Friday, 28 February 2014

(60) March 1: Numbers 23-25 & Mark 8:1-21

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

Read Numbers 23-25 & Mark 8:1-21

To discover:­­
As you read note how God’s continued grace to Israel is seen.

To ponder:
(C23-24) God cannot be bought. Balaam seeks to curse Israel by “divination” (22v7) or “sorcery,” (24v1) gaining insight from whatever gods through ritual. The idea is to offer sacrifices on high places to gain the god’s favour so they reveal whatever is sought, and are perhaps bribed to act in a certain way (22v40, 23v1-4, 14-16, 28-30). We shouldn’t read God’s response as a justification for the practice. He responds only to state again and again that he is committed to his covenant with the patriarchs.
The first oracle stresses God will not curse Israel, and that they are the promised great nation, set-apart from all others. The second, that God will not change his mind as to his promise to bless them, and that because he is with them, no sorcery or people can come against them. Realising God cannot be persuaded to curse, Balaam then stops resorting to sorcery. Instead, the Spirit comes on him and, like the prophets, he subsequently receives the words of God through visions. In the third oracle he then declares how Israel will be blessed in the land, become great, and conquer hostile nations. God’s promise to Abraham is then reiterated (24v9, Gen 12v3), and in the remaining four oracles Balaam predicts the destruction of Moab and the nearby nations at the hands of a glorious king (“star” and “sceptre”) from Israel.
            Once again we are encouraged that God’s cannot be turned from his commitments to those in Christ. Even demons submitted to him. So the most powerful rulers and authorities cannot hinder his purposes. And whereas Balaam prophecy may have spoken initially of King David, it ultimately looks to Christ destroying all evil so that his people can dwell forever in the wonder of his coming kingdom.
            (C25) Whereas God affirms his commitment to his covenant, Israel fail at theirs, having sex with Moabite women who lead them to worship their gods. It’s a reminder why Christians are urged to marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7v39). Not doing so, too easily softens or even shipwrecks faith.  
            Once more God’s holy anger is provoked, and here breaks out in plague. Such idolatry carries the death penalty in Israel. So the leaders are called to kill the guilty and expose them before God as a way of showing this is his justice, and turning his anger away. It is for this reason that Phinehas’ act is one of commendable zeal for God’s honour, halting the plague. As a priest, it’s as if he is making a sacrifice to make “atonement” (granting at-one-ment with God). God rewards Phinehas by covenanting that the line of priests would continue from his family. He then instructs Moses that the Midianites are to forever be enemies Israel should kill.
            We can be tempted to consider everything different for Christians. However, Ananias and Sapphira bear testimony that God’s anger can break out at sin within the church (Acts 5v1-11). Indeed, it did so even at those being disrespectful at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11v29-33). Moreover, looking to the final judgement, Hebrews 10v26-31 notes the death penalty in Israel, before saying “how much more severely” the Christian that “deliberately keeps on sinning…deserves to be punished” for “trampling the Son of God underfoot,” for “treating as unholy the blood of the covenant” and “insulting the Spirit of grace.” So Paul rightly uses this event to warn us off sexual immorality (1 Cor 10v8).

Praying it home:
Thank God that he will never go back on his promises to us. Pray that he would keep us from deliberate and persistent sin that displays false faith and makes us liable to his anger.

Thinking further:
By this point in our readings you may be feeling rather shell-shocked at what we are learning of God. Sadly Christians can go for years with a somewhat distorted and even sentimentalized view of the Lord because they have not been taught what Paul called “the whole counsel of God.” As we face these instances of his holy anger we must first recall all we know of him in Christ. Christ displayed that same anger in driving out the money lenders with a whip. Moreover, he readily spoke of how he would execute terrible final judgement (Matt 25v41-46). However he also showed the compassion, love, grace and patience that patterns that of the LORD tolerating so much in the likes of the patriarchs, and indeed, in the history of Israel.
There is therefore no ground for suggesting a difference between God as portrayed in our two testaments. Rather, the difference we notice is to do with his people and purposes. Within the Old Testament he is actually present amongst a people that have not benefited from the cleansing power of the cross, not moved to obedience by the fuller work of his Spirit, and amongst whom there are evidently many who don’t truly believe. This explains why his anger is more readily provoked. Moreover, in order to fulfil his promises through that people, he chooses to display his power and justice to the surrounding nations, by establishing Israel in Canaan. This explains the wars by which he brings judgement on those nations.
Yet the events are instructive. They show only too clearly that sin is much more serious than we assume. And it is no surprise that we struggle with this, as we live in a particularly permissive culture. We also see that God is far more holy than we realise. His extreme goodness and purity cannot tolerate evil. He cannot just overlook it. That would make him unjust, and so evil himself. No, we’ve already seen that absolutely every evil act must be punished, whether in the sinner themselves or in a substitute. And this is why we see God acting as he does. It all brings home how much we need Christ, how awful the penalty he endured actually was, and how loving God must therefore be to go to such ends to save us from himself. In other words, it is only as we understand how terrible God’s anger actually is by reading these sort of Old Testament passages, that we can grasp how immense his love must therefore be, displayed most clearly in the New. For “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5v8)

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