The rest of the story: Numbers 23-25

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Today’s reading: Numbers 23-25.

After watching the prophet Balaam ride off into the sunset, you wonder whose side he was really on. Numbers presents some conflicting information about the man with the power to bless or curse. Did God want him to visit Balak or not? Did he care about truth or only about money? Did he believe in the Lord? It’s hard to answer these questions as Balaam leaves in Numbers 24. But rather than giving up, we should remember an important Biblical truth: Christians need to know “the whole counsel of God” before making a decision. And it turns out, as is often true, that the Bible has a lot more to say about Balaam.

Before Balaam arrives in Moab, he has the famous run-in with his talking donkey. That story reinforces the point that God can put words in the mouths of anyone, including Balaam.

Then Balaam uttered his oracle: “Balak brought me from Aram, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come,’ he said, ‘curse Jacob for me; come, denounce Israel.’ How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced? From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs!” Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!” He answered, “Must I not speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?” Numbers 23:7-12

Though it seems Balaam is on the side of Israel, his words may not come from his heart. After he returns home (Numbers 24:25), the men of Israel soon commit sexual immorality and idol worship with the Midianite women. No connection between these events is immediately apparent, but in Numbers 31 we read that the Israelites waged war on the Midianites in revenge, and that Balaam is one of those killed by the Israelites. Moses goes on to say that Balaam’s advice was the means of turning the people of Israel away from the Lord. What advice did he give? The answer doesn’t come until the very last book of the Bible, but we read more about Balaam in several passages along the way. Deuteronomy 23 says that Moab “hired Balaam … to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you.” 2 Peter 2 says that Balaam loved the wages of wickedness. Jude 1 says that men have rushed “for profit” into Balaam’s error. Finally, in Revelation 2 we read that Balaam “taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.”

If we stopped reading about Balaam in Numbers 24, we might conclude that he was a somewhat godly man who blessed Israel. But by reading everything the Bible says about him, and considering the whole counsel of God, we can make a much more accurate conclusion. Balaam was a profit-seeking prophet-for-hire. When God foiled his initial plans, he found a backdoor way to curse Israel by enticing them to commit sexual sins and idolatry.

On many occasions people have tried to prove a point by quoting only part of God’s word. Don’t be misled in that way. Look at everything the Bible has to say and then make your conclusion. Make sure you know the rest of the story.

Balaam was a terrible character; he was a man of two things, a man who went all the way with two things to a very great extent. I know the Scripture says, “No man can serve two masters.” Now this is often misunderstood. Some read it, “No man can serve two masters.” Yes he can; he can serve three or four. The way to read it is this: “No man can serve two masters,” They cannot both be masters. He can serve two, but they cannot both be his master. A man can serve two who are not his masters, or twenty; he may live for twenty different purposes, but he cannot live for more than one master purpose—there can only be one master purpose in his soul. But Balaam laboured to serve two; it was like the people of whom it was said, “They feared the Lord, and served other gods,” 2 Kings 17:33. Charles Spurgeon

There are many who desire to die the death of the righteous, but do not endeavour to live the life of the righteous. Gladly would they have their end like theirs, but not their way. They would be saints in heaven, but not saints on earth. Matthew Henry

A man may be a false prophet and yet speak the truth. Richard Sibbes

Image by Palestine Exploration Fund on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

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Faithless: Numbers 14

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Today’s reading: Numbers 14-15.

Twelve men make a secret exploration of the Promised Land, and return with glowing reports of its fruitfulness. At the same time, ten of the twelve are convinced that they cannot invade the land because of the strength and fortifications of its people. Only Joshua and Caleb press the case for entering Canaan. They are soon shouted down, and threatened with death, by the fearful and faithless Israelites.

The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?” Numbers 14:11

As a result of their faithlessness, God condemns all the adult Israelites except Joshua and Caleb to wander in the desert until they die. Their faithless wandering is a major theme of the book. It will take 38 years until their generation is gone, and only then will their children be ready to claim the promised inheritance.

Look at the reasons for the Israelites lack of faith:

  • they focused on the visible (appearance of their adversaries) rather than the spiritual
  • they listened to tradition (stories of Anak and the Nephilim) rather than God’s word
  • they gave more weight to their own (lack of) power rather than God’s power
  • they gave in to what others said rather than thinking for themselves
  • they magnified their fears and diminished God’s promise

Joshua and Caleb provided the counterpoint:

  • they knew that obedience and faith are necessary to please God
  • they saw the spiritual reality that God had disarmed their enemies
  • they had no fear since the LORD was with them

We all face giants, whether real or imagined. When in their country we must not fix our eyes on the giants but on the LORD who towers over all, and who has promised, “fear not, I am with you wherever you go.”

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

True faith bids eternal truth to become present reality. Manley Beasley

Faith is acting as if it is so, when it isn’t so, in order for it to be so, because God says it is so. Manley Beasley

Image by Robert Körner on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

What’s in a number? Numbers 1-2

Today’s reading: Number 1-2.

What’s in a number? Sometimes much more than you know, especially when God does the math. When I think of this book, Numbers, I can’t help but think of the Walk through the Bible illustration meant to sum up the content of the book. It showed some people-sized numbers, with faces and legs, wandering around in a desert. The book of Numbers tells the story of the 38-year trek the Israelites took to get from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land. It should not have taken them nearly that long, and the explanation for their delay is an important part of the book.

But back to the numbers. Numbers is not just about wandering in the wilderness; it also contains two census recordings of the Israelite men (not counting women and children). The numbers are specific, but seem irrelevant on first glance: from the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, and Gad, 151,450 men; from the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon, 186, 400 men; from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, 108,100 men; from the tribes of Dan, Asher, and Naphtali, 157,600 men.  In addition to the numbers we are told how the tribes are encamped:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: “The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each man under his standard with the banners of his family. On the east, toward the sunrise, the divisions of the camp of Judah are to encamp under their standard. The leader of the people of Judah is Nahshon son of Amminadab. His division numbers 74,600. The tribe of Issachar will camp next to them. The leader of the people of Issachar is Nethanel son of Zuar. His division numbers 54,400. The tribe of Zebulun will be next. The leader of the people of Zebulun is Eliab son of Helon. His division numbers 57,400.  All the men assigned to the camp of Judah, according to their divisions, number 186,400. Numbers 2:1-9

In similar fashion three tribes are place to the south, west, and north of the tabernacle. Now, if we picture these tribes in their camps along their commanded compass point, and in length according to their census number, we get the following picture:

camp3This picturing of the cross in the camp doesn’t originate with me. It’s part of that wise reminder that “the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed, the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.” I’d encourage you to visit this website for another revealing illustration of Israel’s wilderness camp by Abe Goolsby.

A census was taken of the tribes of Israel in the wilderness two years after they had left Egypt. It only numbered males who were over twenty: the men capable of active service in war. By thus taking a census of his people, the Lord showed that he valued each one of them. They were registered by their families and by their names; thus were they personally enrolled in the family book of the living God, and he thus, in effect, said to each one of them, “I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.” By the registration of each man by name, he felt that he was not lost in the crowd; but was by person and pedigree owned as one of those to whom the Lord had promised the land which flowed with milk and honey. There was good reason for taking the number of the people just as the nation was forming, so that in the wilderness they might be arranged, and marshalled, and disciplined for the conflict which lay before them. Charles Spurgeon

Image of camp from article by Chuck Missler.

Celebration Calendar: Leviticus 23

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Today’s reading: Leviticus 22-23.

Remember, back in Genesis, when God created the sun and moon? He said they were for signs, and for seasons (a word that also means appointed times or feast days). God created them to give light, but also to frame the calendar year. The calendar was essential for the feast or festival days that, in turn, were essential to Jewish life. Leviticus 23 gives a full accounting of the sacred celebrations, but before we look at those, we need a little astronomy lesson.

The moon circles the earth in 29 days. That 29 days defined the Jewish month, and there were twelve lunar months in each Jewish year. To keep the lunar calendar in sync with the 365 day solar year, the Jewish calendar repeated the twelfth month every three years or so. Each month began as the crescent moon appeared after the new moon. The full moon shone at the middle of each month. In celebration of their deliverance from Egypt, Moses declared that the Jewish year began in the month of their departure (around March in our modern calendar).

These festivals appear over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the life of Israel and in the life of Christ. Finally, there is a hint that Christ will fulfill the fall feast days when he returns a second time to rule and reign on earth, as he fulfilled the spring feast days in his first coming. Today we get an introduction to these sacred days so that we can appreciate their significance better when we read about them in later books of the Bible.

  1. Passover. The fourteenth day of the first month (our March-April), beginning at sundown. A reminder of the meal eaten in haste as the Jews fled Egypt. Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was a Passover meal.
  2. Feast of Unleavened Bread. Begins at sundown on the 15th day of the first month, and lasts for seven days. Israel purified themselves spiritually, as symbolized by all their bread being made without yeast.
  3. First Fruits. The sixteenth day of the first month. The first day after the Sabbath that followed Passover. An offering was made from the first of the barley harvest. Jesus, the first fruits of those raised to eternal life, rises from the tomb on this day.
  4. Feast of Weeks. Also called Pentecost and Shavuot. Fifty days after the feast of First Fruits. An offering of the first of the wheat harvest. The birth date of the church, when the Holy Spirit indwelled believers.
  5. Feast of Trumpets. The first day of the seventh month (September). Also called Rosh Hashanah. The blowing of the trumpets announced a ten-day period of preparation for the day of atonement, a time when the Jewish people felt God was examining them, as in a courtroom, to see if they were worthy.  “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (I Thess 4:16).
  6. Day of Atonement. The tenth day of the seventh month. Also called Yom Kippur. The highest holy day of the year. The most solemn of sacred days. The one day each year when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place.
  7. Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. Begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and lasts for seven days. Also called Sukkot. The people stayed outdoors in makeshift shelters that recalled their journey through the wilderness. Zechariah foretold its observance in the millennium to come: “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.”

Hannukah and Purim were added much later: Purim at the time of Esther when God delivered the Jews from destruction, and Hannukah in the time between the Old and New Testament when the Maccabees freed Israel.

What meaning do these feast days have for you? If none, how could you begin to remember them in a way that reminds you of what God has done for his people in the past, and what he will do in years to come?

Image from Solomon’s Temple website.

Bad Sex: Leviticus 18

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Today’s reading: Leviticus 16-18.

Leviticus gives us a list of forbidden sexual practices, but before we run through the list I want to look again at yesterday’s discussion about holiness and uncleanness. Remember that there were two large categories of holy things and common things, and that the common things were broken down into the clean and unclean. Clean things could become holy by sanctification, or unclean by pollution. The laws of Leviticus aimed to keep the holy and unclean apart. Many of the unclean things, including diseases, bodily discharges, mildew, and foods were natural, unavoidable, and involved no guilt.

That is not the case with today’s list of forbidden practices. God calls them wicked, perverted, and abominable. Those who perform these actions are guilty according to God and in later chapters he lays down the death penalty for many of them. The list includes:

  • Incest, though a broader view of incest than we usually think of, including spouses of near relatives
  • Adultery
  • Homosexuality
  • Bestiality

Child sacrifice is also on the list, and though not a sexual practice its inclusion indicates how serious God considers the other transgressions.

The main impact of the ban on incest is prevention of sexual abuse, a problem that is epidemic in our own culture. God tells the people that the land is defiled by the Canaanites who practice these things (this suggests they do it habitually), and that because they do these things he will throw the Canaanites out of the land. God warns the Israelites that the same fate awaits them if they commit these acts. Contrast the condemnation of these willful, voluntary actions with the unclean designation given to involuntary and unavoidable events such as menstruation and disease.

To eat or not to eat: Leviticus 11

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Today’s reading: Leviticus 11-13.

God never says why he gave all of the food laws in Leviticus. So many writers say he banned certain foods, like pork, because he knew what we didn’t know about its health dangers. I hate to presume what God was thinking. I do know there are plenty of dangers from too much beef as well (can you spell “cholesterol” ?).

Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves about on the ground. I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. Leviticus 11:43-45

God drew up the list, for his own reasons, and then said, follow this list and you will be holy as I am holy. I believe the key to the list is obedience. Being a follower of the list, which was one part of being a person of the Book of the Law, set the person apart and made him or her a follower of the Lord. Look what God promised to his followers:

And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all His commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the Earth: and all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.” Deuteronomy 28:1-2

Remember in Genesis we saw that God is a promise-keeping covenant maker. Here he makes a conditional covenant. If … then. If the people keep his commands, including the food laws, then he will greatly bless them. If they disobey, God will curse them. Through practical experience, including failure, the people learn that God keeps his word. The laws, including the food laws, became a teacher showing the people what sinners they were (Romans 3:20, 7:7).

Jesus puts the capstone on our understanding of the food laws. Religious leaders criticized his disciples for not following all the rules, and he replied:

Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ” ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ ” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ” Matthew 15:7-11

The people knew they were unclean. The law taught them that fact. Jesus then took them the final step on the journey and showed them they were unclean, not because of what they ate, but because of their wicked attitudes which led to vile words and other forms of disobedience. God began by calling the people to be set apart and holy; Jesus finishes by showing them that holiness will require a change of heart.

David Guzik gives an excellent summary of New Testament teachings about the food laws of Leviticus:

“Some Christians believe we are under obligation to observe a kosher diet today. Yet this issue was settled once and for all at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15; where it was determined that obedience to Mosaic rituals was not required of the followers of Jesus. Paul pointed out that we have the full liberty to eat whatever we want to:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrine of demons … commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1, 3-5).

Some are under subjugation to food, or to certain foods, and that is sin under the principle of 1 Corinthians 6:12:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

Certainly, many would benefit from the attitude of self-denial and bodily discipline Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Yet, apart from these considerations, Christians are free to eat or not eat whatever they please – and no one should think themselves more right with God because they eat or don’t eat certain things.” David Guzik

Image by mst7022 on Flickr, CC by 2.0.

Dangerous worship: Leviticus 10

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Today’s reading: Leviticus 8-10.

Death in worship. Not something I’ve ever witnessed, and not what any of us would expect on a Sunday morning in church. Yet death took two of Aaron’s sons as they performed their worship duties, and God was responsible.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Leviticus 10:1-2

Aaron, his sons, and all the priests had just finished a week preparing to serve in the tabernacle. It took that long for them to consecrate themselves, remove all traces of sin, and receive God’s anointing. As part of that preparation, they marked themselves with ram’s blood on their ear, thumb, and big toe: on their ear that they might hear God, on their thumb that they might work for him, and on their toe that they might walk with him. Everyone saw the results of their consecration as fire came out from the tabernacle and consumed the burnt offering on the altar.

And then, then, just as suddenly, fire came out from the presence of the LORD and took the lives of two of Aaron’s sons because they brought “strange” fire before God. We don’t know everything about the strange fire, but we do know:

  • It was not what God commanded them to bring.
  • It dishonored God.
  • They failed to distinguish between “the holy and the common, the unclean and the clean.” Alcohol may have played a part in their lack of discernment, for afterwards God warned Aaron against drinking while on duty in the tabernacle.

Beyond these certainties, I will speculate that Aaron’s sons worshipped in a way that put the focus on themselves rather than God. By charging up their censers they were grabbing the spotlight and trying to light up the worship in their own personal way. To me, humanly, it seems almost trivial, but to the LORD it was deadly serious. Because it was the very opening of the tabernacle services, God made an example of it. In the early days of the church he made a similar example of Ananias and Sapphira because of their deceit (Acts 5).

We can learn from the example of Nadab and Abihu. Our worship becomes “dangerous” if we:

  • Seek our own interest or praise instead of glorifying God.
  • Fail to use discernment in our worship practices.
  • Introduce what is unholy or unclean into worship.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe styles of music or sanctuary decoration are inherently unholy. You can’t say something is unholy just because it is new; all the songs, styles, and musical instruments that have been popular in the last 100 years were once new. We need to focus on our motives, our thoughts, our words, and the content of our music. That is where we face the most danger. When we adore a speaker or musician more than the LORD he or she speaks of, then we enter perilous waters. If we fail to magnify God’s word, we harm ourselves. We fail to worship when we concentrate on social interactions more than focusing on God. We endanger ourselves when anger, lust, or apathy fill our minds in the sanctuary. As for me, let my worshipping heart be full of the joy of the LORD.

“If we are going to worship in Spirit, we must develop a spirit of worship.” Michael Catt

“Worship must be – Christ centered, Holy Spirit led, a Response to the Father, about Intimacy and Service and always lead to Transformation!” Tim Hughes

“When I worship, I would rather my heart be without words than my words be without heart.” Lamar Boschman

“Worship songs can’t just be rooted in culture – they won’t be deep enough. They have to be rooted in scripture.” Matt Redman

“If you come to worship for any reason other that the joy and pleasure and satisfaction that are to be found in God, you dishonor Him…God’s greatest delight is your delight in Him.” Sam Storms

For further reading on worship, read Mark Loy’s post.

Image by smenzel on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0