This question leapt at me from my Inbox:
Greetings, I had a question concerning the rebellion of Korah in Numbers 16. Often I hear believers reference this event when a criticism or disagreement arises with the leadership of the church. Looking for any insight you may have. Thank you for your time and consideration. —MD (initials, not job description)
Tough question. OK, I’ll give it a shot.
Moses faced lots of opposition to his leadership, including sometimes even from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam.
At one point a man named Korah, a Levite (Num 16:7, 8), but not a priest (since only the descendants of Aaron could be priests), gathered 250 Levites (Num 16:8) and came to Moses and Aaron with two complaints. First, “the [whole] congregation is holy” (Num 16:3), not just Moses and Aaron, and not just the priestly line. Thus all Levites (maybe all Israelites?) should be able to serve as priests, not just the sons of Aaron. Second, “you exalt yourselves.”
Implicit in the rebellion of Korah is a threat to the very leadership of Moses and Aaron. Maybe Korah hoped that he and a few of his friends could take over and lead the nation.
Moses sets up a test. Korah and two of his friends, Dathan and Abiram, got their 250 Levite gang to join them in burning incense before the Lord as would Aaron. The Lord would select who was holy–Korah and his band or Aaron and his descendants.
Only priests, that is, descendants of Aaron, were to offer incense. Korah and his group were not priests and hence should not be offering incense. I sense trouble ahead.
The ground opened up and Korah, Dathan, Abiram and the 250 “went down alive into the pit [Sheol]; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly” (Num 16:33).
What do we learn from this in terms of that day and in terms of application today?
For that day the point was clear. Moses and Aaron were God’s appointed leaders. The descendants of Aaron were the only ones who could have God’s blessing as they served as priests.
The people also learned to fear God: “Then all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, ‘Lest the earth swallow us up also’” (Num 16:34).
The issue was not the eternal destiny of Korah and his co-conspirators. While many rabbis applied this as an eternal destiny issue (see this article for an interesting discussion of this incident from a Jewish perspective), the truth is that the issue here was temporal judgment. Korah might have been a believer in the coming Messiah. If so, we will see him, and some of his co-conspirators who were also believers, in the kingdom.
It should be noted that Korah’s line was not cut off. Eleven of the Psalms were written by the sons of Korah (Pss 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88). “No less a person than the prophet Samuel was his descendant (1 Chronicles 6:16-18)” (see article linked above). Got questions dot org says, “God judged those who turned against Him in active rebellion and purified His people, but He still had a purpose and plan for even the line of Korah.”
For today the applications are similar, but different. The church is not a nation. The Body of Christ does not have national leaders appointed by God. And the church does not provide a special part of one tribe that can serve as elders or pastors.
Application number one today is that we all should fear God, especially in relation to the local church. Notice what Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16-17. After discussing the rewards that faithful servants of Christ will get for building up the church—in 1 Cor 3:10-15—Paul then discusses the judgment unfaithful servants of Christ will get if they tear down the church:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
In that context the temple of God refers not to the bodies of believers, but to the church. This language is corporate. If someone defiles the church, God will destroy him. That is serious language.
A pastor friend got in a disagreement with his board. Before he moved on to another pastorate, he spoke against the elders. The church ended up splitting, with half the people starting another church.
Within a year or two my friend came down with a terrible disease. I remembered thinking this was a terrible coincidence. Then a few other friends suggested to me that what happened to him was in fulfillment of 1 Cor 3:16-17 (or Numbers 16). At first I thought they were wrong. Then I studied 1 Cor 3:10-17 and saw that they were right. This might well have been God’s hand of discipline.
My pastor friend is a born-again believer in Jesus Christ. He is eternally secure. The issue here was not his eternal destiny. The issue was whether God was judging him here and now for speaking out against the elders in his church.
It is wrong, I think, for church leaders to threaten anyone who disagrees with them with threats of physical death. Disagreement is okay within the local church as long as it is not divisive, argumentative, or belligerent.
But it is right for church leaders to warn people in their church that if they attempt to hurt the church, then they may experience serious consequences, including premature death. If someone tries to split a church, he is defiling the church. It is one thing to disagree. It is another to badmouth the leadership of the local church and to split the assembly.
Nearly 30 years ago I failed in this regard. I was an elder in a large Bible church. I disagreed with the preaching style of the pastor. I told him and the other elders. He and the other elders felt he was preaching in the right way. I should have served a bit longer and then graciously stepped down from the board. I was out of step. Ultimately he left the church over a different matter. But I felt like I had had at least a small part in his departure. I am sorry for that.
We should respect the leaders of our local assemblies. Our lives may depend on it.