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The Epistle of Jude: Against Gnosticism

Jesus' brother, Jude, wrote a letter to the Jewish Christian congregations in the first century, warning them about Gnosticism and also urging them to stand firm in faith against their Jewish critics.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 8

The Error of Balaam

Jude 11 speaks of counterfeit Christians who have gone the way of Cain, Balaam, and Korah. Cain’s jealousy sparked hatred which caused him to kill his brother Abel. Balaam used his prophetic gift for personal benefit. Korah was jealous of a calling that was not his.

Gnosticism was founded by Simon Magus, who was jealous of the apostolic calling in regard to the Holy Spirit. Hence, he was caught up in “the rebellion of Korah.” Of course, by not loving his brother, he was also following “the way of Cain,” generally speaking. But Jude goes on to link Gnosticism with “the error of Balaam” as well.

Balaam, the Classic False Prophet

Balaam’s error was that he had subjected his prophetic gift to the flesh rather than to God. The evidence of this was seen in his attempt to gain money and prestige by going against the will of God. He was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to use his prophetic gift to curse Israel, which was contrary to the will of God.

Joshua 13:22 refers to Balaam as a “soothsayer,” that is, a diviner (kasam). Biblically speaking, the word is always applied to false prophets. In the New Testament, Peter refers to Balaam as a prophet in 2 Peter 2:1, 15, and 16, saying,

1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you… 15 forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, 16 but he received a rebuke for his own transgression; for a donkey, speaking with a voice of a man, restrained the madness of the prophet.

Peter essentially lists him among the “false prophets” in Israel’s history. He presents Balaam to us as a prophet who used his gift to benefit himself and to establish the will of the flesh. Even so, God did not hesitate to speak to this false prophet, and he heard God’s voice clearly.

When the king’s men came to request Balaam’s services, we read in Num. 22:9-13,

9 Then God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent word to me, 11 “Behold, there is a people who came out of Egypt and they cover the surface of the land; now come, curse them for me; perhaps I may be able to fight against them, and drive them out.” 12 And God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them; you shall not curse the people; for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam arose in the morning and said to Balak’s leaders, “Go back to your land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.”

God spoke to Balaam, and Balaam heard God’s voice clearly. Lack of hearing was never the issue. But Balaam had never dealt with the idols of his own heart, which caused him to desire something other than the will of God. For this reason, when Balak sent higher officials to add more weight to his request, Balaam said in Num. 22:18, 19,

18 … “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord my God. 19 And now, please, you also stay here tonight, and I will find out what else the Lord will speak to me.”

Balaam clearly understood the constraints of his prophetic gift. To inquire again of the Lord was not necessarily a problem, since the request had come the second time. However, God knew his heart and saw the idol hidden there. Balaam’s desire for “the wages of unrighteousness,” as Peter put it, showed that while he was being obedient to God, he was not in agreement with God. So God appeared to him that night, as we read in Num. 22:20,

20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise up and go with them; but only the word which I speak to you shall you do.”

Herein is another important lesson to be learned. Just because God tells someone to do something does not necessarily mean that it is the real will of God. When one has an idol in the heart, God speaks according to the idol of his heart (Ezekiel 14:3, 4). This proved to be the case with Balaam, for as Balaam rode his donkey to go with Balak’s officials, God opposed him. Num. 22:21, 22 says,

21 So Balaam arose in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the leaders of Moab. 22 But God was angry because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as an adversary [Hebrew: satan] against him….

God told him to go, and Balaam obeyed, but God was then “angry because he was going.” From this we can see that hearing God’s voice is not always what it seems. We must ask ourselves why God told Balaam to go with Balak’s officials. What was God’s motive? It appears that God was allowing Balaam to do what he wanted to do, but that this was still contrary to the will of God.

In other words, it is not enough to obey God’s directions. One must also know the mind of God and be in agreement with Him. Many have obeyed God, only to stumble and fall. And then they wonder why.

The Result of Heart Idolatry

The underlying principle is revealed in Ezekiel 14:3-5, where the elders of Israel came to hear the word of the Lord from the prophet.

3 Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? 4 Therefore speak to them and tell them, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Any man of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet [to inquire], I the Lord will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, 5 in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through their idols.’”

In other words, God will indeed speak to those who come with idols in their hearts, but He will tell them what they want to hear. He will appear to confirm what is already in their hearts, so that they will fall and be destroyed (vs. 8). The result is that when they obey the command of God, they will not succeed but will be led into disaster. Ezekiel 14:9 concludes,

9 But if the prophet is prevailed upon to speak a word, it is I, the Lord, who have prevailed upon that prophet, and I will stretch out My hand against him and destroy him from among My people Israel.

Ezekiel himself was made to understand this principle. Because his desire was to know and speak the will of God, he was not destroyed with the Israelites and their elders.

However, Balaam was quite different. Balaam was blinded by his own heart idolatry, and so he was given the word of the Lord that would eventually destroy him. He was destroyed, not because he prophesied something that was false. His error was rooted in his love of money.

The Angel was Balaam’s Adversary (Satan)

God was “angry” with Balaam for obeying His word that allowed him to go with Balak’s officials. Balaam should have been suspicious that God would allow him to go, and he should have inquired further. In fact, the primary purpose of prayer is not only to hear God’s voice but, more importantly, to know the mind of God.

When the angel of the Lord appeared as a satan to him, having a drawn sword to kill him, he should have stopped immediately and repented of heart idolatry. When God becomes our satan (“adversary”), it means that we are no longer in agreement with Him, and we are adversaries. That is a dangerous position.

Balaam Judged Himself

Balaam’s donkey served Balaam well by running off the path to avoid the drawn sword of the angel. Balaam beat his donkey three times for doing this, and finally God opened the mouth of the donkey, allowing it to protest and to give Balaam the word of the Lord. Num. 22:28 says,

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam then argued with the donkey, apparently not realizing how unusual it was for a donkey to speak in tongues. In his anger, Balaam said, “If there had been a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now!” (Num. 22:29). In other words, he rejected the counsel of the donkey and thereby sealed his own fate. In fact, God allowed Balaam to judge himself. Num. 22:31 says,

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand, and he bowed all the way to the ground.

God often allows men to judge themselves. David judged himself (2 Sam. 12:5-7). The temple priests judged themselves (Matt. 21:40, 41, 43). Balaam too judged himself by decreeing the death penalty for disobedience upon the donkey. So we read later in Num. 31:8, “they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.”

Balaam Recognizes His Sin

After Balaam’s eyes were opened, the angel told him, “I have come out as an adversary [satan] because your way was contrary to me” (Num. 22:32). Neither God nor the angel was Satan himself, for it was a matter of perception rather than reality. When our ways are contrary to God, we view God as our adversary. We often want something, and so we pray hard to get it, believing that God is our adversary who stands between us and the object of our desire. Hence, instead of praying to know the will and desire of God, we pray and fast, essentially twisting God’s arm until we get our way.

In other words, we perceive God as being stingy and stubborn, an adversary to be overcome, whereas Jesus said in Matt. 7:9-11,

9 Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will he give him a stone? 10 Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

Further, Jesus said in Matthew 6:31-33,

31 Do not be anxious then, saying, “What shall we eat?” Or “What shall we drink?” or “With what shall we clothe ourselves?” 32 For all these things the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

It is not wrong to ask or to make requests of God (Phil. 4:6), but where possible it is better to first seek the mind and will of God so that our requests align with His will and plan for our lives. Prayer and fasting ought not to be used to force our will upon a reluctant God but to do some inner housekeeping so that we are better able to perceive His will and to hear His voice. When we can see clearly, then we will know how to pray according to His will and in agreement with Him.

Numbers 22:34, 35 says,

34 And Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me. Now then, if it is displeasing to you, I will turn back.” 35 But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you shall speak only the word which I shall tell you.” So Balaam went along with the leaders of Balak.

Balaam recognized his sin and volunteered to return home, but the angel told him to continue his journey, speaking only the word of the Lord. Balaam then made sacrifices upon seven altars. Num. 23:4 says,

4 Now God met Balaam, and he [Balaam] said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.”

Balaam then blessed Israel according to the word of the Lord. Balak, of course, objected, for he wanted his money’s worth, and he had not hired Balaam to bless Israel. Balak was trying to win a war. He was not trying to know the will of God. He was trying to manipulate the will of God as He had done with his own idols, much like men continue to do to this day. So Numbers 23:13 says,

13 Then Balak said to him, “Please come with me to another place from where you may see them… and curse them for me from there.” 14 So he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

The fact that Balaam agreed to go to another mountain indicated that he still hoped that God would change his mind, or that he could find a way around the will of God. He wanted to be paid, after all. But he could only bless Israel again. His actions reveal that Balaam was obedient but he was not yet in agreement with God.

Balak then took Balaam to the top of another mountain (Num. 23:28-30), but once again he could only bless Israel. At that point, Balak fired Balaam (Num. 24:11, 25).

Balaam’s continuing attempts to curse Israel confirmed the presence of an idol in his heart. Although he was gifted as a prophet, he had a heart problem. God dealt with that idol by leading Balaam to act out his heart idolatry, and this ultimately killed him.

The lesson for us today is seen when we understand that donkeys are Pentecostals in Scripture, just as the horse represents Christ and the overcomers. Christ’s Greek name, Yah-sus, is taken directly from the Hebrew language and literally means “God’s Horse. So Christ’s work on the cross was designed to give us the Holy Spirit through Pentecost, and for this reason He came to Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt. 21:5). But He is pictured the second time coming on a white horse (Rev. 19:11), which is a manifestation of the feast of Tabernacles.

Any story involving donkeys are revelations of Pentecost in some manner. In this case, the donkey was the first to speak in tongues, and Balaam was the classic Pentecostal prophet who was afflicted with a hidden idol in his heart. The story foreshadowed the church which would be “ridden” by false prophets oppressing the people through their love of money.

Just as faith is the key to justification (Passover), so also obedience is the key to sanctification (Pentecost), and agreement is the key to glorification (Tabernacles). Balaam was obedient—hence, he was a Pentecostal; but Balaam was stuck in obedience, refusing to move to the next level of agreement in his relationship with God.

Jude’s Application

Jude says that the Gnostics infiltrating the church had “rushed headlong into the error of Balaam” (Jude 11). This had been seen most clearly in Acts 8:18-21,

18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.”

The error of Balaam in general is the condition of heart idolatry which attempts to use spiritual things as tools to establish one’s own will and desire. It is seen today most clearly in those who try to use positive thinking and fleshly declarations to manipulate the heavens into making them rich and prosperous.

The Gnostics in Jude’s day believed in spiritual things but used them manipulatively to establish their own will and desire. The problem of the first century was never eradicated, and today it has resurfaced more openly. It is a false spirituality which sees no difference between faith and positive thinking.

True faith is spiritual, for it originates in one’s spirit that is saturated by the Holy Spirit; positive thinking originates in the fleshly soul, i.e., the carnal mind. True faith rests in the sovereignty of God and the wisdom of His will; counterfeit faith (from the carnal mind) treats God's will as an adversary and seeks a way around it in order to obtain one's own desire.