Quick: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say “Balaam”?
Sold out God’s people?
This is generally how we remember him. But we sometimes forget that Balaam was actually a prophet of God. Yes, a real prophet! In fact, he was so accustomed to talking to the Almighty that he confidently expected Him to show up when petitioned (see Numbers 22:8).
True, we don’t actually know much about Balaam before his “little” slip-up. But consider other Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, Daniel, and Hosea, who we do know better. These were clearly devoted men, courageous men of integrity, and men zealous for God’s honor. So don’t you think Balaam was once such a man too?
What happened to change him?
In his second letter, Peter discusses the case of some false teachers who “have wandered off the right road and followed the footsteps of Balaam” (2 Peter 2:15, NLT). Notice two things. First, they were once on the right road! Second, the word “wander,” which reminds us that we usually fall into sin’s greedy clutches gradually, perhaps without even realizing where we’re going.
But how, exactly, does one meander away from the right road? In verse 14, Peter very helpfully lays out the course that led to these people’s downfall:
- They accommodated sin: “They commit adultery with their eyes.” These men didn’t commit outright adultery, but they allowed themselves some questionable thoughts. They gave sin a little place in their minds—just an attic at first, mind you. But it has a way of stretching out and making itself comfortable. That’s why Paul urges us to “set your minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2, NKJV)—don’t give sin so much as a doormat to call its own.
- They nurtured sin: “Their desire for sin is never satisfied.” This is an active seeking after evil—the ESV says they’re “insatiable for sin,” and the NIV says, “they never stop sinning.” Like skilled gardeners, these men watered and fertilized and sang to their corrupt desires. They encouraged sin’s growth rather than claiming the freedom from sin that God offers when we accept His strength and apply His promises (2 Peter 1:4; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 12:2).
- They shared sin: “They lure unstable people into sin.” Just like misery, sin loves company. We think it validates our opinion when others agree with us. It also makes our nagging consciences harder to hear.
- Sin trained them: “They are well trained in greed.” Notice the grammatical shift here. “Are well trained” is no longer an active verb; instead, it has switched to passive voice. In other words, the person is not acting, but being acted upon. Sin is taking over. Getting comfortable. Ordering take-out.
- Sin claimed them: “They live under God’s curse.” Sin is “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), and disobedience of any natural law has unpleasant consequences. However, even at this stage, we don’t have to remain sin’s slaves! “Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24, NIV).
Simply by virtue of our status as inhabitants of Planet Earth, every single one of us can fall into this vortex of destruction. If Balaam, prophet of God, was vulnerable, we normal folk are too. Every time we cast a flirtatious glance at our pet sin, every time we ask it for a little dance around the room, every time we agree to “just a little longer,” we are giving it more power over us.
But sin does reward our interest—with the gift of spiritual cataracts. Darkness gradually settles over us, so slowly that we don’t realize we’re going blind. Eventually we can’t even see things that are clear to an ass; an angel sent directly from God Himself won’t impress us.
Yet we have a choice. We can say “Enough!”
Then Christ will “set [us] free from sin,” purchasing our liberty with His very blood. “The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Romans 6:22, NIV).
What an amazing transaction! Who would even dream up such a trade?
Only a heart of extravagant love.