(This is an excerpt from my book Marginalia, a Concise Guide to the Bible- amended)
In Bible numbers have many uses. We see it used for rhetorical purposes. ’For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof…(Am.1: 4).This is not what we shall discuss here. Nor are we seeking any mystical system that owes to the School of Pythagoras.
Then what are numbers for? The Holy Spirit communicating with man uses mathematical concept that he can well understand. These in the Spiritual parlance are often used as symbols. We shall see the Spirit tagging ministry and fulfillment of deeds wrought through human agencies with corresponding numbers.
Miracle of multiplying loaves:
When we examine the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude we find that the fragments that remained were twelve baskets full (Mt.14:20).This seemingly minor detail is repeated in all the four gospels.(Jn.6:13;Lk.9:17). In the gospel of St. Mark we read the fragments of the fishes were also part of these 12 baskets (Mk.6:43). One may wonder if frugality of saving food items that are noted for their perishability is so significant to find mention in synoptic gospels? This has however a deep spiritual significance. Our free will offerings are precious in the Lord’s sight. Testimony of the Son of man in feeding the multitude was a testimony noted in heaven as well!
In the twelve stones that Joshua placed in the River Jordan where the feet of the priests bearing the ark stood, also the Holy Spirit places similar emphasis. It is an everlasting memorial. Our service to the Lord nothing of it shall be lost and death cannot dispel its sweet savour (Ro.12:1).
The numbers are used to represent specific groups. These groups also carry theological significance.
Jesus chose twelve disciples who were to spread the gospel about the kingdom of heaven among the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Later we read that he went to preach in their cities as well(Mt.11:1). Even after Judas betrayed him and forfeited his place among them we read that a substitute was found by so the number twelve remained intact. The number 12 designates the Son. ( In brackets I shall give what is to be taken with caution: One is God 1+2: 3 trinity and 12 the Son as reconciliation principle.)
It is the designated number for God the Son on the earth. The number is as significant as the Almighty God is symbolized by One. (Ac.1:29). Also interesting to note is the fact all the disciples gathered in the upper room on that occasion were twelve tens,-one hundred and twenty. Ministry of Jesus as the Son of man represented kingdom of heaven. He was sent by his Father for a specific purpose (Jn.3:16). His father represented the Kingdom of God into which his own kingdom must be subsumed at a later date.
Multiples of twelve bear a theological tag on the earth as well as in the City of God. Such groups of 12 in multiples of ten designate the City of God. It is not difficult to understand the significance of an hundred forty and four thousand that stood with the Lamb on the mount of Sion (Re.14:1). They were redeemed from the earth for the Kingdom of God. The symbolism of the mount, lamb and number adds to our understanding. In the new earth and the new heaven we have the city of God and the scale is given as “according to the measure of a man, that is of the angel Re.21:17” Needless to say the man is like angels in resurrection Mt.22:30)
The number 4 is the tag that connects divine intervention over the history of nations. In the Book of Zechariah we have a sign of 4 carpenters who were sent ‘to fray them (the horns)…to cast out the horns of the Gentiles, which lifted up their horn over the land of Judah to scatter it(Zech.1:21).’ In another place an angel from the Lord reveals four chariots to the prophet, who asks him what do they represent. They are four spirits of the heavens that stand before the Lord of hosts. “Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts… he(the Branch) shall build the temple of the Lord(Zech.6:12-13). We get a telescoping view of the nations of the world being pressed into the temple-building to which Jesus Christ is the head(Zech.6:15). The number signifies cardinal directions which are echoed in the heavenly host that serve the Lord God(Re.4:2-3). Also noteworthy are the four beasts that are placed there to praise the Lord God Almighty without ceasing.
Thus we may conclude the number 4 speak of heavenly agencies who either stand as a memorial before the Lord or as enforcers of the God of hosts.
This number also refers to the manner the tribes camped during their wanderings in the wilderness. In the book of Numbers thy were to pitch their tents in their designated places about the tribe of Levi (Nu.2:17). Again we see the number 4 applied to angels who stood on the corners of the earth.(Re.7:1) The beasts and the elders are tagged by the number to indicate sovereignty of God over the earth and the fullness thereof. They are memorial unto God representing man and the creatures of the earth.
In the Book of Apocalypse we read of the 24 elders which are 6 groups of 4 each and their roles are different from the twelve apostles or the tribes of Israel.
Let us turn our attention from apostles to another group of seventy. The same number we first read as the elders upon whom God distributed some of the spirit resting on Moses (Nu.11:24)
In the gospel of St. Luke we read that Jesus appointed as a second wave seventy other disciples whom he sent two by two and their message was specific: the Kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.(Lu.10:1,9).
On one occasion Jesus fed a crowd of four thousand. We read of that what was remaining filled seven baskets( Mt.15:32-38; Mk.8:1-9).An interesting point to note is that the number of baskets same as the number of loaves offered to Jesus. In his rebuke of his disciples for their lack of understanding (Mk.8:16-21) we may infer that there is more to it than simple telling of a miracle. Seven is perfection associated with God. And he (God) rested on the seventh day from all his work… (Ge.2: 2). The seven in this case symbolizes his broken body on the cross, the perfect atonement he could offer us.
The Children of Israel sojourned in the wilderness for 40 years before reaching their Promised Land. Between Resurrection of Jesus and his ascension was 40 days. The number 40 indicates a certain period in which part of God’s Will shall be rounded off. Purpose for which sojourn of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai necessitated 40 years are different from the reason our Lord Saviour remained on the earth. As discussed elsewhere apart from stray appearances the resurrected Jesus had one last ministry and that was in his spiritual body.
When Moses as commanded of God stretched his hand towards heaven there was ‘a thick darkness in the land of Egypt for three days.’(Ex.10: 22).’ When Moses asked leave from Pharaoh so that the children of Israel could offer sacrifices to the Lord in the wilderness, it was for three days. (Ex.8: 27)