Korah’s Rebellion and church discipline

I enjoy reading through the Pentateuch, especially the narratives that reveal the leadership of Moses. If there’s one congregation that you wouldn’t want to lead, it’s this one. It’s a huge nation (probably around two million men, women, and children), the desert is hot and dry, and food is scarce (even when there is plenty of food and water, imagine the logistics of getting everyone properly fed). It was a mess, and the biblical text doesn’t hide any of the gore. How Moses handled it is certainly a model for pastors and leaders.

I know that Numbers 16-17 is not a church discipline manual, but I think one can learn a lot from these passages about how those who have been placed in leadership need to understand these types of situations. Simple observations of Moses’ dealings with Korah’s rebellion teach us much about the nature of division, discontent, how leaders ought to respond, and how God intervenes.

1. The rebellion begins with the malcontents coming together. (16:3)

“They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron…”

2. They claim that their issue is a theological one. (16:3b)

“…and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?'”

Most of the malcontents who lead the charge in a church split disguise their issues with theological language. It makes the issue sound less petty, and usually garners support from those who lack discernment.

3. Moses calls them to deal with the issue, but they refuse to answer and reject his leadership. (16:12)

“And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, ‘We will not come up.'”

This is Moses’ first attempt to work the problem out– face to face dealings. They refuse and reject him.

4. God issues clear directions to Moses (16:20-21)

And the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.”

Of course, we don’t receive direct revelation from God like Moses did. But we do have the Word of God and the revealed will of God. Matthew 18 and Titus 3 give us some clear directions for dealing with these kinds of situations.

5. Moses pursues them, warning them and the people near them. (16:25-26)

Then Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. And he spoke to the congregation, saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins.”

The first time Moses called Dathan and Abiram to come to him. They rejected the offer. This time, he goes to them. Moses shows how serious the warning is and how much he cares for his people. Even after he’s rejected, he pursues the wayward people to warn them.

This is a model for pastoral ministry– unwilling, unconcerned sheep need to be shepherded even as they dismiss the leadership. Overseers lead as those who will give an account to God (Heb. 13:17).

6. Moses acknowledges that he acts on behalf of God. (16:28)

And Moses said, “Hereby you shall know that the LORD has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord.

The authority of church leadership is not inherent authority. It derived authority. It comes from the Word of God. A leader only has permission to speak with authority the things that God has already spoken. In this case, Moses is affirming that his leadership and authority is from God, not himself.

7. Moses warns them that their rebellion is despising God. (16:30)

Moses speaking to the malcontents: But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD.

Moses points out that their problem is not with Moses, it’s with God. They claim that it’s a theological issue and that they’re trying to do what is right (see # 2) but it’s actually not that at all. They simply don’t like God.

8. Moses obeys, and God does the judging. (16:31-32)

And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.

It’s never Moses’ job to mete out the judgment. He simply is called to obey. Moses spoke the warning he was supposed to speak, and God did the judgment. Church leaders must do what they are told, and let God work out the details.

9. When God’s judgment falls, the congregation blames the leadership. (16:41)

But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.”

Notice what the congregation says: “You have killed the people.” The earth opens up and consumes the rebels, in an event clearly an act of God, and Moses gets blamed. Having heard that Moses could turn his staff into a snake, how Moses, by the raising of his staff, parted the Red Sea, how he, with his words, commanded plagues to come and go in Egypt– it’s not hard to understand how the Israelites felt about Moses. They must have thought his power caused the earth to open and eat the rebels.

Humans have a tendency to do this. Attribute things that are clearly acts of God to mere men. Here, after God judges the people, Moses is blamed for the judgment, even though all he did was obey God and warn the people. A pastor must be ready to take the brunt of the anger from the congregation– they will never admit that their problem is with God; it’s much easier to blame the leader.

10. Yet, the leaders must be ready to protect their wayward people. (16:46-48)

After the congregation blames the leadership and continues complaining, God causes a plague to break out. Note Moses’ response:

And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.” So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.

After the first judgment, when the earth swallowed the leaders of the rebellion, people weren’t changed. Instead of fearing the Lord, they placed the blame on Moses. When God caused the plague to destroy them, Moses acted quickly to save them. Aaron “stood between the dead and the living” to make atonement for their sin and stop the plague. It would have been easy for the leadership to allow their haters to be eliminated. But God’s call for leadership is to stand between the dead and the living, even as they reject you, and hold out that which can atone for sin– the gospel of Jesus Christ.

11. The Lord vindicates the leadership. (17:5, 8 )

“And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.”…On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.

To lead God’s people one must resolve to aim for God’s approval. They must be content doing what is right when the whole congregation rebels. In the end, God will vindicate the upright, and prove himself to be the true authority. By causing Aaron’s staff to blossom, he showed that he was the one behind all the events. Moses didn’t cause the ground to open up and devour the people, God did. Moses didn’t call down the plague, God did.

12. The congregation understands the holiness of God. (17:12-13)

And the people of Israel said to Moses, “Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the LORD, shall die. Are we all to perish?”

This response indicates that the people finally began to understand the holiness of God– how much he hates sin and rebellion. And once people understand the holiness of God, they all do the same thing. The response is universal: “Are we all to perish?”

It’s a legitimate question. And it’s this question that leads people to despise themselves, repent in dust and ashes, and cast themselves at the mercy of God. No one who receives grace has not first asked: “Are we all to perish?”

As preachers, we want people to ask that question. We want them to be desperate and to feel that their sins are damning. And then we want to hold out the gospel of Jesus Christ, who perished in our place, taking upon himself our sin and rebellion, paying for it on the cross, resurrecting victorious over it, and granting total and complete forgiveness to anyone who would ever repent and make him Lord.

Church discipline will keep the church God-centered, gospel-rich, and vigilant. It reminds everyone of the holiness of God, it convicts sinners, it chastens believers, and it readies hearts to hear the saving message of Jesus Christ.

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