Last week, I taught two seemingly unconnected lessons. One was from Acts 11, where Barnabas goes to Antioch, and the other was from Numbers, which included the census of the Israelites from chapter one. Since it’s not obvious on the surface, I probably never would have made the connection, had I not met with Paul Wilkinson for our Spring LIFE Group Leader Meeting. He gave me the outline of our church’s new 5-year vision for discipleship and explained that we are moving from quantitative counting (number-centered), to qualitative counting (people-centered). It was the word “counting” that popped into my head two days later and gave me a new insight into how God numbers us, and what really counts.
The book of Numbers opens with a census of the Israelites while they are still at Sinai. It’s been more than a year since the Exodus and they are getting ready to pack up and head toward the Promised Land. The main reason for the census was to form a military roster – there would be battles ahead. But what is surprising is the Hebrew phrase used in this passage to describe the act of counting: se’u et rosh. Literally, “lift the head.”
In most societies, size is power and strength lies in numbers. But God, who never relies on human strength or ability to accomplish His purposes, numbers us for a different reason. In his Covenant and Conversation series on Numbers, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains that this unusual Hebrew phrase indicates that when God counts us, He “lifts up our heads” so that He can look at us. The reason: because He loves us individually and calls us by name, not a number. So it’s no coincidence that just a few chapters later in Numbers 6, we read one of the most famous blessings in Scripture: The Priestly Blessing (or the Aaronic Blessing):
“The Lord bless you and keep (protect) you;
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (emphasis added)
God counts us by lifting our heads. Why? So he can turn His face toward us — look at us — to bless us, protect us, be gracious to us, and give us peace. Regardless of the total number, everyone is important.
Many centuries later in Acts 11, the Messianic community in Jerusalem heard about the spread of the gospel in Antioch among the Greeks, and how large numbers of people were turning to the Lord. They sent Barnabas, who witnessed the “evidence and grace of God” in Antioch, and he encouraged them to continue and remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. Scripture describes Barnabas as a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and an encourager – a head-lifter. And once again, we read that a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
So what’s the connection? Well, Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement,” was a nickname given by the other disciples because of his character and notable qualities. But his Hebrew name was Joseph, which means “May Jehovah add/give increase” or “God will increase.” Quantitative and qualitative . . . with God, we can have both.
What I learned from these two lessons is this: when we “lift the heads” of the people in our LIFE Groups, in the worship center, in an off-campus Bible study, our neighborhoods, offices, and in our own homes, we begin to see the difference between the way we count people and what really counts about people. Every person is created in the image of God, and when we see the way God sees, we will also count the way God counts – by looking at them, calling them by name, blessing them, and encouraging them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
When we count the way God counts, then God Himself will increase the numbers.