Israel is on the way to the promised land with the second generation. The first generation has all passed away for their sins except for Moses. But Moses has been told that he will also not enter the land because he did not uphold the holiness of God (20:12). Israel has been moving through the lands of Moab which are situated on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Balak, the king of Moab, has attempted thwart the power of Israel by hiring Balaam to pronounce curses against Israel. However, God will not allow cursing to come from the lips of Balaam because God has determined that Israel will be blessed and will be successful in their upcoming campaign to take the promised land. We are now very close to the promised land. We do not realize it yet, but this is the final encampment location before the people will cross into the promised land. These chapters possess the final narrative and instructions from the Lord before Moses gives his final speech as recorded in Deuteronomy. So let us look at what happens in these final days before entering the promised land.
The Stench of Sin (25:1-9)
The people begin to indulge in sexual immorality with the women of Moab and began to offer sacrifices to Moab’s gods. One of the common elements of idolatry was sexual immorality. Verse 3 tells us that this is Baal worship, and this is the first time we read about Baal worship in the scriptures. Israel yokes itself to the Baal, angering the Lord. Yet again we are seeing that there is nothing righteous or morally higher about this second generation of Israelites over the first generation that died in the wilderness for their sins. So God gives the command in verse 4 to hang all of the chiefs of the people in the sun before the Lord. Moses tells the judges of Israel to kill those who have yoked themselves to Baal. You may consider that there is some strong similarity here to the first generation and their worship of the golden calf when they ate, drank, and rose up to play. So the anger of the Lord is aroused and the command is given to kill those who are involved in this immorality.
But notice what happens in verse 6. An Israelite man brings in a Midianite woman right in front of the sight of Moses and the whole community while they are weeping at the entrance of the tent. Everyone is mourning the decree of death for their sins and here comes this guy walking in with this woman to participate in this sexual immorality. It is brazen rebellion that we are witnesses as this man has no regard for what God and Moses have said nor for the weeping of the people of Israel over these sins. The brazenness becomes even clearer in verses 7-8. Phinehas, the son of the high priest Eleazer, takes his spear and goes into this man’s tent and thrust the spear through the man and into the woman’s stomach. These two are engaging in sexual immorality as Phinehas drives the spear through both of them in one stab. With this, the plague stops after killing 24,000.
Consider what a powerful picture God is sending in this event and throughout the book of Numbers. Sin must be put to death. Sin is not acceptable. Sin is not something that we are to allow or tolerate in our lives. God wants sin to be put to death. These are the kinds of pictures that need to come to mind when we speak about the battle against sin.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:12–13 ESV)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3:5–6 ESV)
These scriptures are giving us a picture of the spiritual battle that we must war with sin, war with temptation, war with the flesh, and war against Satan. God is not indifferent toward sin and he expects his people to not be indifferent either. How shocking and sad that this man rebels before all the people of Israel, consumed by his own passions and desires! Rebellious sin cannot be ignored, which is shown to us in 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18. We are called to be holy.
The Praise From God (25:10-11)
Look at the praise God gives Phinehas for what he did. God says that Phinehas was jealous with my jealousy. He did what he was supposed to do in his priestly role: represent God to the people. He represented the jealousy of God and acted with great zeal for the Lord. Phinehas showed the holiness of the Lord to all the congregation. We have seen this idea depicted throughout the book of Numbers. The priests and the Levites were to defend the holiness of God. This failure is what made Moses and Aaron’s sin so terrible. They failed to uphold the holiness of God. Listen to what God says about what Phinehas did in the account of the Psalms.
Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the LORD to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever. (Psalm 106:28–31 ESV)
Did you hear how this act of holiness and zealousness for God was perceived by the Lord? “It was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.” This is a term that the apostle Paul uses in the book of Romans many times in references to faith being the means by which Abraham was credited as righteous.
So what does this mean? It means the pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of faith. True faith seeks holiness in all of life. Since faith is how we are counted as righteous before the Lord (Romans 4:3-11; 4:22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) and it was counted to Phinehas as righteousness by acting for God’s holiness, then we must conclude that the pursuit of holiness is the path of faith. Or to say it the other way, walking by faith means pursuing holiness in all areas of life. Faith defends the holiness of God. In fact, please consider that this is exactly what God told Moses and Aaron regarding their failure. Look at it again in Numbers 20:12.
Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel….
Do we see that faith and holiness are directly tied together and they cannot be separated? To live by faith means to live for God’s holiness and pursue holiness in all areas of life.
The Reward From God (25:12-18)
Notice the great blessing given to Phinehas in verse 12. God gives to Phinehas and his descendants a covenant of peace and a covenant of a perpetual priesthood because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel. Putting an end to the sin was the way he made atonement for the people in this scene. Consider that God is picturing that there will always be a priesthood available for Israel. God will have an enduring priesthood for the people of Israel. Five times the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus continues as “priest forever.” Because we have a faithful high priest in Jesus who was appointed as priest forever, we are able to enjoy this covenant of peace. The priesthood of Jesus is what brings us to peace with God. Jesus lives forever to intercede for us as a continual high priest on our behalf. Oh how great Jesus is who defended God’s honor and revealed God’s glory to all the world! We have a great high priest.
So what is the message? Jesus came and put sin to death. Therefore we must put sin to death in our own lives (Romans 6:10-13). We must take up the fight against sin and now allow sin to remain in the camp of our hearts. Putting sin to death is the life of faith (Psalm 106). Walking by faith is not a contrast to killing sin. Killing sin is what walking by faith looks like. The pursuit of holiness in all areas of life is what it looks like to walk by faith. Sin pops up and we go to war against it. We may not always be successful, but we battle against it. We do not cave in or capitulate to our desires. We attack it daily.
Consider that our hope for rescue is lost when in the face of God’s law we walk right past a nation mourning over its sins so that we can continue to commit our sins. When we no longer mourn for our sins and are not longer broken by our rebellion but brazenly live our lives without regard for what God has said, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a fearful expectation of judgment (Hebrews 10:26-27). Put sin to death and enjoy the covenant of peace as one of God’s chosen people.