Numbers 25:1-18 “Sinners Who Desperately Need a Savior” December 8, 2013
Maple Glen BFC Pastor Louis Prontnicki
Introduction: Anyone here lead a perfectly sinless life this past week? (Show of hands, please!)
Let’s look at that question from another perspective: If you haven’t been free of sin this week, what do you think your transgressions against our Holy God deserve? Just for a minute, let’s imagine that the God who is perfectly just and righteous gave you what you deserved for your disobedience and unbelief. What would that punishment look like?
Do you think it would deserve… a plague breaking out among us? Would your actions deserve a spear thrust right through you?
In Numbers 25, God wants us to think deeply and feel intensely about some crucial matters: the depth of our sins, the awful punishment we deserve, and the gracious salvation which God provides in His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. God wants us to soberly reflect on who we are, what we have done, what we deserve, and what Jesus Christ did for us.
Here’s what we learn from Numbers 25:
1. We are Idol Makers, Immoral Partakers, and Covenant Breakers. (vv. 1-3a, 6)
Think about the men of Israel. They have experienced for a few decades the hand of the Lord upon them: miracle after miracle in the wilderness; the Lord’s presence visible among them; the daily provision of manna from heaven; and in the last few months, some glorious military victories over the pagan kings who threatened to destroy them. And here they are, on the cusp of entering into the Promised Land!
But some Moabite women walk into their camp, and immediately get the men’s attention.
They entice the men to come back with them into their villages, with the promise of a great meal and the seductive suggestion of satisfying more than just their physical appetites. Soon, the men of Israel, with their bellies full and their judgment clouded with too much good wine, are participating in a sacrificial meal offered to Baal, the pagan god of the Moabites. We see them bowing down before the idols, raising their voices in praise of a man-made god. And as the evening goes on, they are willingly led back to the beds of the Moabite women, taking their fill of illicit sexual pleasure.
We read in vv. 1-3a “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor….”
This passage demonstrates that all of us are idol makers, immoral partakers, and covenant breakers. For despite all the provisions the Lord had supplied the men of Israel with; despite the godly wives God had given them, and despite the gracious covenant the Lord had made with them, they showed that deep in their hearts, they were idol makers, partakers of sexually immorality, and covenant breakers…just as you and I are, outside of God’s grace in Christ.
Idol makers: we continually put other people, possessions, and plans in place of God.
Immoral partakers: we are consumed with lust and with sexual urges that dishonor God and
destroy our bodies, our spirits, and our relationships
Covenant breakers: We break our baptismal vows, our church membership vows, our marriage vows, and most importantly, we break our covenant relationship with the Lord who has pledged Himself to us and given us His own son to establish that covenant, in His blood.
And if that were not bad enough, we sometimes are bold, brazen and blatant in our idol making, our immoral partaking, and our covenant breaking. Look at v. 6:
“Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.”
Can you believe that? In the midst of God’s judgment that all the leaders of this transgression must die, and right in front of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel (vv. 4-6), a prominent Israelite man named Zimri takes a Midianite woman named Cozbi right into his tent to have sexual intercourse with her! Talk about being bold, brazen and blatant in your sinning! What was he thinking?
But we have all been like Zimri at times, haven’t we? We have sinned deliberately, even in the face of the clear teaching of God’s Word. You and I have sinned deliberately, despite knowing how the Lord has richly provided for our every need. We have sinned deliberately, knowing full well what we are doing; yes, we have still gone ahead and done what we wanted to do, as if God didn’t count at all. You and I are Zimri.
Brothers and sisters, we will never fully know and feel how much we desperately need a Savior until we grasp the truth that all of us are idol makers, immoral partakers, and covenant breakers. And therefore we must understand the grim truth that….
2. We Deserve the Death Penalty. (vv. 3b-5, 9, 14-18)
vv. 3b-5 “And the LORD’S anger burned against them. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the LORD’S fierce anger may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to Israel’s judges, “Each of you must put to death those of your men who have joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor.”
v. 9 “but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.”
The men of Israel had ignored God’s commands; they had sinned against the Lord’s holiness; they had dishonored His name; they had gone after other gods; and therefore they incurred His holy and righteous wrath. His anger burned hot against them, and those responsible for such idolatry, immorality, and covenant-breaking deserved the death penalty. Apparently, Israel’s punishment included both the execution of the sinful leaders AND the breaking out of a plague, a fast-spreading disease, which soon killed 24,000 people.
So we might ask: Was this fair of God, to punish the people like this? Is God showing too much of His wrath and not enough of His love? We often struggle when we read of passages like this, when God pours out his anger on people, because we want God to be more loving and tolerant.
But consider two examples of how you would feel and what you would do in these situations:
Imagine that you are the general of an army during wartime, and you discover that one of your beloved colonels is a traitor. He has been supplying military secrets to the enemy, and because of his actions, many of your men have died in battle. How would you feel? What would you do? Would it be unjust of you to sentence such a traitor to death?
Or put yourself in the shoes of a devoted and faithful wife, who has supported her husband and raised their children for many years, only to find that your husband has been cheating on you all that time with multiple women, and has squandered all your savings for retirement on his secret gambling addiction. How would you feel? What would you do? Would it be wrong for you to be angry and to be jealous for your husband’s undivided love and commitment? Of course not.
You see, how that general would respond and how that wife would feel gives us some indication of how our God responds to our idol making, our immoral partaking, and our covenant breaking. Because God is holy and righteous, and jealous for our whole-hearted love, He must be angry with our treason and with our spiritual adultery. You would not want a God who was anything less.
Romans 1:18 “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…”
Romans 6:23a “For the wages of sin is death…”
We all deserve the death penalty… the eternal death penalty… to be forever separated from the only One who gives life, life, hope, comfort, and joy.
And so, since we are idol makers, immoral partakers, and covenant breakers, and since we deserve the eternal death penalty, therefore….
3. We Desperately Need a Zealous Savior Who Atones for Us. (vv. 7-13)
7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body (literally, her stomach). Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.
10 The LORD said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
Picture this incident: The plague is killing thousands by the hours; the dead bodies of the sinful leaders are hung up on poles as a sign to the people; and the whole assembly of Israel is weeping and mourning, and in the midst of all this, Zimri takes the pagan woman Cozbi into his tent to have sexual intercourse with her… and everyone is shocked, but no one does anything about it… except for Phinehas, who grabs his spear, follows this brazen couple right into the tent, and drives the point of his spear into the bodies of this couple, even as they are in the very act of sexual intercourse.
And the Lord tells Moses that Phinehas has not only acted with a righteous zeal; he has also made atonement for Israel, so that the Lord’s wrath has been turned away, and the plague has stopped. He stood in the gap, and made atonement for the people.
Are we shocked that a priest of Israel should behave this way, killing two people with his spear, and furthermore, that God would regard this action as righteous? We shouldn’t be, for the priests had the responsibility to safeguard the Holiness of the Lord among the people; and so Phinehas personifies the zeal of the Lord. Phinehas symbolized God’s character and God’s actions to the people, actions that would become personified in the work of Christ.
“At this tragic moment in their history, Aaron’s grandson became Israel’s role model, obedient to God’s Word, zealous for God’s honor, and committed to God’s service.” (Raymond Brown)
Yet, while it was Phinehas’ spear that pierced the sinners that made atonement for Israel, it was the nails and the spear that pierced Jesus’s body that made atonement for the sins of the world.
The Lord accepted Phineas’ actions as representing all the people. It is Phineas’ zealous act, more than the deaths of Zimri and Cozbi per se, which God accepts as a sufficient atonement.
Therefore we see in Phineas a picture of Jesus Christ, but in a much greater way. For in His zeal for righteousness, Jesus did not kill sinners, but came to save them. He expressed His zeal for the Lord is His cleansing of the temple (John 2:17), but even more in His victory through obedience to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). His great act of zeal provides the final atonement for sinners.
v. 12 God makes a covenant of peace with Phinehas, which may seem surprising, given his violent action with his spear. But we are reminded that true peace, deep and lasting “Shalom” and wholeness, will only come about through the eradication of evil. In this sense, Phineas plays a role similar to what was prophesied about the Star who would come out of Jacob, a Messiah who would crush Israel’s enemies and ultimately usher in the Kingdom of God!
Summary: We are sinners, who deserving an eternal death penalty, desperately need a savior who is zealous for God’s honor, and who makes full atonement for our sins… and Jesus Christ is that Savior!