The Church: God’s Numbered People

How important are numbers? (Ask a sports fan!) They are important in Numbers 1 and on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:37–41). An emphasis on numbers can be superficial, but when you realize that God numbers his people, you begin to see their importance.

Respond to God’s summons. Repent and believe. Christ has poured out his Spirit on you. The Spirit comes upon the church making it his temple. In his gift of the Holy Spirit Christ is with his church. Christ and his Spirit work so closely together, that there is “functional identity” of the two. In the coming of the Comforter, Christ does not leave his church alone. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to the whole church of all time. Pentecost parallels Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation. This does not distance the Holy Spirit, or make him inaccessible, but rather makes him part of every Christian’s experience. The signs that accompanied the gift of the Spirit drew a puzzled crowd, so Peter preaches. Pentecost is the reward for Christ’s completed work. Pentecost is preceded by Christ’s humiliation, his life of obedience, his suffering and death. The glorious conclusion of Christ’s work is his resurrection and exaltation. The climax of that exaltation (short of his return on the clouds of heaven) is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peter focuses on the resurrection and exaltation of Christ. The crowd begins to realize the sinful depths of what they had done a few weeks earlier when they had shouted, “Crucify him!” But God has exalted him! Now they cry out in fear. Peter’s command to the crowd echoes through history wherever the apostolic message is proclaimed: “Repent!” “The post-Pentecost activity of the Spirit, therefore, spreads through history like concentric ripples in a pool. As in the Old Testament era, so in the New, his activity is soteriological, communal, cosmic and eschatalogical, and involves the transformation of the individual, the governing of the church and the world, and the bringing in of the new age.” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, pp. 93–94).

Be baptized. God, in his wisdom, knew that we also need an outward sign. The Spirit was present and active in the Old Testament, see Psalm 51. But there is a fullness, a richness of blessing, that arrives with the completed work of Christ. Peter quotes from Joel to describe these last days, vv.16-21. The specific blessings that had been limited to the prophetic office in the Old Testament are now the appropriate possession of all of those who trust in Christ. All that was involved in God being with you is drawn together in Pentecost. Baptism is not first of all an expression of your faith, though it is that. At its heart it is God saying, this person belongs to me. It marks you as among the number of God’s people.

Who’s counting? The church is counting. We may have an idea of a primitive church, with little or not organization or structure. But even here the church is counting! See Acts 2:41. See also Acts 4:4; and 6:7; Romans 16:5, 10, 11. Having a defined membership, a defined number, is an important part of the shepherding work of the church—despite the spirit of individualism common in our culture. The church’s counting is based on something more important.

The Lord counts his people. The command for a census in Numbers 1 is given by God himself. “[I]t must be observed, that the people were not numbered except at God’s command, in order that He might thus assert His supreme dominion over them.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Numbers 1:1). How does the Good Shepherd treat his sheep? (Luke 15:3–7; John 10:14–18). He knows them, he counts them, he lays down his life for them! Don’t resist being counted by the Shepherd! And his count is perfect. The numbering here on earth anticipates a greater, more complete numbering, Revelation 7:1–9.

Live in fellowship. Live in fellowship with God. The census of Numbers 1 is followed by an ordering of the encampment of the Israelites in the wilderness in Numbers 2. This is not just because God wants an orderly people. Rather, notice that at the center of the camp the Tabernacle was pitched. And in the Most Holy Place was the ark of the covenant, with the mercy seat as the symbolic throne of God. What was pictured in that geographic setting has been fulfilled in Pentecost. God is living in the midst of his people, not just in the center of their land, but in the people themselves. The church has become the temple of the Holy Spirit!

Live in fellowship with God’s people. When God counts you as among his people, you are connected, not only to him, but to all of his people. Notice the interconnectedness of the church. “The three thousand who received baptism at Pentecost at once entered a new family, defined not by genetics, but by allegiance to Jesus. In his first transition summary Luke lists four activities in which believers were continually absorbed—the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. (Dennis E. Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, p. 21). The focus of the church is on her Lord. But the closer the Lord draws you to himself, the closer he draws you to the rest of his body as well.

Whether or not you think numbers and counting are important, the Lord values his church enough to count its members. He knows them here on earth, and he will count them in the new heavens and earth—because the Lord died and was raised for them. As the ascended, sovereign Lord, he has poured out his Spirit on the church, not only for her benefit, but also to increase the number of his people until they are a multitude that no man can count—but a multitude in which each one is known by God himself. Are you counted among God’s people?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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