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Significance of the 12 Spies

Moses sent 12 spies into the land of Canaan. God commanded this to happen so that the Israelites could know about the land and the inhabitants they would have to face. These 12 spies spent 40 days traveling undetected through unknown territory, an impressive task in of itself. Afterward they came back and reported all that they had witnessed. In this story, found in Numbers 13-14, we see a faithful few contending against people of no faith. As we look further into this event we can see a situation that is strikingly parallel to our own lives. 

When these 12 spies returned, they all agreed that the land of Canaan was a great land. It “flows with milk and honey.” Dwelling there would have meant a beautiful and fulfilling future. The 12 spies also agreed that the inhabitants of the land were a mighty military force, and that the cities there were huge and fortified.

However, the disagreement between the spies concerned God. Could God actually give Israel victory over these mighty Canaanites? Could He really give Israel this land that He promised Abraham? Caleb declared, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Joshua agreed with Caleb’s position. The remainder of the spies held the opposite view, claiming “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” Sadly the congregation of Israel did not side with Caleb and Joshua. They cried out and asked, “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” Caleb and Joshua declared that “If the Lord delights in us He will bring us into this land and give it to us…Only do not rebel against the Lord…The Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the Israelites were so discouraged that they longingly desired their previous life in Egypt. Three times Egypt was mentioned by name: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! ...Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt? …Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

God intervened and pronounced judgement on the people of Israel. Since they did not have the faith to follow God into battle and face the enemy, they would not receive the wonderful land of promise. Caleb and Joshua, however, did have the faith to follow God into battle, and therefore God would grant them a future in the land of promise. 

If we look at this story more closely, we may discover that it parallels the life of a Christian. Israel was freed from the bondage of Egypt, chosen to be a holy nation in a covenant relationship with God, and told they would be given a home in a wonderful place where they could dwell together in God’s presence. Likewise Christians have been freed from the bondage of sin. Romans 6:6-7 says, “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Christians have been chosen to be a holy nation in a covenant relationship with God. First Peter 2:9-10 says “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession…Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” And Christians are told they will be given a home in a wonderful place where they can dwell together in God’s presence. Revelation 21:2-3 says, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.’”

But there are big and mighty challenges to be faced before Christians can receive that home. For Israel, the mighty warriors and fortresses were insurmountable. They did not have the faith needed to trust in God and follow Him through those challenges. Their decision, tragically, was to return to their enslavement. Christians will have to face extremely difficult challenges as well. Doubts may arise about whether God actually hears our prayers, or whether He really will redeem us from the suffering and death that lies before us.  When faced with these challenges, many Christians will also decide to “go back to Egypt” instead of following God into battle and receiving a home with Him. They will decide to return to their enslavement, the slavery of sin. When saints turn from God and engage in sinful things, they are making the same decision that those faithless Israelites made. And when that happens, they are no longer recipients of the “promised land,” as those Israelites were no longer recipients of the land of Canaan. Paul used this kind of language when he warned the Galatian churches about turning back to sinful ways. He said, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal. 4:9)

Caleb and Joshua were two men who knew God could conquer any challenge. Because they were willing to faithfully follow God, He granted them the land of rest, the land of Canaan. When we face trials in our lives, sometimes extremely emotional trials, we must have the faith that Caleb and Joshua had. We must trust in God and know that He can take us successfully through anything. If we’re on this earth very long at all, we will have to face the most difficult challenge of all: the death of friends, family, and eventually even ourselves. We must have the faith to follow God through these challenges because He can defeat, and in fact has already defeated, the power of death. If we do this, God has prepared a promised land for us. James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.”

These 12 spies show us that turning back to our enslavement is not the answer. It will only disqualify us from the gracious home that God has granted to us. We must boldly endure the seemingly insurmountable challenges, knowing that it is God who conquers.  “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Rom. 6:22)