“The Inheritance of the Six Last Tribes”
In today’s passage we have the list of the last six tribes to receive their inheritance. Prior to these last six tribes, we were able to see the rationale behind the order in which those tribes received their portions before others: the Transjordan tribes because they decided to settle on the east side of the Jordan before Israel entered the Promised Land; Judah first because it was the royal tribe; the people of Joseph–the tribes of Ephraim and a half tribe of Manasseh–next because of Joseph’s contribution to the rescue of the covenant family and the prominent role Ephraim would later play in Israel’s history; and Benjamin next because of their relation to the people of Joseph, coming from the same birthmother.
What about these last six tribes? We cannot help but feel somewhat bad for them. Not only are they the last ones to receive their inheritance; the descriptions of their territories and the fortified cities within them are quite short: they are all contained in one chapter in 48 verses. The longest one, the tribe of Simeon, is nine verses. The shortest one, the tribe of Issachar, is only seven (short) verses. Compare this with sixty-three verses for the tribe of Judah. And these descriptions pretty much follow the standard, generic from, with a few of exceptions: it begins with in what order the lot fell on the tribe; it is then followed by the description of the territory; then the list of the fortified cities in the territory and how many they were follows. There doesn’t seem to be anything really special about them. How sad! What are we to think of these tribes and what lesson can we learn from this?
But this may not be so difficult. Don’t we often feel like these last six tribes–small, insignificant, and last in line? We don’t particularly feel important in the kingdom of God, or even in the church we are members of. So, when we miss church or not attend any church function, we feel like it doesn’t make any difference to the church. And we wonder whether anyone will even notice when we are not there, when we are gone. What’s even more concerning is that the Word of God itself seems to affirm some sort of hierarchy within the kingdom of God. Some tribes receive preference over others, as we have seen even in the distribution of the land among the tribes.
This seems to be true even in the New Testament. Paul says, “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable” (2 Tim. 2:20). By “vessels,” Paul means the people of God. And when Paul speaks of Christians as members of the body of Christ, he acknowledges that some “seem” to be weaker (1 Cor. 12:22), less honorable and even unpresentable (1 Cor. 12:23; many commentators think that, by “unpresentable,” Paul is referring to the private parts of the body). What are we to learn from all this?
First, this is an undeniable and unequivocal affirmation of God’s sovereignty. In His infinite goodness and wisdom, He chose to assign varying degrees of honor to each of us. This is evident in creation: “There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory” (1 Cor. 15:40-41). And it is evident in our gifting: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone…. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:4-6, 11). As our Maker and Lord, it is His divine prerogative to do so.
Paul also goes on to show how this is inevitable. The human body cannot be all made up of eyes or mouths or hands or feet. How limited the body’s function would be if that were the case–not to mention how weird and disgusting it would look! And it is inevitable that some body parts are placed in more visible and prominent places while others are placed at lower or less visible positions than others. Somebody has to be an eye. Someone has to be a pinky toe. We don’t compete for these positions. We don’t vote. These things were decided before the foundation of the world, before we were knitted in our mother’s womb. And when God knitted each of us in our mother’s womb, He custom-designed us to be fit for the role to which He assigned us.
Of course, here we are speaking of the invisible, universal church, which is made up of all of God’s elect people. In the visible, local churches, however, our roles are not unchangeably fixed. Children, you started as non-communicant members when you were baptized. When you grow up and make the profession of faith, you become communicant members. Many of you will serve God faithfully as lay members, serving in various capacities. Some of you will serve as deacons, some as elders. Some of you may even become pastors. And there may even be those who are deacons or elders first and then become pastors later in life. Our roles can change in local churches throughout our life, many times. But in the universal church, the totality of all that we do in our lifetime fits into the unique position and role in the grand mosaic of His eternal decree, for which God created us and redeemed us.
But it is one thing to know this and another to accept this, isn’t it? What if we are assigned as the feet of the body of Christ? Or as vessels of dishonor in His house–a garbage bin in the kitchen, perhaps–when another person is enjoying all kinds of attention and admiration as a vessel of honor, displayed for all to see in a china cabinet? But who are we to criticize what God has decided to do out of His infinite wisdom and goodness? But there’s more to this as we will see in the next point.
Second, when we humbly acknowledge God’s sovereignty, we see that we are not just pawns on the chessboard. So, after talking about vessels of honor and dishonor in the household of God, Paul goes on to say in the very next verse, “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). How is this possible if God had already predetermined each of us to our own respective place and position? Does this mean we can change God’s will? Of course not! God’s will flows out of His omniscience and infinite wisdom. As such, God’s will is eternal, unchangeable, and irrevocable.
Here is a very helpful Scripture passage in this regard: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). Whether we were assigned as vessels of honor or dishonor (and to what degree) is part of the secret things of God. That means none of us knows: only God knows. Then what are we to do?
We are not to wonder or worry about the secret things of God. God calls us to be concerned only with the things He has revealed to us. This makes sense, doesn’t it? How can we be accountable to something that we know nothing about? But what has God revealed to us in this regard? “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” Isn’t that amazing? We are not to be discouraged and grow bitter because we think God has predestined us to be vessels of dishonor no matter what we do. There is an element of truth here: if God has indeed destined us to be vessels of dishonor, we can never be vessels of honor. But we cannot add to this, “no matter what we do.” Didn’t Paul just say, “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work”?
We don’t know whether God has predestined us to be vessels of less honor. What is more, even if we are in a place of dishonor, if we cleanse ourselves from what is dishonorable, God assures us that we will be a vessel for honorable use! How encouraging! The doctrine of predestination is not to be used as an excuse for laziness and despair. It should rather compel us to greater diligence and faithfulness because God’s predestination includes what we do in response to God’s word!
Third, our position of less honor does not necessarily mean that we will be esteemed less in the eyes of God. Think of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. When the master went away, he gave five talents to one servant, two talents to another, and one talent to the third. By the time he came back, the first one doubled the money to ten talents; the second one doubled his to four talents; the last one just put away the one talent because he thought his master was a cruel, unreasonable master. The last one obviously was punished for many reasons. What interests us here is how the master responded to the other two faithful servants. To the first who made five extra the master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). To the second who made two extra he said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). Do you see? The master, who represents God, praises these two servants with the same, exact words!
It is easy for us measure God’s love according to how many talents God gives us, so to speak. That seems only obvious, right? But is that necessarily true? If your mom gives you just one serving and two servings to your sibling, does that mean your mom loves you less? What if she gave you just one serving because you are only five years old and two servings to your sibling because he is a seventeen-year-old teenager? Quite possibly, that is exactly what is going on with the master’s identical praise to the two of his servants. In God’s eyes, they are equally esteemed–regardless of how many talents each has made. How encouraging this is! In this world, we may be treated differently according to what kind of job or title we have. But in the kingdom of God, that does not matter. What matters to God is how faithful we are. A hotel maid who serves God faithfully is much more esteemed in the sight of God than a king or president who is derelict in his duties.
Besides, no matter how big or little, how honorable and not-so-honorable our vessel may be in the household of God, one thing is for sure: we will all confess with joy inexpressible, “My cup overflows” with the goodness of God! We will be content with the kind of perfect contentment that will have no room for jealousy, no matter how much more other saints may have received from God.
So, what about these six tribes that were last to receive their portion in the land? We cannot say that they received a rotten deal, can we? Apart from all the things we have talked about, they belonged to the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people! How do you measure the value and privilege of this simple fact?
Many commentators have observed that, in the account of the distribution of the land, a special care was given to the number twelve–how the number of the tribes who received the inheritance was twelve. This was done in a couple of ways. First, it states how the land of Canaan would be divided among nine and a half tribes (13:7). Why? Because two and a half tribes had already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan (13:8). Second, whenever a reminder is made about the two and a half Transjordan tribes, there is also a reminder that the tribe of Levi did not receive their inheritance in the land (13:14, 33). This reinforces and highlights the idea that the total number of the tribes who received the inheritance of the land was twelve.
Why this emphasis on the number twelve? According to Jewish numerology, seven is not the only perfect number. Seven, of course, represents divine perfection because God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh day. Besides seven, there are other numbers that represent completeness or wholeness. Four is one because there are four cardinal directions–North, South, East and West–which represent the whole world. That’s what is meant when we say that people came from all four corners of the world. Twelve is another one: “Twelve represents totality, wholeness, and the completion of God’s purpose. There are 12 tribes of Israel…, 12 months in the year…” (http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/judaism-numbers/). Isn’t it interesting that the twelve sons of Jacob came from four women?
The symbolic meaning of the number twelve is highlighted in Rev. 7:4-8:
“And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.”
This is the famous passage about the 144,000 elect people of God. Does this mean that only 144,000 people are saved–particularly among the Jews–while “a great multitude that no one could number [are saved] from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (Rev. 7:9)? When we consider the nature of the Book of Revelation and how heavily symbolism is used throughout the book, these numbers seem highly symbolical. (Think of why Jesus only addressed seven churches in the beginning chapters of Revelation even though there were many more churches at that time.)
Here, we have multiples of twelve, don’t we? Not only do we have the twelve tribes of Israel; we also have each of the twelve tribes numbered 12,000. And the number thousand signifies “a lot.” So, when you have twelve (which signifies completeness) multiplied by a thousand, multiplied by another twelve (tribes), it signifies a lot of people. That is why the (amillennial) commentators see the 144,000 elect from the twelve tribes of Israel as signifying the same thing as a great multitude that no one could number. Why, then, these two different expression for the same thing? As M.G. Kline suggested, “a great multitude that no one could number” emphasizes how so many people will be saved. The symbolism of 144,000 emphasizes how the number of God’s elect people is set, exactly and unchangeably!
Let’s bring it all together. These last tribes were not the most significant tribes in Israel–at least, according to the order in which they received their portion. However, as insignificant as they seemed, Israel could not be complete without them: they were indispensable! What a great encouragement to all of us, even to the least of us! No Christian should dare think that he doesn’t count. Every Christian is a child of God. Of course, every child matters to the parents, no matter how many they have! How much truer is this of God, especially when each child of His was redeemed and adopted by the blood of Jesus Christ! If you are a child of God, you dare not think that you don’t matter–in the eyes of God, in His family the church, even in the world as long as God gives you breath to do His will.
How can we not matter when we belong to the number of God’s elect? Just by belonging to that number, we are delivered from hell, forgiven of all our sins, the condemnation of the law annulled, the accusation of Satan silenced, the guilty conscience cleansed, the fear of death removed. And those are just the benefits of Christ’s suffering and death. How about the benefits of His righteous life and glorious resurrection? God views us as righteous in His sight, eligible for all the blessings and favors He promised to those who are righteous. He adopts us as His children, co-heirs with Christ, and pledges His eternal, unbreakable, abundant and lavishing love!
And what has Christ promised? “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep…. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:14-15, 29-30). Why is Jesus the good Shepherd? Because He does not lose any of His sheep–even if He has to lay down His life! And that is exactly what Jesus did for us. If Jesus laid down His life for us to save us, would He lose any of His sheep, for whom He sacrificed His life, now that He is risen from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God in glory and power? Oh, how He loves you and me with His almighty power!
I hope and pray that your heart is swelling up with joy and wonder as God assures you of how valuable you are to Him and His kingdom. I hope and pray that this truth will radically change the way you think of yourself and your role in His kingdom, in this church, in your family, and wherever God has placed you! Let us strive to be vessels of honor by cleansing ourselves from what is sinful and dishonorable–not in terms of position but in terms of positive impact we make in the lives of others–until the day God will lovingly welcome us to His heavenly kingdom and richly reward us for every little thing we have done for His glory!
© Copyright 2016 by Jeong Woo “James” Lee
All Rights Reserved.
Jeong W “James” Lee
New Life Presbyterian Church of La Jolla