Monday, October 19, 2020

Party's Over- Judges 14:10-20

 

Weddings are a big deal in our culture. There is so much about a wedding that people are fascinated with. What is it that you enjoy most about a marital celebration? Is it the dress? The ceremony? The venue? The vows? The reception party? The dancing? The toasts? The reunion with family and friends? Is it all of the above? In Samson’s day, weddings were a big deal also and yet, in Judges 14:10-20, Samson spoils the celebration in a foolish way leading to embarrassment, shame, and even separation from his own bride. YIKES! You have heard of a bridezilla. Samson proves to be a groomzilla. In today’s passage we are going to look at three actions that expose Samson’s weakness. In so doing we will learn how we might avoid the kind of shame that befalls him at his wedding feast in our own lives.



a. Samson Presents an Impossible Riddle -14:10-14

When we last left Samson he was heading back for his bride in Timnah with his parents while feeding on honey scraped out of a dead lion. We pick up the story of Samson’s life in verses 10-11 of chapter 14 as the wedding celebration commences—“Then his father went down to the woman; and Samson made a feast there, for the young men customarily did this…” This all seems innocent enough, except that the word for “feast” in this context “refers to a seven-day drinking bout at the home of his bride’s parents” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 431). Samson is not enjoying a traditional Israelite wedding celebration as much as he is a Philistine stag party with the young men of Timnah. Having already failed to keep his Nazarite vow by entering into marriage with a Philistine woman and coming into contact with a dead body, now Samson stands to break another element of this consecration with the consumption of strong drink. By giving into a pagan people and endorsing their pagan customs, Samson puts himself in another highly compromising situation and sets himself up for failure.

The already compromising situation grow tense, if not dangerous, as the text reveals that “When they saw him, they brought thirty companions to be with him,…” (14:11). After the Philistines see Samson, they are afraid of him. Unwilling to take any chances, they surround him with bodyguards—enough bodyguards to easily overwhelm Samson if they need to for any reason.

Samson fails to see just how precarious his situation is. Instead, he believes that he can outsmart his hosts and trick them out of a great deal of assets. Rather than play things safe, Samson seems eager to pick a fight. This he does by presenting a riddle. However, before he shares the riddle, he must see if the partiers want to play his game. Therefore, he sets the terms, terms that appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Philistines: “Then Samson said to them, ‘Let me now propound a riddle to you; if you will indeed tell it to me within the seven days of the feast, and find it out, then I will give you thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes. But if you are unable to tell me, then you shall give me thirty linen wraps and thirty changes of clothes.’…” (14:12-13a). Samson suggests that if they can solve his riddle within seven days, he will provide each of them with a complete suit of clothes, consisting of long garments and shorter tunics (Block, Judges, Ruth, 432). This was no small prize. The wager here involves the equivalent of 30 modern-day three-piece suits worn for a special occasion. However, if they fail to provide the right answer, then they must provide Samson with thirty capes and suits of clothing.

If this sounds like a bar bet, that is because it is in many ways. After a few drinks, Samson is feeling cocky and the guards surrounding him are eager to take him up on the bet—“And they said to him, ‘Propound your riddle, that we may hear it.’…” (14:13b).

Samson’s riddle involves a short six words in the original language: “Out of the eater came something to eat, and out of the strong came something sweet” (14:14). The riddle includes two paradoxes: a consumer producing food and something strong producing sweetness. No doubt the Philistines would have begun searching around the room they were partying in for clues that might point them in the right direction. However, Samson knows all along that the answer lies in a distant field in a remote location that, as far as he knows, only he has visited. It is, for all intents and purposes, an impossible riddle and Samson, by all appearances, has this won from the beginning. The only one who could ruin this for Samson is, well, Samson himself.

b. Samson Is Tricked into Providing the Answer-14:15-18

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens and Samson’s wife is the means by which the answer would be extracted and shared. After a few days of ruminating on the riddle, the Philistine fraternizers grow anxious, fearing that they are going to have to make good on the wager they made—"Then it came about on the fourth day that they said to Samson’s wife, ‘Entice your husband, so that he will tell us the riddle, or we will burn you and your father’s house with fire. Have you invited us to impoverish us? Is this not so?..." (14:15). First, to retrieve the elusive answer, the group of guards blackmail this woman, threatening her and her family’s house (hmmmm…nice countrymen this Philistine woman has on her side). Second, they suggest that she is complicit in Samson’s bet. Evidence of just how high the price was that they would have to pay if they lose is seen in their anxiety over their presumed fate if they failed to produce the answer—“have you invited us to impoverish us?”.  Her loyalty to her people questioned and her home threatened, Samson’s wife is successfully enlisted by these guards to somehow pry the answer to the riddle out of her new husband and she wastes no time to get started.

“Samson’s wife wept before him and said, ‘You only hate me, and you do not love me; you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me.’ (14:16a). Not a bad first attempt by this new bride. Her first ploy is to weep (playing the emotional card) and then to guilt her husband into giving what she wants by questioning his love for her (though I’m not sure how effective this will prove to be given that Samson didn’t appear to be as much “in love” with this woman as much as he was “in lust”). Then she questions his respect for her people the Philistines, “you have propounded a riddle to the sons of my people, and have not told it to me” (as if Samson cared at all for the fate of the Philistines). Samson’s response is terse and firm: “And he said to her, ‘Behold, I have not told it to my father or mother, so should I tell you?’…” (14:16b). This response reveals at least two things. First, it reminds the reader of Samson’s callousness toward his parents. His withholding of the details about the lion and the honey from them in chapter 14:1-9 shows just how little he cared for even them, let alone his new bride. However, the second thing this reveals is that regardless of how much he really cared for/loved his parents, the apron strings had not been severed and if it came to a choice between them and his new wife, his parents would receive priority (contrary to Gen. 2:24).

With time ticking (given the seven day timetable ascribed to this wager) and her first attempt unsuccessful, Samson’s wife persists in her efforts—“However she wept before him seven days while their feast lasted…” (14:17a). Never underestimate the power of persistence, especially in the home! “And on the seventh day he told her because she pressed him so hard” (14:17b). Apparently Samson could only take so much and “at the climactic ‘eleventh hour’ on the seventh day” he finally relents to her nagging demands, perhaps just to silence her many tearful appeals (Block, Judges Ruth, 434).

Like clockwork, Samson’s wife relays the newfound information to her co-conspirators—“she then told the riddle to the sons of her people” (14:17b). This whole ordeal reveals just how ill-conceived this whole relationship is on the surface. Samson doesn’t seem to really love her and she doesn’t seem in the least bit loyal to him. All of this leads to the another failure in Samson’s life—a failure that he got himself into by making this bet in the first place and then cracking under the pressure thereby losing the bet he was sure to win outright. Samson proves cocky, reckless, and mentally weak. This gets him into trouble.

c. Samson Reacts to His Embarrassing Failure-14:18-20

With a grin on their faces, the Philistines present their answer to Samson’s riddle just in time to win the wager in verse 18—“ So the men of the city said to him on the seventh day before the sun went down, ‘What is sweeter than honey? And what is stronger than a lion?’…” (14:18). Perhaps to twist the proverbial knife into Samson’s ego and maximize the drama of this moment, the Philistines wait until the last minute to provide the answer and when they do they answer Samson’s riddle with one of their own. The riddle doesn’t just reveal that they discovered the answer to the riddle, it also exposes Samson’s desecrating act of scarping honey out of a dead carcass. This was highly embarrassing for Samson and, I imagine, highly disappointing for his parents if they were nearby.

Furious after his loss and immediately aware of how these guards have won, Samson “said to them, ‘If you had not plowed with my heifer, You would not have found out my riddle,’…” (14:18b). “You cheated!” Samson exclaims, “and you used my wife to do it” (although he doesn’t use “wife”). His reference for his wife proves to be just as offensive today as it would have been in the ancient world. What a great way to end a wedding feast! YIKES!

However, the scene is not finished yet. “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of them and took their spoil and gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle…” (14:19a). Though Samson got himself into this mess, the Lord gets him out of it. It is God’s Spirit that allows Samson the strength necessary to overwhelm his enemies here. Samson kills thirty men, took their spoil (personal effects), and then uses these articles to pay the debt he owed to those who won the bet.

Remember, God is using this ill-conceived marriage to stir things up between Israel and the Philistines because things have become too comfortable between these two people groups and Israel, as a result, is losing its special identity as the set-apart people of God.

The fallout of this episode continues as Samson—now posturing as a pouty and embarrassed brat—returning home to live with mom and daddy—“And his anger burned, and he went up to his father’s house…” (14:19b). As for Samson’s wife, she “was given to his companion who had been his friend” (14:20). Talk about marital bliss. Some have said that the first year of marriage is the most difficult, but I would have never imagined a more difficult first week!

So What?

In last’s week’s look at Samson’s life we saw how isolation and a sweet tooth got this young man into compromising situations. In this week’s passage we see how risky behaviors (fraternizing at a raucous party) and reckless wagers (in the giving of the riddle) can lead to embarrassment and shame. Ultimately, in both passages, these failures demonstrate what occurs regularly in a life ruled by the flesh. While last week we saw how familiarity with God’s Word and pursuing spiritual community can help God’s people live a life in the Spirit, today we might say that avoiding the wrong crowds and unnecessary risks can also help aide a Spirit-filled life.

However, we also learn that God can and will use anything and everything to wake his people up from misplaced complacency and comfort—even if it that means allowing us to fail miserably. For Israel, he allowed Samson to go through the motions of this chapter to stir his people toward long-overdue action that would have them appropriately distance themselves from the pagan influences and practices that they were entertaining and accepting. In our lives, God may use an embarrassing failure to draw our attention to areas of compromise and complacency that need fixing or avoiding too.

Maybe you have failed recently. Maybe you are fresh off an embarrassing episode. If you are a child of God today, do not lose heart and do not give up. The same God that so-empowered Samson despite himself is more than able to overwhelm the mess you have gotten yourself into and even use it to accomplish his will. Call upon him today and life a life ruled by the Spirit as you move forward.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Dangerous Thing About a Sweet Tooth-Judges 14:1-9

Last week’s message and this week’s message have us moving from one major life event (Samson’s birth) to another (Samson’s marriage). Both these milestones garner a lot of attention and celebration in the ancient world and today. However, there are those things that might spoil the celebration or turn the wedding shower into a mere drizzle. In Judges 14:1-9, Samson proves to be his own worst enemy and cannot seem to get out of his own way as he pursues and marries a Philistine woman. Despite all that God does to empower Samson for great things, we will learn by watching two episodes in this passage that when we choose to be controlled by our flesh instead of the Spirit, bad things will result.



a. EPISODE #1: FORBIDDEN LOVE-14:1-4

We pick up the story of Samson’s life when he is a young man. In chapter 14 verse 1, the narrative wastes no time in suggesting what appears to drive “Sunny” –“Then Samson went down to Timnah and saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines…” (14:1). This is the first of two examples IN THIS PASSAGE of Samson being ruled by the lust of his flesh. Nothing of this woman’s character is mentioned. For Samson, her looks were more than enough, even though she was a Philistine from Timnah.

The town of Timnah, now under Philistine rule, used to belong to the tribe of Dan (see Josh 19:43). Located on the northern border region of Judah between Israelite and Philistine populations, this community would no doubt see many clashes between these two people groups. Samson first confronts this city as Israel’s deliverer not as an aggressor seeking to free God’s people from oppression, but as a lustful young man looking for a wife in what many believed were all the wrong places. “The image the narrator paints of Samson in…(this) episode is anything but attractive. He is an insolent and independent young man, unafraid to venture into the pagan world of the Philistines and undaunted by potentially compromising situations” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 424).

Singularly motivated by his flesh, Samson “came back and told his father and mother, ‘I saw a woman in Timnah, one of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore get her for me as a wife’…” (14:2). The repetition of the verb “to see” in verses 1-2 (and later) demonstrates that Samson is operating on appearance and for personal interest, not on principle or for the greater good. He has a one track mind that is not going to a holy place. Added to this lustful desire to be satisfied is the sense of entitlement and self-centeredness. You can almost hear the bratty selfishness in his demand of his parents to do what is necessary to get this girl for him at the end of verse 2. What do his parents have to say?

Interestingly, Manoah and his wife (remember them from chapter 13), appear to be the voice of reason in this episode—“Then his father and his mother said to him, ‘Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’…” (14:3a). This response from Samson’s parents demonstrates their pain and disappointment in their son’s choice of a bride. Is there no one good enough for him among his own countrywomen, that he would stoop to such a level and take a wife from among the uncircumcised Philistines (an intentionally pejorative way to refer to this people group)? The parent’s comment serves to remind Samson that intermarriage with these pagan oppressors was inappropriate. For Samson’s parents his demand poses not only an ethnic problem but a cultural dilemma. Because the Philistines were considered unclean, marital union between an Israelite and a Philistine presented obvious problems.

Equally important to what was said by Samson’s parents is what was not said. Their quibble with Samson’s choice seems to be based on ethnicity, not on what God had clearly articulated in his word. Samson’s parents do not recite Deuteronomy 7:1-5 which says, in part, “Intermarriage with non-Israelites is forbidden by the Lord” nor do they remind him of his Nazarite vow which would have prohibited him from marrying this woman. Their problem with Samson’s would-be wife is not based on what God has said, but by their personal prejudice. (Nice, sounds like this is going to work out really well).

Samson is undeterred by his parent’s comments. His mind appears to be made up –“But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she looks good to me.’…” (14:3b). Again, the primary motivator in Samson is what he “sees”—i.e. the lust of the eyes. Literally the text reads “because she is right in my eyes.” She may not be right for Samson’s parents or in accordance with what is said in God’s Word or in keeping with his Nazarite vow, but she is right in the only way that seems to matter to Samson—right in his eyes. Like the rest of his countrymen during this sordid period in their history, Samson, the typical Israelite, operates exclusively on the basis of his senses. In fact, rather than rise above the least common denominator as the deliverer of God’s people, he fits right in with “everyone who did what was right in their own eyes” (see 17:6; 21:25) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 426).

This union has disaster written all over it. However, perhaps it is not totally irredeemable.

In a shocking twist, the text suggests that something much bigger is at work—“However, his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines…” (14:4). OF THE LORD!? How in the world could this be of the Lord?  A fresh look at this whole episode from the Lord’s perspective reveals the answer. This marriage illustrates (through God’s chosen deliverer) Israel’s willingness to coexist peacefully with and even intermarry with the Philistines. Remember, God’s people were so comfortable and accommodating to this pagan people group that they did not even cry out for the deliverer they received in chapter 13 (oppression can turn to misplaced comfort, it just take apathy and time). However, it was never God’s intention for his people to lie down with the enemy and he is determined to shake things up in a mighty way. Samson is the tool God will use to aggravate the Philistines and his marriage to this woman, no matter how ill-conceived at first glance, would offer the Lord the opportunity to make this happen.

In case the reader forgot, the narrator reminds them at the end of verse 4, “Now at that time the Philistines were ruling over Israel.” This was not what God wanted. Therefore, “if the Israelites do not have the heart to take action against the Philistines, God will cause the Philistines to take action against them” and use Samson’s lusty pursuit of and union with a Philistine woman to that end (Block, Judges, Ruth, 426).

b. EPISODE #2: A STRANGE THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO TIMNAH-14:5-9

As we move to episode two, "a strange thing happened on the way to Timnah” (a play on “A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”). It is obvious that Samson’s parents give in to their son’s demands and head toward the town where his future bride lived—"Then Samson went down to Timnah with his father and mother, and came as far as the vineyards of Timnah;…” (14:5a). Though Samson and his parents start their journey together, at some point, given what is revealed later, Samson must have wandered off by himself.

“...and behold, a young lion came roaring toward him” (14:5b). One commentator has concluded that this young lion, like all male lions, became nomadic—a loner (kind of like Samson here in this situation). When such lions attempt to claim territory, they roar more frequently and become more aggressive. This is the kind of lion that Samson encounters. Strawn concludes that such a roaring nomadic lion “is perhaps the most dangerous instance of the world’s dominant land predator that one could possibly encounter” (Strawn, “Kepir arayot,” 158). Hungry, strong, and driven purely by instinct, Samson appears to meet his match in the animal kingdom.  

Immediately upon seeing this lion, “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him (Samson) mightily” (14:6a). As if to highlight the role of the Lord in these events, the text reads that the Sprit of the Lord “rushed” upon Samson and infused him with superhuman strength. God is ultimately the one behind Samson’s power and this description of God’s activity reveals who is really in control of both Samson’s life and Israel’s destiny.

So empowered is Samson by the Lord “that he tore him (the lion) as one tears a young goat though he had nothing in his hand” (14:6b). This is remarkable on several levels. First, few people would/ever did tear goats apart (uncooked ones at least). That would be a feat in and of itself and here Samson shreds a lion!  Second, he does this barehanded (no weapon, knife, or other utensil necessary). Add this to what we already learned about the lion and what you have here is perhaps the best possible way to introduce Samson’s remarkable strength when empowered by the Spirit. When God was with Samson, there was nothing in the world that could take him down.

While we might expect Samson to share and even gloat about his victory over this ferocious feline, “he did not tell his father or mother what he had done” (14:6c). This is curious to say the least, almost as curious as the appearance of the lion itself. Perhaps the best explanation for this entire spectacle is that the Lord is at work both in the emergence of the Lion, the strength to defeat it, and the silence after the victory. God is setting things up for something yet to come in the future. We will have to wait and see how this all fits together until later in chapter 14. 

Hot off his victory over the lion, Samson “went down and talked to the woman, and (once again) she looked good to Samson” (14:7). This is probably the first time Samson spoke to his love interest (as before the text suggests he stopped at gawking at her). However, the depth of their conversation appears relatively shallow as at the conclusion of the dialogue the narrative simply reiterates that “she looked good to Samson.” Again, Samson appears to be driven primarily by his flesh and soon we see more confirmation of this.

Things fast forward in verse 8 beyond the presumed negotiations Samson’s mom and dad entered with the woman’s parents. Once complete, sometime later Samson returns to Timnah to retrieve his bride—“When he returned later to take her” (14:8a) (gee, sounds romantic). While in route “He turned aside to look at the carcass of the lion” (14:8b). Perhaps out of curiosity, Samson follows the same route he took earlier on purpose to see what had become of his vanquished foe. This was risky as Samson was supposed to be fulfilling a Nazarite vow. According to Numbers 6:6, a Nazarite was not to “contact a dead body.” This risk doesn’t appear to be of any concern to Samson (after all, he was on his way to marry a Philistine).

Samson’s curiosity was not disappointed as “behold, a swarm of bees and honey were in the body of the lion” (14:8b). This detail and what follows is teaming with significance. First, this swarm bears the signature of God as bees do not normally inhabit dead bodies (like, say flies/maggots do). Something peculiar and, even, supernatural was at play here as God places these bees where they would not naturally be found to test Samson. Second, the image of a “community” (translated “swarm”) of bees thriving in a decaying carcass is dripping with irony. Nearly everywhere else this word for “swarm” is used it refers to a collection of people, usually the Israelites as a faith community called to be agents of grace and light in the world. In other words, the bees thriving and producing honey in a dead lion was an illustration for what God’s people were supposed to be doing on the world’s stage. Both the bees in the lion and the Israelites success in the world were peculiar examples of God’s supernatural power in expected places.

Throwing all inhibitions aside Samson “scraped the honey into his hands and went on eating as he went” (14:9a). Obviously Samson does not just have an eye for the ladies, he also has an insatiable sweet tooth. While he had passed the physical test posed by the lion, he failed to keep the spirit of his Nazarite vow and failed the spiritual test of self-discipline that this honey posed. Why would he do this? “It is possible Samson interpreted his finding the honey on his way to his wedding as a good omen that foreshadowed blessing. Perhaps he viewed it as a symbol of the sexual pleasure about to be his or as an aphrodisiac, appropriately provided just before his wedding” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 407). Regardless of why he does it, it is a gross and ominous act that spells disaster in the future and helps set in motion what will happen in the remainder of the chapter.

Adding insult to injury, Samson cavalierly implicates his parents in his own defilement by sharing this honey with them—“ When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them and they ate it; but he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey out of the body of the lion,…” (14:9b). It appears that Samson’s perversity and lack of scruples knows no bounds. While his parents had done their best to raise him as a Nazarite per the Angel of the Lord’s instructions, here Samson returns the favor by desecrating them both. Unaware of what he has just ingested, Manoah, Samson’s father, continues the journey down to Timnah to finalize the wedding arrangements for his compromised and compromising son.

So What?

Among other things, this passage illustrates two ways of living—living under the control of the Spirit or living under the control of the flesh. When Samson was guided by and empowered by the Spirit, he was literally tearing lion’s apart. However, when he was controlled by his flesh he was entertaining dangerous relationships and defiling himself and those around him. What we all have to understand from the life of Samson is that relinquishing control to the flesh—i.e. following our gut to whatever will satisfy us or give us pleasure for the moment—is the human default. Living by our senses and being guided by the lust of our eyes is what comes most naturally to human beings given that we are fallen creatures in a broken world. This mode of living is easy to slip into, even for those who have been called of God. When things are especially tense, frustrating, or challenging we are most susceptible to reverting to the least common denominator. When the world throws us for a loop (as it has for all of us this past year), the natural parts of us will seek the path of least resistance to find relief. This can have us digging into a carcass for the honey just like Samson or chasing after what is forbidden for a thrill. Therapies that we pursue that run contrary to the Word and will of God may feel good for the moment, but they, whether we realize it or not at the time, defile us and leave us susceptible to hurting those around us.

 God would have us endorse a different lifestyle—a life in the Spirit. Consider the words of Paul: “for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). “Therefore, consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry” (Col. 3:5). “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). When we walk by the Spirit, God can do extraordinary things in and through us. Why would we choose to live any other way?

Monday, October 5, 2020

An Unsolicited Deliverer is Born-Judges 13

 Today as we reenter our series in the book of Judges, we happen to come across one of the most treasured and familiar story-types in the Bible—the birth story. From Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, to Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary, predictions of special birthdays and the fulfillments of such are common motifs in the scriptures that tend to signal major shifts for God’s people. These stories often highlight God’s movement and special activity as they promise better days and major victories in the future. Today’s passage in Judges 13 is one such example of a birth story. However, as we will soon see, things in this narrative are a bit shaky and do not run as smoothly as they might in other passages. What we will learn in Judges 13 as we look at five elements of Samson’s birth story is that God is able carry his people where they need to be despite themselves.



a. ELEMENT #1: The Backdrop-13:1

Let us remind ourselves of where we are in Israel’s history. In the time between Joshua (Moses’ successor) and Saul (Israel’s first king), God’s people were led by judges—military leaders that were empowered by the Spirit of God. These judges were far from perfect and often demonstrated with their own failures and setbacks just how far from God the Israelites were in this period. The precarious and recurrent spiritual condition of God’s people is highlighted in the opening of chapter 13 with “Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, so that the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines forty years,…” (13:1). This oft-repeated progress report on Israel establishes her lapse into sin and God’s disciplinary judgement as the backdrop for the story of Samson.  Things are rotten in the state of Israel and yet, God is not going to leave his people without the promise of a leader to help see them through this Philistine oppression (even if this time they don’t even cry out for such).

b. ELEMENT #2: The Prediction-13:2-7

The narrative continues with the introduction of a couple from Zorah—“There was a certain man of Zorah of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had borne no children…” (13:2). Most who are familiar with biblical history cannot avoid thinking about the recurrent theme of God opening the womb of a barren woman. Sarah (Gen. 11:30), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21), and Rachel (Gen. 29:31) are all described as barren and yet God miraculously allowed each of these women to bear a son that proved important in Israel’s history. Given the introduction of this couple, the reader should expect nothing less than a miraculous birth that yields an important figure whose life would serve as an emblem and example of God’s faithfulness.

Our expectation appears to receive some justification when we read verses 3-5—“Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’…”. This prediction is important for several reasons. First, by seeking to supernaturally bring a child to a childless and barren woman, God demonstrates his love for life and delight in bringing children into the world. This stands in stark contrast to what occurred in the previous chapter with Jephthah who foolishly fulfilled a misguided oath and killed his virgin daughter. What God does suggests that he delights in making the barren woman a mother, not in his worshippers making potential mothers childless (Chisholm, Judges & Ruth, 390).

Second, the angel instructs Manoah’s wife to follow a diet fit for a Nazarite (see Numbers 6:3-4), as her son would be consecrated to God as a Nazarite from birth. Not only would this child’s prenatal life be special as it was wrought of a miracle of God, but his postnatal life would be consecrated to the Lord. This child was to be set apart from birth and in an effort to give that the best chance possible, Manoah’s wife would participate in abstaining from wine, alcoholic drinks of any kind, and food that the Israelite laws forbade as defiled (Block, Judges, Ruth, 402).

Third, verse 5 reveals that the promised child’s primary task would be military victory (“and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’…”). This is surprising given that in the preceding cycle of Judges God was reluctant to respond to Israel, even after they confessed their sins (see 10:6-16). Here, no one was even crying out for deliverance and yet God gives them a deliverer and even goes to the extreme of a miraculous birth and Nazarite vow to give them a good one. “(God’s) sovereign and spontaneous decision to do so reminds us that he would never forsake his covenant people, no matter how apathetic they become” (Chisholm).

After receiving this message, Manoah’s wife shares the news with her husband—“Then the woman came and told her husband, saying, ‘A man of God came to me and his appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome. And I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. But he said to me, “Behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and now you shall not drink wine or strong drink nor eat any unclean thing, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.”’…” (13:6-7). Much is made here and later of the ignorance of God’s people to recognize this messenger. This suggests that Israel at this delicate moment in her history is so far from the Lord that even when he gives them a message directly, she does not recognize it is from him (at least initially) YIKES! The wife’s report also fails to include one of the most important instructions given to this woman concerning her child—“ and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb” (13:5). This helps foreshadow, even before the child is born, Israel’s coming failure to recognize Samson as their God-given deliverer, Samson’s own confusion about his role in life, and his ultimate demise. DOUBLE YIKES!

c. ELEMENT #3: The Request-13:8-14

Manoah’s response to his wife’s report reads as follows: “Then Manoah entreated the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, please let the man of God whom You have sent come to us again that he may teach us what to do for the boy who is to be born’…” (13:8). Several things might motivate this reaction. After all, as a childless man, perhaps Manoah is a bit nervous about the prospect of raising a son. Perhaps Manoah is unwilling to respond positively based merely on his wife’s report. Or, perhaps like Gideon before him, Manoah needs added reassurances before he is willing to sign on with this program.

Regardless of what motivates Manoah’s request, God answers it and we read what happens in verses 9-14—“ God listened to the voice of Manoah; and the angel of God came again to the woman as she was sitting in the field, but Manoah her husband was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, ‘Behold, the man who came the other day has appeared to me.’ Then Manoah arose and followed his wife, and when he came to the man he said to him, ‘Are you the man who spoke to the woman?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ Manoah said, ‘Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy’s mode of life and his vocation?’ So the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Let the woman pay attention to all that I said. She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded.’…”. What is interesting here is God answers Manoah’s prayer by once again appearing to his wife (not Manoah), illustrating that what was shared with her previously was enough to go on already. That said, once the figure appears again, Manoah’s wife quickly retrieves her husband so that he himself can bear witness to the instructions. However, there really are no added instructions given. Instead the angel simply says, “let the woman pay attention to all that I said…” and then goes on to repeat elements of their first meeting (13:13). Apparently, the angel expected Manoah’s wife to inform her husband about the child’s special consecration to the Lord, his role as deliverer, and the Nazarite vow though there is never any indication that she ever did.  Unfortunately, this seems to continue as the story unfolds. In what follows, Samson never gives any indication that he understood himself to be Israel’s deliverer and certainly does not live up the vow that was to govern his life. Things are not looking good already! Understanding one’s role in God’s plan is vital to participating well in what the Lord is doing and that appears to be in jeopardy here. 

d. ELEMENT #4: The Worship-13:15-20

Evidence that Manoah and his bride still don’t quite understand who they are talking to continues to pour in as Manoah invites the messenger to stay for a meal—“Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Please let us detain you so that we may prepare a young goat for you’” (13:15). However, the angel of the Lord refuses the meal and suggests something else—“The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Though you detain me, I will not eat your food, but if you prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.’ For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of the Lord” (13:15-16). For this angel to entertain table fellowship with Manoah and his wife was impossible at this point in time given that the spiritual condition of the nation would not allow these people to share company with a heavenly intermediary. Therefore, rather than share a meal, the angel suggests that this family make an offering to the Lord which would help them take the first spiritual steps in the direction toward a right relationship with their God.

Confusion on Manoah’s part seems chronic as in verses 17-18 he asks for the name of this heavenly messenger—“Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘What is your name, so that when your words come to pass, we may honor you?’…” (13:17-18). The angel does not entertain Manoah’s request with an answer but responds with a question of his own—“why do you ask for my name, seeing it as extraordinary/beyond understanding?” (13:18). To Manoah and to all of Israel, the messenger is a mystery as is the God that has sent this messenger as is the plan that God is in the process of executing. The angelic messenger would rather Manoah figure out this riddle on his own (hoping that it might lead to understanding) rather than solve it for him (Block, Judges, Ruth, 414).

“So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering and offered it on the rock to the Lord, and He performed wonders while Manoah and his wife looked on. For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground…” (13:19-20). It is important to point out that Manoah presents this offering to the Lord, not to the messenger. While in process of making the offering, the Lord miraculously calls up his angelic messenger back to heaven and this elicits a worshipful response from this couple—a response that was scarce seen among God’s people in the time of the judges.

What we are witnessing in this birth narrative is God spoon-feeding his people toward deliverance. He is going to help his people even though they do not call on him to do so. He is going to miraculously allow a barren woman to give birth to a son. He is going to consecrate this son of Manoah (despite their ignorance and failure to communicate the nature of his vow). And he is going to use this son to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. God even reminds, requests, and helps execute a simple offering for this family as a first step they might take in the right direction. Like a parent holding the hands of a staggering infant learning to walk, God is leading a woefully infantile people to where he wants them to be despite themselves.

e. ELEMENT #5: The Aftermath-13:21-25

After the worship experience Manoah and his wife participate in, it is almost as though this first step has provided some limited clarity on their part concerning what is going on—“ Now the angel of the Lord did not appear to Manoah or his wife again. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the Lord….” (13:21). The two finally figure out that an angel of the Lord has spoken with them. However, rather than be inspired by what they’ve learned, Manoah grows petrified with fear—“So Manoah said to his wife, ‘We will surely die, for we have seen God.’…” (13:22) (One step forward two steps back).

Manoah’s wife calms her husband’s hysterics with some common sense—"But his wife said to him, ‘If the Lord had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time’…” (13:23). This couple is hardly the shining parenting duo you might hope to use to bring up the next deliverer of Israel. However, at this time in Israel’s history, the pickings were slim and Manoah and his wife are chosen.

The fulfillment of the angel’s prophecy is described in verses 24-25—“Then the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson; and the child grew up and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him in Mahaney-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” “Sunny” (as his name is translated) was born to this couple just as the Lord had promised. Rather than give him a name that was connected to God or his people, “sunny” or “solar” carries the connotations of paganism and “if not outrightly pagan is dangerously compromising” (Block, Judges, Ruth,  419). As he grew, God’s spirit began to empower him (quite literally) for his special purpose and with this final comment in chapter 13 the stage is set for Samson to confront the Philistines and begin his life’s work of delivering his people from their oppressors.

So What?

Though there are a lot of issues one might raise concerning Samson’s parents, their ignorance, and the spiritual condition of God’s people in and around the time of Samson’s birth that would leave you wondering if a successful deliverer could be raised in a time like this, what we witness in this passage is God’s ability to supersede limitations and setbacks with opportunities and empowerment that allow his people the best chance to move forward according to his will. God overwhelms a barren womb allowing Manoah’s wife to give birth. God overwhelms an ignorant Manoah with the angel of the Lord. God overwhelms spiritual darkness by leading this couple to make an offering. All this God does to overwhelm Israel’s desperate plight with a special deliverer who was to be set apart from birth (through the Nazarite vow) and empowered by the Spirit. Despite everything to the contrary, God intervenes in a special way in this text to give what Israel needs, even when they don’t ask for it. Even more so, he provides this deliverer all the makings of a great leader (a miraculous birth and a program of holiness that should keep him out of trouble).

What is it that you need from the Lord that maybe you have forgotten to ask for or have tired of requesting? Maybe like a frustrated infant struggling to learn to walk, you have decided crawling is good enough, or worse, I’ll just sit here. Spiritually speaking that is where the Israelites are at the beginning of Judges 13 and I hope that is not where you are at today. But it if is, maybe you need to clasp the outstretched hands of the Father who is ready and willing to pull you up and help guide you in all patience to where you need to be. You may wobble and stumble (boy was this the case for Manoah and his wife), but God will not give up leading those who are his. Even further, God will more than make up for what is missing (faith, smarts, experience, etc.) with his provision and grace just as he provided a barren woman with a special son who was to be consecrated and spiritually-empowered.

However, as we will soon learn, gifts and opportunities that God provides must be utilized and applied appropriately if one is be successful in performing God’s will. God can give you all the tools you need, but unless you take full advantage of those graces, things may never change.

 

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

WHO ARE WE? We are Moving Forward with God's Faithfulness

 Over the last several weeks we have been learning about our identity, purpose, and call as the church. So far in our “Who are We?” series we have learned that we are what we confess (in Romans 10:9-10), we are greater than the sum of our parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-26), we are exposed by what we do (Galatian 6:7-10), we are a product of what we are willing to invest for the kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 9:6-8), and we are driven by mission (John 20:26-29; Acts 2:42; Col. 1:28). Today we are going to wrap up our series by looking at Joshua 4:19-24. In this passage we will learn that as God’s people, we are those who move forward, confident of God’s faithfulness.




Recently I was inspired by a comment made by a pastor at a conference I attended. The conference dealt with the church’s response to COVID-19 and one seasoned minister said to the bunch of us, “I’ve told my people that I’m not in the least bit interested in ‘going back’ to the way things were before this all hit. Our goal ought not be to go back but move forward to where God wants us to be and use these circumstances to see where God desires to take us.” I could not help but be challenged to hear this and it caused me to reconsider the goals we ought to have as a body of believers. There is a consistent pull in our flesh to return to what is familiar or revert back to what is/was comfortable. This was not lost on the Old Testament Israelites. For instance, after God lead them out of Egypt, it didn’t take long for some of them to wish they were back in slavery.  In our passage today, another major transition takes place in the lives of the Israelites and what happens in Joshua 4:19-24 helps the people move forward in a way that I hope will inspire us to look ahead with confidence as we stand on the precipice of a new season.

I. The Movement of God’s People-4:19

To fully appreciate what is happening in this text we must consider where Israel is in her history. In Joshua 4 we find God’s people in a period of transition. First, Israel was fresh off a major leadership change (Moses had died and Joshua had recently taken his place as de facto leader). Second, the Hebrews had just witnessed a confirming miracle in which they were able to cross the Jordan river on dry ground. The account of the miracle reads as follows:

Joshua 3:14-17-“So when the people set out from their tents to cross the Jordan with the priests carrying the ark of the covenant before the people, and when those who carried the ark came into the Jordan, and the feet of the priests carrying the ark were dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks all the days of harvest), the waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose up in one heap, a great distance away at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those which were flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho. And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan.”

After this miracle, the people followed behind their new leader away from the riverbanks of the Jordan, seeking what was next for them in their incredible journey.

However, there is a third major transition taking place in this passage. God’s people were in the middle of a big move (from wandering in the wilderness for forty years to settling the much-anticipated Promised Land). The text reads that all took place “on the tenth of the first month” (4:19b). While this might not seem like a major detail worth paying much attention to, this time stamp indicates that the forty years of wandering in the wilderness were now complete. God had said in his wrath that his people should wander forty years in the wilderness (counting the first year of triumph as they made their way out of Egypt). This extended “time out” was now over and I imagine was eager to move on to what was next.

What was “next” was a series of conquests of pagan nation states that currently occupied the land that was promised to Israel. First among these was Jericho which cast its intimidating shadow over God’s people currently camped on the eastern edge—“and camped at Gilgal on the easter edge of Jericho” (4:19c). No longer would God’s people be a wandering band of escaped slaves without claim to land; they would be the victorious people of God settling what was rightly theirs. However, before Israel turns the page and moves forward, time is taken to establish a memorial in verses 20-22.

II. The Memorial For God’s People-4:20-22

Memorials are commonplace in our world today (and not without controversy). Recently my family and I took a trip to Washington DC where many memorials have been built to remember and celebrate historical figures, groups of people, and world conflicts. One memorial that I was especially impressed by was the WWII memorial. Flanked on both ends by a set of pillars representing each of the states of the nation during the time of war and other components celebrating the various theatres of war, armed forces, and people who paid the ultimate price, it is a stunning construction that allows visitors to reflect on the victory and sacrifice of America’s finest. This memorial also include a beautiful water feature and stands in a proud spot directly in between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

The memorial found in Joshua 4 is quite different. First, it was constructed of “those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan” (4:20). Following the miraculous crossing of the Jordan on dry ground “the Lord spoke to Joshua, saying, ‘Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, “take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you,…”’” (4:1ff). Joshua takes these twelve stones retrieved from the river Jordan and sets them up at Gilgal where Israel is currently camped (4:20) to set up a memorial. Stacking stones in this manner for memorial purposes was an established practice among God’s people. For instance, Jacob in Genesis 28 sleeps on a stone, has a dream of a ladder to heaven. After waking up the next morning the account reads, “So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top...[and said] This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You” (Gen. 28:18, 22). Later, after God changes Jacob’s name to Israel “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink offering on it; he also poured oil on it. So Jacob named the place where God had spoken with him, Bethel” (Gen. 35:14-15).

It would appear as though memorials made of stacked stones were erected in an effort to remember and celebrate God’s intervention on behalf of his people—whether that came in the form of a dream (Gen. 28), a promise (Gen. 35), or, in the case of Joshua 4, a miracle.

The function of these memorials was simple. Those who would pass by in the future would see these stacked stones and wonder what they were there for, who stacked them, and why. The Lord himself anticipated that people, specifically the children of Israel, will see these stones for years to come and ask what they mean—“He said to the sons of Israel, ‘When [not if] your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’…” (4:21).

“then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground’…” (4:22). The question these stones would raise will provide an opportunity for people to give an account of God’s miraculous provision for his people. What a thing to celebrate! Just imagine a young Israelite boy or girl climbing into grandma or grandpa’s lap and asking “what are these stones doing here?” I expect with a smile and great joy in his/her heart the grandparent would tell the story of the Lord leading his people out of their wandering and into the Promised Land by miraculously stopping the flow of the Jordan river during flood season so they could pass on dry ground. This is what the Lord expected would happen on multiple occasions for several generations. The memorial would remind God’s people of God’s activity on their behalf for years to come.  

III. The Message for God’s People-4:23-24

The third observation in this passage is the message for God’s people going forward. Certainly the reminder conjured by this memorial was one thing, especially as it pertained to what God did—“For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed” (4:23a), but why was this important? For starters, it revealed that God was with his people. Although they had been made to wander for forty years after they had proven unfaithful, insubordinate, ungrateful, and stubborn, God was with them and continued to pave the way for them to move forward according to his will. Part of the message of the memorial was the Lord was still their God and this he proved by miraculously making a way for them all to cross the Jordan River.

The miracle that Joshua and his people enjoyed in Joshua 3 was just the latest in a series of episodes that demonstrated God’s faithfulness and leadership for his people amid struggle. In fact, the miracle that Joshua enjoyed was similar to the miracle that his predecessor saw some years earlier—“just as the Lord your God had done to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed” (4:23b).

Exodus 14:21-22-“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went through the sea into dry land and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.”

The same God who ushered Moses and his people out of Egypt through the Red Sea toward the Promised Land was the God who now ushered Joshua and his people through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In both situations, it was God leading his people to turn a page and move on to what was next for them. In both cases it was God’s awesome power that came through to do what only he could accomplish. In both cases it was God alone who could receive the praise and glory. One might say that the memorial Joshua placed at Gilgal did not celebrate just one example of God’s faithful leadership, but a myriad of instances where God came through for his people.

But why? Why would and why does God come through for his people in special ways? The answer to this question is two-fold and is presented in verse 24. First, God comes through for his people in mighty ways so “that all the people of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty” (4:24a). There is an evangelistic component to the movement of God on behalf of his people. When the world sees God’s people overcome struggle, heartache, and insurmountable odds or when the world sees God’s people move forward in the midst of tribulation, the world reckons, either consciously or subconsciously, that something “mighty” is at work in and among that people. While the world may be stuck and stationary in the patterns of sin and death, God’s people are those who are always pressing onward toward the abundant life God has reserved for them. In this way, God’s people stick out in the world as lights in the darkness, as rolling stones gathering no moss.

The mighty hand of God does not just move on behalf of his people so that the world may know of his power. The second reason God comes through for his people in special ways is “so that [they—i.e. God’s people] may fear the Lord [their] God forever” (4:24b). When God comes through mightily, it ought to engender reverence and holy awe among his people. It ought to demand the kind of respect and trust in the Lord that keeps followers clinging to him forever. Such “fear” of the “Lord” ought to overwhelm the fear of anything else—things like the many nations Israel would come up against in the Promised Land and whatever the future may bring. The more the Israelites would fear their God, the less they would be afraid whatever they might confront. You might say that the memorial was both evangelistically useful in that it communicated a message of God’s power on the world’s stage and personally edifying as it instilled a healthy fear of God over everything else in the hearts and minds of Israel.

So What?

So why are we here in Joshua 4? How could this possible fit into our “Who are We series?” Why end this series in this peculiar Old Testament passage? The answer is simple. Like Israel in Joshua 4, we are in a period of transition today. Our world is changing. Major changes have come because of the pandemic and its pervasive implications. Cultural/societal turmoil has also ignited change in the way the God’s people are perceived in our world. While all of this change is popping up all around us, our church is transitioning from one fiscal year to another. However, before we take the first step into a new season, before we turn the page on a new year for our church, I thought we’d take the time to reflect and celebrate what God has done in our midst. Like Israel in the Old Testament, God has come through mightily for us. This past year, we met unexpected struggles and difficulties that could have paralyzed us in place. In the thick of winter, the boiler to our education building unexpectedly exploded. Shortly thereafter the pandemic hit, leaving us  scrambling to figure out how to handle all the new protocols and best practices while still continuing to meet. Major events that we typically host for outreach were cancelled. Fundraising efforts for planned renovations were postponed. In addition to these existential crises, spiritual warfare, tension, and struggle took advantage of the “new normal” we found ourselves in, seeking to cause discouragement and dismay. And yet! God showed up. The boiler was fixed and then our insurance unexpectedly ended up paying for nearly the entire replacement.  Courageous people rose to the occasion to help get our church up and running online with streaming services and zoom meetings for small groups and other events. Other opportunities for outreach presented themselves (like handing our food at Lincoln Terrace, a drive by food drive in our community for the Keystone Center). The yard sale fundraiser that was postponed was able to collect more donated items that translated into more sales that helped bring in more money toward the improvements that we hope to make on our second floor for our church’s children and the children in our community. God’s supernatural strength and perseverance was provided to your pastor and many others to weather the speed bumps and spiritual attacks along the way. Glory to God! In addition to these manifestations of God’s faithfulness for our church, this church came in well ahead of budget, donated tens of thousands of dollars to missions, partnered with another church to send over 100 Christmas bags to Guatemala, and witnessed growth in its membership. Glory to God!

It has been one crazy, unprecedented, and difficult year. But it has also been a year in which God has showcased his faithfulness in ways this church and her people have rarely seen (if ever) before. So, Who are We? We are a people that celebrate God’s faithfulness amid struggle. However, we are also a people on the move. We are pressing on to the future. We are turning a page, trusting that the God who has been faithful this past year will prove himself faithful in the year to come. We are praying that God will move mightily so that the world may take notice and so that our people may grow to fear him over anything and everything this new year may bring. In an effort to help us both remember what God has done and trust him in this next season, I thought we’d take a cue from Joshua 4. We have stones here for you to take (or we will have them delivered to you) with the year 2020-21 written on them along with the reference Joshua 4:24-“that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” It is my prayer that you will take this stone and place it somewhere conspicuous in your home so that every time you look at it, you reflect on God’s faithfulness and miraculous provision in your life and in the life of this church. Perhaps when you are growing discouraged by something taking place in the next year or in  the years to come, you will see this stone and be reminded of the same thing that God hoped the Israelites would be reminded of—the Lord is with his people and is faithful to lead them in any season according to his perfect will. It is also my prayer that whenever someone should ask you “what is that rock all about?” you will be able to recall how God has come through and give testimony of his faithfulness to those who inquire—“that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” I don’t know what this next season/year may bring, but I do know one thing, God’s faithfulness goes with us just as it has before. Let us follow him on into the future, wherever he may lead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

WHO ARE WE? We are Driven by Our Mission

Over the last several weeks we have been learning about our identity, purpose, and call as the church. So far in our “Who are We?” series we have learned that we are what we confess (in Romans 10:9-10), we are greater than the sum of our parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-26), we are exposed by what we do (Galatian 6:7-10), and we are a product of what we are willing to invest for the kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 9:6-8). Today we are going to learn that in answering the question “Who are we?” we must consider that we are people of mission. When I say “mission” I’m talking about the mission of God that is articulated in places like Matthew 28:19-20-“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”




 

Though the mission is clearly articulated in the scriptures (see also Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; Rom. 10:13-14), many believers today do not live as though they are a part of this glorious enterprise. Instead, many live like they are on retreat. Many so-called Christians today trade adventure for passivity or sacrifice and service for comfort and security. Instead of playing offense, they are perfectly satisfied exclusively on defense. However, when Jesus told Peter, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18), he envisioned hell as powerless against a robust offense, he assumed courageous action would be required, and he intended for mission to be at the forefront of the church and her people.

 

Therefore, in an effort to remind us of what our mission is, explain how our church is supposed to carry it out, and inspire us to action, we are going to peruse several verses today (carefully expositing each one). These passages will define and explain each of the components of our mission as a church (to see people Know Christ, Grow in Christ, and Show Christ to others). This reminder of our mission will have us looking beyond our walls to see those who are yet to be a part of the kingdom of God and considering how we can reach the lost with the gospel of Christ. Consider this quote by William Tyndale: “The church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.” But what about discipleship? What good is discipleship if it does not result in disciples making new disciples? What about fellowship? What good is fellowship (really) if those outside the church are not being invited to experience it? What about preaching? What good are the messages preached if they are not applied in our everyday lives and shared with those outside the church?

 

It is my prayer that as we reexamine our mission, we will turn our gaze outward and might be equipped through God’s word to extend our worship experience outside the walls of this church in the real world among those who are without a relationship with Jesus. After all, this is our mission. This is our adventure. This is our calling.

 

I. PHASE #1: KNOW (The Seed falls on Fertile Ground)-John 20:26-31

 

Phase 1 of the mission is KNOW Christ. In John 20:26-31. we read the account of someone who was not easily convinced that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. Although we could make a compelling case that this account only teaches how we shouldn’t doubt, I believe that it also teaches us how God is pleased to provide more than enough evidence of Himself to doubters and skeptics in order that they might be know something about Him. Thomas, as a result of this encounter with Jesus Christ, knew Jesus  in the purist sense—in a deep and meaningful salvific kind of a way. “My Lord, and My God” is the exclamation that highlights the climax of John’s Gospel as He works to show Jesus is indeed God Almighty in flesh.

 

Knowing Christ is a theme throughout the New Testament that must be echoed in churches today, in this church today. If we want to be a church that is on mission, we will concern ourselves with bringing people to encounter Jesus Christ and experience His love so that they might Know Him in the same way Thomas came to know Him. This is the first phase of the mission.

 

John’s account continues with “Therefore, many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these things have been written…” (John 20:30-31a). What was true of Thomas and true of everyone who comes to know Jesus is that they have responded positively to some sort of revelation. Revelation is, quite simply, anything that speaks of God’s character or will. In this passage, John speaks of “many other signs Jesus also performed,…” These signs that Jesus gave to the disciples were ways in which He divulged more about who He was, giving the disciples a chance to respond to that information. Today, many things testify to who God is in unique ways. The Bible says creation itself speaks of His glory. The talents and gifts of people also testify to the creativity and diversity of God Himself. While many phenomena are a revelation of God that has been made known to man, the greatest means by which God has divulged His character and will is the Word of God itself and Jesus Christ who is the WORD of God incarnate. John writes, “but these things have been written…” The inspired and perfect Word of God is the greatest resource of God’s attributes and will.  It is the primary source by which all things are judged and understood.

 

However, what is the purpose for God having made himself known to the world?

 

John 20:31 continues with “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name…”. Revelation has as its purpose the salvation of men. God reveals Himself in order that people may KNOW Him for who he is. This phase of the mission has as its purpose the salvation of men through a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

 

Romans 10:17-“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of (that is from, about, concerning) Christ.”

 

Phase 1 of the church’s mission is to share the revelation of God—His Word about Christ—with others so that they might hear, understand, and believe the message of the gospel (KNOW Christ). The same transforming power that changed Thomas’ life is available to change the lives of those doubters, cynics, and disenfranchised that you know. Part of your adventure and this church’s mission is sharing the message of salvation with them! It is more than our mission, it ought to be who we are—sharers of the gospel message!

 

II. PHASE #2: GROW (The Seed Begins to Germinate and Develop)-Acts 2:42

 

Phase 2 of the mission is GROW. Growing in one’s relationship with Christ is paramount to seeing the mission completed. Remember, Matthew 28:19-20 does not say “go into all the world and make converts.” It says, “go into all the world, making disciples.” A beautiful picture of this is illustrated for us in Acts 2:42—“ They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” The verb “continually devoting” is important. It means to do something with intense effort with the possible implication of difficulty. The tense and form of this verb suggest that Luke is talking about a devotion that becomes a part of someone’s character and takes place continuously. Also, the connotation of this verb does not describe a passive activity (i.e. sitting in a service of some kind and listening to what is being presented and leaving unchanged). It describes vigorous action that leads to growth. The growth of the church or the individual believer is not the responsibility of some third party like a pastor or priest—it is the responsibility of every follower of Christ.

 

The first direction of intense effort and focus required in growth/discipleship is on the apostles teaching. For those in the Book of Acts, these were the words preached and spoken of by the twelve who ministered with Jesus. However, for you and me, the teaching that God decided to preserve in the Bible is the primary source of information that leads to growth and development in Christ (the same word that saves is the word that sanctifies). The teaching of the apostles for these new believers and for us today provides the nourishment and nutrition required to mature and grow in one’s understanding. Much like soil feeds a plant, the teaching of the apostles fertilized the hearts of their listeners.

 

The second direction of intense devotion is toward fellowship. Fellowship is an association involving close mutual relations and involvement. We read about this type of association in Acts 2:43-47.

 

CR: Acts 2:43-47 –“Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

 

It is this type of fellowship that warms the heart of each believer and allows one to grow by association. Much as the sunlight gives a plant warmth and the ability to grow, fellowship involves a bunch of light-bearers coming together to encourage and love each other in a way that fosters growth.

 

The breaking of bread and prayer that follows fellowship renames or defines what the fellowship is/consists of.  It was customary for New Testament believers to gather and eat a meal. This was their primary means of entertaining and experiencing life together. One thing that often accompanied such meetings was the sharing of the Lord’s supper. Ultimately, fellowship and/or the breaking of bread simply means doing life together in spiritual community. Participating in this kind of community is crucial for proper spiritual growth.

 

Along with doing life together, prayer was understood to be an essential element to corporate meetings and integral to Spiritual growth. If the Word brings the nutrients, and fellowship is the sunlight, then prayer is the life giving and refreshing water that is necessary for the believer to grow in Christ.

 

“Prayer is where the action is”-John Wesley.

 

“The most important thing a born again Christian can do is pray”-Chuck Smith.

 

In Acts 2:42, commitment to the Word of God, community, and prayer, were understood as the only proper response to knowing Jesus. The picture of growth portrayed in this passage is spiritual and relational. All of these considerations make up the second phase of the mission and ought to preoccupy believers in the great mission to which God has called his people. Scenes of meaningful fellowship punctuated by Bible study and prayer ought to fill the motion picture of our lives as we see those who know Christ grow in Him. We ought to “do life” together, recognizing that our mission is “our” mission—not yours, not mine, ours, and that any great adventure worth having is one that is shared with like-minded people and any mission worth accepting is for the benefit of others.  Phase 2 is growing in Christ together. More than just a phase of our mission, it ought to be who we are—disciples. However, this is not where things end.

 

III. PHASE #3: SHOW (The Seed Flowers, and Spreads its Seed)-Col. 1:28

 

Now that we understand Phase 1 and Phase 2 (knowing Christ and growing in Christ), this leaves only the third—SHOW Christ. Understanding phase 3 takes us to Colossians 1:28. When one considers how insignificant of town Colossae was and how small the church that met there would have been, you might begin to wonder why this letter from Paul was preserved in our Scriptures and important enough to include in the Bible. The truth is, although this letter was addressed to an unlikely destination, the problem they were dealing with in Colossae was very disturbing to Paul and the message of the Gospel. Heresy and false doctrine had already begun to infiltrate the church and Paul wanted to confront this head on before it got out of hand. This is why, after introducing his letter, the apostle concludes his opening remarks with this exhortation—“We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28).

 

The plural pronoun here refers not just to Paul, but to the church which shares the responsibility of showing Christ to others. While most people will readily insist that Paul and certain others are more gifted to proclaim Christ to others, some fail to realize that they are also included in this phase of the mission. After all, are we not all a “priesthood of believers” (1 Pet. 2:9)? Are we not all gifted by God for the purpose of showing him to others (1 Pet. 4:10)?

 

Showing Christ well involves two things: teaching and admonishing. While many think of “teaching” or “admonishing” in a formal sense, one need not limit these terms to popular connotations. Rather, anything that provides instruction or warning to the lost of this world is included in the call to show Christ to others. This includes, but is not limited to serving people in love, encouraging those around you, taking initiative to have conversations, and the like. This also involves discovering and using the gifts God has given every one of us. The truth is, there are as many ways to teach and admonish as there are people. Notice the repetition of “every” in this verse. You would think that Paul was trying to get something across.  Showing everyone around us who Christ is by anything and everything we say and do is how we show Christ to others.

 

The purpose for this mission is so that every man and woman might join God’s mission/great adventure and be taken through these phases themselves to maturity in Christ—“so that we may present everyman complete in Christ” (1:28). The end product of this process is maturity. Much as a flower matures and gives forth seed of its own after it blossoms, Christians who know and grow do not reach maturity until they show Christ to others and scatter seed of their own into the lives of those around them. The process began with believers responding to revelation by knowing Christ on a deep and meaningful level in phase 1, and ends with these same believers communicating that revelation in all wisdom to those around them so that others might join in on this glorious process in phase 3.

 

These are the three phases of the mission of Crystal Spring Baptist Church. These are the activities that ought to galvanize us to action in the great adventure to which we have been called. More than phases of our mission, these ought to be characteristic of who we are.

 

So What?

No matter how you label these three phases or what type of illustration you use to explain them, ultimately, the mission of this church is the mission spelled out throughout the New Testament. It is not something cute that I or somebody else cooked up to sound religious. It is not a meaningless phrase or slogan that looks good on paper or in a poster. It is the process every disciple is designed to complete. We have examined three passages in the Bible that have spanned the Gospels, Acts, and a letter from Paul that explicitly define a biblical understanding of evangelism, discipleship, and service both for the individual and the church. What will you now do about it?

 

 Many are content with just knowing Christ and coming to Church on Sunday Morning and leaving unchanged. Some are comfortable Knowing Christ and even praying with others and attempting to grow in His likeness. However, very few are willing to complete the final phase of the process we have described in an actively show Christ to others. May we choose today to be a church of the few. And may we begin praying for those we know right now who need to know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ to others.