17 When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, “Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. 18 See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. 19 What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? 20 How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)
21 So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. 22 They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. (Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Valley of Eshcol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there. 25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.
26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”
30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
The story of the twelve spies crossing the Jordan River on a recce mission into Canaan to view the land for Israel is probably one of the most popular Old Testament stories. It has been told to countless Sunday school children through the ages, as we are taught about the tremendous faith and bravery of Joshua and Caleb, but as with all well-known Sunday school stories, there are many other valuable lessons we can learn.
This story teaches us some important principles to live our lives by.
God’s intention was for the nation of Israel to take immediate possession of the land. In verse 2 of Numbers 13 He says to Moses, “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.”
When we read this verse, it seems as if the sending of the spies was part of God’s plan, but we need to go to Deuteronomy chapter 1 where we’re given a deeper insight into what happened in Numbers 13. Deuteronomy was essentially Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites, written just before his death, some 40 years after the events of Numbers 13. It was an inspirational speech, in which he implored them to remain faithful to God. They had been wandering through the desert for nearly 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, and now they were finally about to cross the Jordan with Joshua as their new leader. And in the book of Deuteronomy Moses reminds the Israelites of how God provided for them and protected them while they wandered around in the desert. In chapter 1 he takes them back 40 years to the day the 12 spies went into the land.
We pick up the story from verse 19: “Then, as the Lord our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb and went toward the hill country of the Amorites through all that vast and dreadful desert that you have seen, and so we reached Kadesh Barnea. Then I said to you, ‘You have reached the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. See, the Lord your God has given you the land. Go up and take possession of it as the Lord, the God of your fathers, told you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’ Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.’
The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe. They left and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and explored it. Taking with them some of the fruit of the land, they brought it down to us and reported, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’ But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The Lord hates us; so He brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’ Then I said to you, ‘Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as He did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the desert. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.’ In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.” (Deuteronomy 1:19-33)
Verse 22 again: “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.” It wasn’t God’s idea to send the spies in first – it was theirs. Their lack of faith didn’t begin when they heard the terrifying reports from 10 of the 12 spies! No, the sending of the spies was a direct result of their lack of faith in God’s promises even before they’d seen the land.
For generations He had promised them this incredible land, which was their inheritance as His chosen people. Yet, when they stood on the banks of the river, within touching distance of this land, the people insisted on seeing the land through their eyes first before they would venture across the river.
And God, in His infinite mercy and patience went along with what they had already made up their minds to do. By sending the spies, Israel walked by sight and not by faith in God.
These were the same people who had witnessed the 10 plagues in Egypt. They themselves had crossed the Red Sea between two walls of water on dry land. They knew that this God who had called them out of Egypt into the Promised Land was a God of miracles, but they still would not trust Him completely. “See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees on it or not?”
Their disobedience and unwillingness to trust God had severe consequences. Exodus 12 tells us that 600,000 men escaped from Egypt after the Passover. This figure excludes the women and children. They had large families in those days, so even a conservative estimate of how many people stood on the east bank of the Jordan River in Numbers 13 would be around 5 million. Of that multitude of people, only two crossed the Jordan 40 years later: Joshua and Caleb.
Do a quick snap poll of Christians and non-Christians, and ask them which is the greatest sin. Murder, rape and child abuse would be very high on that list, but unbelief - refusing to believe and trust in God is the greatest sin.
Hebrews 3:15-19 says, “As has just been said: ‘Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.’ Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter His rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.”
That statement refers directly to the unbelieving Israelites being refused entry into Canaan, but it also applies to every person that refuses to believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. There are serious consequences for unbelief. Refuse to believe in Jesus, and you will be refused entry into Heaven.
When the spies returned, they reported to the people that the land was everything God had promised it to be, but they looked beyond the land of promise to the people occupying the land instead. The size of the people, the number of the people, and the way their cities were fortified and defended undermined the faith they had in God. Someone once said that because of all the difficulties and challenges they saw in front of them, they did not see God behind them.
How often do we reduce and minimise the might and power of God? How often do we think, “Not even God can deal with this issue in my life?” Making a statement like that is more than just expressing a weak faith. It is unbelief, and that’s a place where we don’t want to go.
The spies also reported that the land was in a constant state of warfare between neighbouring cities, so the element of surprise or the chances of catching the Canaanites during a time of peace was highly unlikely. Added to that, the Israelites had been nothing more than slaves for 400 years. They had little or nothing in the way of war equipment, and they were not trained as an army. They were ill equipped for war, and they knew it. And in doing so they minimised their own self-worth and accepted defeat. They chose to ignore the promises of God, and decided for themselves that occupying the land was impossible. Ten of the twelve spies were convinced that they couldn’t do it, while only Joshua and Caleb insisted that they could and should trust God and move into the Promised Land. The majority, though, always seems to win.
Faith in God is a crucial part of our relationship with Him. It is the foundation of how we are to interact with Him. In fact, Hebrews 11:6 says “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
The Israelite nation chose to walk by sight, but God challenged them and He challenges us to walk by faith. There are actually some remarkable similarities between these two principles. Someone said that sight requires 3 things: An organ of sight (the eye), a medium for sight (light), and an object to look at (a person, a place, or a thing). Remove any of these three elements, then there is no vision. Faith also requires three elements. Firstly, an organ of faith must exist. Our faith may waver and even be weak at times, but we are capable of exercising faith. Second, a medium of faith must be present. This is the Bible – God’s Word to us. Psalm 119:105 actually calls the Word a light. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” And thirdly we must have an object upon which our faith can be focused, and that object is Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Other translations say the author and finisher of our faith.
But, just as our vision can be easily tricked by clever optical illusions, so can our faith be fooled and tricked. The devil has a knack of playing a game if you like, with our faith. He distracts us and causes to focus our attention on external things, just like he did with ten of the twelve spies, and just like them we easily lose our focus on the eternal things. The reports that the spies brought back were not all negative. Verse 27 says, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” Unfortunately though, the next verse begins with the word ‘but.’
Their focus was shifted from the abundance of the land and the promises of God to the very thing He had told them not to worry about: The land’s inhabitants. God promised them the land. He would take care of the people who were there. As far as God was concerned, this was Abraham’s land, the land of promise, and the Canaanites would be dispossessed and evicted as illegal heirs because of their sin.
We too can fall into the same trap. We might agree with God’s revelation – His promises spelled out for us in Scripture – but we end up checking the externals that distract us from His truth. We say, “Yes I know all that, and I do believe it, but…” We know that the Bible tells us we are to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. We also know that the Bible tells us that God’s Holy Spirit will give us the words to speak, yet what often happens to us when we do have the opportunity to speak to someone about Jesus? We show unbelief and a lack of faith by allowing our focus to shift from the firm promises of God to our own inefficiencies. As one commentator put it, “We get paralysis by analysis.” We also know that the Bible tells us that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we are saved once and for all. Our salvation is secure and our eternal destination is Heaven. But ask Bible-believing Christians if they’re going to Heaven when they die, and you will be surprised and saddened at how many answer “I hope so.”
satan, as powerful an enemy as he is, has no power over Christians because we are set free from his power by the blood of Christ, yet how many Christians are not living the victorious, abundant life Jesus promised us? Take your focus off of Jesus and worry about all the stuff that’s going on in your life, and satan will soon grab the opportunity to fill your heart and mind with doubts about your worth in God’s eyes. You are of infinite value to God. The price He paid to buy back your soul is incalculable in human terms, yet so many Christians feel unworthy and even worthless to God.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to trivialise the challenges we each face. Some of us here today are facing and having to deal with extreme hardships, but as the old saying goes, life is hard, but God is good. Keep your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the wonderful promises we find in Romans chapter 8. Remember that nothing can separate you from the love of God that is yours in Jesus Christ.
God has promised us, as He did with His chosen people, a place of permanent rest. He gave them a glimpse of the Promised Land. Their walk of faith should have been strengthened by their belief in God and the initial favourable report of the spies. They should have entered the Promised Land there and then and trusted that God would deal with the aliens in their land as He promised He would, but sadly they didn’t, and as a result of their unbelief they wandered around in the desert for forty years. There were at least 5 million people standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan River that day, just waiting for the signal to cross over. They were within touching distance of the Promised Land, but they disobeyed, and they lost the land of promise. Apart from Joshua and Caleb, they all died in the desert during the next 40 years.
We too are called to walk by faith, as God through His Word gives us a glimpse into a land of even greater promise. It’s a land we call Heaven. We have the promise in the Bible that if we put our faith in Jesus, our eternal inheritance is the New Jerusalem. Is your faith wavering? Are you struggling to keep hold of the promises of God? If so, remember His great faithfulness to you.
Take courage from Paul’s words in Philippians 3: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:10-14)
God has never broken any of His promises. Why would He start now?
In Mark 9 a father brings his demon possessed son to Jesus and pleads with Him to cure his son. “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us. ‘If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for him who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”
I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief. Let that be our prayer today.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Numbers 13:17-33
One of the saddest aspects to this story is that these were the same people who had personally been rescued from Egyptian slavery by God’s miracles. They had seen firsthand what God could do, yet they would not trust Him to conquer the Promised Land for them.
Why do you think they had a sudden change of heart?
The consequences of their unbelief were severe. Because of their reluctance to trust God, the Promised Land was taken away from them and they all (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) died in the desert.
The consequences of us not trusting Jesus are infinitely greater. The Bible teaches very clearly that those who do not put their faith in Him are doomed to spend eternity in hell.
Why does God take faith (and the lack of it) so seriously?
Read Hebrews 12:1-3
What are some of the “things that hinder” us?
Share with your group a time when you walked by faith and not by sight – a time when despite the doubts, you chose to trust God to keep His promises.
How did your faith grow as a result of this?
Close by praying the God would strengthen your faith in Him. Pray in particular for those in your group who may be going through a difficult time, and who need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness.