Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – Death is the Price for Idol Worship (Numbers 25)

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So, Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. And the LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel. And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

Numbers 25:1-5

It might seem harsh, but the price for worshipping other gods is death. Idolaters are listed among the group of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; cf. Revelation 22:15). Our hearts are idol producing factories. So, what idols might we have in our hearts? Recalling the explanation to the 1st Commandment, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things,” what might we trust more than God? The list is virtually endless, but some common idols include politics, sports, sex, money, our jobs, the ego (what I think is better/more right than what God thinks), and other things.

These become our gods—and thus violate the 1st Commandment—when we run to them for refuge and comfort instead of God. If they cause us to break the 2nd Commandment—to profane, that is misuse—God’s name, this is a good indicator of what our idol might be, such as prosperity gospel heretics who say wealth is a sign you have God’s favour. If anything causes you to break the 3rd Commandment—to profane the Sabbath—by despising preaching and the hearing of God’s Word, this is also a good indicator of what our idols might be (e.g., going to Jimmy’s soccer game on Sunday is more important than hearing God’s Word on Sunday, or Timmy’s baseball practice is more important than Confirmation class on Wednesday nights). If you are going to teach your children that certain things are more important than Jesus, do not be surprised when they stop coming to church.

It is perhaps difficult to see, but there is Gospel in this text, though admittedly not in the form we might expect. While the people of Israel were weeping—likely in repentance—a certain man fornicated with a Midianite woman “in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel,” essentially flaunting his licentiousness while they were genuinely repenting (v. 6). So, a man named Phinehas pierced them both with a spear (likely while they were in coitus!). Then the plague God had sent upon Israel stopped (vv. 7-8). While this itself is Law, the Gospel comes, of course, in God’s Word:

“Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.'”

vv. 11-13

Here, Phinehas stands as a type of Christ. For just as Phinehas struck the wicked man and the people of Israel were saved by this single act, so we are saved by the single act of Christ striking the devil on the head. Christ, the unblemished Lamb of God on the cross, turned back God’s wrath away from those who believe in Him (John 3:14-15). And it is through Him that we receive a new covenant—the covenant of His blood—according to the perpetuity of His Priesthood. “For this is My blood of the covenant,” He said concerning the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28). And “it is witnessed of Him, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’ …This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant” (Hebrews 7:17, 22).

Jesus therefore saves us from our idol worship. When we approach Him at the Sacrament of the Altar, He gives us the atonement He won for us on the cross. When we depart from the Table, therefore, we depart with His peace, just as the pastor says in the dismissal, and leave our sins and idols at the altar. We do not pick them back up again, even though they may be our favourite pets, but rather “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

*Featured image: a print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible Illustrations in the possession of Rev. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. Wikimedia Commons.*

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