It’s one of those stories that breaks my heart. I’m not talking about a Hallmark movie, Shakespearean tragedy, or tear-jerking human-interest news story. I’m talking about Moses being kept out of the Promised Land. You probably feel the same way. If you’ve made much progress it all in a yearly Bible reading plan, you’re familiar with the main character of most of the first five books. Starting in Exodus, we go on a 120-year journey with Moses. We meet him as a baby, sentenced to death by a maniacal Pharaoh, and then miraculously saved by God’s providence. We see him grow up in the palace, only to become a fugitive and escape under the cover of darkness. Then he disappears for 40 years as he shepherds his father-in-law’s sheep. But then it happens. He encounters the God of His people in a flaming bush that the flames don’t consume. Yahweh calls Moses to appear before Pharaoh, the ruler of the known world and man who thinks himself god, and demand that he set his entire enslaved work force free. So, he goes (after a bit of convincing), and he stands up to the most powerful man in the world. After ten plagues, Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and toward the Promised Land. With the Egyptians in hot pursuit, God uses Moses to part the Red Sea and deliver His chosen people to safety while destroying their enemies and preventing future attack. For forty years in the wilderness, Moses puts up with frequent bellyaching, disbelief, and rebellion from those he rescued. Yet Moses faithfully obeys God and deals with the often-faithless people. Except once.
Everyone is thirsty and on edge. There’s no water, and the people are once again accusing Moses of attempted murder: “Why then have you brought the LORD’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt to bring us in to this wretched place?” (Numbers 20:3-4). Moses and his brother Aaron are used to this. They don’t fight back or squabble with the complainers. They fall on their faces before God on behalf of the people. God tells Moses to take his rod and “speak to the rock” before the people, and water will spew forth. Back Moses and Aaron go to give the people what they want. Maybe it was a couple degrees hotter than normal in the desert; maybe Moses was a little parched himself; maybe someone threw a spitball or called him a dirty name. I’m not sure the reason, but Moses chose disobedience and anger over his usual obedience and meekness. First Moses insults the people: “Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Num. 20:10). Then he lifts his rod and smacks the rock with it. Water gushes, but the damage is done. Because of this, neither Moses nor Aaron will be permitted to enter the Promised Land. Moses will spend all forty years in the wilderness with the people on the cusp of Canaan, but he will not get to go in.
I have to admit, I hate this. I desperately wat Moses to be allowed entrance to the Promised Land. I realize that he disobeyed, but come on! He just lost his temper. He was so faithful so much of the time! What’s the big deal? Turns out, it is a big deal. Let’s see if we can figure out why.
God’s Holiness Really Matters
First, let’s take a closer look at why God banishes Moses from the Promised Land.
“But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (Num. 20:12).
There we go. Moses and Aaron failed to treat God as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel. God is punishing them because they violated His holiness. If we rewind the tape, I think we’ll get a glimpse of how they did this. Look at Numbers 20:10 one more time:
“And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, ‘Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?’” Did you see it? Moses provokes the people and takes credit for what he is about to do, usurping the place of God. I’m sure we can all identify with Moses here. Who among us hasn’t reacted angrily toward people who really deserve it? This isn’t how most of us would draw up the one big failure that keeps God’s man out of God’s place. But, ah, there’s the rub. All sin keeps us out of God’s place. All sin is a violation of God’s holiness.
I know what you’re thinking, though. “Okay, I get it. Moses messed up. But still! Why couldn’t he go in? Couldn’t God just let this one go? Moses was really faithful every other time!” I know you’re thinking that because I am too. And the fact that we are tells me something very important: We don’t think very much of God’s holiness. We think that God winks at sin because we do. We think that He grades holiness on a curve because we do. You and I judge holiness based on what we see around us. I think that I’m doing pretty well because I’m (supposedly) doing better than my neighbor. But God doesn’t judge holiness like that.
Holiness means set apart. That definition has two prongs. First, it means set apart positionally. Isaiah 6 tells us that God’s throne is “high and lifted up.” God is not part of His creation. He is removed from it; He transcends above it. The other prong of holiness means to be set apart morally. Essentially, that is to say that God is “allergic” to sin. He can’t be in its presence. To do so is to violate His holiness. This is why Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden. This is why a curtain separated the Holy of Holies. In short, this is why Jesus had to die. God’s moral “apartness” is a very big deal. It keeps every single one of us away from God because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We’re all Moses. God does not and cannot turn a blind eye to sin. To do so would require Him to deny Himself, and thus He would cease to be God. Like I said, the holiness of God really matters.
Jesus is the true and better Moses
A second reason this is a big deal is that it points us to Jesus. The author of Hebrews tells us this: “For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house” (Heb. 3:3).
Jesus demonstrated God’s holiness perfectly
While Moses failed to demonstrate God’s holiness before the people, Jesus did it perfectly. No, He didn’t deal with the whiny Israelites in the wilderness, but He did deal with direct attacks from Satan (see Matt. 4), twelve somewhat thick disciples, Pharisees who were out to get Him and constantly trying to entrap Him, a completely unjust kangaroo trial in which He was convicted of crimes He didn’t commit, family members who thought He’d gone mad, denial by one of His twelve closest friends and betrayal at the hands of another. You and I probably would have folded like a cheap tent under any one of those pressures. Yet Jesus never folded. He was made subject to every temptation that we are—yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). He did what Adam, Noah, David, Moses, and all the rest of us failed to do: He lived a perfectly holy life, start to finish.
Jesus took the punishment for our unholiness
So Jesus did it. But He didn’t just heroically ride off into the sunset while the world lauded His accomplishment. He did what none of us could do so that He could take on the punishment that all of us deserve. Our unholiness demands punishment. It demands that we be separated from God. Moses’ banishment from Canaan is the perfect picture. It doesn’t matter how “close” you think you come. Your sin must be punished. God’s holiness must be upheld. That’s why one Friday night Jesus cried out to His Father, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Because Jesus, the God-man had never sinned, He had no sin of His own to pay for. Therefore, He was a fitting sacrifice to pay for the sins of all of us. Because He was human, He could pay for humanity’s sins. Because He was God, He could take on the infinite punishment in a finite period of time. To go back to our story, it’s as if Jesus, who rightly deserved to enter Canaan, took Moses’ place outside and let him go in. Without Christ, Moses never would see heaven. His sins would keep him not just from the earthly Promised Land but from heaven as well. We all like Moses stand banished from God’s presence; yet because of Jesus we are allowed in.
The Call to Holiness
That’s why what Moses did was such a big deal. God kept him out of Canaan to demonstrate His own holiness and to show us why we need a Savior. But it doesn’t stop there. Just as Moses was called to demonstrate God’s holiness, every person who claims Christ as his Savior is called to be holy just as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Yikes. That terrifies me and invokes a couple of heart-searching questions. To what degree am I willing to tolerate sin in my life? To that degree, I’m missing the mark on holiness. We all do it—that’s why we’re so indignant at Moses’ punishment. It’s true that we’ll never arrive at perfect holiness before we reach heaven; however, it’s also true that we’re expected to be growing in it. So how about it? Do you tolerate less sin now than you did ten years ago? Five years ago? One year ago?
Another question to consider is this: To what standard do I compare my holiness? Am I holding myself up to someone else or to the Holy One of Israel? Holiness is not measured on a sliding scale. God is the only standard. Comparing to anything else is futile.
Let me end with some hope. Holiness is hard, but it is achievable. I know this because Christ lives in me. In the Gospel, His holiness is my holiness. Consider this from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (who thought holiness came from rule-keeping): “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, emphasis added). Your hope for holiness doesn’t rest with your efforts or abilities; it rests in Christ alone.