READING SERMON by Rev. Ron Hanko

Text: Numbers 23:20-23


I. The Fact
II. The Foundation

III. The Fruit

Scripture Reading: Numbers 23:14-24: 9

Psalter Numbers:

320; all

168; all

362; all

277; 1-3, 6-8


Our text teaches the doctrine of justification - free and gracious justification. Did you recognize the doctrine as we read the passage?

There are especially two reasons why I have chosen this passage as our text and why we are going to be looking at this doctrine today. For one thing, the doctrine of justification is increasingly under attack by those who ought to know better. There are more and more evangelicals who are teaching something other than the great Reformation doctrine of gracious justification. Many of them are going back to the old Romish doctrine of justification by faith and works.

These people ought to know better. The doctrine of justification was the key doctrine of the Reformation. It was, in fact, the doctrine of justification that lit the fires of the Reformation, first in Luther's heart and then in the church. It was and is so important that Luther called it "the article of a standing or falling church." Yet evangelical leaders are abandoning this doctrine and allowing the church to fall. That in itself would not be so serious if it were not for the other reason we have for studying this doctrine today.

The other reason for preaching on the doctrine of justification is the appalling ignorance of this doctrine that is evident in the church. False teachers, including leading evangelicals, are able to get away with teaching false doctrine, in this case the doctrine of justification by faith and works, because the people are ignorant of the truth. Such ignorance will invite error into our own churches if we are not careful.

It is difficult to find church members, sometimes in our own churches, who can explain and defend the doctrine of justification. Do you know what that doctrine means? If you were asked what justification is could you tell the person who asked you? Could you defend it against those who are denying it? Do you know the doctrine well enough to see the difference between what heretics are teaching and the truth of God's Word? Are you certain that you do? If you do not know this doctrine, then you are opening the door to error. If you do know and love this doctrine, then you must make sure that your children also know it and love it.

Before we turn to that doctrine, however, there are two other things by way of introduction. We should remember that our text is part of the history of Israel's wilderness wanderings. They had come in their wanderings to the borders of the land of Canaan and were camped on the east side of the Jordan River on the edge of the land of Moab ready to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. Balak, King of Moab, was afraid of them and hired the wicked prophet Balaam to curse them in God's Name. The words of our text are part of Balaam's second attempt to curse Israel. God overruled that attempt and turned Balaam's curses to blessings, forcing him to speak of the church's justification.

As we look at the Word of God in this passage from Israel's history we should remember that Israel here is the church - the church of the Old Testament. Many, of course, do not believe that, but the story is of significance to us only if Israel really is the church. If they are not the church, members with us of the church of all ages, then this passage has nothing to say to us and we are wasting our time in studying it.

We are not wasting our time, however. They are the church and we are Israel. Their justification is ours, and the Word of God here in Numbers 23 which announces their justification is God's Word to us.

With those thing in mind I call your attention to:


and first of all to:

I. The Wonderful Fact of Their Justification.

What is justification? Our text shows us that justification is not something God does to us, but something He says about us. Here God says something about Israel and about us, something of the greatest possible importance.

More particularly justification is what God says about us as Judge. It is God's sentence as Judge concerning us. In justification we come into His court and stand before the bar of His justice. There we hear His righteous sentence. Nothing matters so much as what God the righteous Judge says concerning us. From His sentence there is no appeal, and everything else that happens to us depends on it.

As Judge there are only two things He can say about us, either that we are righteous or unrighteous, guilty or innocent. Justification is God's declaration of our righteousness or innocence. Righteousness and innocence, you understand, are the same thing.

That declaration of God is a great wonder because all the evidence, even that of our own conscience, is against us, nor is there anything at all that can be brought up in our favor when we stand in God's court. Every sin we have ever committed is remembered by God the Judge, and even Adam's sin is produced as evidence against us in His court.

What is even more amazing is that this sentence is passed by God who never lies. Verse 19 speaks of this: "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?" That great and righteous God - that God of truth - declares us innocent of any wrong-doing at all! Even Balaam was amazed when he declared this sentence of God. He says in verse 23: "According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, What hath God wrought!"

In making known this sentence Balaam acts as God's unwilling bailiff, His officer of the court, to declare God's word of justification concerning Israel. He does that especially in verse 21 when he says: "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel." He declares this sentence on God's behalf and in spite of himself. God sovereignly directed Balaam, in spite of his own evil intentions, to bless Israel in this way instead of cursing them and to justify them instead of condemning them. That, too, is part of the wonder.

What is even more wonderful is that Balaam, on God's behalf, declares Israel's innocence in the face of all their rebellions and wickedness in the wilderness. Their history was one of continual rebellion, as you well know, all of which came to a head on the borders of Canaan when it was time for them to go into the land and they would not go in, but listened to the evil report of the ten spies.

That they were perverse was also evident then, for when God said, "Go in," they said, "We won't go in." When God said, "All right, then you won't go in; instead you'll wander in the wilderness for 40 years," their perverse response was, "Then we will go in," and they tried and failed. Nor are we different. Sometimes we are so perverse that we refuse to obey simply because God says it.

Balaam was thinking of their wickedness and rebelliousness when he pronounced this word of justification. In fact, he had hoped that God would also remember it and curse Israel for it. That's clear from chapter 24:1. When he set his face toward the wilderness before his third and final attempt to curse the people, he did that to remind God of all that had happened in the wilderness. He thought that by looking in that direction God Himself would do so too, and would remember Israel's wickedness, and would curse them for it.

He does something very similar here in our text, something that reveals the wonder of justification. If you go back to verses 13 and 14 you will find that before this second attempt, Balak and Balaam, at Balak's request, moved to a different location. Balak says: "Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place, from whence thou mayest see them; thou shalt see but the uttermost part of them, and shalt not see them all; and curse me them from thence."

What was the point of that? Balak, who apparently knew something of Israel's history, wanted Balaam to stand where he could see only the outskirts of the camp of Israel, the place where the mixed multitude lived. That mixed multitude was half heathen and half Israelite and it was out of that mixed multitude that most of Israel's wickedness arose. The complaining and disobedience almost always began there and the punishments for Israel's sins most often fell there.

There is a good example of that in Numbers 11:4. There you read: "And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?" It was for this sin, which began with the mixed multitude, the unconverted, that God's wrath was revealed against the whole nation and He destroyed many of them, so that the place was remembered ever after as Kibroth-Hataavah, the Graves of Lust.

Balaam, therefore, was looking at Israel in the worst possible light when he moved to a place where he could see only that mixed multitude. He was looking at Israel at its very worst and was attempting to remind God of how evil and perverse they were. Yet even from that viewpoint God still would not curse them. All Balaam could say on God's behalf was: "He hath not seen iniquity in Jacob; neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel."

That, beloved, is justification and the wonder of our justification before God, for we are no different from wicked and perverse Israel and yet we hear in the gospel God saying the same thing of us: "I have seen in them no iniquity, no perverseness. What Balaam says, he says on God's behalf, about the church in all ages.

We should note, too, that it is the church which is justified here. "Jacob" and "Israel" are Old Testament names for the church. There is a sense in which we are justified individually as well, but here the emphasis is on the church. That is important. The righteousness or innocense which is ours in justification does not just belong to us individually but to the whole body of Christ together. No one can have that righteousness or enjoy it apart from the body. So too, the fact that it is the body, the church, which is justified reminds us that our justification is only in Christ - in union with Him and as members of His body through faith.

There are several things, however, that need to be made clear before we go on. First, you must understand that though it is the church which is justified here in Numbers, that does not mean that everyone who is a nominal member of a church is also justified. Always there are many who are of Israel, who have the name, but who are not really part of the Israel of God and do not partake of the blessings of God promised and given to Israel. Be sure of that, Beloved, for it is true here also. Not everyone here who claims to be Jacob and Israel, really belongs to that elect nation of which God says, "I have seen in it no iniquity or perverseness. Be sure that by faith you do belong!

In those who have only the name and no place in Israel, whether it be Israel of the Old Testament or the New, God sees only evil and perverseness. He sees no good in them at all, and in fact, deals with them all the more harshly because they have heard this word of God and not believed. They have had the privilege of hearing this word of God, but have despised His word of justification.

We should note, too, that the emphasis here is not on justification by faith. That is part of our justification and an important part. It is by faith that the righteousness of Christ becomes ours in fact and we enabled to stand righteous before God and to know the wonder of our justification. Here, however, the Word of God looks at a prior aspect of our justification, the sentence of God which actually justifies us and declares us righteous. That sentence is proclaimed here that we may believe and through believing have and experience the benefits of that righteousness. It is this sentence that leads to justification by faith and this sentence that is received by the faith that justifies.

Let us note, too, that there is also a hint of the fact that this justification has an eternal foundation. Notice that you read in the text: "He hath not seen iniquity in Jacob." Not, "He does not see," or "He will not see," but "He hath not seen iniquity in Jacob." As in Romans 9, that past tense refers not just to past time but to eternity. God has never seen iniquity in His people. That is in part what makes Balaam gasp in amazement and disbelief.

Even the names, Jacob and Israel, suggest God's eternal counsel of election for it was in Jacob or Israel that God's sovereign decree of election was for the first time clearly revealed. As Paul says, In Romans 9:13, "Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated."

In sum, therefore, we see here what lies at the heart of our justification - the wonderful truth that God does not condemn us, though we are only sinners before Him. And, you understand, if God does not condemn us, there is no one that can. No one, not Balaam, not Balak, not Satan himself, can lay anything to the charge of God's elect because it is God who justifies.

That sentence of God overcomes even the testimony of our own consciences. Our consciences are that voice of God in us which remind us daily that we are no better nor any different from these Israelites - that we deserve as much as they did the curses both of men and of God. Yet even against the testimony of our own conscience God declares to us that He finds in us no iniquity. What a wonder!

II. The Foundation.

That brings me to my second point. The question must be answered, "How can God, who does not lie, and who is righteous and just, justify sinners and say that He sees no iniquity in His people and in His church?" Even we can see our iniquity and perverseness. How can it be that God does not? And the fact that this sentence of God has an eternal aspect to it only makes the question that much more urgent. How can it be that God has never seen iniquity in His people?

The answer is, of course, that it is in Christ that God justifies His people. He, in the likeness of their sinful flesh, takes their place at the bar of God's justice, is accused of their sins, is counted guilty on their behalf, and is punished with eternal death for their sakes. He endures the curse for them and by His holy obedience substitutes for all their disobedience and rebellion, repaying their debt to God. The curses that Balaam wanted to pronounce and that Israel deserved, fell on Christ, as do all the curses that are due us. He was made a curse for us, Paul says in Galatians 3:13.

We might think that in the Old Testament this was only by promise and prophecy - that Israel was justified in Christ. Even if that were the case, of course, it would still be only in Him that God's people were justified in the Old Testament. There is no other way of salvation but in Christ and by His substitutionary sacrifice for sin. There are those who deny this, but it cannot be otherwise.

Nevertheless, Balaam actually hears and sees Christ standing among the Israelites there in the wilderness. Balaam sees and hears Him when most of the Israelites were probably wholly unaware of His presence! Though they could not see Him and were unaware of Him, Balaam saw Christ present with them and remaining among them. He was present with them in the loins of his ancestors and in the promised line. He was present by promise too, but we may never forget that the promise is the sure promise and Word of God, which has a certain life and existence of its own, and which produced its fruits even before Christ came.

Balaam speaks of Christ's gracious and glorious presence in the words of verse 21: "The Lord His God is with Him, and the shout of a king is among them." The first part of that verse is a reference to Christ as the Immanuel, God with us. In the Old Testament He was that Immanuel through the tabernacle, the cloud of glory, the priesthood, the sacrifices and through all the types and shadows, but He was present as the Savior and Redeemer of God's people - the one in whom they were fully justified before God. Balaam, could see that and could not for that reason curse God's people. The curse that he wished to speak had by promise and decree already been assigned to Christ. Christ was present among them and belonged to them, and therefore there was no curse for them!

The second part of the verse also refers to Christ. There Balaam hears Him shouting like a king among the people of God: "the shout of a king is among them." He could hear that, of course, because he was prophesying, but hear it he does. He hears Christ shouting as King going out to do battle against His enemies, coming down from heaven to do battle with all the powers of evil.

He hears Him shout as He battles Satan with the Word of God, as He rebukes all iniquity, and as He Himself lives in perfect obedience to God. He hears His shout of victory, "It is finished," proclaimed from the cross. Balaam hears Him ascending with a shout of victory into the presence of God. He hears Him shouting the glad tidings of His victory down through the ages so that every chosen child of God will hear and believe and rest his soul in the power and saving sacrifice of this king.

Nor may we forget when we hear this prophecy of Balaam that the heart of Christ's work as king was performed at the cross. Though He appeared there to the eyes of man weak and despised, He is nevertheless the King of kings. His superscription, by the providence of God proclaims Him King, a righteous King, as do His Kingly commands to the disciple John, His Kingly prayer to the Father on behalf of His elect, His powerful and Kingly deed of giving up His own life, and His Kingly assurances to the dying thief. He is indeed a king, not only now, but in His humiliation and death also, and Balaam, hearing His victorious shouting, can find no curse for God's people.

Through Balaam's prophecy, then, we too hear Him and see Him and believe that He is that King in whom are all our hopes and joys and in whom all our victory over sin and death is completed. In Him the victory over our guilt and sin and over Satan is finished. In Him we are more than conquerors, also before the judgment seat of God.

III. The Fruit.

Having proclaimed the church's justification and pointed to Christ and to the wonder of God's grace in Christ, Balaam also speaks of the blessings and benefits that flow from justification. We must understand that these blessings are ours only through free justification. If justification is by faith and works then there are no blessings from it, for then there is no justification of the sinner at all. If the sinner must somehow make himself righteous before God and establish his own innocence, there is no hope even of justification, much less of the blessings that flow from it.

These blessings are described especially in verses 23 and 24 of this passage. The first blessing mentioned by Balaam is that there is no enchantment against Jacob and no divination against Israel. This is a reference to the fact that Balak and Balaam were themselves using these means to try and curse Israel. In offering sacrifices they were doing that for their sacrifices were offered not to God but to Satan - they were evil sacrifices. They practiced enchantment and divination in trying to manipulate God and get Him, the Most High, to do their will by tricks and evil devices. God's justifying sentence causes that all to fail.

For us this blessing is the same as that described in Romans 8:33, 34, that there is no one who can lay anything to the charge of God's elect or condemn them or separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Any attempt to charge God's people and condemn them can be and ought to be described as divination and enchantment even today. Nor is it so strange that this is described as divination for it is the work of the devil himself. It is not only a work that the devil does personally, but which others do on his behalf. Thus it is well described by the words enchantment and divination.

The second justification blessing is that described in verse 24: "Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey and drink the blood of the slain." That is a reference to the church's victory over her enemies and to the fact that she obtains through Christ the King a full recompense for all that she endures at the hands and mouths of her enemies. Balaam is foretelling his own and Balak's destruction at Israel's hands and the destruction of all the enemies of the church. That, too, shall always be the good fruit of the church's justification - all her enemies shall be condemned.

There are other blessings as well. Balaam continues to speak of them in chapter 24:5-9. There he speaks among other things of the peace and spiritual prosperity that the people of God enjoy as a result of their justification. Being justified in Christ they have peace with God and receive from Him all the blessings of salvation. Thus they live like trees planted by the river's side, fruitful and prosperous.

Do you know, then, what justification is? Do you believe it? Can you defend that doctrine of free and gracious justification against all who oppose it? Do you defend it by cherishing it, learning it, loving it and speaking of it? If you do the church will not fall. It will not become among us, as it has among so many, the article of a falling church. A church which knows and believes these things cannot fall, for she has God the justifying Judge as her Savior and Protector.

Believing this doctrine of gracious justification you, too, will say what Balaam himself says in amazement and awe: "According to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!" What else can you say? There is nothing of man, nothing of works, nothing of merit in our justification before God. It is His sovereign and gracious sentence and His work alone through our Savior Jesus Christ.