1 Kings 18:46-19:21
by Mark Huey
This week as we turn to the study of the Torah in Pinchas, we find that the beginning verses are actually an extension of what was mentioned at the end of Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) last week. The attempts of Balak to utilize the prophet for hire Balaam to curse the Israelites have failed. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam actually blessed Israel, much to the displeasure of his benefactor Balak. We do find later on, that although Balaam was never allowed to verbally curse Israel, he did advise Balak about how to make it possible for the Israelites to actually curse themselves:
“Behold, these caused the sons of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam [b’davar Bil’am], to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so the plague was among the congregation of the LORD” (Numbers 31:16).
Apparently, while Balaam was not permitted to curse the Israelites, he did have the understanding that people can actually curse themselves by their own freewill choices. While still encamped upon the plains of Moab near Abel Shittim, Balaam advised Balak to have the women of Moab and Midian enter into the camp of Israel and sexually entice the men, that they might worship Baal of Peor:
“While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3).
It is difficult to imagine that some of the men behaved in this abominable fashion as they encamped in the presence of God’s Tabernacle, with the pillar of fire at night and the cloud during the day. Considering the impressive and orderly encampment of Israel’s twelve tribes—that Balak and Balaam surveyed from the surrounding mountain tops—makes it even more perplexing. But obviously, being in the shadow of the cloud, illuminated by the pillar of fire, or seeing the orderliness of Israel—did not necessarily deter or cover up what was in the hearts of some men in the camp. We read that some men, despite these tangible realities, chose to enter into promiscuity with the Moabite women and worship Baal. This resulted in fatal consequences (Numbers 25:4-9).
Are there any lessons we can learn from these tragic circumstances? How was it possible for these Israelites to choose sinful actions while in such proximity to the presence of God? How does the power of fleshly inclinations, or biology, overcome the fear of the Lord and the consequences of sin? How can this be applied to men and women who claim to be children of God today?
As I pondered these, and many other questions, my mind seemed to settle on a rather controversial issue that has baffled Protestant theologians since the Reformation. This issue is the concept of “eternal security,” and many of the misconceptions that have been taught by well-meaning teachers of God’s Word.
First, allow me to say that when I was initially saved I was subject to the teaching of a Bible church that was highly influenced by Calvinistic theology. Terms such as election, predestination, and the sovereignty of God were concepts that I heard quite frequently. As far as soteriology or the study of salvation was concerned, I heard lectures and sermons on the great divide between the teachings of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Apparently, while their doctrines were agreed on many points, the issue of eternal security was not among them. Without going into any great detail, let me just say that from some of Calvin’s teachings, is derived the modern concept of “once saved, always saved” taught in many churches. On the other hand, one primary distinction, where Arminian theology differs, is the concept that one can lose his or her salvation. Needless to say, I was for years a convinced Calvinist who believed that it was impossible to lose your salvation, if you were truly saved.
I then fell in love and eventually married my wife Margaret, who was raised a Methodist and whose theology was Wesleyan. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was an Arminian. During our premarital spiritual and theological discussions, we decided that we would not rehash the debates about our two different viewpoints. Early on, I learned that I would not convince her of Calvinism, as she was not going to convince me of Arminianism. We concluded that it was best to just leave these subjects alone, recognizing that the debate would probably never be settled in our lifetimes.
After we married, our spiritual journey was definitely influenced by our agreement to avoid this debate. We decided not to attend a Bible church or a Methodist church. Instead, the Lord led us on a sojourn with a relatively brief period in the charismatic movement. In 1994 we went on a tour to Israel that led us to attend a Messianic Jewish congregation in Dallas, Texas in just over one year. Since 1995, we have been pursuing a Messianic lifestyle, and along the way, the consistent study of the Torah has definitely fine tuned our understanding of the Holy One and His revealed Word.
In our family’s pursuit of the Lord, He has used the study of the Torah in remarkable ways to deepen our understanding of His Word. In many ways, it has taken us beyond the teachings of Calvin or Wesley, into a fuller understanding of how Yeshua and the Apostles actually lived. Consider this familiar passage from the Gospel of John, which in my pre-Messianic walk would have been used as a “proof text” for the concept of “once saved, always saved”:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
In this description of how Yeshua’s sheep or followers receive eternal life from Him, the reality that they will never perish is stated. His words are that “no one will snatch them out of My hand.” For years, I found great comfort in these statements. In fact, I would often use these verses when getting into discussions with Margaret about the Calvinistic doctrine of eternal security.
However, as I have read and reread our Torah portion this week, and reconsidered some of the previous words from Balak that are linked to the opening verses of Pinchas, another perspective came to light. Let us consider the fact that as Ancient Israel stood on the plains of Moab, the people had the protection of God or His “security.” No doubt, Balaam understood this as he was told the following directly by God:
“God said to Balaam, ‘Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed’” (Numbers 22:12).
Balaam had to remind Balak that the people of Israel could not be cursed or denounced, because they were blessed by God:
“How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?” (Numbers 23:8; cf. 23:20).
The Scripture tells us that those whom God has blessed, no one can curse, as God protects His children from the curses of their enemies. If you move ahead to the statements of Yeshua regarding His sheep, what He says could be taken as a reiteration of this: “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). This is a comforting fact to consider, similar to how God will not let anyone curse those who have been blessed, just like He did not let Balaam curse Israel.
However, there is something I want you to consider as you ponder these verses and think about what transpired on the plains of Moab millennia ago. The blessed Israelites were not able to be cursed by the prophet for hire Balaam. Balaam clearly understood that those whom God had blessed cannot be cursed by mortal beings. However, Balaam also knew that every person has the capacity to bring curses upon themselves by making freewill choices. Consequently, Balaam advised Balak to have the young women of Moab enter in the encampment of Israel, in order to entice the men of Israel into sexual sins that would lead to the worship of Baal of Peor.
It is not a matter of someone else cursing the Israelites, but people making volitional choices to follow their fleshly desires into abominable sin, by which the men of Israel cursed themselves. By so doing, the curses of God that are articulated throughout the Torah for sexual immorality and idol worship now come into force. In this specific case, many Israelites died from the plague that ensued. Just how many of these were idol worshippers or sexually promiscuous is not stated, but the consequences were devastating for the whole community. The only way the plague stops is by Phinehas performing his zealous act in front of Moses and all the congregation:
“Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. Those who died by the plague were 24,000” (Numbers 25:6-9).
As I contemplated this reality in light of the concept of “eternal security,” I came to the conclusion that our protection from the Lord comes as a result of our fidelity and loyalty to Him. Just because Ancient Israel was a blessed people, did not overcome the possibility that some will willfully choose wickedness and subsequently relinquish the blessings. In this vivid example played out on the plains of Moab, we witness the inability of Balaam to verbally curse Israel. However, in an ironic twist, we witness the men of Israel, by their freewill choices, engage in sexual immorality and idol worship. The consequence of their poor choices is recorded for posterity, so that we will not make their mistakes (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:8).
Considering these passages was very sobering, when I see that even modern-day Believers in the Messiah still have the ability to make freewill choices. God has not made us into robots or automatons, but instead has continued to let each one of us make choices on a multitude of levels. I believe God truly wants to know if we really love Him with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength. Do we really appreciate what He has done for us by the sacrifice of His Son Yeshua? Does the fact that we have been brought into His family with commensurate blessings prompt in us a desire to please Him through our obedience?
Of course, for the truly born again Believer, who has the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, submitting to the promptings and leading of the Spirit should not be that difficult. But be reminded that according to the Apostle Paul, even Believers have the ability to quench or grieve the Holy Spirit:
“Do not quench the Spirit…Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (1 Thessalonians 5:19; Ephesians 4:30).
Our human will, even in those filled with the Holy Spirit, can cause us to choose to do bad things rather than good things—incurring negative consequences for what is done. Perhaps you can remember a time when you did not follow the promptings of the Spirit, and instead chose to exert your will. I believe that if we are truly honest with ourselves, we can admit to times when we did things as Believers we should not have done. Consider all the times when you have been attacked by someone for your beliefs or actions resulting from your beliefs. After all, according to Yeshua, there are people who will curse those who are His followers:
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
When this happened to you, how did you respond? Did you respond in anger, or did you ask God to bless your enemies in your prayers? Were you able to forgive them for their actions? Did you at least leave the people alone for the Lord to deal with?
If you think about it, responding according to the commands of Yeshua requires a volitional choice. We have to relinquish our wills, which have a tendency to strike back and enact a degree of harsh vindication—and instead submit to the will of the Spirit by praying for those who curse us and forgiving them for their actions. Let us never forget that according to Yeshua, forgiveness is one of the highest priorities we have in our roles as His followers. It is absolutely clear from the Lord’s Prayer that one must forgive in order to receive forgiveness:
“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Yeshua also teaches us that when someone does not forgive another person, that he or she will be tormented. In fact, people who cannot forgive will be turned over to the tormentors:
“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers [tormentors, KJV] until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35).
I have also come to the conclusion that while no one can remove us from the Father’s hand, by our own volitional choices we can remove ourselves from His blessings. Do these blessings include eternal life in His presence? The author of Hebrews puts it this way, regarding those who choose to sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth:
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES [Isaiah 26:11]. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.’ And again, ‘THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE’ [Deuteronomy 32:35, 36]. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26-31).
Is it possible that someone can come to the saving knowledge of the sacrificial work of the Messiah, and then set it aside as meaningless and worthless? This is a huge theological debate, on which there will be no consensus opinion until He returns. But we should never be in the position where we ever forget the Lord’s atoning work for us, or His continual work for us in Heaven. If we decide that we want nothing to do with Yeshua (Jesus) and His work, the result is that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Hebrews 6:6).
Many of the Ancient Israelites saw the glory of God surround the Tabernacle, and still they sinned. Sometimes God’s awesomeness is not enough when we do not consider the consequences of rejecting Him. I urge each and every one of you to seriously consider the words that Paul writes the Philippians. He instructs them to consider the exalted state of Yeshua, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. This is a scene even more awesome and significant than what the Israelites saw in the wilderness:
“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Yeshua EVERY KNEE WILL BOW [Isaiah 45:23], of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Yeshua the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:9-13).
Just like the Ancient Israelites who were blessed on the plains of Moab—who were still given the opportunity to choose—so also are Believers in Yeshua today given a choice. We can choose to follow the Lord, submit our wills to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, or we can choose to do our own will. Whether this results in choosing to follow the temptations of the flesh, idol worship, choosing not to forgive someone, or even choosing to trample on the blood of the Messiah—the fact remains that we are each given choices. What are you going to choose?
We must each follow the advice given to us by the Prophet Micah, as he summarized what our Creator expects from each human being:
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:5-8).
Certainly, we all have choices. I pray that we all choose wisely.