October 2013


There’s another important lesson about leadership in Numbers 11. The passage refers to a “spirit of leadership” resting on the seventy in a way that is far more tangible than I have allowed myself to think of before. Clearly, it’s talking about God’s Spirit falling on and filling individuals in a way that helps them carry the burden of leadership.

To tell you the truth, I have not put a lot of thought into the idea of spirit-filled leadership. In fact, I don’t think I’m alone in being a little nervous about the unpredictability of the Spirit. I like to feel as if I’m in control, but I’m increasingly convinced that my attempts to control actually limit my usefulness and effectiveness. So let me approach this passage with intellectual honesty and try to draw out a few principles all leaders should pay attention to in terms of their need for the Spirit of God. I’m preaching first to myself.

The first principle about the Holy Spirit is that leaders shouldn’t leave home without him. The way God promises to put his Spirit on each of the seventy parallels the experience of the apostles as they prepare to lead the early church. In Acts 1:4, Jesus instructs them not to leave Jerusalem until God sends them his Spirit. Without this critical provision, they will not be able to be witnesses or baptize or teach. So they wait. It’s only when the Holy Spirit falls in Acts 2 that Peter is enabled to step boldly to the microphone and preach a multilingual sermon that results in 3,000 baptisms.

Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit bestows identity and credibility. The unique visible and overt outpouring of the Spirit in the form of prophecy also happened to a young man named Saul in 1 Samuel 10. When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him “the Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy… You will be changed into a different person.” The experience is so noteworthy that a proverb was birthed: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

It is typically as difficult to see the Spirit’s movement as it is to see the wind. So God uses occasional visible evidence of his Spirit to give individuals credibility to lead. In Numbers 11, it affirms the elders’ calling, leaving no doubt as to who was set apart among the seventy. Even the two in the camp get that clear stamp of authority. The passage makes it clear that the ability to prophesy is tangential and temporary. Though the seventy prophesy only once, that is sufficient to establish credibility and reassure that the Spirit’s power is on them. From this launching point, we need to look for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12) for ongoing evidence that the Spirit is at work in a leader.

This leads to my third principle: the primary purpose of the Spirit’s filling in a leader is equipping. It starts with leaders themselves, but it flows out to their followers. In Numbers 11:17 God tells Moses the Spirit will give the seventy the ability to bear the leadership burden with him. In 1 Samuel 10:7, Samuel tells Saul that God’s presence will enable the new king to do what needs to be done. Rather than simply referring to skill-based or learned leadership that originates from ourselves, this is a leadership that springs forth from God himself. The gift of leadership in Romans 12 is a specific empowering of the Spirit for administration and governance roles. Ephesians 4 makes the purpose of these gifts clear: they are designed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” and helping us attain unity, knowledge and maturity (Eph 4:11-13).

The body is a helpful metaphor, as these gifts come with variety. Disciples are transformed into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. My personal bent toward the “kingly” roles — motivating and organizing people and sharing vision — needs balancing with other body parts. Leadership should also include “priestly” elements such as caring for and feeding the flock and “prophetic” elements such as discerning issues, understanding the times and rebuking behaviour. The Spirit helps move a leader from administration to the more prophetic task of challenging the status quo. Leading change had better flow out of a response to the Spirit’s prompting, because anyone challenging the way things are is venturing into dangerous territory.

Spirit-empowered leadership should stand out from other forms that lack power. My fourth principle is the untapped secret available to believers called to lead: the Spirit amplifies leadership with immense power. Paul made this point as he asked God to give the Ephesian church “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation”:

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms. (Eph 1:17-20, NIV)

The same power that raised Christ from the dead was available to Peter in Acts 2. The transformation in his life must have left his colleagues wondering whether this was the same Peter they knew. Nothing short of Jesus’ resurrection power could have turned the Peter of the gospels into the Rock of the early church.

The same power was available to Moses and the seventy elders. In my next blog post, we’ll look at what Moses learned about that power.

And the same power is available to us as well. Incredible! The question is whether we’re tapping into it. Are we seeking to be spirit-filled leaders?

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Bible and am currently slogging through Numbers. But you can’t go to sleep on even the difficult books, because you’ll suddenly find a gold mine where you least expect it. Numbers 11 is so packed, I’ve been stuck on it for almost three weeks.

We all know that Moses was a great leader, and his life is chock full of leadership examples. But as with most leaders, a lot of the examples we can learn from come from mistakes and weaknesses. Moses’ life has been laid bare for us, and there are a number of lessons here in this chapter.

Don’t join the whining

We open with verse 4. The first three verses are a preamble full of foreshadowing. The people complain, God’s anger is kindled, and people die. Yet they don’t learn their lesson. They begin to complain again.

Verse 4 says the people “yielded to intense craving” (NKJV) and began to complain. This “lusting” (ESV) originated with the “rabble” living among them – the foreigners who came along with them from Egypt. They’re tired of their daily manna and want meat. Their discontent quickly spreads from the fringes to consume the camp, even tainting Moses.

It seems to be a universal tendency of children to manipulate with tears. Have you ever noticed how children project their crying? When you hear them projecting, rather than sobbing to themselves, you know they’re trying to manipulate. The text here says the people of Israel wept at the doors of their tents. They are not embarrassed; instead, they’re projecting.

And have you ever noticed that non-tonal languages get tonal when it comes to whining? You don’t even need to hear the words. As it does with many parents, the manipulative chorus pushes Moses over the edge.

Moses and God are united in their disgust at what they hear. While the former is aggravated, the latter is described as irate. But then Moses turns and unloads on God. And boy does he whine! He complains about the load he has to carry, about why the responsibility fell on him in the first place, about why God is treating him so badly. Then he takes it over the top: “If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!” (Nu 11:15)

How will an irate God react? Surprisingly, God’s anger disappears. He doesn’t lash out at Moses, his friend. Something about the way Moses says it communicates his vulnerability in that moment, and God provides solutions instead of rebuke. First, he provides a long-term answer. Then he takes responsibility to meet the short-term, tangible need.

Address the systemic problem first

Moses is on a journey in his understanding of leadership. Governing a nation is no small task. You’ll recall the hierarchical judicial system Moses installed on the counsel of his father-in-law (Exodus 18). Now God helps him assemble a distributed executive branch. Instead of trying to run everything himself, his focus should be on seventy elders who can assist in governing the people.

Note that this new system is not really designed to solve the immediate crisis. After all, finding meat is not a problem that is better solved by a committee of seventy instead of one. God chooses first to address the more long-term, systemic issue behind Moses’ rant: the fact that he can’t bear this people alone. It won’t be a quick fix. The “soft skills” of mediation and morale-lifting are among the more difficult tasks of leadership, so Moses will need to invest a lot in these seventy before they can adequately and consistently deal with the hearts of the people. But God opens the door to systemic, foundational improvement.

In my experience, it’s difficult to think about a long-term systemic solution when you’re in a crisis. Leaders who are overwhelmed just want to put the fire out. To put it in Stephen Covey’s terminology (The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People), if you dwell in the quadrant of putting out fires, you’ll spend all your time putting out fires. God is interested in moving Moses’ time and energy into quadrant 2, where he can look at more important issues. God makes this shift before he addresses the immediate need.

Do you see the intimacy in the relationship between Moses and God? Moses can be himself, and he can pour out his frustration on God without fear of reprisal. And God in turn acts to sustain Moses by addressing the core issue before answering Moses’ request. Moses’ success was not about leadership technique that can be turned into formula. His success depended entirely on his relationship with God. That’s the central lesson in my study of Moses.

Next post I’ll turn to the lessons Moses learned about leading through the Spirit.