Balaam’s Donkey / Building on Rock: 27th March 2021

Numbers 22:21-23:26

Balaam saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. God was very angry, even though He had told Balaam to go with them (22:20). An angel stood in his way to block him, because his path ‘is a reckless one before me’ (v.32). Maybe God thought Balaam was still just pursuing a large payment for his services and can’t be trusted to listen to God’s advice. This reminds me of when God met Moses at a lodging place on the way back to Egypt (Exodus 4:24) and ‘was about to kill him‘ even though God had just told Moses to return to Egypt. Moses is saved by his wife, Zipporah, carrying out an emergency circumcision on their baby boy and furiously flinging the bloody foreskin onto Moses feet, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’ (Exod. 4:25). Moses is saved by the spilled blood. This is a very strange story.

Moses had been chosen by God to be the leader of the currently enslaved Israelite nation, yet had failed to carry out the most important act of the Old Testament Blood Covenant – circumcising his son. From his wife’s fury, we can guess that she was the one who had refused to have their son circumcised but Moses had been weak, failing to insist that it must be carried out. Zipporah only relented when Moses was about to be killed. Even more disturbingly, is that if you believe that all actual physical encounters with ‘the Lord’ in the Old Testament are actually with Jesus (known as Christophanies) – as he is the only incarnate person of the Trinity and no-one can see God without dying – this would have been Jesus ‘about to kill Moses’ (4:24), who then lets ‘him alone’ (Exodus 4:26) only after his son’s blood touches Moses’ feet. Moses is spared and forgiven through the shedding of blood, just as we are justified and made righteous through the shedding of Jesus’ precious blood on the cross.

So, in summary we have Jesus arriving as an assassin to kill Moses because he wasn’t fit to the lead the Israelites, having failed to have his son circumcised. However, it is easy to forget about the time travelling abilities of God. God can move around time and knows the past, present and future. So God knew that if Moses was threatened with death, Zipporah would finally relent to having her son circumcised and Moses wouldn’t be killed. God knows the future and the choices people will make under pressure. It just shows how radical God is prepared to get in order to make people obey some foundational rules. We know today that a basic requirement to get into heaven is to be baptized. The indelible supernatural stamp you receive on your soul from baptism is like a passport with a valid visa allowing you entry into a country. If someone has refused to become baptized, when they have been told this fact, God may start doing some radical things in their life to get them to comply.

Amazing stories like this demonstrate the truth of the Bible. People haven’t just included the easy, ‘God is love’ stories. They have included the hard to digest, tough-love stories. Moses wrote the first five books of this Bible and he doesn’t hold being nearly killed by God against Him in any way. So Exodus chapter 4 is basically Moses saying, ‘Yes, God was about to kill me, but he didn’t. I deserved it, because my wife and I failed to respect his covenant. Nothing to see here, let’s move on with the story’.

It’s very similar to Abraham very nearly sacrificing his son Isaac in Genesis 22. These days, if we heard a voice in our heads saying, ‘Sacrifice your family as a burnt offering‘, we can reply, ‘It is written, thou shalt not kill. Get behind me, Satan.’ However, Abraham was sure it was actually God that had given him the instruction to slay his beloved son. Maybe the command had come from Jesus, if God had actually appeared to Abraham in physical form. Abraham was so full of faith that he was actually going to kill Isaac. Yet, God knew he was going to be stopped at the very last minute and no-one was going to die.

God sent an angel to oppose Balaam and it stood in the road. The donkey that Balaam was riding tried to avoid the angel repeatedly – despite being beaten for its troubles – and eventually lay down and refused to move. We then have the fascinating line, ‘The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth’ (v.28) and she started to speak. We learn from this that: animals can potentially talk (however, God has closed their mouths so they normally don’t); they can see angels when we can’t; they can try to save us through their actions; they have a memory, a sense of belonging to someone and a sense of justice, ‘Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ (v.30). Presumably God let all the animals in the garden of Eden talk (hence Eve’s conversation with the serpent wasn’t considered unusual) and perhaps they were all still talking on Noah’s ark up until the flood receded and the fear and dread of humans fell upon them (Genesis 9:2). This should make us treat the creatures in our lives with even more respect. If God opens their mouths, what are they going to say about us? I hope the birds in the garden will testify on my behalf, ‘He spent an awful lot on peanuts’.

Eventually, the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes so he can see the angel too (v.31). This means that there is a gift of seeing / discerning spirits that God can turn on and off in us as he pleases. We can pray to the Holy Spirit to be given this gift as it is both useful and fascinating. The evangelist, Ros Powell, https://www.rospowell.com/, told me how she was once at a Christian conference in Blackpool queueing up to receive prayer ministry and she could see a demonic spirit attached to a pretty girl in a line of people parallel to hers. The spirit was giving off clouds of scent / pheromones which made every woman that walked past gravitate towards this girl. Ros said this was fascinating to watch. It wasn’t Ros’s conference so she couldn’t march over and offer to deliver the girl. She left it to the designated prayer leaders. However, later in the week, Ros, accompanied by her husband, decided to go on a trip into town for lunch and this same girl got on the bus (with the same demonic spirit still attached to her). She was, of course, accompanied by a female friend. Ros was ‘on holiday’ but prayed to the Lord ‘If you want me to do something, you will have to show me a sign.‘ Eventually, Ros and her husband reached their destination and got off at the bus stop in the centre of Blackpool only for the demonised girl and her friend to get up and follow them. Ros felt she was directed to go up to the girl in the bus stop, explain what she could see and ask if the girl wanted God to deliver her from it. The girl willingly agreed. She must have sensed that something was amiss which is why she had attended the conference. Ros prayed for deliverance while they were all still standing in the Blackpool bus stop and the spirit detached itself and left. . The gift of spiritual discernment is a powerful weapon for the urban prayer warrior.

The angel was going to kill Balaam if he had continued – and spare the innocent donkey – but Balaam apologises and offer to go back home. The angel confirms he can continues but can only say what he is told to say.

Perhaps Balaam had started to brag to the Moabite princes about what he was capable to doing to the Israelites and needed clear guidance that he ‘must speak only what God puts in his mouth’ (Numbers 22:38).

Balaam and Balak built seven altars for sacrifices of bulls and rams and twice Balaam met with God and delivered God’s messages back to Balak. Balaam confirms the Israelites cannot be cursed, as God has not cursed them (23:8) and that ‘There is no sorcery against Jacob, no divination against Israel’ (23:23). Balak’s plot has been completely foiled. He has brought Balaam to curse the Israelites who, at Gods command, continues to bless them. Employing Balaam has damaged his plan to defeat the Israelites and now he desperately wants Balaam to shut up before even more blessings are imparted to them, ‘Neither curse them at all nor bless them at all!’ (23:25).

We can all learn the lesson that if we plan evil against righteous people it can harm us more than it harms them.

Luke 6:37-7:10

Here we have important lessons on not judging (or condemning). If we forgive, we will be forgiven (v.37). We should generously give and ‘it will be given back to you’ (v.38). There is the warning against a blind man leading a blind man (v.39-40) and a warning not to be hypocrites (v. 41-42).

Recognise a good tree by it’s good fruit, ‘The Good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart’ (v.45). I pray that this blog is populated by the overflow of good stories and reflections that have built up in my heart as I have attentively listed to dozens of teachers from a multitude of denominations over the years,

We should lay our foundation on rock like the wise builder (6:48). We can take this as basing our lives on the words and commands of Jesus and we have to put his teachings into practice. As Peter (the rock) was the first Pope I base my life on the 2,000 years of sound foundational teaching curated by the Catholic church, which will keep me safe when floods come. I am under the church’s authority, which gives my reflections validity. If the church points out any errors, I will apologise and correct them accordingly. The Centurion recognised, from his own experience of being under authority, the valid power that Jesus possessed.

The gentile Centurion demonstrated great faith, ‘But say the word, and my servant will be healed’ (7:7). The elders pleaded with Jesus asking him to help because the Centurion had given to the Israelites. He loved them and had built a synagogue (v.5). This goes back to 6:38 ‘Give, and it will be given back to you’. The Centurion could not have predicted that when he freely gave to build a synagogue, his generosity would later help persuade the Son of God to give him back the priceless life of his valued servant.

Psalm 37:32-40

‘The wicked lie in wait for the righteous’ (v.32). If you are a Christian in a modern secular workplace, you will be surrounded by wicked people, probably even your own boss, who will be looking for any opportunity to persecute you. However, the Lord will not leave us in their control ‘or let them be condemned when brought to trial(v.33).

Many wicked and ruthless managers get shifted around or promoted from job to job ‘flourishing like a green tree in its native soil (v.35) and so we usually just have to be patient for their future to be cut off, ‘he soon passed away and was no more’ (v.36). ‘All sinners will be destroyed’ (v.38).

God will be our stronghold in times of trouble while we wait for his deliverance, because we take refuge in him. ‘The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord’ (v.39).

Picture: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bronze Snake and ‘Love your enemies’: March 26th 2021

Numbers 21:4-22:20

The Israelites stepped up their complaining. Previously, they had just moaned about God’s representative, Moses, and God hadn’t appreciated that. This time they also ‘spoke against God’ (v.5). They were even ungrateful for the manna that was sustaining them in the desert, without which they would all be dead: ‘And we detest this miserable food!” (v.5).This wasn’t going to end well and ‘the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died’ (v.6).

God hates ingratitude so we need to make sure the first thing on our agenda each morning is to praise and be grateful to him. It’s interesting that God was using his created fauna, this time snakes, to plague the Israelites. He used a menagerie of frogs, flies, gnats and locusts against the Egyptians. The snake was an interesting choice, The last time we heard about the serpent was when Satan deceived Eve in the guise of a snake and it was then cursed to crawl on its belly. God has rehabilitated these reptiles to do his work for him.

The Israelites again asked Moses to rescue them / interceding through prayer to God. They just wanted the snakes to go but God didn’t make it that easy for them or they would soon forget the lesson. When they were bitten, they actually had to do something. They had to go and look at a bronze snake on a pole – then they would live, There is often a debate in Christianity whether we are saved through faith or works of a combination of both. Here, an Israelite is cured if they go and look at the snake. It doesn’t say they have to believe this will happen or to have faith in God. However, all the Israelites were operating at a much higher level of faith then our society does. They saw miracles on a daily basis – being led by the cloud descending or ascending from the tabernacle. They knew God existed, that he could prevent them from dying from snakebite and that Moses relayed his instructions faithfully. However, they were still saved by works – in that they had to go and find wherever the snake was in camp and look at it. We are saved by faith (belief) and baptism. However, faith and believe are still ‘works” as we have to choose to do them. We aren’t passively saved, we have to choose to accept God’s gracious and priceless gift of salvation. We have to work to be baptized – finding a minister to do it, going to church, agreeing to climb into the water. We work in a partnership with God for our salvation. God does all the supernatural heavy lifting of course. He is only too pleased to do the majority of the work for us if make a tiny effort. However, the fact remains is that we do have to make a conscious effort to accept God’s freely offered gift of salvation.

Making a bronze snake on a pole is highly unusual because it could easily become an idol that is worshipped instead of God. By the time Hezekiah become king of Judah, the Israelites have named the bronze snake and are burning incense to it. However, the snake on the pole represents Jesus on the cross, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15).’ The serpent in Eden was punished by God for its transgressions. Jesus on the cross, took on our transgressions and punishment, so that if we turn to him we can live.

Hezekiah (2 Kings 4) broke the bronze serpent into pieces as the Israelite were worshipping it, instead of God. It should have been broken up and destroyed as soon as the venomous snakes had gone – if they ever did – but by now the Israelites were starting to collect a a large collection of holy objects – from the ark, altar and lampstand to the stone tablets, jar of manna and Aaron’s staff. They just added the bronze snake to the collection.

The Israelites politely asked Sihon, King of the Amorites, if they could pass through his country. He refused and attacked them. Israel killed him and took over a large number of settlements. Sihon probably mistrusted the Israelites and thought that they would have stripped the resources from his country. However, it would have been a lot better to trust in their word and take a risk rather challenging more than half a million fighting men. This victory allowed the Israelites to settle in the area and God assured them that they could also defeat Og, King of Bashan, and his whole army. They take possession of his land too. Things are going well for the Israelites – as long at they always trust in God to fight for them.

The Israelites settled across from Jericho and Balak, the King of Moab, realised that they are so many of them that he will require supernatural assistance to defeat them. He hired a professional ‘prophet’ called Balaam to curse the Israelites ‘For I know that those you bless are blessed and those you curse are cursed’, (Numbers 22:6). Even though Balaam charges a fee for his services, which religious people are not allowed to do ‘freely you have received, freely you give’ (Matthew 10:8), he did seem to have some sort of relationship with God. He was confident that the Lord would give him an answer during the night and, indeed, God did come to him and asked ‘Who are these men with you? (Numbers 22:9). It’s fascinating that a professional gentile prophet is making a living amongst a pagan population and regularly communicates with God. However, Balaam is condemned in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15) as no-one should curse people professionally for money. As God knows everything, he already knew who Balaam’s visitors were and so he must have been testing Balaam with the question to check his honesty and motives. God instructed Balaam that he must not put a curse on the Israelites – as they are blessed and that he must not go back with the Moabite delegation. Balaam obeyed completely. However, the king does not take ‘no’ for an answer and sent even more distinguished visitors with the promise of a higher fee. This time, God permitted Balaam to go with the Moabites but to ‘do only what I tell you (22:20).

This shows we should continuously ask God for guidance as he may change his advice when circumstances change.

Luke 6:12-36

After a night praying to God, Jesus called all his followers and chose twelve to be apostles. The list is in order of importance with Simon (now called Peter) at the start and Judas Iscariot at the end. The Holy Spirit must have advised Jesus to make this selection. Judas had been working devoutly to be elevated from a disciple to ‘an apostle’ and would have healed people and delivered them. The Holy Spirit knew what traitorous decisions he would make in the future but still included him because God turns all bad things to good for those who love him.

Power came from Jesus and healed all the people who come to see him. All those troubled by evil spirits were cured. Jesus gave a list of ‘blessings and woes’ which are similar to the beatitudes in Matthew 5 but seem a bit more physical. In Luke, Jesus says ‘blessed are you who are poor’ (v.20) ‘ but Matthew says ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit‘ (Matthew 5:3). Luke says ‘blessed are those who hunger‘ (v.21) but Matthew has ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness‘ (Matthew 5:6).

‘Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17). Prosperity pastors point out that people such as Abraham, Joseph, David and Solomon were rich and still enjoyed favour with God. However, we are commanded to ‘do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share’ (1 Timothy 6:18). The poor are often relatively more generous than the well-off and shame us by giving more generously than we do, like the widow in the temple (Mark 12:41-44). Luke 6:24-36 clearly implies that those who are rich, well fed, laugh and well regarded in this life will not have such a great reward in heaven as those who were poor, hungry and wept. It’s warning to the majority of us who sit in warm houses with plenty of food in the fridge. while other people in the world are starving. We should be grateful to God for all he richly provides for us but we should share. This reading encourages us to love more and give more generously. Obviously, we can’t give richly to the poor unless we are blessed by God with resources in the first place. God does not forsake the righteous and richly provides for us in order that they can be generous (Psalm 37:25-26). Even when we live in a nice house, with food for dinner we can still ‘hunger’. Many celebrities find that their lives are still missing something despite wealth, comfort, shallow laughter and the adoration of their fans. We can decide that our comfortable and cossetted life doesn’t satisfy us and it’s only by looking to Jesus and asking him to come into our life that we can be satisfied.

Our house and bank balance will just be left to others when we die. We possess nothing for eternity other than our relationship with God.

Jesus’ next radical teaching is that we should love our enemies and show mercy to all. It is such a blessing to forgive people who have wronged us rather than carry around hate, bitterness and unforgiveness, which will harm our relationship with God. Lack of forgiveness can also harm us both physically and spiritually. I spoke to a friend this week who said she used to suffer with constant throat problems and painful tonsillitis. When she went for prayer, the pastor told her, through a word of knowledge, that she needed to forgive a certain person. She thought she had forgiven them in her mind, but the pastor advised her to ‘say it out loud’ as Satan needed to hear it too. As soon as she forgave a certain person out loud, she felt something shift from her throat. her medical problems instantly cleared up and she never suffered again. Forgiveness is a decision and one we need to make as soon as possible after an issue, rather than letting unforgiveness fester in our hearts turning them hard and giving certain spirits a legal right to take up residence within us.

Psalm 37:21-31

If we are ‘righteous’ our children will not have to beg for bread (v.25). We can give generously (v.21) and utter wisdom (v.30). If the Lord blesses us, we will inherit the land (v.22) and the Lord will uphold us with his hand (v.24).

If we turn from evil and do good, we will not be forsaken as God loves the just and faithful (27-28). We will be protected for ever (v.28).

Picture: Jules & Jenny from Lincoln, UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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