“And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires….” (Numbers 11:4)
When Israel left Egypt under Moses, the people of God were not alone. Accompanying them was a group of malcontents and hangers-on who apparently stayed with them all the way through the wilderness wanderings on into Canaan.
The Bible calls them “rabble.” They were along for the ride, glad for an excuse to break out of Egypt.
They were a persistent sore on the body of God’s people.
Their presence explains a lot of things.
Who were they? Exodus 12:37-38 reads: “Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children, and a mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.”
That’s all it says: “a mixed multitude.”
Not all were sons and daughters of Abraham or descendants of Jacob. We may assume they were a hodge-podge of humanity, people who for reasons of friendship or self-advancement or marriage had attached themselves to the Hebrews.
The inimitable J. Vernon McGee describes this bunch thusly: “The mixed multitude were those who were not sure who they were. They could not go up and join one of the tribes. They couldn’t declare their pedigree. They weren’t sure whether they should go on the wilderness march or not. They were the products of mixed marriages. Each of them had one parent back in Egypt and one parent in the camp of Israel. They were Egyptian enough to like Egypt, and they were Israelite enough to want to go on the wilderness march.”
Presumably, some of their ilk opted to stay in Egypt. But this bunch came along, without a clue what was awaiting them.
They were in for the ride of their lives.
Their presence was a constant source of trouble for Israel.
When Moses, the man of God, stood before the Hebrews and called them to forsake their old ways, to follow a God whom they had never met, into a land none had ever seen, and for their daily bread to depend on angels dropping food from Heaven six days a week, it was more than the rabble could take. They had no faith but plenty of nerve. Their constant belly-aching encouraged the Lord’s children to register their own gripes.
The rabble was never happy with anything. They had no patience with God or His man Moses. When they thought of Egypt, they conveniently forgot the slavery and remembered the few pleasures (onions, melons, and pickles!) and longed for those “wonderful days of old.” When they saw an obstacle before them in the wilderness, they incited mutiny against Moses.
Doubt and unbelief are contagious. God’s people, the true sons and daughters of Abraham, caught the disease from the rabble carriers and harassed Moses and second-guessed God from day one.
The rabble have been among the Lord’s people ever since.
“Not all have faith,” Paul told the Thessalonian church (II Thess. 3:2), so they would need to pray extra hard for him. Such people within the body of believers are “perverse and evil men,” he said. The Greek word atopos, sometimes translated “improper,” literally means “out of place.” The same word is used by one of the dying thieves in Luke 23:41, when he said of Jesus, “This man has done nothing amiss.”
When people of no faith are among the leadership of a church, they are out of place. Now, it’s good they are in the Lord’s house to begin with. Maybe they will hear the Word and believe. But woe to the church which elects them to leadership positions. More, pity the pastor who has to try to work with them. Pray for him.
The church treasurer, a retired banker, was opposing my attempts to lead the church. At one point, I said to him, “I get the impression you believe this faith business is all pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by and that preachers do not have a clue how church finances work.” He said, “That is exactly how I feel.”
When a church puts people of no faith in leadership positions because they are successful in the business world, they should expect a continual stream of opposition and harassment toward the pastor and other people of faith.
A church says volumes about itself by the kind of leaders it selects.
The presence of the rabble among people of faith explains a great deal.
A lot of Christian people are harsh toward churches these days. “The churches are dead,” they say all too quickly. “Most of the members are unsaved,” they say. “God is going to judge the church for its lukewarmness and complacency.”
Writers and church consultants and evangelists are often down on the membership of our churches, calling them unregenerate and compromised and unbelieving.
And they may be right.
However, we must not forget that mixed in with the people of faith from the very beginning there have been outsiders and hangers-on acting as though they are family members.
Again, Dr. McGee: “I have discovered through my years as a pastor that the real troublemakers in my church are the mixed multitude. They are fellow travelers with the world and with the church people. They like to have a church banquet, but they don’t want the Bible study. They don’t want to be forward in the march, close to the ark of God; they want to stay way in the back because they are not sure but what they may want to turn and go back some time. They are not quite clear about what they believe. They are never happy when others are having a real time of spiritual blessing. They’re uncomfortable in the church, but they are also uncomfortable with the world. They just don’t seem to fit in. They are a square peg in a round hole and they are troublemakers.”
What do we do about the rabble in the church?
The Lord’s parable of the tares amid the wheat helps us understand the mixed multitude from His standpoint. Matthew 13:24-30 contains the account of the enemy slipping in and planting tares (weeds which look a lot like wheat at first) in the just-sown wheat field. They all sprout at the same time, both the wheat and the tares. Workers figure out correctly that the enemy has been at work and ask the owner if they should go into the field and pull up the offending weeds. “No,” he said. “In doing that, you will damage the wheat crop. Leave them alone. At the end, we will cut them all down and separate them. We will deal with them at that time.”
That’s how God’s people are to treat the rabble among the righteous: leave them alone.
You and I will have our suspicions as to which members are fake and which genuine, but identifying and dealing with them is not our assignment.
The Lord “knows those who are His,” said Paul in II Timothy 2:19. You and I don’t always know that. He always does.
There will come a day of accounting. At that time, the Lord Himself will sort out the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the wicked from the just (Matthew 13:47-50).
This counsel is needed for churches today….
1) There will always be among the faithful those of no faith. They are welcome in the Lord’s house. Perhaps they will hear and be saved.
2) Churches must take care to choose as leaders only those of faith.
3) Godly, faithful pastors must teach and train their laity on how to identify spiritually qualified men and women who can be entrusted with leadership responsibilities. In Acts 6:1-7, these are described as people “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Paul told Timothy, “The things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2). In Luke 16:10-12, our Lord gives three measurements for assessing the dependability of people: faithfulness in little things, financial things, and borrowed things.
Everything in your church depends on the faithfulness of its leadership.
4) Churches must be cautioned concerning the urge to purge. Some churches, eager to have what they call a “redeemed membership”–and who doesn’t want that!–go through their membership rolls with a cleaver, hacking off anyone not giving sufficient evidence of their salvation. In so doing, I’ve known of good people being deeply hurt and vowing never to return to church.
5) Those of us who constantly criticize the church for its complacency and dead wood may simply be looking at the rabble and not the people of faith. We must take great care here. The Lord has His people, and as with Elijah (I Kings 19:18), He has a lot more of them than we know. “The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His'” (II Timothy 2:19).
6) We are unable to tell an unsaved person from a carnal Christian. In his letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul identifies three groups of people: the natural, the spiritual, and the carnal. The natural man is unsaved and cannot understand spiritual things (I Cor. 2:14). However, the carnal man, who is saved but still “in the flesh,” which is the meaning of carnal, looks a lot like the natural man (see 3:3). Only the spiritual individual is the solid believer capable of being taught and trained and led to worship and serve.
No one of us can look at a man and tell whether he is carnal or natural, that is, an immature backslidden believer or an unsaved person. We must leave that to the Lord. (And, I’m happy to do so. Judging the genuineness of those about me was never my spiritual gift. I’m guessing it isn’t yours either.)
The spiritual among us are the ones entrusted with the work of the Lord. Paul said, “If a brother be overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual restore him” (Galatians 6:1).
7) The challenge for the church is to identify the spiritual among their membership and to look to them for godly counsel and wise decision-making.
Pray for the Lord’s church and restrain the temptation to criticize or dismiss it. Be careful not to withhold your support from the church because you do not like something going on. As I write, a few minutes ago, an associate minister of a church emailed me that many in his congregation are leaving after Sunday School and skipping worship and keeping back their offerings because of their dislike for their pastor. I know their pastor. He’s a wonderful man, and deserves better than this. I said to the assistant pastor, “A lot of people will stand before the Lord and give account for trying to take the Lord’s Bride hostage.”
It helps me to remember that the Lord honored the widow of Mark 12:41-44 for giving her last two coins into the temple offering at a time when the temple was under the control of a bunch of crooks! One chapter earlier (Mark 11:17), Jesus called it a den of thieves.
“God, bless your church. And Father, give special courage and steadiness to your servants who labor in congregations where the rabble are in the ascendancy. Raise up spiritual men and women who will stand up and take back the leadership of the Church, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”