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God’s Word for You

Numbers 16:16-22 Prayer on behalf of sinners

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, September 23, 2021

16 Moses said to Korah, “Tomorrow, you and all your followers are to appear before the LORD—you and they, and Aaron. 17 Every one of them is to take his censer and put incense on it, and each man will present his censer before the LORD, two hundred fifty censers. You and Aaron also, each one of you, will present his censer.”

Since Korah was a Levite, Moses permits him and his followers to be tested as Levites, with censers of incense in their hands. This sort of contest would be duplicated by Elijah on Mount Carmel, and there as here, the question is over which God is supreme: “You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). Moses was showing that Korah was not following the true God at all, and therefore he was following a false god, a god of his own invention. Korah might try to call himself a believer in God, but he wasn’t. He wanted God to obey him instead of the other way around. We have the same sad state today. There are many who want to call themselves Christians but who reject salvation through Christ. So what are they? They are not Christians. There are even some who call themselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church here in America who are not truly evangelical, not at all Lutheran, and not Christian churches, since they hold up and honor false gods and false worship as paths to salvation! What are they? They are no longer Christian churches, but the same as the high places that were such a burden and a temptation for the people of God in the days of the divided kingdom (1 Kings 12:31; Jeremiah 7:31; Ezekiel 16:16). What will happen to them in the Judgment? God is patient, but in Moses’ day it was time to set an example.

18 They each took their own censers, put fire in them, placed incense on them, and stood at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting with Moses and Aaron. 19 Korah assembled the entire community opposite Moses and Aaron at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

It’s already the next day. Korah and most of his family (but not all), Dathan and Abiram and their families, were there, ready to make quick work of old Moses. Everyone had a bronze censer, a hand-held incense burner with some incense. A censer was basically a bowl with a handle or chain so that it could be held or carried. The bowl shape allowed the incense, which was either in solid chunks or a loose powder, to slide down the sides of the bowl into the fire smoldering at the bottom. The resulting smoke was powerful and aromatic.

The glory of the LORD appeared to the entire assembly. 20 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, 21 “Separate yourselves from this assembly so that I may put an end to them instantly!”

The fires were lit and the incense began to burn, and God spoke at once. Here was the Glory of the Lord, the special cloudlike appearance of God among his people. His message was clear and direct: “Move away from them so that I may strike them all dead!”

We should remember certain things about this Cloud, this visible manifestation of God as his cloak and as his robe while among his people here on earth. The Glory of the Lord cannot be called into being by any human or angel. It is an image of God’s true heavenly glory. It shows that God is transcendent over all his creatures and creation. It shows God’s almighty power. It shows God’s infinite grace. It shows God’s total holiness. When the Glory of the Lord appears, all creatures ought to bow and worship (Leviticus 9:23-24). When the Glory of the Lord appears, it shows (1) that the Lord God is personally present in a special manner, and (2) that God is about to go into action in a special, supernatural way. Abraham had seen it before (Genesis 15:17), but this generation of Israelites had seen it not all that long ago, when it first appeared because of their grumbling in the wilderness before they arrived at Sinai. God appeared because they had complained and challenged the leadership of Moses, and the supernatural act at that time was the coming of manna (Exodus 16:7-12). The Glory had remained with them as the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).

God’s warning was to separate from those rebels. “Be divided from them,” he said. This chilling command made it clear just what kind of supernatural act was about to take place.

22 But Moses and Aaron fell facedown and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, when one man sins, will you be angry against the entire community?”

Once again, Moses and Aaron prayed on behalf of the men who were trying to overthrow them. It was not human dignity or prestige that was at stake, but the very souls of these men who were placing themselves outside of the family of God.

When we pray, whether on our own behalf or whether we intercede on behalf of someone else, we must understand that God will grant what we ask, but not always according to our wishes. James says: “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven” (James 5:16). But God is wise and doesn’t give us everything we want, or else we would expect him to obey us and behave like a vending machine, dropping down whatever we ask for exactly when we ask for it. But he promises that he hears the prayers of Christians. What sometimes eludes us is that he is wiser than we are, and he has the good of his whole church and the world at heart, as well as each of his tiny individual creatures. This makes prayer difficult, but he invites us over and over again to pray. What an amazing example Moses and Aaron set for us! Would that I could pray like this prophet or this high priest! But I am only a very small man, and often my prayers do not get much beyond begging for forgiveness for my sins and shortcomings and for God to look after and bless my dear children.

One way to think of this passage is as a warning, but don’t forget that God blesses Moses and Aaron and the rest of the nation by acting on his holiness and defending his glory and his name. He performs such mighty acts on our behalf as well. “Love the Lord your God,” Moses said (Deuteronomy 30:20), “listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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