A Pillar of Cloud and Fire

Given by Ralph Levy

When God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He gave them a pillar of cloud and fire to lead and guide them, and as proof that He never abandons His people.

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Well, greetings to everybody. Greetings, brethren around the world, from the headquarters office of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association in Allen, Texas. This message is being recorded for the Days of Unleavened Bread. As I record it, it’s just a few weeks prior to the Days of Unleavened Bread; and we’re looking forward to the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. Of course, this is a very meaningful spring holy day season that comes up very shortly. By the time you see this video, you probably will have taken the Passover and are, perhaps, right now in the middle of the Days of Unleavened Bread or, perhaps, even all the way to the end of it. 

We extend our best wishes to everyone for a very fine festival season from the office. There’s not a great deal of news to give you, not a lot going on. The news has been pretty good from the office. I’ll have to say we’ve all been very, very busy. There’s a lot going on. The office buzzes with activity constantly. The income of the church for the first two months of the year was very good. We are very grateful to God for that, and we are grateful to God for the fact that everything is going well.

Without listing them all, I would, I think, make reference to the many health situations that are going on. Since last year’s Feast of Tabernacles, there have, of course, been several health situations that have come up involving ministers and members and others in different areas, so we do need to keep those things in mind. By the time you view this, you will have taken the Passover, no doubt; and we understand that part of the reason for taking the Passover is an appeal to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our healing. That’s included as part of the Passover. So let’s, please, keep up our prayers for the many around the world in different places who very much are needful of God’s intervention with regard to health situations.

On a personal note before I get into the sermon for today, I’ll simply mention that this year during the spring holy day season for a few days I’m going to be in the Dominican Republic, April 11 to April 16. The group there is very small. There are two baptized members in Santo Domingo, the capital. There are some others—two ladies who went and kept the Feast this year in Guatemala, and I’m hoping to get a chance to talk with them and then, maybe, two or three others as well. So a very small group. I believe there is one gentleman visiting from Central America, a baptized member, so that will make up two of us men to take the Passover. We will be able to have the full Passover service then, of course, with four of us, I think, taking the Passover this year.

I’ll be there for a few days, and then I’m going on…I’ll be back home for a couple of days and then on to Mexico City April 19-22. I leave on Saturday night, April 19, in the middle of the Days of Unleavened Bread. I’m going to be there for the last Day of Unleavened Bread. I’ve had three…I will have had three visits to Mexico this year. In February I went to Monterrey, Mexico, and visited the congregation there and very much enjoyed it, enjoyed being with the brethren. Mr. Roybal was not there at the time, but I enjoyed the brethren. I went there and gave the sermon and the Bible study and spent a little bit of time, informal time, with the brethren. Earlier in March, this month, as I record this message, I was in San Luis Potosí in central eastern Mexico. Very, very fine congregation there, pastored by Mr. Adán Langarica. I think we had about 40 or 45 for services that day. Again, a sermon and a Bible study and a little bit of a chance to spend some time with the brethren in San Luis Potosí. And then for the last day of Unleavened Bread, I shall be in Mexico City. I’m looking forward to that. It had been many, many years since I had gone to Mexico, so I’m getting this wonderful series of three visits to the congregations in Mexico as we go through the early part of this year, 2014.

To tell you how long it had been since I’d been there, I pulled out a little bit of what I thought was valid Mexican currency out of my safe deposit box and stuck it in my wallet when I went down there; and when I got down there, I realized that what I suspected was true, that from the last time I’d been in Mexico, the Mexican government had lopped off a bunch of zeros off their Mexican peso, so the bank notes that I had were useless; but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the visit down there. It certainly was a privilege to be with the brethren there, and the hope is that some of the others from the office, certainly I hope that the administration—Mr. Franks, Mr. Kilough, Mr. Horchak—will get a chance to visit from time to time down in the Mexican congregations. That would seem to be a very good thing.

We will be, by the time you see this, of course, we will be on spring break from Foundation Institute. The class is doing well. We have 16 students. They are, I think it’s safe to say, a little tired at this juncture; but I hope they are learning about the Bible. At least it seems that way, and we certainly hope that they will take a lot of knowledge of the Bible with them. We will restart on Thursday, April 24th, after the break for the Days of Unleavened Bread; and at that point, there will then be less than one month till graduation.

Our graduation for Foundation Institute for this year will take place on Saturday night, May 17th; and then it is all over and people will scoot to four, you know, the four corners of the world. And we’re looking forward to welcoming another FI class in August of this year. For those who may be interested and seeing this message, we would encourage you, if you are interested, to think about getting an application in promptly. At this point, our applications for this coming fall outpace the number of applications that we had for last year, so we are hoping for a fairly good-sized class beginning in August 2014. If there is anything we can do to answer questions about Foundation Institute, we would be very happy to do that.

Also, perhaps, before getting into the substance of the sermon for today, I should probably just mention that FI Online seems to be proceeding well. A lot of people are tuning in still. If you are missing the classes on the book of Acts taught by Mr. David Johnson, I would encourage you to get them; and it looks as if we will probably be doing an Old Testament class, one of my classes, as the follow-up class after the book of Acts. That’s been discussed in our meetings here, and there’s more information to come about that. We will announce it as time goes by. So, as they say, don’t touch that dial; there’s more to come.

This is the spring; and, of course, the Passover is the time of initiation of our journey. We begin with the Passover service, the bread and wine, recognition of, a commemoration of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us. It’s tremendously meaningful. It’s a very solemn occasion. It’s not an occasion when we have to put on pantomime; but it is a solemn occasion, nevertheless. We go into the Passover service, we wash the feet of a brother or a sister in the faith, and then we take of the bread and wine. And after that, of course, we follow that, according to the scripture and the commandment, with seven days of eating flat bread. We were talking about that in class this morning, and I was mentioning to the students how when we eat flat bread, that’s deeply symbolic. The matzo, the unleavened bread, is flat. It doesn’t puff up, indicating the fact that we are to approach these holy day seasons with humility, not overestimating ourselves—we are never to do that—but realizing our dependence on God.

Now, while the Days of Unleavened Bread, of course, represent our response to what God does for us through Jesus Christ—making available for us the sacrifice that permits us to be forgiven, to continue in the way of life that God has called us to—nevertheless, there are aspects to this that emphasize what God continues to do for us. And I would like in this sermon to pick up on something that has always been very fascinating to me in the scriptures, something mentioned beginning in the book of Exodus, but it’s a theme that carries almost all the way through much of the Old Testament. As they were coming out of Egypt, of course, it was God who led them out. God led them away from the society that, in a sense, was symbolic of sin. He led them out of slavery. He led them out of their lack of freedom, and He gave them freedom so that they could serve Him.

I’d like for you to turn with me, please, to Exodus, chapter 13. Exodus 13, where something takes place that I always find really quite remarkable and quite moving. In Exodus 13, and I’m at the end of the chapter in Exodus 13, verses 21 and 22. Here is the first mention of something that will carry them through, or should have carried them through, all the way through their peregrinations through the desert. They are to this point at Mount Sinai, or approaching Mount Sinai, and they are probably in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Exodus, chapter 13…pardon me...they’ve just come out of Egypt. Let’s correct that. They’ve just come out of Egypt. They have not gotten to Mount Sinai yet. But, of course, this vision, this miracle will lead them. Exodus 13, verse 21, Exodus 13, verse 21. It says here:

Exodus 13:21-22 And the (Eternal) went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night. (And I love verse 22.) He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night from before the people.

So they’ve just come out of Egypt. It lists certain place names here and elsewhere in the book of Exodus. We won’t take the time to review all the place names, but they’re going to begin heading southward and eastward into the depths of the Sinai Peninsula. And this pillar is what I’d like for us to focus on in this sermon—the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

It was apparently a vertical column, and it was vapor during the day. It was cloud, it was a vapor; and by a miracle, of course, what God did, He then converted it into a pillar of fire, self-sustaining fire in a kind of column. In Spanish, it uses the term “columna de nube,” in a “column of cloud.” And it’s there with them all the way through. Now this is critical because when we think about this, when we keep these two verses in mind, we see that this was a reminder of the presence of God. From the time that God brought them out of Egypt all the way through those forty years of wandering in the wilderness, until they entered the promised land, all they had to do was look up, just tilt their head back—during the day that pillar of vapor, during the night that pillar of fire; and there are scattered mentions of the pillar all the way through the Old Testament.

It’s interesting that…we know the history. In spite of the fact that that pillar was there the whole time, we see multiple breakdowns of faith on the part of the nation of Israel, the people of Israel, as they’re moving all the way through this. And I find it interesting that even modern commentators read this and their faith breaks down—biblical commentators. 

I did a little bit of searching, and I found the 1986 edition of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. The 1986 edition of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume III, page 871, and the entry reads as follows:

Pillar of cloud and pillar of fire: The visible manifestation of the divine presence... (during) the Exodus. (The Lord)...went before (the Israelites) “by day in a pillar of cloud...to give them light...the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (did not depart) from before the people.” (And it quotes Exodus 13 and a number of other passages as well.) When the congregation was at rest, the cloud (stayed) over the tabernacle. (Later on we’ll see the pillar comes down, the pillar of cloud comes down, and it says the people are to be stationary.) When (the Lord) wished to communicate His will to Moses, the pillar descended to the door of the (temple) Tent of Meeting... (a number of Bible references, including Exodus 33, that we’ll come to shortly. But then a comment that I found very interesting, and they here quote a German scholar, Martin Noth, and he said the following…I’ll continue to read from ISBE, 1986 Edition.) Scholars have offered various rationalistic explanations of these pillars. M. Noth (Martin Noth), “Exodus,” 1962, originally written in German, supposed that the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire reflected the volcanic activity of the Sinai area. 

The point I’m making is that here we have 20th-century scholars who lack the eyes of faith even to see that it existed. The Israelites passing through the desert lacked the eyes of faith to see what it meant to them.

Another commentator, U. Cassuto, in a commentary on the book of Exodus, saw a parallel with the ancient practice of carrying smoke and fire signals at the head of caravans as a guide. 

I checked a little bit more, the more recent edition of International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, and I was actually rather glad to see that that quote of Martin Noth is no longer there. To quote from the more recent addition:

These descriptions are not to be rationalistically explained; what is depicted is a true theophany. 

A theophany is a vision of God. And I’m glad they wrote that in the more recent edition. This was the evidence of God’s presence, and this pillar that’s with them for that entire duration of time is deeply symbolic and deeply meaningful. It required eyes of faith to see it.

Hebrews 4, verse 2; Hebrews 4 and verse 2; Hebrews 4 and verse 2...They had to have eyes of faith to see it. Hebrews 4 and verse 2, if I can get there in my Bible. In many occasions, the New Testament reflects back on the experience of Israel as an object lesson, usually of what not to do.

Hebrews 4:2 For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.

They lacked faith. I wonder at times what we would have done—the New Testament Israel of God, God’s spiritual people. If God gave us a pillar of cloud up in the air during the day and a pillar of fire during the night, and in order to see the physical evidence of the fact that God is with us, all we have to do is tilt our head up and there it is. I wonder about that at times. Of course, God has not done that for us; but in Matthew 28 and verse 20, Matthew 28 and verse 20, this scripture, which doesn’t promise us in the physical sense a vision of God or a pillar in the air; but Jesus Christ tells us something very, very important here. Matthew 28 and verse 20, in the context of the great commission:

Matthew 28:20 “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you (interrupting the context here); and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Jesus Christ says, “I am with you always.” Now, we don’t have the time in the course of this sermon to read where that phrase occurs throughout the Old Testament and the New; but whenever God tells people, “I’m with you,” we know that success is coming. That’s a very telling phrase. I wonder whether we believe that. I wonder whether we really, really appreciate what that means. Jesus Christ says He’s with us right up to the end of the age. There are some that...of course, [this is] in the context of the preaching of the gospel. And there have been those who have said, “No, the preaching of the gospel is over.” It ended 28 years ago, according to some. Well, we read this; and Jesus Christ says, “That’s not the case. You’ve got work to do. You’ve got a spiritual journey to undertake, and I will carry…and I am there with you, carrying you, leading you, all the way through.” God is committed to doing His part. Just as He put that pillar in the sky, He’s committed to it. One of the questions for us during these Days of Unleavened Bread [is] how committed are we to our part? When God commits to something, His commitment is absolute. You can rely on it.

In John, chapter 10, John, chapter 10, is another scripture that I find just fascinating. John 10, verses 27-30. John 10, verse 27 up through verse 30. I’ll give you time to turn there, but this is an amazing scripture. John 10, verse 27. Jesus Christ says…it’s red letters in your Bible, no doubt:

John 10:27-30 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (Christ’s sheep hear His voice. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd.) And I give them eternal life, (verse 28) and they shall never perish... (Isn’t that remarkable? What wonderful promises we have in the New Testament.) neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” 

Jesus Christ has us in the palm of His hand, and He doesn’t permit anyone to come along and grab us out of the palm of His hand.

Verse 29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.”

Those scriptures are amazing. Jesus Christ and God our Father are completely committed to doing their part. No one has the power to snatch us out of the hand of Jesus Christ. How committed are we? I wonder about this; and, of course, when we read a scripture like this, those of us who’ve been in God’s church for any length of time, we stop and we wonder about those who wandered off. Well, were they snatched out of the hand of Jesus Christ? No. Jesus Christ says that that’s not possible. But I wonder whether it’s possible for someone to make himself susceptible to that. And I also wonder, at this phase in the history of God’s church, whether, perhaps, some will find their way back. If they see that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, perhaps some of those who wandered off in the desert, in the wilderness, will find their way back. Perhaps that ought to be one of our prayers during the Days of Unleavened Bread and afterwards.

Hebrews, chapter 2, which we won’t turn to, talks about our giving the more urgent heed lest we let these things drift. Things just drift off, and I can think of some whom I’ve seen allow exactly that phenomenon in their lives. They just drifted away. They didn’t hold on tight enough. No, nobody can snatch us out of Christ’s hand; but can people wander away? Can people lose their grip on their calling? Can people just go disappearing over the horizon because of lack of attention to their own calling? We need to give attention to our calling, brethren. We need to make it a very central part of our lives. No matter how busy we are, we can’t drift off.

Now let’s turn to Exodus, chapter 40, because the symbolism of the pillar continues. God is faithful in the things He does. Exodus, chapter 40, and beginning in verse 34. Exodus 40 and beginning in verse 34. Exodus 30…Excuse me, Exodus 40, verse 34. The glory of God...this is after this lengthy section in which the tabernacle is filled with the glory of God, after Moses has done all his work. Moses is pretty energetic. Exodus 40, verse 34:

Exodus 40:34-36 Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the (Eternal) filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the (Eternal) filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. 

Isn’t that interesting? They had to be sensitive to it. The cloud lifts up and they move. The cloud comes down and they stay. Is there a lesson there for us?

Verse 37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. 

Verse 38 For the cloud of the (Eternal) was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
Isn’t that amazing? That statement in Exodus 13, the statement in Exodus 40—God placed that pillar, the cloud, up in the air and it’s there the entire time. And it makes it even more—how should we put it? Even more poignant when we realize that as they trudged through the desert and all of those things took place, the golden calf incident when sort of a paganized orgy broke out and they get carried away, wanting to go back to Egypt, spiritually. And Moses came down the mountain and was so angry with them; and again, although it isn’t mentioned in that chapter, but by inference, obviously the pillar of cloud was there, the pillar of fire by night, as all that went on. And then we’ve got a series of rebellions. Aaron and Miriam against Moses in the book of Numbers—we just covered that in class—over, supposedly, huh, supposedly over the Ethiopian woman. That wasn’t really the issue. And we’ll come to that briefly. Korah and his people, Levites against Moses and Aaron, also another rebellion. There is a series of several rebellions in the book of Numbers, and we’ll talk about that briefly.

The sending of the manna, God’s provision; their discontentment, they got fed up with the manna; and the sending of quail to give them a little bit of extra protein, and the way all of that played out. And during the entire time, you’ve got a pillar of cloud up in the air during the day and a pillar of fire by night. 

In another section that we’ll come to in class, actually tomorrow, as I record this sermon, it’s going to be tomorrow when we’ll get to the book of Numbers and the Balaam incident, with Balaam going up to the mountain, the top of the mountain with Balak, who had hired him and offered him lots of bucks or lots of euros, as the case may be, lots of bitcoins, whatever it may have been, and said, “Just curse them for me, just curse them for me,” and, of course, Balaam keeps coming back and saying, “I’m not allowed to. I’m not allowed to.” He probably wanted to, but he comes back and he says, “I’m not allowed to.” And all of this takes place under the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. If pillars could talk, if pillars could talk—maybe that’s the title of the sermon—if pillars could talk; and, in a sense, they can because, of course, we get references to the pillar all the way through, several times, as we review some of this history. The pillar was witness to all of that. And it was witness to the fact that God is faithful. God is very, very faithful.

One of my favorite words in the Hebrew Bible, and those who have taken my classes are aware of it and probably if you listen to a sermon or two that I’ve given, one of my favorite words is a word that appears very frequently in the Hebrew Bible. And it’s the word, hesed, spelled h-e-s-e-d or c-h-e-s-e-d. It’s actually very common in the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament scriptures. It sometimes translates into “mercy.” It sometimes translates into “love.” It is sometimes translated “kindness.” But in actual fact, none of those English translations really gets fundamentally at the meaning of the word hesed. The word hesed tells us something that ties in with this theme. The word hesed has to do with faithfulness. The word hesed means “covenant love,” “covenant loyalty.” Some commentators comment that hesed is love in its purest form, its most refined form. It’s the love that can take place between two human beings when they enter into a covenant—the kind of love that ought to be there between husband and wife, because, after all, they’ve entered into a covenant. Hesed, “love.” Hesed is God’s commitment, and there are so many examples of this. When God makes a commitment, He’s completely committed to it. How committed are we?
Let’s turn to Psalm 136, Psalm 136. Hesed, God’s covenant love that’s mentioned right from the beginning, with God and Abram, before his name is changed. Hesed, God’s commitment to Abram, God’s commitment later on to the nation of Israel. In Psalm 136, and we have this, of course, in our hymnal:

Psalm 136:1 Oh, give thanks to the (Eternal), for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. (In the context of Psalm 136, it emphasizes the word hesed is translated here “mercy,” but it’s that same word.)

Verse 2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods! For His mercy endures forever. (In Hebrew, kiy l’olam hasdow.)

God’s mercy is owlam, to all eternity. God’s hesed. God commits; He sticks with it. What about us? What about them, with the pillar up in the sky?

Verse 3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of Lords! For His mercy (His hesed) endures forever...

God did all these things. We have just completed a study of the book of Micah upstairs in the FI classroom. In fact, we completed it this morning, as I record; and we went to Micah, chapter 6, and I’d like to take you there. Micah, chapter 6, the book of Micah, chapter 6, and verses 3-6. Micah, chapter 6, and verses 3-6. Micah, roughly in the middle of the minor prophets, one of the slightly longer ones, seven chapters long. Micah 6, verses 3-6, and Micah describes God putting Israel in the dock, God putting Israel on trial for her unfaithfulness. In Micah, chapter 6, we have a courtroom type setting. Here God is the prosecuting attorney; and beginning in verse 3, there is a list of all the things that God did for them. Micah 6, verse 3, look at this. This is a demonstration of God’s faithfulness. 

Micah 6:3 “O My people, what have I done to you? And how have I wearied you? Testify against Me.” (God puts Israel in the dock and says, “What have I done? What’s the charge against Me?”) 

Verse 4 “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” 

Verse 5 “O My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab counseled, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, (“Curse them for me,” and Balaam says, “No, I can’t.” “Curse them for me,” and he says, “No, I can’t.” “Curse them for me,” and he says, “No, I can’t.” Eventually he utters a remarkable prophecy, blessing them.) from Acacia Grove to Gilgal, that you may know the righteousness of the Lord.” 

Micah, chapter 6. God is faithful. God is faithful. One of the questions we need to ask ourselves during the Days of Unleavened Bread, how faithful are we? And just as many of the Old Testament scriptures give these catalogues, these listings of everything that God did for national Israel, I think it’s very good in the spring for us to review in our minds, maybe even sit down with pencil and paper or sit down with our computers or our iPads or whatever it may be and review everything that God has done for us, from the time He first began to work with us; the time that He called us; the time that our eyes were opened; the time that we came to understand His plan; [the time] we made ourselves subject, with His help, to His way of life and His commandments; the times that He has helped us when we had our backs against the wall financially; the times He intervened when we had health difficulties and when we were in emotional straits. God intervened over and over and over again, and it’s something we should do from time to time, and then use this as a stimulus for us to be faithful, to follow the pillar that’s up in the sky before us.

Exodus, chapter 14, let’s turn to Exodus, chapter 14. Following this subject of the pillar, Exodus 14 and verse 19. Exodus 14, verse 19. Exodus, chapter 14...of course, this is the scene where God will work a miracle that is so great, it reverberates throughout, I think, not just the Old Testament, even on into the New Testament to some extent—the crossing of the Red Sea. And it was a remarkable miracle. Exodus 14, verse 19:

Exodus 14:19 And the Angel of God, (the malak of God) who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; (We’ve got the Angel of God, “Angel,” capital A here. Very likely this was the One we know as Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Capitalized, now, in [by] New King James translators. He’s usually going before them, you see; and at this point comes around behind them. He moves and went behind them.) and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. 

Isn’t that amazing? God looks down through this pillar at this point as He prepares to work a very great miracle. He uses the column of cloud as a kind of a prism, and He looks down on everything that’s taking place there between Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, wherever it exactly was—we don’t know for sure—and He begins to make a distinction. 

Exodus 14, verse 24, Exodus 14, verse 24, it says here:

Exodus 14:24  Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, (in that early portion of the morning as the sun was getting ready to come up and came up) that the (Eternal) looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians.

Isn’t this amazing. God knows how to make a distinction between His people and those who are enemies of His people, and He looks down through that pillar and He begins to trouble the army of the Egyptians.

Verse 25 (What does He do?)...He took off their chariot wheels, (Some of the other ancient translations say, “He jammed up their chariot wheels.” The Masoretic Hebrew Bible says, “He took off their chariot wheels.” What did He do? Did He remove them or did He jam them up? Answer: Yes. Whatever He did was sufficient to drown them in the sea.) He took off their chariot wheels so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the (Eternal) fights for them against the Egyptians.” 

God looks, and one of the great lessons of this pillar of fire by night and cloud by day is that God sees. In critical moments in our lives, God sees. God grants us protection at critical moments. He gave protection at this point in the history of Israel. Satan’s armies, the water came and swallowed up the Egyptians, and the Israelites escaped on dry land. It was a remarkable miracle. There was no way it could have taken place, humanly speaking. 

One of the things that we do in the Foundation Institute classes, in one of our classes, we talk about this subject of protection; and I have asked many of the young people in God’s church over the years to think about occasions when God gave divine protection to them. And the stories are amazing. I wish I had written them all down. How many times something happened—someone was drowning and a man appeared and pulled someone out of the lake and then the man disappeared after that person was saved from drowning. Somebody appears...I remember a story many years ago, a young man who unwisely opened the radiator cap of his car with the water boiling over, and boiling hot water combined with radiator fluid poured out of this thing, straight into his face, scalding, threatening to scald his face; and a man is just standing there, and he turned to him and said, “Here, son,” and he gave him cold rags with cold water to put on his face. “Here, son, try this.” And he put this on his face, prevented him from getting scalded, maybe even losing his sight, and then the man disappeared when this young man turned around. The point being, God sees. God differentiates. He looks down through the pillar. He sees what is going on. God is not detached. He sees what takes place.

Psalm 34, verses 15 and 16, Psalm 34, verses 15 and 16. I’ll get myself there and give you a little bit of time to get there. Psalm 34, verses 15 and 16. Look what it says there. God is not disconnected from our lives, brethren. Psalm 34, verse 15. Let’s pick it up in verse 14:

Psalm 34:14-16 Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry. The face of the (Eternal) is against those who do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

God knows how to make a distinction; and at critical moments in life, He sees what’s going on in our life, and He knows how to intervene. Just as the pillar was there at a critical moment, God knows what we need.

The pillar was also there as, in the book of Numbers, a series of rebellions took place against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, Moses in particular. And I want to take a look at a couple of these examples because they’re really pretty remarkable biblical events. What to learn from the rebellions? What is it that we have to learn from them? I wonder whether, perhaps, it’s just a little bit tougher to preach on this subject now than it was, perhaps, 25 years ago, when we very confidently laid claim to absolute authority in the church, based on anointed office. But is there something here that, for us today, another facet to this that we need to pay attention to? 

Let’s look at Numbers, chapter 12. Numbers, chapter 12. Numbers, chapter 12, and this is the example of Miriam and Aaron rebelling against Moses. Miriam and Aaron against Moses. Now, in the book of Numbers, one of the things that gets underlined all the way through is that God knew and God knows whom He wishes to use in positions in His government. But there is something interesting going on here. Numbers 12, verses 1-5. Numbers 12, verse 1:

Numbers 12:1 Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 

Supposedly, supposedly...this was...Moses was married once. We don’t know what became of Zipporah. Whether she’s still living, it’s not clear. But it’s clear that he marries an Ethiopian woman, who’s not named, by the way. Was this really the problem? Is this really what’s going on here?

Numbers 12:2 So they said, “Has the (Eternal) indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the (Eternal) heard it. (Is God working only through Moses?)

Verses 3-4 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.) Suddenly the (Eternal) said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. (I think I would have been terrified. You probably would have been, as well. I would have been absolutely terrified.) “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle...”

Verse 5 Then the (Eternal) came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. (And God’s presence, once again, in the form of the pillar of cloud, and He calls to them, and He makes a very strong statement in the next couple of verses.) “...If there is a prophet among you, (Verse 6), I, the (Eternal), make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream. (Isn’t that interesting?) Visions, dreams for the prophets.) Not so with My servant Moses; He is faithful in all My house. I speak with him face to face...” (in a very close, intimate relationship). 

“Moses is my man.” That’s the point here; and the pillar of cloud was there as a witness to it. What’s going on with Miriam and Aaron? Why are they making this statement there in verse 2? Was their motivation, was their problem the same as the same thing that’s going to happen just a few chapters hence in Numbers, chapter 16? In Numbers, chapter 16, where...let’s read a little bit of this one as well, this very famous rebellion taking place here. Numbers, chapter 16, the rebellion of Korah, who belonged to the tribe of Levi, just like Moses and Aaron. Numbers 16, verse 1:

Numbers 16:1 Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses with some of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, representatives of the congregation, men of renown. 

(And then in verse 3), They gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, every one of them, and the (Eternal) is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the (Eternal)?” 
And Moses fell on his face. And, ironically, what we’ve got as this takes place, we’ve got these censers that come out and all of them have to take their censers—Korah and his company, and Aaron, presumable, as well—and they “put fire in them and put incense in them before the (Eternal)... (verse 7) and it shall be that the man whom the (Eternal) chooses is the holy one. You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” (Isn’t it interesting when you read this account, there in verse 7, Moses and Aaron turn back on Korah the very same complaint that they’ve made against Moses and Aaron in verse 3.) “You take too much upon yourselves, you sons of Levi!” 

Verse 8 Then Moses said to Korah, “Hear now, you sons of Levi: Is it a small thing to you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to Himself, to do the work of the tabernacle of the (Eternal), and to stand before the congregation to serve them; and that He has brought you near to Himself, you and all your brethren, the sons of Levi, with you? And are you seeking the priesthood also?” 

What’s really going on? Aaron and Miriam complaining about the Ethiopian woman and saying, “Has God spoken through Moses only?” Korah and his men coming forward and saying, “You take too much upon yourself.” There’s a lesson here in all of this. And we know the remainder of it and how Korah and his company lose their lives when the land opens up underneath them, a giant hole opens up in the ground and they lose their lives. There in verse 32, verses 31 and 32; Numbers 16, verses 31 and 32:

Numbers 16:31-34 Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit. The earth closed over them and they perished from among the assembly. (And everybody begins calling out in fear) “Lest the earth swallow us up also!”

What goes on in the book of Numbers? What’s the problem? It was, of course, partly a problem of rebellion against constituted authority. But why? Why? What’s going on? In both cases here—with Aaron and Miriam vs. Moses and with Korah against Moses and Aaron—in both cases the complaint revolves around something that’s very important for us in the church. It revolves around personal ambition. They wanted more. They wanted something that was not given to them. There were personal agendas that were causing trouble. 

A lesson for us here: We don’t operate on personal agendas. One of the things in the Focused Mentoring Program that has been emphasized here from those who have been teaching the class this year is “a heart for service.” Service before office. And I think that’s very healthy and very appropriate according to what the scriptures talk about. Service before office. One of the, perhaps “the” thing that has been coveted too often in God’s church is the office, and God tells us to be content with the things that we have.

Hebrews 13, verse 5, Hebrews 13, verse 5. How much of the history of God’s church through the 20th century and the early 21st century would have been different had there not been this desire for position? Hebrews 13, verse 5:

Hebrews 13:5  Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 

Again, that same principle. God doesn’t abandon us. Jesus Christ doesn’t abandon us. But we’re told to be content with the things that we have. And sometimes, you know, this coveting of position, these personal agendas, this ax grinding has taken root in the church; and we forget that leadership in God’s church is for service. 

Why do we do what we do in God’s church? Why do we preach sermons? Why do we set up chairs? Why do we give an offering? Why do we teach Sabbath schools? Why do we go to the Feast of Tabernacles? Why do we present special music? Do we do any of those things for ourselves? Do we do it because we want it for ourselves, so that our names will be great; or do we do it for a much higher reason—something that will last much longer than you and me?

You know, the New Testament speaks a good bit about a subject called spiritual gifts, and the subject of spiritual gifts has become very controversial because there are religious bodies out there that have abused the idea. Religious bodies where, you know, if you, supposedly, erupt in a showing of speaking in tongues and you get carried away in an emotional frenzy, people look at you and say, “Ooh! That person must be very spiritual. Look what he or she is doing.” You may have seen on TV recently, I note that last week, as I record, just a few days ago, a man in one of the snake-handling churches lost his life. In parts of Kentucky there are little churches; and they misinterpret some of the scriptures about, you know, picking up snakes and not being hurt. And they go, unwisely, go finding rattlesnakes and copperheads and they carry them around in the church service; and the leader of one of those churches was handling snakes during the service and he got bitten, and he died, you know, and for them this is a sign of being very spiritual.

Spiritual gifts, the things that we do in the church, are not there to make us look good. They’re not there to have people be impressed by us for how spiritual we are. Part of the same lesson that we’re reading here in the book of Numbers. 

Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 12, 1 Corinthians 12, verses 4-7, 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 4-7, spiritual gifts. Are there spiritual gifts in the church today? Yes, I think so. But why? So we can impress one another with how spiritual we are, more spiritual than others? I don’t think so. 1 Corinthians, chapter 12, verse 4, look at what it says here:

1 Corinthians 12:4 There are (differences) of gifts, but the same Spirit. (It’s one Spirit.) There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are (differences) of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all...

And I think this is part of this subject that gets so badly overlooked by some who claim to be religious, by some who get carried away with whatever they view as their charismatic gift. They think it’s there to make them look good. No. God says what we do, the way we use our spiritual gifts, the way we use an office, is there for the benefit of others. There’s never any other reason for that. A big lesson in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is that we must do what we do in God’s church, for God. We do it for God, not for ourselves. If we’ve got a talent, we use it for God. Many people have wonderful musical talents. Many people have linguistic talents. Many people have talents for hospitality and encouragement. It’s a good thing. Abilities, a gift. When we have these things, what we do, we bring it before God or perhaps more accurately, before Jesus Christ, who’s the living head of the church; and we put it before Him and say, “It’s there for You. It’s for You, Lord. It’s for Your glory. It’s to build up the body of Christ. It’s not there for me.” I think this is such a big lesson, brethren. And I hope I’m not straying too far off from those examples in the book of Numbers, but those examples in the book of Numbers illustrate precisely the same point. They wanted that office. Miriam and Aaron coveting Moses’ office and challenging him because they didn’t understand this principle. 

Romans, chapter 1, verse 11, there are other passages in the Bible that talk about spiritual gifts, but it’s easy to read about the gifts and get excited about something like speaking in tongues and overlook what Paul tells the Romans here in Romans, chapter 1, verse 11. This one verse in Romans 1 has always struck me. He’s talking about steadying, founding, strengthening the church. Romans 1, verse 11, Paul says:

Romans 1:11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established, (and I believe in the New Revised Standard Version, it uses the word “strengthened” here.)

“I want to give you a spiritual gift.” Why? So the apostle Paul can look so spiritual and impress people and wear a badge in his lapel? The New Testament NEVER says that. It simply doesn’t say that. What it says is that every time somebody does something, it’s done for the good of the body, for the building up of the body; and it was the same message and the same thing that got overlooked back in the book of Numbers. That pillar was there. It was present when Miriam and Aaron began to detract from Moses. It’s there as we serve in the selfless manner that we should.

Let’s turn back now to Deuteronomy, chapter 31, Deuteronomy, chapter 31, and verses 14-16, where we have yet another mention of the pillar, the cloud, by day and the fire by night. Deuteronomy 31, verses 14-16, and I found this interesting because, of course, at this point they have scouted out the land, in the book of Deuteronomy, they’re over on the eastern side of the river. Moses preaches to them. Deuteronomy is Moses’ preaching material as they were in the staging area, ready to invade the land, coming westward across toward Jericho. Deuteronomy 31 and verse 14. Deuteronomy 31 and verse 14. Who was going to succeed Moses? The people now knew. Moses knew that he was not going to enter the promised land because of his mistake at Meribah. You remember he was supposed to speak to the rock; and instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it twice. Somebody, therefore, was to succeed him. So we have two heroes of faith:  (1) Joshua, and (2) Caleb. And, apparently, to avoid a leadership struggle here, there is a consecration ceremony, an ordination ceremony, if you will. 

Deuteronomy 31:14 Then the (Eternal) said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die; call Joshua, and present yourselves in the tabernacle of meeting, that I may inaugurate him.” So Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tabernacle of meeting. 

Joshua is a fascinating personality. Moses, I think, had his eye on him early on, realizing that this was a young man who would grow into someone who would be of service to God.

Verse 15 Now the (Eternal) appeared at the tabernacle in a pillar of cloud, (there’s that pillar once again) and the pillar of cloud stood above the door of the tabernacle. 

Verse 16 And the (Eternal) said to Moses: “Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.”

A warning! And Joshua, then, is the one who is to be ordained here at this point. Joshua is going to be the successor to Moses. 

Deuteronomy 31:23  Then He inaugurated Joshua the son of Nun, and said, “Be strong and of good courage; for you shall bring the children of Israel into the land of which I swore to them, and I will be with you.” So it was, when Moses had completed writing the words of this law in a book, when they were finished... (and then they took the book and laid it aside in the ark).

Interesting. An ordination ceremony with the pillar of cloud present to head off the leadership struggle and to make sure that Joshua was the one who was going to succeed Moses and that everybody knew about that. 

One more lesson of the pillar of cloud by day and the fire by night. In Nehemiah, chapter 9, Nehemiah 9. Let’s turn to Nehemiah, chapter 9, and verses 12-19. Nehemiah 9, beginning in verse 12, Nehemiah 9, beginning in verse 12, Nehemiah 9, verse 12. Nehemiah is rehearsing the history here. Nehemiah 9, verse 12, says:

Nehemiah 9:12-19 “Moreover, (Nehemiah praying) You led them by day with a cloudy pillar, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the road which they should travel. (And then look at what follows in the next few verses.) You came down also on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, and commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, by the hand of Moses Your servant. You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, and brought them water out of the rock for their thirst, and told them to go in to possess the land which You had sworn to give them.” (Again, a catalogue of everything that has taken place as God led them through all of this.)

Verse 16 “But they and our fathers acted proudly, hardened their necks, and did not heed Your commandments. They refused to obey, and they were not mindful of Your wonders that You did among them. But they hardened their necks, and in their rebellion they appointed a leader to return to their bondage. But You are God, ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and did not forsake them.” (Nehemiah again rehearsing the entire story, and emphasizing the fact that God was there, present with them. The pillar was the witness to all of this.)

Verse 18 “Even when they made a molded calf for themselves, and said, ‘This is your god that brought you up out of Egypt,’ and worked great provocations, yet in Your manifold mercies You did not forsake them in the wilderness. The pillar of the cloud did not depart from them by day, to lead them on the road; nor the pillar of fire by night, to show them light, and the way they should go.”

Nehemiah emphasizes here...and this is a prayer of rededication, by the way. Nehemiah goes through all of the events, lists, catalogues everything that God has done for them and mentions twice in this context the pillar of cloud that didn’t depart from them by day and the pillar of fire that was there with them by night. It’s a rededication. That, of course, is what these Days of Unleavened Bread are about—rededication. 

Where did it end? When did the pillar of cloud stop being with them? The scriptures don’t actually say that, but apparently, and I’ll simply refer to it, in Joshua, chapter 5, the manna ended; and it’s a pretty good guess that at that point, the pillar of cloud during the day and fire during the night stopped, because at that point, they had actually entered the land. The manna ended, and they had a Passover there, in Joshua, chapter 5, and they began to enter the promised land and to conquer it.

As we go through these Days of Unleavened Bread, we make a recommitment. We make a recommitment in God’s presence. We don’t see the pillar in the sky, but God is with us. Jesus Christ is with us. We recommit to eliminating sin from our lives. We look inside of ourselves. We take it seriously. We recommit to God’s Kingdom. We recommit to serving God Himself. We recommit to following that pillar that is always with us, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. It was with them all the way through and led them into the promised land.

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