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Ligonier Conference - Thabiti Anyabwile
March 20, 2009
Late this afternoon we heard from Thabiti Anyabwile on “Cosmic Treason: Sin & the Holiness of God.” He began by joking that his name is Swahili and roughly translated means “suffering for Jesus in the Cayman Islands.” And then he got down to business. He read Numbers 25 and divided his exposition of this chapter into four sections. He wanted to use this passage to make some observations about sin as cosmic treason.
The horrible context of this chapter (1-6)
The height of conflict (7-9)
The honorable commendation (10-13)
The harrowing condemnation (14-18)
The Horrible Context
This episode in the history of Israel follows the exodus in which God drew his people out of bondage. He had given them his Law, telling them that they were to have no other gods apart from him, no gods above him. God pledges to be their God and that they will be his people. Immediately prior to this chapter, Israel had run into Balaam and Balak. Hidden from Israel at this point was the divine hand of God protecting and preserving them.
So how striking it is when we come to Numbers 25 and we see that Israel, the people of God, have fallen into sexual immorality and idolatry. The people began to whore with the Moabites. The physical immorality is merely a symptom of the spiritual immorality and adultery. The tragedy of verse three of this section is that the Israelites yoked themselves to another God. We have not properly understood this passage until we have seen it as treason. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. God in his holy and righteous anger pronounces a death sentence through a violent execution.
Thabiti pointed out things in this passage that define cosmic treason:
Sin is moral in nature, transgressing what is right. It is a negation of what is right. What is good and right for Israel is to worship this one, true God apart from whom there is no other. But rather than do what is right, they denied this God. We live in a culture that denies any wrongdoing whatsoever or denies that our sin is objectively wrong. To speak with people about their sin is to hear that it is not sin, it is not wrong. They establish their own moral authority contrary to God’s.
Sin is personal in nature. It is against God himself, provoking his wrath. Sin is apostasy, turning away from God. Our culture teaches that sin is not often against anyone but is just a mistake or a blooper. But this passage makes it clear that our sin does land on something. It lands squarely in the sight of a holy God who will not look upon sin. Our sin is an offense against God, a personal rebellion against him. It not only incites his anger but is also treasonous, rebelling against the rule and love of God. Israel is often called God’s wife. Can you think of a more treasonous act than to declare union with a husband but then to commit adultery with another?
Sin is dangerous in that it provokes the wrath of God. The scariest thing in the world is people living like there is no danger associated with their sin and God’s wrath. They have a kind of false assurance where they think they are okay with God, but have no saving, covenantal relationship with God. There is no situation more dangerous than that.
Sin is so treasonous that God declares a death penalty against it. It brings the danger of God’s judgment.
The Height of Conflict
God has spoken in verses four and five about the judgment of those who will engage in apostasy and in verse six we see the start of it. This is a vivid illustration of the treason we are talking about. God has been correcting, in fiery anger, the sin committed against him. While the people are gathering outside the tent of meeting, an Israelite man sees the people gathered around and does not join in the covenant worship of God. Instead, he walks by, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of God himself. And all this while the people are weeping over his sin. The whores are creeping while the people are weeping. It is a striking display. This is brazen sin. He is thumbing his nose at God.
Phinehas sees this, picks up a spear, follows this man into his tent, and in the very act of sexual immorality he drives it through the both of them. He kills the Israelite man and the Midianite woman. It is his action that stops the plague God has sent on his people, killing 24,000 of his people.
Sin is contempt toward God. Most people believe sin is a mistake, a mess-up. But at the very heart of sin is contempt toward God and toward his holiness and righteousness in particular.
Sin poisons our sympathy so that we side with the sinner in his sin before we side with God in his holiness. What is your reaction when you hear this? What is your reaction to Phinehas and his action along with God and his action in killing 24,000 people? Were you identifying with the sinful man and woman or with Phinehas and his action? Did you have instinctive and impulsive action that caused you to identify with the whore in their whoredom rather than the judge and his javelin?
Sin leads to our ruin as God puts down our rebellion. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The wrath of God is revealed against ungodliness. Our sin leads to our ruin apart from Christ.
Sin should cause weeping before God because it is the offense that it is before God. We ought to be people weeping over sin. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.
As a priest Phinehas’ job is to represent God and to make sacrifices on their behalf. He understands his calling and this is what God commends in him. Phinehas is jealous with God’s jealousy. And so it ought to be with God’s people, so it ought to be with the men who stand behind the pulpit and teach the children of God. When God is most glorified and honored, his people are most satisfied. What else should a pastor care about than that God should be made known and that he should be loved and glorified? To care most about anything less than the glory of God is treason.
Sin requires discipline. God is dealing with his people as a Father loves his children. He does this so that we may participate in his holiness. God’s love walks hand-in-hand with his holiness. Resolve now that if you stumble into sin that you will receive God’s correction.
Sin requires atonement. God’s wrath must be turned away; there must be reconciliation between the sinner and the holy God. Phinehas the priest points us toward the great High Priest. It is Phinehas who makes the sacrifice that appeases God in Numbers 25 but it is Christ who will make the full and final sacrifice to appease God.
Numbers 25 is about the gospel of our Lord, about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He does this not for a moment, not for a chapter of the Old Testament, but eternally. It was Christ who was the true priest of God.
The only point the names of these people is mentioned is in the final few verses of this chapter. Sometimes you hear names that are forever associated with treason. Verses seventeen and eighteen identify these two as the Benedict Arnold’s of the book of Numbers. God calls them to account for their cosmic treason and calls to account the Midianites as well. He uses the Israelites as the means of punishment against this nation. God exercises his judgment in this time and in this way.
With time running out Thabiti spent just a few moments closing with a powerful call to respond to the gospel.