Teaching Numbers in the Local Church
When Mathias returned home from the Founders’ Day, he began a careful study of the book of Numbers. He wanted to teach it in the church, but he knew that he needed to prepare carefully if he was going to do it well. Some people would resist the idea that an Old Testament book could have value for Christians in the twenty-first century. Some would be resistant to the leadership ideas that Brother Matla had suggested could be taught using this book. If Mathias did not carefully prepare, he knew that he might do more harm than good.
Redeeming the Time
Since Mathias had to work in a factory all day, he did not have a lot of time to devote to his study. He needed to plan carefully. He needed to take advantage of what time he did have. He would have three times when he could study. He could do a little bit of reading during his breaks at work. He could study some at home in the evening. After the children were put to bed each evening, he would have an hour at most. On weekends he had a lot to do, but he could set aside the early morning hours for study. On Saturday he might get up to two hours of study. Sunday it might be a little less.
Mathias began by reading all the way through Numbers a couple of times. He wanted to get the overall picture of the book. It was not easy. Some parts of it were boring. But after reading it twice, he noticed some parts that seemed very useful. He also began to see how it all fit together and how it all seemed to point to the importance of being organised and respecting our leaders.
Mathias and his wife always read a portion of scripture to their children before putting them to bed. He thought about reading Numbers, but he realised that portions of it would not be suitable. He did, however, pick out some portions that would be suitable for the children. He began to include some of these stories. He decided that the story of how Aaron and Miriam opposed their brother, Moses, would be particularly good for the children. It would introduce the sins of racial prejudice and sibling rivalry, as well as the importance of respecting the leaders God has chosen.
Mathias also thought of other biblical stories that addressed good leadership ideas that he could read to his children. King Saul took decisive action during the first military challenge of his kingship (1 Sam 11). But later King Saul did nothing when Goliath challenged the army of God. In that case, David, a shepherd boy, showed greater faith and better leadership than the anointed king (1 Sam 17). Those were stories that even children could enjoy. They were also leadership examples that needed to be taught to the church.
Mathias decided break time at work could be used for reading and rereading the Old Testament texts on leadership. For deeper study and making notes, he would use the evening and weekend hours.
He phoned Brother Matla and asked if he could recommend any books to help him study the background of the biblical books he was reading. Brother Matla suggested a book called The New Bible Dictionary for background study. He explained that, in this case, “dictionary” did not mean that it defined words. Instead, it was more like an encyclopaedia of biblical information. Brother Matla said that Mathias was welcome to have his copy. Now that Brother Matla was blind, he could no longer use it. He would be glad for Mathias to have it if he would really use it.
Later, Mathias proposed to Dennis and Paul that they go together to purchase three good commentaries on Numbers. Dennis objected saying, “Why not just look up information on the Internet? That is free.” Mathias explained that what he was finding on the Internet was often unreliable. The information was free because advertisers paid the people who post the information. Since they get paid by how many people view their post, the bloggers tend to post what is sensational rather than what is helpful and true. Content that gets a lot of “hits” makes a profit. Truth that does not attract much interest does not bring in profits.
Paul offered to pay for the three books that the friends would share. He said, “I will make this my Christmas present to you. Mathias can use the books first. When he is done with them, he can pass them on to whoever needs them next.”
The First Class
It took three months, but finally Mathias felt ready to volunteer to teach the Sunday morning adult class. When he announced that they would study “Numbers” one of the young men joked, “I am not good at maths. Couldn’t we study something else?” The rest of the class did not say anything, but they looked surprised.
The first week, Mathias had three goals in mind for the class.
First, Mathias wanted the class to understand that the book had leadership and organisation as its theme. He feared that many of them thought of the book as a collection of unrelated stories. He feared that they often missed the real point of the stories because they had never considered the overall theme.
Second, he wanted to admit to them that there were parts of the book that they might find boring and difficult to read.
Finally, he wanted to show them that even the census account, one of the most boring parts of the book, contained an important lesson.
The first week went well. People took greater interest in the study when they realised that Mathias had prepared well and had a clear grasp of the theme.
He showed them the importance of the census. Most of them quickly realised that it would have been impossible for the leaders to lead the people across the wilderness if they had not known how many people they were leading.
Toward the end of class, Mathias asked if there were any questions or comments. Nigel, one of the oldest brothers said he had a comment.
He began, “I have been a member of this church for over thirty years. I do not recall ever having a class or a sermon from the Book of Numbers. What you have said already makes me realise that many church problems might have been avoided if we heeded better leadership examples.
“Many people have fallen away from this church through the years. There may be many reasons for that, but one reason could be that we do not even attempt to keep track of our members. We do not maintain a membership list. We do not take weekly attendance. Sometimes a member has wandered away and no one even notices for weeks or months. If we took a census of those who claim to be part of this church, and then took attendance and checked on the ones who are missing, we might be able to keep some of them from falling away from the church.”
Mathias could see that others had also agreed with the application of the study that Brother Nigel had made. Mathias thanked Brother Nigel for his comment. But then he added, “Should we not do something about this? We seem to be agreed that a membership list and the taking of attendance would help. But who will volunteer to do this? It is no good to agree to the idea if we do not take action.” After a little more discussion, two people were assigned to help Brother Nigel develop a membership list. One of the sisters agreed to take attendance each week. She was to report the absentees to Mathias each week. He would then announce the names of those who were absent and lead a prayer for them.
Mathias also asked the members to consider checking on those who were absent. “If they are absent just once,” he said, “send a text saying, ‘We missed you. Are you okay?’ If they miss more often, and especially if they do not respond to the text messages, let us try to go to visit in person.”
The second week they studied the importance of confessing our wrong when we realise our guilt. This was based on Numbers 5:5-7. The third week they talked about the Nazirite vow, from the sixth chapter. These classes were okay. Mathias felt they were still paying attention, but there was not much discussion.
At the end of that third class, Mathias told them to read chapter seven. He warned them that they might find it a little boring. He promised them that they would find the application interesting.
Mathias always opened the class with a song and a prayer. Then he would ask them to open their Bibles to the passage for the day. But he did things differently the fourth week. After the prayer, instead of having them turn to the passage, he asked a question. “Have any of you ever lived and worshipped in an area belonging to a different tribe?” Several indicated that they had. Mathias then asked, “How did you feel on Sundays? Did you find it any more difficult to worship in that situation?” Most of those who had experienced this said that it was more difficult to worship when worshipping with a church that was mostly of another tribe. One brother blamed the other Christians for making him feel uncomfortable. But most of those who had experienced this said that it was no one’s fault, it was just an unavoidable result of the differences in language and customs.
Mathias went on to explain how each of the Israelite tribes brought the very same gift for the Tabernacle, and how that would have helped to avoid tribalism in their worship. He then led the class into a discussion of the problems tribal differences can cause, especially in urban areas where many tribes may be present at worship. Someone questioned the value of this discussion. He pointed out that their congregation was of one tribe. Mathias agreed that it was not a problem for them. But, he added, “It is likely to be a problem for our youth as they move about looking for employment. Even during their schooling it can be a problem.”
Mathias called on Brother Nigel for the closing prayer. Brother Nigel prayed that the whole church, and especially the youth, would consider how to work with and welcome believers with different backgrounds. Mathias was pleased to notice that Brother Nigel’s prayer included references to Romans 14, and Revelation 14:6. It was good to see that some members of the class were connecting what they were learning from Numbers with other passages of scripture.
To be continued…
1 For more excellent insights on organisation and leadership in Numbers, see Thayer’s very helpful book God’s Mission Begins: Vol 2: Leviticus – Deuteronomy. Available as a Kindle Book at www.amazon.ca
Matsapha, Eswatini, Southern Africa