Today we will be looking at the topic of vigilance, and how the vigilance for righteousness that God expects of us is real, challenging, and unwavering.
Our story for today is taken from the narrative of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, related in Numbers 25.
Numbers 25:6-8 – One of the Israelite men brought a Midianite woman to his brothers. He did this right in front of Moses and the whole community of Israel while they were crying at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of the priest Aaron, saw this. So he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand, and went into the tent after the Israelite man.
The type of vigilance required for maintaining righteousness is extreme and rarely practiced. Yeshua spoke of it in hyperbolic terminology, that even if your eye or hand causes you to sin, you should be prepared to gouge it out or chop it off.
In the example of Phinehas, a priest in Aaron’s line at the time of Israel’s wandering in the desert, he demonstrated this commitment to righteousness in an extreme way that he is famously remembered for to this day. The men of Israel had become complacent in their commitment to Yahweh. They began to succumb to the idolatry of the local Midianite population as they were being seduced by the women of Moab.
Numbers 25:1-3 – “While Israel was staying at Shittim, the men began to have sex with Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices offered to their gods. The people ate the meat from the sacrifices and worshiped these gods. Since the Israelites joined in worshiping the god Baal of Peor, Yahweh became angry with Israel.”
Due to this rampant idolatry, God sent a plague among the general population that was killing thousands of people. He revealed to Moses and the leaders what must be done to put things right.
Numbers 25:4-5 – “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people, and execute them in broad daylight in Yahweh’s presence. This will turn Yahweh’s anger away from Israel.’ So Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Each of you must kill the men who have joined in worshiping the god Baal of Peor.'”
This directive seems so contrary to our modern sensibilities; surely there must have been some alternative, some form of rehabilitation that could be enacted to reform those who had fallen into idolatry and sexual promiscuity. But there were no compromises, no discussions, no negotiations; those who had sinned in idolatry had to be removed from the population of Israel. Yahweh had been extremely clear with this directive when the Israelites came out of Egypt:
Exodus 23:24-25 – You must not worship the gods of these nations or serve them in any way or imitate their evil practices. Instead, you must utterly destroy them and smash their sacred pillars. You must serve only Yahweh your God…”
Now, before they had even reached the land promised to them by God, the offenders within Israel had become so brazen in their sinfulness that they had continued to proceed in their practices, even as Moses and the assembly leaders were seeking God’s direction and favor. Upon seeing this, Phinehas instantly jumped into action in obedience to God’s command. He didn’t hesitate or wait for a committee to decide on the right timing; he simply got up, grabbed a spear, and followed the offenders into their tent.
Numbers 25:7-8 – So he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand, and went into the tent after the Israelite man. He drove the spear through the man and into the woman’s body. Because of this, the plague that the Israelites were experiencing stopped.
Phinehas is remembered because he unhesitatingly did a difficult thing that God required, and in so doing, saved the rest of the assembly. In his vigilance for righteousness, he saw the iniquity and took immediate action.
This story is a metaphor for us today. The example is extreme because God wants to make sure we understand how serious it is for us to remain in blatant disobedience to his purposes. In our modern permissiveness, we excuse all types of aberrant behavior as being acceptable based on the fact that the biblical culture was distant and removed from our current relativistic and inclusive morality today. However, while the culture may indeed be distant, the moral underpinnings that anchored the ancient Israelites should be the exact same foundation we build upon today.
I hasten to add that I am not advocating here that we should kill everyone who practices a different, idolatrous religion from us. But it is to say that we should be aware of the corruptive power of tolerating sin among the ranks of believing congregations. We may feel that reform is possible if destructive individuals remain connected to the life of the local believing community, however, when we do so we are simply enabling sinful behavior among our own ranks. This is contrary to the purpose of God and needs to be dealt with in a similar swift and decisive fashion as Phinehas did with the Midianite culture. Perhaps removal from the community is the impetus required to jar an individual back to their spiritual senses, where they can repent and return to the purpose of God within the larger spiritual community of believers. This was blatantly exemplified as one workable solution within the life of the Corinthian congregation who had faithfully followed the apostle Paul’s advice after he had called them out on their toleration of sin within their midst.
1 Corinthians 5:1 – “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the Gentiles – a man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”
After a period of time, Paul writes back to the congregation after they had removed this individual from their fellowship.
2 Corinthians 2:6-8 – “This punishment by the majority is sufficient for that person. As a result, you should instead forgive and comfort him. Otherwise, he may be overwhelmed by excessive grief. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.”
This example should be a bellwether, a leading indicator, for all believing congregations. When we shy away from our duty to not compromise with the surrounding culture, it can affect us in ways that will continue to erode spiritual stability throughout the believing community.
In a moment, we will return to evaluate Yeshua’s understanding of the principle of removing sin from among God’s people, along with further ideas for personal purity conveyed by the apostles and some of the classic commentators of recent generations.
In like fashion to the men of Israel, we can be easily seduced by the surrounding idolatry of our day and age. The culture and technology we are immersed in provide ample opportunities for us to be led away, seduced as by Midianite women, from our commitment to the one true God. It is only when those disobedient thoughts and actions are decisively put to death that we can be restored to wholeness with God. As mentioned previously, Yeshua used the example of gouging out eyes and chopping off hands.
Matthew 5:29-30 – “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Charles Ellicott comments on this hyperbolic or exaggerated language of Yeshua in this way:
“The bold severity of the phrase excludes a literal interpretation. The seat of the evil lies in the will, not in the organ of sense or action, and the removal of the instrument might leave the inward taint unpurified. What is meant is, that any sense [or instrument], when it ministers to sin is an evil and not a good, the loss of which would be the truest gain. Translated into modern language, we are warned that taste, culture, aesthetic refinement may but make our guilt and our punishment more tremendous. It were better to be without them than “for life’s sake to lose life’s noblest ends.”
The apostle Paul wrote about it this way:
Romans 8:12-13 – Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.
Commenting on this putting to death the deeds of the sinful nature, the Jamieson-Faussett-Brown review of this passage focuses on the following:
“The apostle is not satisfied with assuring them that they are under no obligations to the flesh, to hearken to its suggestions, without reminding them where it will end if they do; and he uses the word “mortify” (put to death) as a kind of play upon the word “die” just before. “If ye do not kill sin, it will kill you.” But he tempers this by the bright alternative, that if they do, through the Spirit, mortify the deeds of the body, such a course will infallibly terminate in “life” everlasting.”
Continuing this same theme to the Colossian congregation, Paul wrote:
Colossians 3:5 – “So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world.”
On this, Matthew Henry writes:
“It is our duty to mortify our members which incline to the things of the world. Mortify them, kill them, suppress them, as weeds or vermin which spread and destroy all about them. Continual opposition must be made to all corrupt workings, and no provision made for carnal indulgences. Occasions of sin must be avoided: the lusts of the flesh, and the love of the world; and covetousness, which is idolatry; love of present good, and of outward enjoyments. It is necessary to mortify sins, because if we do not kill them, they will kill us. The gospel changes the higher as well as the lower powers of the soul, and supports the rule of right reason and conscience, over appetite and passion. There is now no difference from country, or conditions and circumstances of life. It is the duty of every one to be holy, because Christ is a Christian’s All, his only Lord and Saviour, and all his hope and happiness.”
I find it interesting that Matthew Henry says, “there is now no difference from country, or conditions and circumstances of life.” In one sense this is true, at least in regard to the universality of the biblical spiritual scope. However, there are many different countries and cultures affecting the conditions and circumstances of life. Believers in many walks of life throughout the world face many differing challenges that can affect their spiritual life and practice. How are we to overcome these varieties of challenges to the purity of the kingdom message?
The good news is that the same Spirit which empowered Yeshua and the early disciples still lives within the regenerated lives of believers today. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, “if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.” It is the power of the Spirit of God that provides the ability to overcome sinful practices of whatever culture among which we find ourselves.
Yeshua instructed his disciples that they would have power from God to be witnesses throughout the known world at that time:
Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers to be strengthened in the Spirit of God:
Ephesians 3:14, 16-17 – “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Messiah may dwell in your hearts through faith…”
He also encouraged Timothy to rely on the indwelling Spirit for power, self-control, and guarding of godly gifts.
2 Timothy 1:7, 13-14 – “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. … Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Messiah Yeshua. By the holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”
This is the great plan of God in dispersing believers throughout the world and causing them to live lives of righteousness where they are, to be the light and salt to those who need it most.
Philippians 2:15 – …”that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world…”
The same vigilance and determination of Phinehas for the righteousness of his people needs to be evidenced in us today for our own standing in God’s presence. The only way we can be truly set apart for God’s purposes is by brutally putting to death, gouging out, chopping off, and stabbing a spear through the heart of those things in our lives that offend God.
This is the determination needed to remain on God’s path. This is the vigilance it takes to be a child of God. Collectively, we need to mimic the no-compromise mentality of a Phinehas, not waiting, but taking immediate and decisive action on the habits and practices in our lives that are offensive to a holy God.
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