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leaving behind our unbelief

Last Sunday we saw the Israelites break camp in order to head to the Jordan and then to cross over into the land God had promised all those long centuries before. I pointed out that they were not merely leaving behind their camp at Shittim; they were leaving behind their unbelief and their apostasy and their failures.

It wasn’t too long before this that the Israelites had turned against God and began cavorting with Moabite women and engaging in sexual immorality and even idolatry by worshiping the Moabite gods. We read about this in 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.

Numbers 25:1–3 ESV

In response to their idolatry the Lord sent a plague against the people of Israel and 24,000 died from the plague. As we saw a couple weeks ago the aim of the conquest of the land of Canaan was not violence against non-Israelites, but the removal of false religion from the land so that Israel may worship the Lord God alone. The outcome of Israel’s faithfulness would be the nations surrounding them and all those living in their midst would see the goodness of the God of Israel and be drawn to him to worship him. This is why Caleb the Kenizzite was adopted into the people of Israel. This is why Rahab the Canaanite was adopted into the people of Israel. This is why the mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Israelites were adopted into the people of Israel at Mount Sinai when they received the covenant from God. This was always God’s purpose.

The ultimate purpose, however, was to preserve a people so that through that people God would send his Messiah, the Savior of the whole world. This would be the way God would fulfill his promises to Abraham. While Israel was given the land of Canaan because of God’s promises to Abraham, the promises were centered on an even greater outcome than occupation of a tiny strip of land. God’s promises to Abraham were to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham and his offspring. This could only come through the singular Offspring God promised. As Paul points out in Galatians, all the nations are blessed through Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, for all who trust in Jesus are the myriad offspring promised him, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

To preserve the people through whom God would send Jesus, God disciplined the people from time to time. This was the reason 24,000 died in the plague in Numbers 25. The letter from Jude mentions this discipline.

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.

Jude 1:5 ESV

In the context of his letter, Jude is warning his readers against false teaching. His point is that unbelief results in judgment. As evidence, those in the wilderness, though they had participated in the incredible deliverance from Egypt, were nevertheless judged for their unbelief. Our tendency is to want to point to specific sins that are judged—and they are. A couple weeks ago when we looked at the conquest of Canaan to see how the Ancient Near Eastern people would have understood it, we saw that God’s motivation was to fulfill his promises. In that sermon I did not mention the Canaanites’ sin as a motivation for their “devotion to destruction“. This is because Joshua never offers the sinfulness of the Canaanites as justification for the conquest. He focuses entirely on God’s promises as the reason God was taking the land from the Canaanites and giving it to the Israelites, yet Deuteronomy says this:

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 9:5 ESV

The Canaanites were wicked as they practiced gross immorality and child sacrifice and such, yet nowhere in Joshua does it say that God is giving Israel the land for this reason. This is because Joshua chose to emphasize God’s promise-keeping as the reason for the conquest. This is why Jude’s comment is so fascinating. After the Lord rescued the entire people out of Egypt, those who did not believe in the God of Israel were punished. Those whose faith was in God were spared.

At its core, sin is unbelief. It is the inability or even the unwillingness to trust God. Though they had seen firsthand God’s power and miracles and though they themselves were recipients of his kindness and mercy in rescuing them out of Egypt, yet they quickly forgot these things and bowed down to the gods of Moab. It’s easy to point to their sexual immorality as the problem. It’s easy to point to bowing down to the god Baal as the problem. It’s easy to point to their actual behavior as the problem. All of these behaviors are sinful, yet if we merely point to the behavior, we’re missing the actual problem. Yes, sinful behavior is still sinful but what Jude is hinting at is the root cause of the sinful behavior is actually unbelief.

If we focus on the behavior and seek to modify the behavior, all we end up accomplishing is modified behavior—not righteousness. Our unbelief will find another way to express itself. For some, unbelief is seen in sexual immorality and in bowing down to idols and in violence and murder and theft and gossip and such. For others, however, unbelief is seen in modified behavior that merely appears to be righteous behavior but is done for entirely selfish reasons. One may seek to appear to be good by avoiding various sins and yet be exhibiting unbelief. The Pharisees were perfect examples of this. They focused on their behavior yet Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs”—clean and pristine on the outside, yet inside full of decay and rot.

What God wants from us is this: our faith. He wants us to trust him. We trust him to save us, and this salvation includes our transformation throughout our lifetimes. Yes, our behavior should be modified, but it should be the result of our faith. It cannot be a substitute for faith. As I’ve said before, faith is the only currency God accepts. Faith will result in modified behavior, but modified behavior is not the same thing as faith. Only that which comes from faith honors the Lord.

What this means for us is we, too, should leave behind Shittim. We should leave behind the place of our failures, of our unbelief. We cannot let unbelief take us hostage. Instead, we must remember God’s character and his kindness. We must look back at what he has done in our lives and we must look forward to what he will do in our lives. Through faith we can see what he is now doing in our lives. As our faith in him grows, our behavior is changed. Here’s how Paul explained in 2 Corinthians.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV

As we—through faith!—behold the glory of the Lord Jesus, we are transformed by the Spirit of God, bit by bit. The transformation is not immediate, nor is it ever complete in this life. From one degree to another, through faith. We must continue to look to Jesus, trusting him to save us. This includes our transformation. He will modify our behavior as we trust him more and more.