an inheritance that could not fail to be theirs; because it was God Himself who was giving it to them!

But fail they did. They refused to go in an take the land, because they refused to trust God for it or believe in His promise of victory. It was an opportunity that they failed to seize because of unbelief. As a result, a whole generation of Israel lost this "opportunity" and died in the wilderness; and their children had to wait almost forty years before they could enter into the land and rightfully claim their inheritance from God.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now dear brother or sister in Christ; the Bible teaches us that the things that happened to ancient Israel are recorded for our instruction - for those of us who live on this side of the cross of Jesus Christ. And this fact is particularly so with respect to this morning's story. It was the very story Paul had in mind when he wrote these words to Christians like us;

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples ... (1 Cor. 10:1-6a).

This, then, is a story that is specifically intended to teach you and me the danger of encountering the opportunities that God presents to us with a spirit of unbelief, and to encourage us to decisively seize ahold of those opportunities in full trust in God. It's the story that the writer of Hebrews has in mind when he writes these words;

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called "Today," lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: "Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion."

For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all those who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:12-19).

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear brother or sister in Christ, there are great things that God wants to do through you and me. There is really very little we can do in our own strength; but with God's help, nothing is impossible for us. Through faith in Him, we can do anything He calls us to do. Do you remember that startling promise that Jesus Himself gives us? - "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (John 14:12-14). Truly, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31).

But consider this: The opportunities God brings to us don't always come to us looking like "opportunities". Very often, they come to us disguised as serious challenges to our faith. Such opportunities from God call upon us to do things that are far bigger than our own abilities and resources would allow; and they therefore demand that we rely on God's mighty help every step of the way. If such "opportunities" were things we could do on our own power - things that we could do without relying on God's unfailing help - then I suggest that they are probably not opportunities from God.

What glory would God gain from calling on us to do things that we could do just fine without Him? No - the opportunities that God sends to us are things so big that only He could do them; and when we trust in God's help and obediently do what He tells us to do in those times of challenge, we are rightly seizing ahold of an "opportunity from God" as we should. Conversely, when we look only at our own resources at such times, or we refuse to trust in God - and as a result, slump in despair and say, "It can't be done" - then we are, in effect, forfeiting a wonderful opportunity from God. Sometimes - as this morning's text shows us - we can allow ourselves to be so frozen in unbelief that the opportunities become lost to us for good!

Let's look together at the story of Israel's great lost opportunity; and let's learn the lessons God has for us in it. First, please notice ...


This story begins with a command from the Lord to Moses; "Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them" (13:1-2). If we compare this passage with the first chapter of Deuteronomy, we find that it was originally the people's idea to send in the spies (Deut. 1:22-23). God had apparently approved of this idea, and gave His command through Moses to send the spies in response to the people's request.

Now it wasn't because of any doubts about the campaign that God commanded the spies to be sent. I believe it was because God wanted to both inspire them with what they were about to receive, and to encourage them to trust in Him in receiving it. And so, twelve leaders from each of the twelve tribes of Israel went into Canaan to spy out the land. Moses told them, "Go up this way into the South, and go up to the mountains, and see what the land is like; whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land" (vv. 27-20).

And that's what they did. They went on a forty-day reconnaissance mission; and they returned with a cluster of grapes so large it required two men to carry on a pole - plus some pomegranates and figs. They reported to Moses and all the congregation that it was, indeed, what God had said - "It truly flows with milk and honey" (v. 27); that is, it is a land that is truly rich and plenteous.

But please notice the fateful word "Nevertheless" in verse 28. It marks the turning-point in the story. It was the "nevertheless" of unbelief. "Nevertheless," some of the spies said, "the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there." The "descendants of Anak" is a reference to a large people whom the Israelites fearfully referred to as "giants" (v. 33). "The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebuistes, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan" (v. 29).

Now, God didn't send them in to spy out the land to find out whether or not these people groups were there. He already told them that they were there when He promised He would give Abraham the land in which these very people groups dwelt (Gen. 15:18-20). God sent them to let them see that the land truly was a land flowing "with milk and honey"; but that receiving it would require that they trust in Him. But in spite of what they saw of the good nature of what they saw, they began to talk themselves out of obeying God and of seizing this "opportunity" because of their fear of the people of the land.

Two of the twelve spies sought to encourage the people. One of them, Caleb, quieted the people before Moses, and said, "Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to over come it" (v. 30). But the other ten spies immediately jumped in and dumped a bucket of cold water all over this word of encouragement:

"We are not able to go up against such people, for they are stronger than we." And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, "The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants [that is, it's a land that would consume us], and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight" (vv. 31-33).

Can you see how, once they allowed unbelief to take hold of them, their evaluation of the good land God was giving them began to change? At first, they affirmed that it truly was a land flowing with milk and honey; but they were soon saying it was a land that consumed its inhabitants. At first, they simply reported on who dwelt in the land; but soon they were saying that they were people who were stronger than themselves. And it's interesting how the "giants" became bigger and bigger in their fears - until they considered themselves nothing more than grasshoppers in their own sight; and they were certain that the "giants" thought the same way about them.

And notice this important fact: In all that they said in their "bad report," you'll not find a single word about God. It was as if the humanly impossible task of taking the land was all up to them in their own resources and power. The opportunities that God gives us will always seem utterly overwhelming and impossible to us, so long as we keep God out of the picture and operate from the standpoint of unbelief.

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the principles we can learn from this is how, when we fail to trust in God's power in seizing the opportunities He gives us, we not only bring ourselves down but we also bring others down with us. The Bible tells us how horribly "down" the people were brought in unbelief. "So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night" (14:1). Imagine that! They were on the verge of seeing God fulfill the glorious promise He made to their forefather Abraham; and instead of rejoicing in worship, they were weeping in unbelief!

And then, they said something horrible:

And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?" So they said to one another, "Let us select a leader and return to Egypt" (vv. 2-4).

What an insult to the marvelous grace of God their Redeemer!! - to say that they wished God had never delivered them, and had allowed them instead to die in slavery; or to say that they wished God had not cared for them and protected them, and had allowed let them instead to perish in the wilderness! And they said all this while being given by God the opportunity of seizing the greatest blessing they could possibly imagine. They said all this for no other reason than because of their unbelief!

On hearing these words, Moses and Aaron fell to the ground before the congregation of Israel; most likely to plead with them to repent of their horrible unbelief, and from the insult to God it presented. And Joshua - the second of the twelve spies who had a genuine faith in God - along with Caleb, pleaded with them as well. They both tore their clothes in grief over what they were hearing from the people; and appealed to them, saying, "The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, 'a land which flows with milk and honey.' Only do not rebel against the LORD, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread [which was their way of saying, "We're going to eat them for lunch!"]; their protection has departed from them, and the LORD is with us. Do not fear them" (vv. 7-9).

But the people reacted to this final appeal by preparing to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, to death with stones. They descended from being immobilized with unbelief, down to being willing to kill anyone who sought to restore their faith.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, here was how their great opportunity was lost. Next, please pay careful attention to ...


Our explanation for "why" is very reliable; because it comes from God Himself. As soon as it was apparent that the people intended to kill His servants, and were selecting leaders to bring them back into bondage in Egypt, God immediately stepped in. He allowed His glory to, somehow, be manifested in the tabernacle before the whole congregation of Israel; and He spoke, saying to Moses (whom they were about to stone),

"How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they" (vv. 11-12).

Now this was, obviously, a test for Moses. And Moses immediately made an appeal to God to pardon the people and not destroy them. Moses prayed that God would do this order to preserve His own glory among the nations. And God mercifully responded to Moses' intercession for them and promises not to destroy them. (Moses prayed this, by the way, for the people who were about to stone him to death. No wonder the Bible tells us, in Numbers 12:13, that Moses was more humble than all who dwell upon the earth!)

But I want you to notice the reason God Himself gives for their failure to seize this great opportunity. He said, specifically, "How long will they not believe Me ...?"; and we know that He means "believe on Me and rely on the greatness of My power" because He refers back to all the signs which He had performed among them. He says that they rejected the land because, ultimately, they were rejecting Him.

And I would suggest to you, dear brother or sister, that this is always - ultimately - why we lose the opportunities that God brings to us. The opportunities come to us in the form of a challenge to our faith. They come to us in a situation that is bigger than us, and that demands we rely on God to do what only He can do in order for us to seize what He is giving us. In fact, such opportunities call upon us to trust in what we already KNOW God is most certainly able to do. And yet because of our heard-hearted unbelief and our failure to rely on what we already know to be true of God, we don't actively trust on Him, we refuse to step out in obedience, and we thus lose the opportunity He is giving us.

This is exactly what happened to Israel. God Himself says;

"... All these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded my voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who reject Me see it. But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it" (vv. 22-24).

There's a verse about Jesus that has always haunted me. He had returned to Nazareth, the place of His birth; but the people of Nazareth rejected Him and were offended by Him. And the Bible says, "Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Matthew 13:58). This makes me wonder how many opportunities I have lost because of my own unbelief. And I wonder how much we must grieve God's heart even today because of our failure to trust what He has taught us to be true about Himself, and to rely on His power and go out in obedience and face the challenges He places before us. I wonder how many great things He could still do through us if we would let Him change our hearts, and develop in us that "different spirit" that was in Caleb.

* * * * * * * * * *

And finally, please notice that when we fail to seize the opportunities God places before us, we lose much more than just the opportunity itself. We see ...


God tells Moses to tell the people, "'As I live,' says the LORD, 'just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: the carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones,whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness'" (vv. 28-32).

The Bible tells us later that Joshua became the successor to Moses; and he was used by God to lead the next generation into the land. And we discover later that Caleb - strong as ever, though an old man by that time - entered in and mightily drove out the same people groups that the people had feared before (Josh. 14:6-15).

But this unbelieving generation lost more than merely that particular opportunity. They lost the whole land. They were not even permitted to go into it. Instead, God gave them what they asked for. They had said, "... If only we had died in this wilderness!" (14:2); and that's exactly what would happen to them. Sometimes, God judges unbelief by giving the unbeliever exactly what he or she grumbles for in that unbelieving state!

A second loss might be measured in terms of how their unbelief affected innocent people. God says, "And your sons shall be shepherds [that is, wanderers] in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. I the LORD have spoken this. I will surely do so to all this evil generation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die" (vv. 33-35).

Joshua and Caleb eventually enter the land and seize their possessions. And eventually, so do the children of this unbelieving generation. But just imagine having to wait forty long years; and all because of the unbelief of another! The whole nation wandered around in a space that would have taken little more than ten to eleven days to traverse; and yet they wandered around aimlessly in this area for forty years until the unbelieving generation died off. The Bible tells us next to nothing about those forty years. They were forty very uneventful years; and all because they refused to seize the opportunity God gave them because of their unbelief. Our unbelief hurts far more people than ourselves; it often causes great harm to other innocent people when we refuse to seize the opportunities of faith.

We read about a third loss in verses 36-38. "Now the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation complain against him by bringing a bad report of the land, those very men who brought the evil report died by the plague before the LORD. But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive, of the men who spied out the land." Elsewhere, the Bible says, "He who is often rebuked, and hardens his neck, will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1). Sometimes, someone's unrepentant and hard-hearted unbelief can become such a drag on everyone else's progress toward God's blessings, that repentance ceases to be possible; and God finally brings judgment directly upon such people and and prevents them from robbing others of the opportunities He seeks to bring.

A final loss that the people suffered was a loss of the blessing of God's presence. The people all felt very badly about what happened, and expressed a kind of 'repentance' that ended up being nothing more than another act of arrogant unbelief. They all rose up early the next morning and went up to the top of the mountain and said, "Here we are, and we will go up to the place which the LORD has promised, for we have sinned!" (v. 40). Even though God had told them that they had lost their opportunity, they thought they could simply regain it by doing now what they should have done then.

But it was too late. Moses told them, "Now why do you transgress the command of the LORD? For this will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be defeated by your enemies, for the LORD is not among you. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned away from the LORD, the LORD will not be with you" (vv. 41-43).

In spite of Moses warnings, however, the people presumed to go up to the mountaintop in a foolish attempt to take what was no longer theirs. As a result, the Amalekites and the Canaanites came down and soundly defeated the Israelites. Their opportunity from God had come and gone. They didn't take it when it came because of their unbelief; and now that the opportunity had, as it were, turned away and taken flight, there was no way to seize it from behind.

* * * * * * * * * *

I remember hearing about a pastor who was dying. A good friend and fellow minister sat by his bedside. The dying pastor turned to his friend and said, "I'm not ready to die."

"But brother," the friend said; "I know you. You trust in Jesus. You know that you'll go to be with Him. How can you say you're not ready to die?"

"Oh, I know that I'll see Jesus; and I rejoice in that", the pastor said. "It's just that I'm dying before I thought I would; and I still have so many 'Canaans' that I have not yet conquered in my life."

Dear brother or sister; is there a "Canaan" in your life that God is calling you to conquer today? Is there an opportunity that God has placed before you; and is He calling you to rise to the task? I suggest that you can tell this is so by the fact that it's forcing a challenge of faith upon you. I suggest you can recognize a new opportunity from God by the fact that it calls you to something in obedience to His Scripture that's bigger than your known abilities and resources, and that it forces you to step out in simple trust in the faithfulness and power of God. And I suggest you can also recognize it by the voice of unbelief shouting its "nevertheless" at you. "Yes; it's a great opportunity. Nevertheless, the obstacles are too great. Nevertheless, the resources are to meager. Nevertheless, the labor is too hard. Nevertheless ... Nevertheless ... Nevertheless ..."

I plead with you; don't talk yourself out of the opportunity God is placing before you by listening to the fatal "nevertheless" of unbelief. It's true that it presents you with a challenge of faith; but there are great blessings on the other side of that challenge! Don't fall into the trap that the people of Israel fell into. Accept the challenge of faith; trust God; and seize the opportunity by the forelock! And watch God do what only He can do!

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