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Exodus 30 – Numbers-Obsessed

Here is an interesting case where I cut something from the sermon because it never should’ve been there to begin with. This is really an issue where hermeneutics meets homiletics (hermeneutics is the art and science of studying the Bible, and homiletics is the art and science of preaching the Bible). Sometimes just because something is biblically true doesn’t mean that it should be preached from that particular text. In other words, preachers should always strive to make sure that the principles and applications they are preaching are coming straight from the text of the Bible.

For instance, it is true that God does not approve of gluttony (obsession with eating, or overeating). But Exodus 16, the passage where God gives manna to the Israelites, is not a text that is trying to make that point, so it would be an inappropriate application for that particular sermon. Just because food is mentioned doesn’t give the preacher the right to jump into a theology of food in neglect of the primary meaning of the passage.

When writing the section of the sermon in Exodus 30:11-16 where God regulates any future census that the leaders of Israel wish to undertake (remember: each person counted must give a half shekel contribution as a “toll tax” to the sanctuary), I was really tempted to say a few words about the obsession of many churches on “numbering” the people. Friday night I listened to Christian pollster George Barna speak at the Student Statesmanship Banquet, and he made the point that churches tend to evaluate their condition by five factors, none of which are necessarily biblical: attendance, finances, number of programs, number of staff and square footage. His point was that they ought to evaluate on the basis of fruit instead of these other criteria.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is no biblical mandate to obsess over numbers as many churches do. A few months ago I looked at a few passages from Revelation 2-3 that showed a financially poor church that was spiritually rich (Smyrna), a financially rich church that was spiritually poor (Laodicea), and a church with large attendance/big popularity that was spiritually weak in God’s sight (Sardis). Clearly God does not evaluate churches by attendance or finances, so why do we?

(As an aside, please understand that I don’t think numbers are altogether unimportant. When someone comes to Christ, we “count” that and rejoice, much like the early church in the pages of Acts. We should be concerned over numbers insofar as we are concerned over the spread of the Gospel and discipleship of Christians, but many churches take this way too far by making attendance numbers the primary or only criteria by which they evaluate the health and success of their ministry. We cannot control who accepts the Gospel. Big attendance numbers may indicate we are spreading a false Gospel, and small attendance may indicate that we are simply in a season of sowing God’s Word instead of seeing growth.)

At first glance, this point about church attendance might have gone well with the concept of not being too swift to take a census. A census might cause the king to boast in his military strength instead of boasting in the God that gave him those soldiers and chariots (Ps 20:7). Likewise, many churches have obsessed over boosting attendance, many times watering down the truths of Scripture in order to get more, more, more as if “more” is the only criteria God uses to evaluate the health of a church at the expense of all else.

Sounds good, right?

But at the end of the day, church attendance was not the point of the census discussion in Exodus 30. Exodus 30:11-16 actually regulates the census, not forbids it, which also weakens the parallel application with the church. So as good as it might’ve sounded (and as true as it might’ve been), I felt convicted to leave this particular application on the Cutting Room Floor simply because I wasn’t confident that I was preaching according to the authority of the text before me.

One Comment

  1. Psalm 115:1
    Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
    for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
    So, Pastor Bryan, when you mentioned that passage about the census, my mind when immediately to King David’s census, (1 Chronicles 21). Sometime ago, I was convicted about taking another type of “census”. I have had many an opportunity to share the gospel with another. Reading the the two chapters, 1 Chronicles 20 & 21, made me think of taking my own census. “How did I do?” Sort of another notch in my belt of privilege? I would revisit the words that I used. I hadn’t asked “How did He do?” That would have been ridiculous considering the passage from Psalm 115.
    This morning, Bob helped me scan a gospel tract to send to a very critically ill cousin via email to another one. I’m not going to revisit my words of introduction. Yaweh is the Glory! I thank Him and praise Him for the opportunity to send the tract. His Word is powerful. May my cousin Chris be one of HIS trophies.

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