There are references in Scripture to “the way of Balaam” and to “the teaching of Balaam.” Let’s first look at the two New Testament references.
2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies…
15 They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness.
17 These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error.
What stands out here is the punishment that these false teachers in the Church will suffer: “blackest darkness.” They may suffer eternal punishment worse than that reserved for unbelievers. This itself should make sincere believers pause and consider who these false teachers are. Peter says that at one time they used to follow the straight way of the Lord, but have wandered off to follow the way of Balaam who loved the wages of wickedness. “Wages” here literally means “pay(ment) for service.” These false teachers entice sincere Christians by appealing to the lustful desires of their sinful human nature, and for that they will be punished most severely. What is it that they teach us?
Revelation 2:14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.
In his message to the Church in Pergamum in Revelation, Jesus rebukes them. Some of their people hold to the teaching of Balaam. Before we look at his teaching, let us focus on the man himself. The man was a prophet of God for hire; he was willing to be paid to prophesy.
Introducing Balaam, prophet of God
Numbers 22:4 …So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the River, in his native land. Balak said:
“A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. 6 Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the country. For I know that those you bless are blessed, and those you curse are cursed.” 7 The elders of Moab and Midian left, taking with them the fee for divination.
Balak wanted to hire Balaam to prophesy for a fee.
10 Balaam said to God, “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent me this message: 11 ‘A people that has come out of Egypt covers the face of the land. Now come and put a curse on them for me. Perhaps then I will be able to fight them and drive them away.’”
12 But God said to Balaam, “Do not go with them. You must not put a curse on those people, because they are blessed.”
13 The next morning Balaam got up and said to Balak’s princes, “Go back to your own country, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.”
As Balaam prayed to the Lord, God strictly forbade him from going with the elders of Moab and Midian.
14 So the Moabite princes returned to Balak and said, “Balaam refused to come with us.”
15 Then Balak sent other princes, more numerous and more distinguished than the first. 16 They came to Balaam and said:
“ This is what Balak son of Zippor says: Do not let anything keep you from coming to me, 17 because I will reward you handsomely and do whatever you say. Come and put a curse on these people for me.”
18 But Balaam answered them, “Even if Balak gave me his palace filled with silver and gold, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the LORD my God. 19 Now stay here tonight as the others did, and I will find out what else the LORD will tell me.”
“Be on your guard all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15)
But Balak refused to give up. He sent more numerous and distinguished princes to dangle before Balaam a handsome fee in return for his prophetic services. As a result, even though God had strictly forbidden him to go, he sought the Lord in obvious hope that He would change His mind. Balaam had a weakness for money, and the offer from Balak was too sweet and tempting to give up.
20 That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.”
21 Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him.
When we persist headlong in disobedience, the Lord may allow us to have our way. But the result will be eventual disaster for us.
37 Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send you an urgent summons? Why didn’t you come to me? Am I really not able to reward you?”
38 “Well, I have come to you now,” Balaam replied. “But can I say just anything? I must speak only what God puts in my mouth.”
The conflict within Balaam is clear. He wants to prophesy only what God puts in his mouth, but he also covets the financial reward. There are some prophets today who want to serve God, but who end up prophesying “peace and prosperity” to believers in return for an offering.
Numbers 24:1 Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, he did not resort to sorcery as at other times, but turned his face toward the desert.
Sometimes by sorcery, sometimes by the Holy Spirit
Balaam was a prophet who sometimes prophesied by sorcery, and sometimes by the Spirit of God. There are also prophets today who can prophesy what people want to hear, and at other times prophesy by the Spirit of God.
2 When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him 3 and he uttered his oracle: “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly,
4 the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, a who falls prostrate, and whose eyes are opened: 5 “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
10 Then Balak’s anger burned against Balaam. He struck his hands together and said to him, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times. 11 Now leave at once and go home! I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.”
Eventually Balaam relented and forfeited the handsome reward Balak had reserved for him. But he could not shake free from the temptation that comes from the love of money. Eventually he came back to Balak with a different strategy to make the Israelites stumble. According to Revelation 2:14, he taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. The very next chapter of Numbers gives us the account of what Balaam succeeded in doing for Balak.
Numbers 25:1 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2 who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3 So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them.
Serving both God and Mammon
Now we understand the man Balaam. He was a prophet of God who could be tempted to utter false prophecies for hire. Similarly, there are well-known servants of God today who are hirelings. They charge fees for their ministry, and will minister only when paid a handsome honorarium along with other expensive perks. Five or ten thousand US dollars is not unusual for these ministers. They justify this practice by saying that they have expenses, that their ministry is worth it and that in any case God loves them and wants to bless them. Such ministers would appear to serve both God and Money. But Jesus taught that we cannot serve two masters. Either we will hate the one and love the other, or we will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24).
Exactly what is the teaching of Balaam?
Jesus referred to his teaching Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality with Moabite women. Does this warning apply in the Church today?
There is no teaching in the Church today which entices believers to commit idolatry by sacrificing to and bowing down before false gods. There is moreover no teaching to speak of which sanctions sexual immorality. However, the apostle Paul taught that idolatry is more than simply the act of physically bowing down before an idol.
Colossians 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
A servant of God who has greed in his heart is committing idolatry.
What about the reference to sexuality immorality in the teaching of Balaam? Strong’s Greek Dictionary tells us that the Greek word for this term is porneuo. Strong’s tells us that figuratively, porneuo can also mean “to practice idolatry.” Balaam’s teaching therefore clearly encourages idolatry. The primary idol in the church today is the idol of greed for money. Today in the Church there are servants of God who live according to the teaching of Balaam, whether knowingly or unknowingly. They live extravagantly, or hope to. There are also false teachers—“prosperity teachers”—who tell us that God wants every believer to be rich in terms of earthly wealth. Some of these may be sincere. But they are sincerely wrong.
For them is reserved blackest darkness.
Why is their judgment so severe?
Only the Lord knows the extent of the damage they have done to His Church, but let us take an example of what has happened in Africa.
In some areas of Africa, especially in the south of Nigeria where Christianity is prevalent, there is a very unhealthy and extreme emphasis on financial blessings and financial miracles. This teaching is more than welcome to people who have been cursed with poverty and draws the crowds to churches. The teaching of Balaam has infected pastors and ministers. If a foreign minister comes to speak in a certain area, they are reluctant to attend the meeting and to bring their people unless they are promised a “benefit” for their participation. Now from where does this “benefit” come?
Typically, offerings are taken from the people at such meetings. Ostensibly the offerings are to be used for the expenses of the event, which among other things can include hotel accommodations and meals for the speaker. But the offerings are instead divided up and given to the pastors as their personal “benefit” for supporting the event. One can see why spectacularly huge crowds can gather for an evangelistic event in Africa. Pastors will encourage their flocks to come and can expect to reap a material benefit for themselves in doing so. It is obvious their integrity before God has been compromised. While there is no doubt that most African pastors are needy, there is no justification for such a deceitful practice. They have forgotten that if they first seek His kingdom and His righteousness, all these things will be given to them as well.
Imported from the West (again)
This practice was initiated by an international healing evangelist very well-known among charismatic circles. While spectacular miracles of healing have taken place at his hugely attended Crusades and led to multitudes accepting Jesus Christ, the African Church has been infected with the teaching of Balaam. This is especially true in heavily christianized areas of the continent.
Now every foreign speaker—even some missionaries—to these areas of Africa are expected to follow the same practice. These servants of God can be underfunded or far less funded than the famous international evangelist who pioneered the practice. African pastors are even known to get angry when their personal “benefits” are threatened or not forthcoming after the meeting or Crusade. One wonders if this is just the tip of the iceberg of the actual state of the Church in certain areas of Africa. Like welfare recipients depending on the government, have African churches learned to depend on handouts from the west and become helpless to do anything on their own? Can God use such a corrupted and helpless Church to fulfill the Great Commission in Africa?
Seen in the light of the Great Commission which according to some interpretations must be fulfilled before Christ’s return, it is perhaps not surprising that “blackest darkness” is reserved for the false prophets and teachers who have infected the Church with the teaching of Balaam.
1 Timothy 6:9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Luke 20:46 “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
As for Balaam, the punishment for his sin was death by the sword.
Joshua 13:22 In addition to those slain in battle, the Israelites had put to the sword Balaam son of Beor, who practiced divination.