July 14, 2019
Jason Meyer | Numbers 25:1-15
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.”
And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
And the Lord said to Moses, “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 to 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.’”
The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father's house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father's house in Midian.—Numbers 25:1–15
Right now, I am visualizing being a visitor at Bethlehem. This is not a normal Sunday service and it is not a normal Sunday sermon. Members and regular attenders received an email this week giving you advance warning that we are dealing with a very sensitive topic this morning : Abuse. If you are a visitor, I want to give you the same advance warning—especially if you have young children here or if you have experienced abuse in your life and you feel caught off-guard and unprepared to hear a sermon on this topic. I want to put you in the best position possible to discern whether now is the right time for you or your children to hear a sermon on this topic. I will do the best I can do to be judicious in the way that I talk about this issue, but you should not feel bad at all if you opt out at this point. You know yourself best or your child best, so we trust that you can make the best decision possible.
I’m going to preach for about 25 minutes so that I can leave time at the end of the sermon for the campus pastor to speak a pastoral word to your campus. I am going to (1) read a statement from the elders, (2) share a few brief opening thoughts to orient us pastorally, and then (3) walk through Numbers 25 with a view toward applying it to the life of this congregation today for such a time as this.
The elders of Bethlehem want to inform the congregation that last year, an incident occurred in which a juvenile engaged in sexual misconduct against a child in our Early Childhood Ministry at a Bethlehem campus. When a Bethlehem leader learned of the situation through a letter sent by the victim’s parents, he immediately called law enforcement, which began an investigation. Bethlehem cooperated in this investigation, which is now concluded, though certain legal proceedings may continue. Law enforcement’s investigation identified only one isolated incident, but even one incident is too many. We take this matter very seriously and are heartbroken and grieve for the families that have been affected by this incident. We are grateful for the courage of anyone, especially a young child, who speaks out about abuse.
If you have any information about child abuse or suspected child abuse, we encourage you to contact local authorities immediately. We share this statement and information to inform the congregation as we move forward to identify any ways to improve our child protection policies & procedures and to provide additional training for Bethlehem’s leaders, staff, and volunteers. As we attempt to protect the identities of the young people and families involved, we have concluded that it is appropriate to share only limited information. We have engaged GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to help us to continue to fulfill our priority of protecting the next generation and to help us find any ways that could better safeguard the children of Bethlehem. GRACE will provide training for our leadership on Saturday, August 3, and for the entire congregation on the weekend of August 10/11 at each campus. We pray that God will heal those affected by this situation, especially the young victim, and help and guide our congregation as we move forward.
So what shall we say? The Lord has brought us to this point—we can’t turn back time and undo what has happened. We can only look to him, cry out to him, and cast ourselves upon him as the God of all comfort and the God of all grace. We are in the Psalm 55 position of casting all our cares upon the Lord and he will sustain us (Psalm 55:22). We need him to comfort us and sustain us and empower us as we make it our aim to respond in the most God-honoring way possible. What do we do?
We invite you to feel a deep sense of horror that sexual abuse has reared its evil, ugly head here. We do not merely name this as sexual sin, but sexual abuse. Abuse is when someone uses a position of trust to exploit the vulnerable. And it is a crushing blow to us that a juvenile did this awful, horrific, ungodly thing against a child here in our Early Childhood ministry. It is a crushing blow—a blow beyond words to the victim and the victim’s family, but also a blow to our whole church family. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. Therefore, in some measure this was an ungodly act against all of us—we all feel the blow together. And we mourn together! This is not the path we wanted to be on as a church. This is not an experience we would have ever wanted for the victim and the victim’s family. This house of worship today is a house of mourning—mourning what was done, mourning what was lost—and we must take it to heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
We acknowledge that no policy or set of policies for protecting our children can offer an absolute safeguard against evil. But that is not good enough. The question that weighs so heavy on us is this: “Are we doing everything in our power to protect our children?” Could our policies been more rigorous? Are there other preventative measures that we could have taken? Have we made every reasonable effort to protect our children like our Relational Commitments (LINK) say we will? These were the questions that felt so weighty to the elders at our retreat yesterday. And we feel the need to have a third party organization do an audit of our policies for protecting our children. We are eager for their insights and best practices, and we are eager to pursue certification as a church that follows those practices and policies. You will hear more about that later in the message.
I can tell you that we notified the authorities and followed the proper legal channels and sought to provide ongoing shepherding care. There certainly was no intentional sin on the part of the shepherds at Bethlehem. But there were very real gaps in our shepherding care that made a hard situation even harder for the victim’s family. There were moments when pastoral follow-up should have happened and didn’t. There were moments when we should have taken action sooner and didn’t. I will personally confess to you that I, as the lead pastor at Bethlehem, should have been more personally and directly involved in this situation sooner. I totally own that. Again, none of these things were intentional, but that is no excuse whatsoever. If you are backing your car out of your driveway and you accidentally hit someone else’s car, it is not enough to say: “It was an accident; I didn’t mean to cause damage.” In that situation, you certainly had good intentions and that matters, but impact matters as well. One is still responsible for the impact, for the damage.
A couple of texts guide my words here. I am using the language of “we” for the shepherds of Bethlehem because we stand together in solidarity. When Ezra repented for the sins of Israel, he used the collective language of “we” even though he personally did not participate in Israel’s sin (Ezra 9:6).
The second text is Leviticus 4, which provides a guide for our repentance.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering. He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the Lord. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the Lord in front of the veil of the sanctuary.—Leviticus 4:1–6
Do you see what this is saying? Even unintentional sin required a sacrifice and atonement. We have repented to the victim’s family for the ways that we should have shepherded them better. They have graciously responded with forgiveness. But we also want to confess it to you as a congregation—we believe corporate repentance is necessary as shepherds and we ask you to forgive us.
So how should we respond as a congregation? I will tell you how many times I wanted to go to a text that would highlight the comfort of the Lord or a text that would lead us in corporate lament. But again and again and again, the Lord kept taking me back to Numbers 25 and the need for the zeal of the Lord. When I met with the family last month, this was one of the texts that they read to me, and the Lord really used it to convict me and light a fire in me. I feel as though I would be disobedient if we did not look at this text together to see what the Lord has for us.
1. The General Sin of the People (vv. 1–3)
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.
The text says that the people began to “whore” with the daughters of Moab. The term can mean “commit fornication” or “engage in idolatrous worship.” There is no need to choose between both meanings. As one commentator says, “The first acts may have been physical, but they quickly led to cultic and spiritual acts.” Even more sinister is the evidence that ancient idolatrous worship involved the sexual exploitation of children (cf. offering children to Molech, which is grouped with sexual sins and abuses in Leviticus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 23:17).
The Moabite women enticed the Israelites with a sexual relationship that led to an idolatrous relationship through the “invitation” to come to the sacrifices of their gods. They participated and “bowed down to their gods” (v. 2). The men were joined in a sexual way to the women of Moab and the nation was joined in an idolatrous way to the gods of Moab. The nation was supposed to be joined to Yahweh—instead Israel was yoked (formal connection) now to Baal. This is what sin is at root: spiritual adultery. The Lord is so jealous to separate his people from sin because he is zealous to keep us away from anything that could separate us from him. He is at war with our sin.
These temptations did what Balaam’s prophetic attacks could not do: turn God against Israel. When Balaam tried to speak against Israel—it didn’t work. The greatest threat upon God’s people is not the enemy outside the camp, but the enemy of sin within.
This is what sin is at root: spiritual adultery. The Lord is so jealous to separate his people from sin because he is zealous to keep us away from anything that could separate us from him. He is at war with our sin.
2. The Anger and Judgment of the Lord (vv. 4–5)
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.”
This act of judgment was prescribed by God as a punishment that would turn the fierce anger of the Lord away from Israel. There is disagreement as to whether this punishment was actually carried out. But imagine for a moment how painful this act of judgment would be: The judges would have to carry out the execution. Can you imagine the judges as they carry out the death sentence upon the men who had committed this idolatry? Perhaps fathers carrying out a death sentence on their sons or uncles or friends or relatives or neighbors. So the end of the next verse describes an obvious response on the part of the people: “They were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting” (v. 6).
It could be they are weeping over the sin committed and the severity of the punishment, but we also know that there was a plague happening. God’s burning anger has led to a plague that had killed 24,000 people: “Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand” (v. 9).
But not everyone was weeping. Not everyone was taking this judgment seriously. A couple of people were flagrant in their disregard for the Lord’s holiness and judgment.
3. The Specific Sin of Zimri and Cozbi (vv. 6, 14–15)
And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting.
While others were mourning the devastation that their sin had brought upon Israel, this Israelite was brazen with his sin. He made no attempt to hide it, but he flaunted it in plain sight—like a direct challenge—“in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel” (v. 6).
Scripture names the Israelite and the Midianite that so openly and brazenly flaunted their rebellion against the Lord’s judgment.
The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.—Numbers 25:14–15
Therefore, we see that some will not respond rightly to God’s burning holiness and anger and passion for purity. They will respond with utter disregard. But how should we respond—especially in the face of heinous, open rebellion?
4. The Zeal of Phinehas (vv. 7–13)
When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless,.those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.
And the Lord said to Moses, “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 to 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.’ ”
The text describes the response of Phinehas. It was immediate (when he saw it). It was purposeful (he got up, left the congregation, grabbed a spear, and went after them into their chamber). It was decisive. He took the spear and pierced both of them while they were in the act of brazen rebellion.
The word that Scripture gives to describe Phinehas’ response is zealous or jealous. When God explains what happened, Phinehas is commended for his zeal and jealousy. “He was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy” (v. 11).
Phinehas reflected the zeal of God—God’s passion for his great name and great holiness that had been so cheapened and disregarded and mocked.
This is the application. What do we need to do that Phinehas modeled for us? He responded with a zeal that fits with God’s passion for his holiness. He did not minimize it. He acted in accordance with God’s passion for his holiness.
I have three different groups of people in mind right now.
1. If abuse or sexual abuse has happened to you.
Some of you have experienced these heart-breaking realities in your past. I know this event will undoubtedly trigger past memories and bring fears up to the surface. We want to walk with you and care for you. We have people here to pray for you—both men and women. Contact the church office or your campus pastor. Send an email. It is all hands on deck here. We want to minister to the hurting in this time of need.
If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, please know we applaud the courage of anyone, especially a child, who speaks out about abuse. We will walk with you. We are committed to grow as shepherds in providing the shepherding support that the Lord himself calls us to give.
2. It has not happened to you, but someone shares details with you or you see warning signs.
Here I am thinking of friends in my life who have suffered abuse. How much courage they had to muster just to share small snippets of what was happening to them—their faint cries for help at first and how they were ignored or minimized. Having the zeal of the Lord means taking any and every allegation or hint of abuse seriously. Educating ourselves in knowing what to look for: What are the warning signs? If you see them or hear them or suspect them, what do you do, where do you go, what are the next steps?
In other words, one way to be purposeful and zealous in our response as a body is to do everything possible to be equipped to respond wisely and rightly
Parents: Read through the FAQ about how parents should talk to their kids about sexual abuse and the resources given there.
Church Body: Make every effort to attend the training that is coming. Put it on your calendar. We all need to know what to look for in terms of prevention and what to do in terms of reaction. And how to care in terms of support. I love how GRACE talks about the congregational training they offer: giving every adult the education and tools that he or she needs to put into practice the policy of the church well. Everyone in a church plays a role in keeping children safe. The safest church is an informed, equipped, and zealous church.
3. If you dabble in sexual sin of any kind …
We obviously need to pray urgently that God would put an end to the plague of sexual abuse in the church across the world, but we also should be just as zealous about the feeder systems for sexual sin and abuse, like pornography and sexual immorality. Let us not be naïve—the exploitation of women and men flows from the objectification of women and men. We must stand up for our brothers and sisters and insist that they be treated with care and respect and honor as those made in the image of God. In our culture where everything is sexualized, the church can stand up for the inherent value that all women have as those made in the image of God.
Dear friends, if lust and sexual sin is part of your life in any way—if right now you are dabbling, engaging, or immersing yourself in it: Don’t minimize it, don’t normalize it, stop participating in it, wake up, repent, and respond with the zeal of God against it.]
Phinehas provided atonement as a priest by sacrificing those committing the sin. Phinehas shared in God’s jealousy for the holiness of his name. Phinehas turned back the Lord’s anger.
We are not a theocracy in which the church carries out capital punishment. We are in a different age in redemptive history. But the church is called to cooperate with the government and the authorities (see Romans 13:1).
But hear me clearly. In the new covenant, Jesus has provided the atonement that completely satisfies God’s wrath. Phinehas is a pointer to Jesus, the perfect Priest and Sacrifice. God is not demanding the sacrifice of any sinner – he has accepted the sacrifice of the sinless Savior. Any perpetrator can be forgiven and saved. His blood makes the foulest clean.
Yes, people who commit crimes still face judgment here on earth. But far worse is the judgment that awaits at the end of the age in fires of hell. Therefore, all sinners should run to the cross as the place of refuge—where justice and mercy meet together and God’s wrath is satisfied forever. If someone takes full responsibility for his or her sin and repents, there is no sin that can rise above the heights of Calvary’s cleansing flow. His mercy is more. The power of the blood can deal not only with the guilt of sin, but the power of sin. Once saved and cleansed and forgiven and free, the Holy Spirit can so transform a life that the believer can put sin to death and live for righteousness. I have witnessed people be set free from sexual sin and addiction.
And God does not merely know about suffering, he experienced it. Jesus was abused. He was stripped naked and brutalized and mocked and scorned and abandoned. The one who was forsaken will not forsake you. He was treated shamefully so that he might take away your shame forever. He is compassionate in love and almighty in power to take what the enemy has meant for evil and turn it for good. He is not surprised or outwitted or outmaneuvered or overpowered. He is the everlasting God and he will judge rightly. All the things that are hidden and twisted will be revealed and made right. David Powlison rightly highlights the power of the gospel for sinners and sufferers who are victims of sin.
God has a deep concern both for the consensually immoral and for the victims of the criminally immoral. There are not two gospels, one for sinners and one for sufferers. There is the one gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to make saints of all kinds of sinner-sufferers and sufferer-sinners, whatever our particular configuration of defections and distresses. He meets you right where you are.
One day, sin’s dark night of terror will be no more. Sin will be perfectly punished forever and God’s people will be with him forever in paradise and wipe away ever tear and there will be no more night.
 Powlison, David (2017). Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken. Crossway.