Can we attach any significance to certain numbers in the Bible? (Part 3)


In the last two Q&A’s, we discussed the significance of numbers 1 to 7 and 10 in the Bible. In this final Q&A of this series, we will conclude with pointing out the biblical importance of numbers 12 and 40.

Number 12 is generally understood as being the number of foundations. Twelve is a combination of the number 2 (which can symbolize union) and the number 10 (which symbolizes godly judgment).

Jesus tells us that a day has twelve hours (John 11:9)—referring to the daylight portion—adding that the day is followed by the night (verse 10)—another period of twelve (dark) hours.

In the first book of the Bible, we are introduced to Jacob, who was later renamed Israel, and his twelve sons who are the foundation of the tribes of Israel (Genesis 35:22-26; 49:28; compare Acts 26:7; James 1:1). To be protected from the plagues of the Lord, God will seal 144,000 Israelites (12 times 12)—twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes (Revelation 7:1-8; since Dan is not mentioned, Joseph is listed with his son Manasseh, reaching again the number 12).

Moses and Aaron numbered the people “with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each one representing his father’s house” (Numbers 1:44). Moses sent 12 leaders as spies into the Promised Land (Numbers 13:1-16), to indicate the potential future foundation or establishment of the nation of Israel in Canaan, but due to the rebellion of ten spies, they had to wait forty years before being allowed to possess the land.

We also read about 12 judges in the Old Testament, beginning with Othniel and ending with Samuel. In Samuel’s time, the people demanded to be led by a king. Even though God never intended for Israel to have a human king, He let them have their kings, the first king being Saul. King Solomon had twelve governors over all Israel, and each one made provision for one month of the year (1 Kings 4:7).

We are told that Jesus was 12 years old when He was found in the Temple to discuss God’s Law with the teachers (Luke 2:42-47). He told His surprised parents that He had to be about His heavenly Father’s business (verse 49).

Later, Jesus called twelve apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Luke 6:13-16). But He knew from the beginning that one of them, Judas Iscariot, would be “a devil” and betray Him (John 6:64, 70-71; Luke 22:3). Therefore, after Judas’ betrayal, another disciple was chosen to replace Judas and become an apostle, to be numbered with the eleven, and his name was Matthias (Acts 1:15-26). From that time on, the Bible includes Matthias (no longer Judas) as part of the twelve apostles (compare 1 Corinthians 15:5; Revelation 21:14). Even before Judas’ actual betrayal, Jesus spoke in Matthew 19:28 of 12 thrones on which the apostles will sit (those who truly followed Him—not Judas, but Matthias), to judge the house of Israel.

Jesus said in John 17:11-17 that His Church was to be kept in the name of His Father. The Father’s name is GOD  (compare John 20:17; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 3:4-15). We find 12 passages in the New Testament where the true Church is named “the church of God” [as the collective Body] or “churches of God,” [referring to the total of all local congregations]—sometimes also in connection with a place or location, or with the addition of an attribute describing characteristics of God the Father. The 12 passages are as follows:

“The church of God” (six times, namely: Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 10:32; 1 Corinthians 11:22; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:5); “The church of God which is at Corinth” (two times, namely: 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1); “The church of the living God” (one time, namely: 1 Timothy 3:15); and  “The churches of God” (three times, namely: 1 Corinthians 11:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; and 2 Thessalonians 1:4).

We read that when Christ fed five thousand men, besides women and children, “twelve baskets full of the fragments” of the multiplied loaves of bread remained (Matthew 14:20), and when Peter was anxious to defend Christ with a sword, Christ told him to put his sword away, as He could ask His heavenly Father to send Him more than 12 legions of angels to protect Him (Matthew 26:53).

When focusing on the New Jerusalem which will descend from a new heaven to a new earth after the third resurrection (Revelation 21:1-2), we are told that that spiritual city—the bride, the Lamb’s wife—will have 12 gates, with 12 angels at the gates, with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (verse 12). The wall of the holy city will have 12 foundations, on which will be written the names of the 12 apostles (verse 14). The city will be twelve thousand furlongs long (verse 16). The foundations of the wall will be adorned with 12 precious stones (verses 19-20), and the 12 gates will be 12 pearls (verse 21).  Finally, we read that a “river” will proceed from the throne of God and the Lamb, and that in the midst of the street, and on either side of the river “was the tree of life which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month”—or twelve times a year (Revelation 22:1-2).

Another meaningful number is number 40. It is a combination of the number 4 (God’s revelation) and the number 10 (Godly Judgment), and it is widely understood as symbolizing God’s revelation in judging and testing man.

The many occasions when the number 40 plays a major role in the Bible should convince even the skeptic that these incidents are not merely “coincidental.” In fact, there are too many examples to list, but we are going to point out those which are most remarkable.

God’s flood at the time of Noah lasted for 40 days. God sent the flood to show His judgment of a rebellious world (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). In a somewhat related context, the punishment of a judged and condemned criminal could not exceed 40 blows or stripes (Deuteronomy 25:3).

We read that Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah (Genesis 25:20). This was a good and godly-ordained marriage. Sadly, Isaac and Rebekah’s son Esau married two wives, when he was 40 years old (Genesis 26:34), but this marriage was not good or godly-ordained. We read that Esau’s two wives “were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah” (verse 35).

The Bible reveals the predominant role of the number 40 in the life of Moses, and it also plays a role in the lives of Aaron and Caleb. Acts 7:23 tells us that Moses was 40 years old when he visited the Israelites and slew the Egyptian, forcing him to flee from Egypt (verses 24-29). Acts 7:30 adds that Moses was staying for 40 years in Midian, tending the sheep of his father-in-law. We are also told that he was with the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness (Acts 7:36). Moses died when he was 120 years old (Deuteronomy 31:2; 34:7), which means that God revealed Himself in the testing and judgment of Moses during three different time intervals: during the first 40 years in Egypt; during the next 40 years in Midian; and during the last 40 years in the wilderness with the Israelites.

We read that Moses was fasting for 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain to receive from God two tablets with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18), but after he broke the tablets in his wrath, he fasted again for 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain until God gave him the Ten Commandments, which God had written on two tablets of stone which Moses had to cut (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25; Exodus 34:1, 4).

We read of two more occasions when holy men of God fasted for forty days and forty nights—Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) and Jesus (Matthew 4:2).

When Moses sent the twelve spies to the Promised Land, only Joshua and Caleb gave a good report. Caleb was 40 years old at that time (Joshua 14:7). The other spies gave bad reports, and Israel believed them and disobeyed God. Due to Israel’s rebellion, they had to wander and were tested and judged by God in the wilderness for 40 years (Numbers 14:33; Deuteronomy 2:7; 8:2-6; compare Joshua 5:6; Acts 13:18; Hebrews 3:9, 17; Psalm 95:10; Amos 2:10; 5:25). During this time of their journey in the wilderness, they ate manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35), but there were times when they complained about God’s bread from heaven (compare Numbers 11:5-6).

Because of their rebellion, God decreed that they had to bear their guilt for 40 years according to the number of the 40 days in which they had spied out the Promised Land (Numbers 13:25; 14:34). This important prophetic principle—one year for one day—is critical to recognize; the reverse—one day for one year—is also correct. In Ezekiel 4:6, we read that Ezekiel was to “bear” the iniquity of the people of Judah for 40 days, according to the 40 years of their iniquity. God said that He laid on Ezekiel “a day for each year.”

We read that Aaron (as well as Moses and Miriam) did not enter the Promised Land, due to sins that they had committed. Even though they bitterly repented of their sins, they still had to live with the consequences. Aaron died in the 40th year after Israel had left Egypt (Numbers 33:38).

In Judges 13:1, God plagued Israel for 40 years because they did evil in the sight of the LORD. However, when they were under the rule of righteous judges, Israel had rest for 40 years (compare Judges 3:11 under Othniel; Judges 5:31 under Deborah; and Judges 8:28 under Gideon).

We read that Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18), but he had not done so perfectly. King Saul ruled Israel for 40 years (Acts 13:21), but he failed miserably. On the other hand, King David—a man after God’s own heart—reigned over Israel for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chronicles 29:27). He was followed by Solomon, who also ruled Israel for 40 years (2 Chronicles 9:30), but he did not follow God fully, as his father David had done. Later, King Joash or Jehoash ruled in Jerusalem for 40 years (2 Chronicles 24:1; 2 Kings 12:1). He began ruling in a godly way, but ended up rebelling against God (2 Chronicles 24:22). We also read that because of sin, Egypt would be uninhabited for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-16).

Finally, we read that after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He spoke to the disciples for 40 days about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). After these 40 days, He ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-11).

In conclusion, not all numbers used in the Bible are of equal importance, and some numbers are of no importance at all. However, as we have seen in this series, there is most certainly important significance which we must apply to certain selected numbers, and God recorded them on purpose in His Word to teach us valuable lessons.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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