Monday, August 31, 2020

WHO ARE WE? We are Greater than the Sum of our Parts- 1 Cor. 12:12-26


How many of you have ever belonged to a team? Maybe it was a sports team, theatre troop, marching band, board of directors, or some non-profit organization. Teams are able to accomplish more together than its individual members could do alone. In fact, this phenomenon is why teams continue to exist in so many capacities. There seems to be something instinctual, something engrained in us as human beings, that contributes to the formation and use of teams/groups/communities, etc. One of the teams that gets  underappreciated in today’s world is the church. That is right, the church! If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are a member of a compelling team. The Bible even promises that the church will be victorious over all its foes in the end! How exciting is that!

As we continue to ask and answer the important question, “Who are We?” we are going to look at the church as described in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. In this text we will come to learn that the church of God is greater than the sum of its individual parts.  This we will do by paying close attention to four observations Paul makes about the church in this important text--observations that will help us appreciate the unity, diversity, dignity and care of God’s winning team—the Church.

I. The Unity of the Body-12:12-13

The church of Corinth was a church that suffered a host of issues (sexual scandal, division, heresy, etc.). YIKES! In fact, what we call 1 Corinthians is actually the second letter that Paul wrote to the church (of four—see 1 Cor. 5:9-11 and 2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:8). Needless to say, this church needed a lot of correction and a lot of instruction. After re-establishing adequate theology as a foundation for his presentation early in 1 Corinthians, Paul provides healthy protocols so that this church can go about her business in an orderly and God-glorifying way. Such instructions were necessary as literally everything the church said and did was becoming an issue leading to discord. After addressing Christian order and the Lord’s Supper, Paul addresses the use of spiritual gifts (a discussion that spans chapters 12-14).  Yes, even the exercise of people’s spiritual gifts—a function of the church that ought to have built unity and encouragement—was a sore subject for this group of believers.

To correct this malady, Paul makes a case for unity in verses 12-13. Though many were uniquely gifted and employing their gifts in varying directions, the church needed to be reminded that they were still ONE body. He begins in verse 12, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ,…”. The example Paul provides for the unity of the church body is the unity of Christ himself who, although an individual member of a Triune God, is still one God in Trinity. Just as there is unity and diversity in the context of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) so too ought there be unity and diversity in Triune God’s people—i.e. the church.

This unity amid such diversity in the context of the church is nothing short of a miracle. In fact, it is not something that the members of the church can create or maintain themselves. Instead, such unity comes by means of the Holy Spirit—“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit,…” (12:13). The baptism and drinking language employed here is meant metaphorically and speaks of the miracle of conversion. Once people make a confession of Jesus as Lord based on compelling belief in Christ’s person and work (as we discussed last week in Romans 10:9-10), they are immediately baptized in the Spirit and from that moment on, the Spirit of God dwells within them.

Acts 2:38-“And Peter said, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

John 3:5-“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’”

Every single born-again member of God’s church has been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life in the Spirit of God and as such has the living Spirit of God dwelling in them. Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul even says “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

The illustration of Christ and the description of the Spirit’s miraculous work in the lives of believers shows that the church ought to be radically unified. It is a reflection of the unity in the Trinity and a product of the unifying Spirit of God. Such unity is supernaturally wrought by God and demonstrates that the body of Christ is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Like the DNA embedded in each and every cell in your physical body, our salvation in Christ and regeneration by the Spirit makes us spiritually united, sharing the same spiritual DNA, with everyone in the body of Christ.

II. The Diversity of the Body-12:14-17

All this being said, the individual members of the church are not the same (they are not clones). Paul continues in his description of the Church with a discussion on her diversity—“For the body is not one member, but many…” (12:14). After all, a physical body, by its very definition, is “the physical structure of a person or an animal, including the bones, flesh, and organs” or “any mass or collection of material(s).” While all the cells in your body share the same DNA, there are different expressions of that DNA that produce different cells in different tissues, organs, and systems that serve different functions. The same is true in the body of Christ. Though we all share the same spiritual DNA because we were all born again by the power of the same Spirit, the expression of our spiritual DNA manifests in different ways to serve different functions in the life of the church.

Such diversity makes sense given the example the Paul cites in verses 15-16—“If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body…”. Neither the foot nor the hand nor the ear nor the eye is any more/less a part of the body than the other. Each and every “member” is connected, serving to function, and genetically similar to the body to which it is connected. Such unity and diversity doesn’t just make sense, it is essential that it be this way.

For, as Paul says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?...” (12:17). For a body to function properly, each and every individual/unique member ought to be serving its special function well—hearing, seeing, carrying, breathing, pumping, regulating, thinking, moving, supporting, etc. An eye is an incredible piece of equipment; but it is not body. It is a body part. An ear is a wonderful gift, but again, it is not a body. It is merely a body part. Both an ear and an eye are worthless if disconnected or at odds with the rest of the body! Similarly, within the context of the church, no one member or group of members (no matter how talented/gifted/important/obvious, etc.) is, by itself, a body. Each is merely a body part and as such ought to realize itsunique giftedness and function only in the context of the greater whole so that the entire body can perform well for the glory of God.

III. The Dignity of the Body-12:18-24a

This renders every body part, no matter how small or unglamorous, wrought with special dignity. After all, “God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body just as he desired…” (12:18). Though we tend to appreciate the concept of the sovereignty of God as it pertains to global issues, salvation, and the like, how many of us can say that they have recently considered that the role they play in the life of the church is also ordained of God? The functions, gifts, and unique capabilities that we bring to bear in the life of the church are just as much God-appointed as anything else to which we give God credit. As such, every service rendered to the church, no matter how small or inconspicuous, is wrought with special dignity. Everyone from the volunteers who help run an event behind the scenes, to the selfless people who give time to update the website, to the childcare workers who invest meaningfully in the lives of our youngest, to the prayer warriors who intercede in special ways for our church and her leadership, to those who count the money or build the budget, are just as much a product of God’s unique choosing and gifting as the small group leaders, preacher, musicians, deacons, committee chairpersons, etc. Every member of every church carries with himself or herself the dignity that comes with God’s choosing him/her for the role in which he/she serves.

Not only is there special dignity granted to each member because of God’s choosing them to serve in a particular function, but there is dignity granted because of their unity to the rest of the body. Paul comments, “If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members but one body..” (12:19-20). Each body part, because of its connection to the greater whole and because of the miraculous DNA it houses in every one of its cells, is a wonder to behold and worthy of dignity. This is true in our bodies as well as in the body of Christ (and even more so with the latter). Part of the dignity we carry as individual believers comes from our connection to something bigger and more sophisticated than ourselves—the church. You and I are part of something greater than we could ever be on our own. Think of it, as great as a brain is for thinking or a tongue is for speaking or a hand is for writing, by itself, severed from the rest of the body to which it belongs, it would be a frightening thing to behold, not an asset. This is the point that Paul makes for the self-important in his original audience: individuals are not more important than the body to which they belong.

Not only do members of the body have dignity because of their special appointment (“God has placed each member…”-12:18) and because of their connection to the greater whole (“there are many members but one body”-12:19-20), they also have dignity because of their necessity—“And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’…” (12:21). What good would an eye be to see things the body needs with no way of picking things up? What good would it be to know where to go and have no way of getting there? Paul is hoping that the church in Corinth would avoid the pitfalls of assigning special significance and/or preference for one element of the body to the neglect of the others. ALL members of the body that God has brought together are essential in one way or another to do what God desires of the church. In our world where some are considered more essential than others and given special permissions to act in certain ways, God’s people can always count on being essential workers in the context of church life and mission. (1 Cor. 12) Paul’s message to the members of the church in Corinth extends to church members today: You are needed! You are Valued!

Given God’s leading, the connection each member has to the greater body, and the necessity of every member to the proper function of the whole, the apostle concludes “…it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it…” (12:22-24a). While the world would seek to subdivide and categorize the population in any number of ways, in the Body of Christ there is unique dignity for all members, regardless of how big or obvious your role may be.

IV. The Care of the Body-12:24b-26

This ushers Paul to his final observation of the body in verses 24-26—the care of the body. Members of the body ought to care about whole body because “God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked” (12:24b). Those the world has discarded, marginalized, written off, or undermined find a special place in the body of Christ upon confessing Jesus as Lord and believing in what he accomplished in redemption. This is consistent with what Paul has already shared in this particular letter: “but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,” (1 Cor. 1:27).

Because God has so called, connected, and rendered necessary every member of the body of Christ, every member ought to care a great deal for all the others great and small.

This is important, as Paul says, “So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (12:25). Humility is the glue that holds a church body together. Paul knew that a lack of consideration for others would quickly lead to discord (and perhaps this was already the case in Corinth). Therefore, he invites the church to have special regard for each of its members. The same sentiment is shared by Paul in Romans 12:3—“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

When the members of the body care for each other appropriately and are united in that care, something amazing happens—they share both the burden of tribulation and the blessing of triumph—“and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it,…” (12:26). A group in unity rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep. After all, does not an infection in one part of our physical body affect the general health of that same body? Does not a therapy applied to one part of a physical body generate wellness for the whole? Similarly, church members united in faith and serving in various capacities know that they are not alone in either the valleys or mountaintops of their spiritual walk. They celebrate together in the triumphs they share and rally together in response to the tribulations they traverse. This is what Paul hoped to see in Corinth and what God wants to see in his church today.

So What?

The observations that Paul makes in this passage illustrate that the church—that is the body of Christ made up of those who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in the completed work of redemption—is greater than the sum total of its individual parts. In other words, the question concerning who we are that we are raising in this series can be answered, at least per our passage today, with the following: we are a people in Christ brought together by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit united as one body of unique and specially-equipped individuals who together make up the church and serve in various capacities, partnering together through thick and thin for the glory of God.  What a special thing of which to be a part. May we appreciate anew what God has created, brought together, equipped, supplied, and sent! And may we also recognize, as Paul hoped the church at Corinth would, that what we are together in the context of the church is greater than what any one of us could be by ourselves. May we thank God for bringing us together, celebrate the diverse gifts that are represented in and among our members (no matter how conspicuous), learn to value every member of the church (and their contribution) no matter how great or small, and care for her accordingly so as to stave off division and discord. May we also recognize that without the body of Christ, no matter how impressive we might be in and of ourselves, we are no better than a severed limb in God’s service.

Not yet a part of the body of Christ? Not yet a member of the church? We pray you will give special consideration to what you may be missing without a relationship with God and membership in his family. If we can answer any questions about how that can happen or pray for you to that end, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Monday, August 24, 2020

WHO ARE WE? You Are What You Confess- Rom. 10:1-10


There are many important questions that people confront in life—Will she say “yes”? Does this make me look fat? What is the meaning of life? What are women thinking/what are men thinking? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop? What is next for me? What if I did this differently? Or, perhaps most precarious—where do you want to go for dinner? J While we may not take the time to answer some of these questions in this setting, we are, over the next several weeks, going to be asking and answering a very important question—Who are we? What is our identity and role as the church? This questions is an important thing to revisit from time to time, especially in a world that would cause us to doubt/question what we are, what we believe, and how we are supposed to exercise our faith. Thankfully, we do not have to come up with an answer to this important consideration ourselves. The Bible goes out of its way to bring clarity and definition to and for God’s people. Today we are going to begin answering this inquiry—who are we?—by looking at what the apostle Paul says in Romans 10:1-10. In this passage we will learn that, at least in part, we are what we confess.

Paul answers a lot of questions in Romans. Who is guilty and needs saving? How effective is the law? Who are God’s people? What is grace? Etc. However, in chapter 10, Paul answers what many in his original audience were wondering after hearing chapters 1-9: “How are people saved?” Paul’s presentation on means and method of salvation is given by means of four teachings in verses 1-10. These teachings will, once again, reveal that the church is, in many ways, a product of what it confesses/believes.

a) TEACHING #1: The Misconception of Salvation-10:1-3

Paul begins chapter 10 by reminding his audience what his entire ministry is all about—“Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (10:1). Paul leaves no doubt here that he desperately longed for his audience (especially the Jews in his audience) to be saved. Unfortunately, many were not being saved. However, this did not quench Paul’s desire to share and explain the gospel message to those who desperately needed it.  

But this begs a question. Why were so many of Paul’s compatriots in the dark concerning how to relate to God? How had this happened? An account of their failure is provided in verses 2-3. First, many had all the zeal they needed, they just weren’t directing that zeal in the right direction—“for I testify about them, that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge” (10:2). Throughout the New Testament, the idea of zeal is praised. The same is true here. However, zeal can only take one so far, especially if it is misplaced.  Andy Stanley is famous for having said, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Paul reiterates here that the Jews had all the right intentions, they were just heading in the wrong direction.

There was no question that the Jewish people were zealous for God, unfortunately, their zeal was not guided by “knowledge.”  Attitude was great, information was lacking. They may have proven spiritual, the problem was, they were also ignorant. They were confessing something, but their confession was incorrect. What “knowledge” were they missing? What did they have wrong? 

Paul provides an answer in verse 3—“for not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (10:3). In other words the Jews were misinterpreting God’s plan for providing righteousness. As a result, they failed to recognize the righteousness that comes from God. (Mounce, 207). To be saved, one must be made righteous. This righteousness has to be granted and cannot be earned. This is something that the Jews did not seem to understand. However, failure to understand was not due to a lack of information or revelation. The verb for “not knowing” means to “ignore” as much as it does to “fail to understand.” The Jews had ignored the true message and meaning of the Old Testament law (which revealed that none are righteous) and failed to listen to the prophets (which anticipated the only one who could bestow righteousness). Because they misinterpreted this data and/or ignored it altogether, they did not understand what salvation was all about—God’s righteousness bestowed by His Son Jesus.

As a result, they “sought to establish their own,” righteousness. Paul has already pointed this out in the previous chapter. In chapter 9, Paul admitted that so many of his fellow Jews were not entering into a relationship with God because they were trading grace for performance and relying on their own patriarchy (family heritage and traditions) rather than Christ. The consequence—they replaced the standard of God’s righteousness with their own—“they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (10:3). Instead of confessing that they needed saving, they were saying, “I’m fine, I can save myself.”

b) TEACHING #2: The Foundation of Salvation-10:4

Taking salvation into one’s own hands and believing that one can perform their way to personal righteousness is misplaced for, as Paul reveals next, Christ’s righteousness, not man’s, is the foundation for salvation—“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). In other words, the unreachable standard of God’s righteousness has been achieved, not by us, but by Christ. Jesus’ achievement makes righteousness available for all who believe in him. One commentator has translated this important verse this way: “For Christ means the end of the struggle for righteousness-by-the-Law for everyone who believes in him.”

How did Christ achieve this? The answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:21.

2 Corinthians 5:21-“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

Christ, who was sinless (a.k.a. completely righteous), took on mankind’s sin (unrighteousness) so that by faith “we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (or exactly what we need to be in order to enter into a relationship with God). Christ has accomplished what man could—the righteousness of God.

A. M. Toplady: “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling.”

”The only thing God requires of people is that they not persist in trying to earn what they can only receive as a totally free gift” (Mounce, 208).

c) TEACHING #3: The Clarification of Salvation-10:5-8

After laying this foundation before his audience (again), Paul juxtaposes two brands of righteousness (misplaced self-righteousness and God’s true righteousness) to further illustrate his point. Self-righteousness has its origin in the law, “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by that righteousness” (10:5).  What Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 (see also Gal. 3:12) to say that if someone were to perfectly adhere to all that the law demands, it would, in fact, lead to life. However, NO ONE has nor ever will be able to perform on that level. Again “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).

God’s righteousness, on the other hand, is “based on faith” (10:6; see also 9:30). Righteousness coming through faith is reiterated in Ephesians 2:8-9-“for by grace are you saved through faith and not by yourselves, it is a gift, not of works lest any man should boast.”  This kind of faith does not demand performance of any kind for effectiveness. This is what Paul means when he says that it “does not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down)” (10:6). Here, Paul interprets verses from Deuteronomy through the lens of Jesus coming to earth, dying on the cross, rising from the grave, and ascending into heave. “In Deuteronomy, Moses was telling the people that they did not have to climb up to heaven or cross the sea (in their own strength) to discover the will of God. Paul applied the passage to the availability of the message of salvation” (10:6).” Just as people couldn’t bridge the gap between themselves and God in the Old Testament, neither can they in the New Testament. God is the primary mover in the program of salvation and unless he condescends to reach us, we would be forever lost.

Not only do people not need to “storm the citadel of heaven,” in their own power to reach God, neither do they need to invade “the kingdom of the dead” (Hunter, Romans, 95)—“…or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)…” (10:7). Instead, Christ has done all of this! It is He who has come down out of heaven to bring grace to the sinner by means of His incarnation (coming to earth). It is He who has conquered sin and death (through the cross) and has been brought back up from the dead to grant righteousness and salvation (in the resurrection). “Christ the Saviour is here, incarnate and risen” (Hunter, Romans, 95).

As good as this news is, what makes it even better is it has been revealed and is near—“”The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching…“ (10:8). Paul is, at present, preaching this gospel message and many along with him have spread the word across the known world. In fact, when Paul says “in your mouth and in your heart” he is hoping that some in his audience have accepted and embraced the information given and, as a result, could echo the truth back to him and others.

This reference to the mouth and heart tees up the final element of Paul’s teaching concerning salvation nicely.

d) TEACHING #4: The Application of Salvation-10:9-10

As Paul elucidates the application of salvation, he indicates that there are two related steps—First, “confess with your mouth, Jesus as Lord” (10:9a). “Confession” involves the expression of one’s allegiance to a proposition or person. Here, the content of the proposition being endorsed is “Jesus is Lord.” Though this is a short phrase, it is heavy with salvific implications. “Jesus is Lord” betrays at least two things when said in the context of confessing salvation. First, claiming “Jesus is Lord” is claiming that Jesus is God made flesh. “Lord” (kurioV) is the New Testament and Greek equivalent of the divine name of God used in the Old Testament (yhwh). The implications of this are immense as such a claim necessarily signals belief in Jesus’ unlimited, universal, and absolute authority/equality with God. Second, “Jesus is Lord” indicates subservience to Jesus in large part because of His amazing power and authority as God. “Those who come to Christ by faith are acknowledging that they have placed themselves entirely and with no reservation under his authority to carry out without hesitation whatever he may choose for them to do” (Mounce, 209). Jesus, in essence, is master over whoever confesses these words in faith.

The second step involved in the application of salvation, very much related to the first mentioned, is “believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead” (10:9b). Though Paul only mentions one element of Christ’s redemptive work here—the resurrection—he has the entirety of Jesus’ work in mind. We know this because of how Paul speaks about the resurrection in other places.

1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-“…and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain,…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins,”

These verses are offered after Paul defined the contents of his “preaching” and the proper elements of saving faith earlier in the chapter.

1 Corinthians 15:1, 3b-4-“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received in which also you stand,…that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures.”

In 1 Corinthians 15 we have a clear case of what is called synecdoche—a literary device in which part of something, sometimes the most important part of something, is used as shorthand for the whole. Here, Paul uses the resurrection to allude to Jesus’ entire program of salvation from start to finish. Therefore, “believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead” is shorthand for believing in everything that Jesus did to accomplish salvation on one’s behalf. In fact, it logically follows that if you believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, you would necessarily believe that Jesus had died. Even further, if one believes that Jesus died, it would naturally follow that one believe that he had been sent in the flesh in the first place. 

Those who confess “Jesus is Lord” and trust in His completed work of redemption “will be saved” (10:9b).

Why? What is significant about these steps? Paul says “For with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness” (10:10a). Belief in something implies complete trust and reliance in the truths involved. Contrary to where many were placing their belief in Paul’s day—themselves, the law, other gods, etc.—those who place their complete trust in and reliance upon Christ’s completed work will received what He alone is capable of giving (God’s righteousness). This righteousness is what God demands for relationship with Him.

Complementary to saving belief is saving confession—“and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (10:10b). The Bible has much to say about the tongue and the mouth. After all, God spoke the world and everything in it into existence with his voice (Gen. 1). Jesus is called the Word of God and the Word become flesh (John 1). These references indicate a creative power behind speech. Speech, in other words is capable of doing things. However, in the hands of man, the tongue can prove to be a “fire” (James 3:6) and “restless evil full of deadly poison” (James 3:9) proving that although “the tongue is a small part of the body,… it boasts of great things” (James 3:5). The Bible also teaches that out of the heart, the mouth speaks. Applied here, any mouth that confesses “Jesus is Lord” indicates a heart that has fully trust in Christ’s work for salvation.

What we have in these final two verses (9-10) is an example of a chiasm (and A-B-B-A presentation) in which both belief in Christ’s completed work and confession of His corresponding Lordship is celebrated. Both are necessary for salvation to take place in the life of the believer.

So What?

In this passage Paul has answered a very important question—perhaps the most important question—“How are people saved?” His answer is twofold—(1) confessing that Jesus is Lord of your life because of one’s (2) trust in His completed work of redemption on your behalf. Ultimately, one must believe and confess who Jesus is and what He has done in order to receive the righteousness that only he can provide to save. We cannot earn this righteousness ourselves and we cannot find this righteousness anywhere else.

Applied to this series, “Who are we?” We are what we confess—we are the saved people of God who confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God has raised Christ from the dead. This is of first importance in providing definition to our identity as God’s people here at Crystal Spring Baptist Church.

Have you made such a confession in your life? Is Jesus your Lord?...Do you trust in all that He has accomplished on your behalf for meaningful life both now and on into eternity? Or, are you the lord of your life? Do you trust yourself to pull yourself through to the end? As Paul reveals, this misplaced, ill-informed, ignorant. Such a confession will fail every time. My desire and the desire of this church is that you would not just have zeal for God or spiritual matters, but that this zeal would be accompanied by knowledge of Christ and what He has done to make it possible for you to enter into a relationship with God and be saved. You are, in part, what you confess. If you confess Christ, Paul teaches that you are saved. Praise the Lord!


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Jealousy and Secret Passwords- Judges 12


I’m not the jealous type. That said, on one particular occasion I remember the green monster of envy creeping up in an unusually strong way. I was in college and had already met and begun a friendship with Brianna (who is now my wife). Her dormitory building was close to mine and also near the marching band practice field. I was at band practice one hot afternoon on that field (yes, I’m a band nerd) and saw out of the corner of my eye Brianna walking to her dormitory building accompanied by a guy who lived on my hall. Oh yes. Worse yet, he was a nice guy! Even though Brianna and I were not yet dating, I can’t remember a time in which I was more distracted and hot with jealousy than in that moment. Here was a guy doing the very thing that I would have preferred to do at the time! Ooooo…it was bad. I was helpless to do anything as the band director called us to attention and proceeded with the lengthy practice. All I could do was hope that this guy proved dull to the girl that I had my heart set on. Luckily, this particular episode of jealousy wasn’t particularly costly and didn’t lead to any disaster. After all, I’m walking with Brianna now, aren’t I? However, envy, jealousy, insecurity, etc. can prove very problematic, even deadly. In Judges 12, as we near the end of Jephthah’s story, we see two presentations that reveal just how destructive these feelings and the implications thereof can be.

a. PRESENTATION #1: An Internal Squabble-12:1-6

After the victory of Israel over the sons of Ammon and the tragedy of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, one of tribes wakes up and arrives late to the party…again. “Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you? …” (12:1). If you will remember, the same tribe in chapter 8 accosted Gideon after defeating the Midianites without them. What a curious thing it would have been for Jephthah to come off a great victory only to be negatively confronted by his own countrymen because they weren’t a part of what was going on. Here, the Ephraimites, with armies ready for battle, appear before Jephthah and rain on Israel’ parade because they felt slighted.

However, rather than just rain on Israel’s parade, the Ephraimites even threatens their cousins with destruction—“we will burn your house down on you” (12:1). Yikes! The tribe of Ephraim does not just arrive to talk it out, they arrive with troops ready for battle. Jephthah had already lost his one and only daughter (albeit because of his own failure), and now his extended family wanted to take away his home. “Instead of congratulating Jephthah for his accomplishment and thanking him for delivering them from the Ammonite menace, in their jealousy and wounded sense of self-importance, the Ephraimites determined to destroy the deliverer” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 381).

In keeping with his negotiating ways, Jephthah tries to talk his way out of another crisis (Remember, he had already negotiated with his brothers in an effort to his people (see 11:4ff) and had inappropriately negotiated with God (see 11:29ff)). Here, he tells Ephraim—“I and my people were at great strife with the sons of Ammon;…” (12:2a). The way the translation has been smoothed out in English misses an important nuance about what Jephthah says here. Though in the NASB it reads “I and my people were at great strife,” a better translation would read “I and my people were contentious.” The word “contentious” intentionally places Jephthah in the same class as the Ephraimites (“Then the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’ and they contended with him vigorously”-8:1). Here, Jephthah reminds these would-be aggressors that his entire public life has been characterized by contention (and winning against aggressors). The Ephraimites may not have realized it yet, but in Jephthah, these hostile cousins had met their match (Block, Judges, Ruth, 381).

Also, Jephthah reminds the Ephraimites that “when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand” (12:2b).  Paraphrase—It is not like you were not invited to help. You missed out and it is your fault.

Annoyed by this affront from the Ephraimites, Jephthah continues with a self-congratulatory report of what he and his people were able to accomplish without Ephraim’s help—“ When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the sons of Ammon, and the Lord gave them into my hand…” (12:3a). While this might sound pious by the end of the statement, ultimately, Jephthah is couching a very personal, defensive, and self-serving presentation in holy language to mask his frustration.

Jephthah then asks, “Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?” (12:3b). It is an honest question given by an exhausted and grievous man who, perhaps, was looking forward to some relative normalcy following his victory over the sons of Ammon. However, as the reader has witnessed and as we have all grown to expect, in the Book of Judges, normalcy and peace is impossible in a nation that has forgotten God and his ways.

In this case Jephthah’s negotiating/verbal presentation did not do anything to assuage the wrath of Ephraim. Instead, the very next verse reveals that conflict ensues between these two groups—“Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, ‘You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh.’…” (12:4). It appears what finally pushes Jephthah over the edge is a personal insult/attack. The Ephraimites call the Gileadites “fugitives…in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh” (12:4). This pejorative accusation was intended to touch an especially sore spot in Jephthah’s own experience. After all, remember, Jephthah was born of a harlot and for a time was ostracized by his own brothers! This is a verbal missile lodged by Ephraim targeting an especially insecure and sore spot in Jephthah’s life.

The escalation of this conflict follows the following trajectory: 1) Jealousy/feeling left out (just as in the case of the Ephraimites) leads to 2) a conflict on questionable/shaky grounds and 3) once reason/rationality is ignored 4) things devolve into personal attacks that leave very little room for peaceful resolution/restitution. Remember, these are fellow Israelites here! The real enemy—the sons of Ammon—have already been taken care of. This unfortunate episode ought to serve as a cautionary tale for us all who would either deliberately or accidentally find ourselves fighting the wrong enemy and/or inadvertently entering winless battles.

The fallout that ensues takes the following shape—“The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’…” (12:5a). Jephthah responds to the personal insult by capturing all the access points across the Jordan River, keeping the Ephraimites who had crossed the Jordan to pick a fight from returning to their land. The use of “fugitives” here turns the insult that Ephraim lodged Jephthah’s way back against them. Who are the fugitives now? Ephraim was away from home and now had no way of getting back! The only way to cross the Jordan River was by answering the questions at these new checkpoints correctly.  The first of these questions was “are you an Ephraimite?”

“If he said ‘No,’ Then they would say to him, ‘Say now, “Shibboleth.”’ But he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it correctly…” (12:5b-6a). At these checkpoints suspicious characters were commanded to say “Shibboleth.” Newly appointed Gileadite TSA agents knew that the Ephraimites pronounced this word “sibbolet” given the way certain words were pronounced in their region. It was a clever means of exposing those Ephraimites trying to head home by way of crossing the Jordan River.

Clever and devastatingly effective. Those mispronouncing the word were captured and killed with great efficiency—“Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim…” (12:6b). This conflict and the outcome historically significant for at least a couple of reasons. First, it serves to establish the Jordan River as a geographical and psychological barrier between eastern and western Israelites. It also reinforces a negative connotation toward the Ephraimites who are portrayed as the principal instigators of discord in Israel during this period. What we are beginning to see here is the makings of a civil war in Israel. By the time of Jephthah, Israel has become its own worst enemy. God’s silence is deafening and he appears content to let the nation destroy itself (Block, Judges, Ruth, 384). Again, what caused this slaughter and the seeds of civil war? A silly dispute that turned personal served as the principle catalyst of this great distress.

b. PRESENTATION #2: A Series of Successions-12:7-15

The end of Jephthah’s tenure is described in verse 7—“Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead” (12:7). Jephthah’s cycle ends tragically—no children and civil war. Though God had proven silent throughout much of Jephthah’s leadership, he was never absent and kept the nation of Israel from totally destroying itself. In fact, the nation, miraculously endured.

What follows is an account of so-called minor judges. This brief list gives the reader a much-needed emotional break after Jephthah’s account. First on the list is Ibzan—“Now Ibzan of Bethlehem judges Israel after him. He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters whom he gave in marriage outside the family, and he brought in thirty daughters from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem…” (12:8-10). The emphasis here on the number of children and intermarriage suggests that Israel was experiencing some level of unity and divine blessing during this period—stability and peace that extended, in Ibzan’s case in the southern region of Bethlehem.

Relative peace and unity also extended into the northern territory of Zebulun under Elon—“Now Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel after him; and he judged Israel ten years. Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zeubulun…” (12:11-12).

The same set of affairs continues in the centrally located area of Pirathon under Abdon—“ Now Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel after him. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys; and he judged Israel eight years. Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites…” (12:13-15).

A couple of things to point out of these quick accounts as the story of Judges moves forward. First, the numerous children given to these leaders stands in stark contrast to the one child that Jephthah had killed, once again highlighting just how tragic that sacrifice of his daughter proved. Second, these children were presumably born from numerous wives, suggesting that these leaders, like Gideon before them, had a harem. In other words, these leaders didn’t show concern at all for the law of God. Not only that, but the image of Abdon’s sons and grandsons riding on donkeys has a royal flavor to it.

2 Samuel 13:29b-“… Then all the king's sons arose and each mounted his mule and fled.”

2 Samuel 16:2-“Now when David had passed a little beyond the summit, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him with a couple of saddled donkeys”

The donkey’s in Judges 12 suggest that these leaders were at least posturing as dynastic rulers similar to the pagan nations that surrounded them (something that was not permitted by God) (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 367). Another thing to observe about these accounts is their personal nature. While these families may have proposed in the world’s eyes during this period, nothing is said about the national welfare of Israel. The Lord is sustaining this nation in spite of these adulterous, lawless, and self-important personalities and Israel is only hanging on, in God’s grace, by a thread.

So What?

Before we learn what God uses to break that thread in the next chapter of Judges, let us take time to reflect on what we might learn from this passage and apply to our lives today. Though we have not just defeated the sons of Ammon and may not be confronted by a disgruntled cousin because they were not a part of the war, jealousy, insecurity, and injured senses of self-importance continue to spoil relationships today. These factors and/or issues can birth conflicts that get irrational, personal, and even devastating. What is worse, such conflicts often target the wrong enemy—the people of God. Israel had much more important things with which to deal. There were much bigger fish to fry, fires to put out, problems to solve.  The same is true today. With the pandemic and growing pressure facing the people of God today, it is inappropriate at least and near deadly at worst to allow these kinds of issues and infighting to infiltrate the church.  As it was in the Judges so too is it today—God is the ultimate hero of the story and it is ultimately his glory that we all ought to seek. It is when we turn our eyes from this that we run the risk of causing division, strife, and heartache.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Two Wrongs do NOT make a Right- Judges 11:29-40


Have you ever had an experience in which you did something that you thought was harmless and it landed you into trouble? Have you ever made a situation worse by responding to something too hastily? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then you are going to identify on some level with the drama that we are going to watch unfold in Judges 11:29-40. In this ancient account, Jephthah makes two mistakes that collectively contribute to a tragedy that incurs an unusually awful blemish on Israel’s history. By observing the two acts of this play we will learn that two wrongs do not make a right. We will also learn what our reaction ought to be when we find ourselves in a mess that we have created for ourselves.

a. ACT 1: Jephthah’s Triumph-11:29-33

While in the last passage Jephthah had already assumed a leadership role in the lives of his people (read 11:4ff), it is in verse 29 that Jephthah becomes judge—“Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (11:29a). It is ultimately the Spirit of God that sets Jephthah apart—not his family, not his talent as a resourceful warrior, nor anything else. The Spirit has been the change agent for all of the judges in this book. It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned Othniel (a younger brother) into a successful deliverer (see 3:9ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that empowered a left-handed knife wielder (Ehud) to kill an oppressive king (see 3:15ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned a hesitant Barak and Deborah into a dynamic duo used to overthrow the king of Canaan (4:1ff). It was the Spirit of the Lord that turned the coward Gideon into a fearless victor (7:1ff). Here, once again, the Spirit of the Lord makes the difference. In Jepthah’s case, it was the Spirit of the Lord that turned a shunned brother and son of a harlot into a successful deliverer. In all these cases and in our case as well, it is the Spirit of the Lord that turns our weakness into strength, limits into surpluses, faults into fuel, and failures into victories.  

Also, because it is the Spirit of the Lord that empowers Jephthah for his task, ultimately, God (through Jephthah) serves as judge. This is sympathetic to what Jephthah declared earlier in verse 27—“may the Lord, the Judge, judge today,…”. Because Jephthah acts as one empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, ultimately God gets the credit for the victory!

The Spirit directs Jephthah through the region to meet the oppressors head on in the remainder of verse 29—“then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon…” (11:29b). Though we are not told what he did as he passed through this land, some speculate that perhaps he blew the trumpet throughout the region, summoning all able-bodied men to arms (not unlike Gideon in 6:34-35).

Though Jephthah has been empowered by the Spirit and appears confident in the coming victory, what he does next suggests that he wants to hedge his bets (he may not be totally convinced that God is going to come through). For this reason, Jephthah does something that looks pious and acceptable, but something that is going to throw open the door for great pain and tragedy—“Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand,…” (11:30). Make no mistake, Jephthah does not make this vow because of the Spirit’s influence on his life, he makes this vow independent of the Spirit’s influence. This demonstrates here that empowerment by the Spirit does not automatically negate human will (Chisholm). Jephthah is still allowed to say and do things on his own volition and at least here, his choice has the potential of getting him into deep trouble.

Jephthah tries to leave nothing to chance. Again, perhaps he is not yet completely confident of the victory that is coming and so, in a demonstration of extreme caution, he makes a vow to the Lord, promising the Lord something in return for granting the victory. Though there does not appear to be anything inherently evil about this promise (as vows to deities in prayers for deliverance were commonplace in the ancient world), it is unnecessary for several reasons. 1) God’s empowering Spirit should have served as its own confirmation that Jephthah and the Israelites would be successful. 2) As we have seen time and time again, God is not the kind of deity that can be bought or manipulated by mankind to do their bidding; he does what he wants. 3) Jephthah’s cause was just (as explained in 12-28) and God was already on their side. This suggested that victory was already God’s plan in the first place. Regardless of all this, Jephthah makes a vow anyway.

“Then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’…” (11:31). Perhaps negotiating is both a strength and a weakness for Jephthah. After all, had he not negotiated a leadership role with the same brothers who once shunned him? While bargaining/negotiating may have proven to be an effective tactic in his dealings with the Gileadites, Jephthah did not need to bargain/seek to manipulate God into showing him favor. Even still, Jephthah promises God whatever comes out the door of his house when he returns from his victory over the sons of Ammon—“It shall be the Lords and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’…” (11:31). Though this might prove relatively harmless on the surface, this vow is both unnecessary and inappropriate, especially given the mosaic law that laid out very specific prescriptions concerning sacrifices. Only unblemished male sheep, ox, or goats were considered appropriate offerings to the Lord. If, say a chicken or lame lamb (or something even more inappropriate) came running out of the house, it would be unsuitable to the Lord. This vow smacks of ignorance concerning the law of God as given just two generations prior by Moses—the kind of ignorance that will land Jephthah in a great deal of trouble.

This vow is followed by the statement of Israel’s victory. “So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand…” (11:32). Notice how the victory is framed—“the Lord gave them into his hand” (11:32). God is given the credit that he is due given that it was his spirit who empowered Jephthah to lead his people into the victory that he planned. This begs the same question introduced earlier: if God is so for this and behind all this, why did Jephthah feel the need to make a vow in the first place?

The nature of the victory God gave Jephthah and his people is captured in verse 33—“He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel…”. The way that this is framed suggests that Jephthah, unlike some of his predecessors, did not do more than he had to in his victory over this threat. While Gideon chased his enemies well into their territory and Abimelech who made overkill a habit, Jephthah targets those regions that traced the border between Israel and Ammon where the oppressive advances were being made—no more no less. Such restraint on Jephthah’s part is refreshing in the Book of Judges. By destroying these border fortifications, Jephthah eliminated the pressure the sons of Ammon were applying to Israel. What a triumph for God’s people!

b. ACT 2: Jephthah’s Tragedy-11:34-40

However, triumph quickly turns into tragedy upon the very next verse as we enter act two of this somber play. The reader suffers near whiplash as the next words are read in verse 34 and we are slapped with a disastrous situation wrapped in a wholesome and warm image—“When Jephthah came to this house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing” (11:34a). The portrait of the young girl is painted in the most sympathetic and attractive of colors (Block, Judges, Ruth, 370). Upon hearing of her father’s victories in battle why would Jephthah’s daughter not be first among those rushing out to greet him as be came over the hill or turned the corner. Her ecstasy is equal parts relief after missing her daddy and pride after hearing of his success.

These sentiments become all the more agonizingly sweet and somber as we learn more about this girl—“Now she was his one and only child; besides here he had no son or daughter” (11:34b). She was extra special as she was Jephthah’s “one and only!” This expression, used also in the context of Abraham and Isaac’s relationship in Genesis 22, links the two passages together. In Genesis 22 Abraham was called of God to prove his faith by being willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice unto the Lord. Abraham goes through the motions of the ritual only to have it interrupted by God who provides a substitute in Isaac’s place—a ram caught in a thicket. This illustrated that Yahweh, the one true God, would not relate to his people (Abraham and his descendants) the same way that the pagan gods did of their subjects. While false Gods in the ancient world asked for and required child sacrifices to be appeased, God, after setting Abraham apart to start a new nation for the Lord, suggests a different way to relate—substitutionary atonement for sin via animal sacrifices. This new way celebrates a high value on human life while also maintaining a severe view of sin and how to deal with it.

Given this background and what has already been shared about the nature of suitable sacrifices as prescribed in the Law of Moses, Jephthah’s daughter was anything but a viable candidate for an offering. She is female, not male, and she is a human, not a sheep, ox, or goat.

Jephthah seems to have forgotten all this, perhaps because of the pagan influence that had so clouded God’s people during this period, or perhaps out of sheer ignorance, or perhaps out of self-preservation in lieu of the vow he made earlier. The text reads, “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord and I cannot take it back.” (11:35).  Notice where Jephthah places the blame for his predicament—on his daughter! “You have brought me low…you…trouble me” (11:35). Jephthah does not appear concerned for his daughter as much as he is frustrated that she ran out to meet him, ensuring her death. Also, it appears as though Jephthah did not want God to somehow go back and return the victory that he had just given them if he didn’t follow through with his foolish vow.

What is perhaps even more surprising than Jephthah’s reaction and rationale to his daughter’s emergence is how his daughter responds—“So she said to him, ‘My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon’…” (11:36). It is obvious that the pagan notion of manipulating and/or bargaining with the gods had so infected Israel at this point that even Jephthah’s own daughter traced a direct relationship between Israel’s victory and Jephthah’s vow. However, once again, the God of Israel is not bought or pressured by anyone to do anything. He is not easily worked as the false gods were believed to be. That said, the daughter is just as misinformed as her dad and out of love and devotion to him and her people reaches the same conclusion that Jephthah reaches—I must go through with this lest God go back on the victory he has given. Jephthah’s “daughter agrees with him, parroting his faulty reasoning,” perhaps indicating that she “accepts the same foreign…assumptions about sacrifice that her father does” (Janzen, 2005, 347-48). However, did not Genesis 22 teach that sacrificing humans was intolerable to God and suggest that God would never require such from his people (as it was a pagan practice and would lump his chosen people in with the child sacrificers in the world)? Also, Leviticus 27:1-8 suggests that in cases involving on person vowing another, there were protocols in place that could annul that vow if the person found it impossible or impractical to fulfill the vow. While the case in Leviticus is quite different that Jephthah’s situation here, if there were measures that could be taken to annul vows in less serious matters, certainly these would apply in more severe cases involving the very life of a human being. Neither Jephthah nor his daughter seem to be privy to the context of Genesis 22 or aware of Levitical law, again highlighting just how desperate Israel was in this period.

Instead, “she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may got to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions,…” (11:37). All Jephthah’s unnamed daughter asks is that her father give her leave for two months before they follow through with this. The emphasis on her virginity is meant to highlight her unmet potential. She had not yet married and not yet birthed a child. These were culturally significant milestones in the ancient world that she would never meet, adding to the tragedy for the original audience.

Jephthah consents to this request in relatively cold terms and places distance between her and himself as the story unfolds—“Then he said, ‘Go.’ So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man….” (11:38-39a). In seeking to do good by making good on his vow, Jephthah performs an unspeakable horror on his daughter—a horror for which God was not pleased and did not required of him in the first place.

Here is where it might prove instructive to compare this tragic play with the triumph of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. In Genesis 22 we have a test of the commitment of Abraham. In Judges 11 Jephthah seeks to test God by making his vow. In Genesis 22 God takes the initiative in commanding the sacrifice by speaking directly to Abraham. In Judges 11, God makes not such demand of Jephthah and instead Jephthah is the sole speaker. In Genesis 22 the father demonstrates great love for his “one and only” by traveling to the place of sacrifice with his son. In Judges 11 love is less defined for the “one and only” as she leaves to the mountains for a time before things are fulfilled. In Genesis 22 there is a passive acceptance of the fate that is coming on Abraham’s part. In Judges 11 there is an energetic insistence on the fate that is coming on Jephthah’s part. In Genesis 22 the ritual is interrupted by the voice of God and in Judges 11 the ritual is fulfilled because of the silence of God. “Whereas Abraham’s (near) sacrifice of his son assured him of a hope and a future, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter robbed him of both” (adapted from Block, Judges, Ruth, 372).

This tragic play ends with a memorial in verses 39b-40—“Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year,…” (11:39b-40). We are not told what happened during these days of remembrance, but what we do know is that this episode proved to be a stain on Israel’s history for many years to come following the events in Judges 11:29-40.

So What?

Ultimately what we learn from the triumph and tragedy in Judges 11:29-40 is that two wrongs do not make a right. In this tragedy, Jephthah is wrong on both ends—wrong for making a vow he did not need to make (and an inappropriate one at that) and wrong for following through on this vow after his daughter runs out to meet him. Concerning the first infraction, it is wrong to barter with God. We cannot manipulate God into doing what we want any more that I can make a round square! “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). This was Jephthah’s first mistake. Rather than accept in faith the victory that God would bring Israel, he makes a careless vow in an added effort to assure himself that God would come through for him and his people. In so doing, he landed himself in a very precarious position—a position for which he believed there was only one way out (sacrificing his daughter). This was Jephthah’s second mistake. Rather than learn from those who have gone before him (Abraham and Isaac), rather than explore the mosaic protocols that were given that could annul this vow, his ignorance or race to preserve what he believed he had a hand in earning caused him to quickly conclude that the only way forward was to fulfill a vow he shouldn’t have made in the first place. In so doing, he killed his one and only daughter. Jephthah should have understood upon a moment’s reflection that God does not delight in such sacrifices (“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. ”—Psalm 51:16). Instead of offering his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord (making a bad situation unthinkable), Jephthah should have come confessing and contrite before the Lord after his first mistake (making the vow). This would have been pleasing to the Lord –My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

Such is pleasing to the Lord because there is nothing that we can offer him that will make us right with him. When we mess things up, our first inclination should not be to rush to be our own savior. Instead, we should rush to the salvation God alone provides. God made things right with us by offering his one and only Son—the only suitable human and divine sacrifice, capable of forgiving us all our wrongdoing and restoring us to the Lord. Jesus Christ came, was offered on the cross, and found victory from the grave so that all of our wrongs might be made right. We cannot do this for ourselves and when/if we try, we make a mess of things. So rather than rush to fix the problems that you may or may not have gotten yourself into, be led by the Spirit to run to the Lord  Jesus. There is where you will find healing, answers, reconciliation, and hope. There is where we are kept from making a bad situation far worse.

Monday, August 3, 2020

A Promising Start-Judges 11:1-28

The season that we are currently in has a funny way of keeping people humble. Everyone who is honest with themselves knows that the problems our world and country face with the pandemic what it is, economy what it is, politics what they are, and other pressures that exist are beyond any single person’s pay grade to solve. Over the last several months we have come face-to-face with the realization that we cannot guarantee our own victory in any number of things (in all things). Add to this what we know about ourselves and those personal struggles, idiosyncrasies, past experiences, and the chapters of our lives that we choose not to read aloud, and it is any wonder that we ever grow haughty, prideful, and self-sufficient, believing that we can conquer this world and all the things therein in our own strength. In Judges 11 we are introduced to a new deliverer—Jephthah. His introduction and installation in Israel teaches readers how they can remain dependent on the Lord to do what only he can do when/if they are tempted to do things by themselves.

a. A Truly Humble Beginning-11:1-3

When we last left Israel, they were searching for their next deliverer to help save them from a new and frightening set of oppressors—the sons of Ammon and the Philistines. We were left dangling by the cliff-hanger of 10:18 which asked “Who is next?” and in verse 1 of chapter 11 we find quick relief with the introduction of Jephthah—“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior,…” (11:1a). What we learn of Jephthah upon his introduction is given to us by means of three descriptors in this verse—his name, his heritage, and his character. First, “Jephthah” means “god has opened” indicating, perhaps, his mom’s great joy in being able to conceive and bear this son. Second, “the Gileadite” reveals what family and region Jephthah calls home. Later we will learn that Jephthah is a bona fide Gileadite with a noble father who bears the same name as his people. Third, “a valiant warrior” tells us something of his character. The story in the remainder of chapter 11 will portray Jephthah as a “resourceful warrior, one without any hint of timidity” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 352). This quick introduction immediately establishes Jephthah as the next deliverer in Israel.

However, as with many of the other deliverers, Jephthah is far from perfect (at least by ancient standards). The text indicates this with the conjunction “but” that introduces the second half of verse 1—“but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (11:1b). Sure Jephthah may have had a noble father and all of the blessings appertaining thereunto, but his mom was, as the Bible describes her, a harlot. God was highly intolerant of any sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage, including those with professional prostitutes. What is worse, some have suggested that Jephthah’s mom was not just a harlot but a Canaanite harlot at that! In this way Jephthah takes his place among flawed people called upon to lead Israel. Ehud was left-handed, Barak was hesitant, Gideon was a coward, Abimelech was the son of a concubine, and Jephthah too is illegitimately born into a noble family.  

Jephtah’s precarious birth later comes back to haunt him. Jephthah’s mom and questions of his illegitimacy is eventually used as cover to shun him out of the family—“Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman,’…” (11:2). While on the surface the issue seems to be that Jephthah is a not a full sibling to these other children, the text makes it clear that it was the inheritance that motivated this expulsion from the family (it is always about the money). “Whether Jephthah, as the firstborn, had rights to a double portion, or whether they were divided equally…elimination of one party would increase the shares of the others” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVPBBC, 267).

“So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him…” (11:3). While readers might be driven to sympathy for this would-be deliverer given the ill-treatment of his brothers and his humble beginnings, one cannot help but draw parallels between Jephthah and Abimelech (and we all remember how unsympathetic a character he was earlier). Neither man was a full-fledged son and both gathered around themselves “lawless men”/”worthless fellows” (see 9:4). Yikes, is this cycle going to go the way of Abimelech (bloody, corrupt, etc.)?

With the introduction of this new deliverer out of the way, the story continues in verse 4.

b. A Very Peculiar Calling-11:4-11

“It came about after a while that the sons of Ammon fought against Israel. When the sons of Ammon fought against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob;…” (11:4-5). We return in verse 4 to the struggle between Israel and her oppressors and Israel’s search for relief from the mounting pressure. Due to the size of the threat and the growing need for “all hands on deck,” The brothers who once shunned Jephthah into obscurity now call out to him for help.
However, more than just calling for help, they call him to be their leader-“Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon” (11:6). This is curious for several reasons. Why would Jephthah’s family who once drove him out of town now want him to be their leader? Is it because he, in their minds, is expendable and they would rather him be the target for the arrows of Ammon? Or is it because Jephthah had already developed a reputation for skill in battle and effectiveness in leading campaigns alongside his band of worthless men? Regardless of why he is called to lead so quickly, Jephthah is going to milk this request for everything it is worth.

“Then Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?’…” (11:7). Jephthah seizes the irony of the situation by asking them why having sentenced him to a life of perpetual distress, should he now come to them when they were in trouble (Block, Judges, Ruth, 355). Jephthah finds himself in a relatively powerful position, holding all the proverbial cards. The last thing that he wants is to be used by the very family that shunned him earlier. Apparently Jephthah perceives that the elders are trying to acquire Jephthah’s services at the lowest possible price. Dragging things out here might get his half-brothers to offer him more in return for his services (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 346).

“The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘For this reason we have now returned to you, that you may go with us and fight with the sons of Ammon and become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’…” (11:8). In this response to Jephthah’s inquiry, the elders state that regardless of what has occurred, they have returned to him and are prepared to make it worth his while if he decides to join forces with them against the sons of Ammon. They offer Jephthah the presidency over all the residents of Gilead if he will come and help bring the victory over this new threat.

Despite this offer, Jephthah is not going to let them off that easy, he continues to drag them along in verse 9—“So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘If you take me back to fight against the sons of Ammon and the Lord gives them up to me, will I become your head?’…” (11:9). Paraphrase: “you mean, you will make me king? Little ol me? Really?”

“The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘The Lord is witness between us; surely we will do as you have said.’…” (11:10). Paraphrase: “Yes, we promise.” Jephthah has successfully manipulated them into offering him the rulership of his people. Satisfied that his demands have been met for his services, he agrees to help. “…Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah…” (11:10). Thankfully, the reader can breathe a sigh of relief. Jephthah is not the same person as Abimelech before him (though there are some similarities). Unlike Abimelech who came to power through murder and whose campaign was financed by money from a pagan treasury, Jephthah did not actively pursue leadership (at least initially), does not resort to violence, and appears to be a worshiper of the Lord (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 347).

c. A Tired Old Dispute-11:12-26

Now that Jephthah’s leadership has been established, he must confront the new threat facing Israel. This Jephthah does in verses 12-13 and in so doing arrives at the underlining reasons for this conflict—“Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, ‘What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?’ The king of the sons of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, ‘Because Israel took away my land when they came up from Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok and the Jordan; therefore, return them peaceably now.’…” (11:12-13). The issue between these two parties is land. The Ammonites believed that their jurisdiction had been invaded by those God led out of Egypt and they would like these escaped slaves to leave the premises.

Obviously there has been some confusion and Jephthah races to clear it up—“But Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the sons of Ammon, and they said to him, ‘Thus says Jephthah, “Israel did not take away the land of Moab nor the land of the sons of Ammon. For when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. Then they went through the wilderness and around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our place.’ But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people and camped in Jahaz and fought with Israel. The Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. So they possessed all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan. Since now the Lord, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it? Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God has driven out before us, we will possess it. Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive with Israel, or did he ever fight against them? While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?...” (11:14-26). Amid all the technicalities and history that Jephthah reports there are three takeaways that the reader needs to learn from this defense. 1) In many cases, Israel sought to pass through territories, not take them over and it was only when safe passage was not granted that God gave the land into their hands. 2) The land currently in dispute was taken from the Amorites, not the Ammonites. So why are the Ammonites laying claim to it now that Israel possesses it? If they have a problem with anyone, it would be with the Amorites not Israel. 3) Israel has taken over other regions without problems with neighbors, why is this different? Jephthah determines to keep what the Lord has given to Israel and suggests that the sons of Ammon had their chance to right wrongs in the past but they had missed their opportunity. Now was not the time to pick a fight with God’s people.  

d. A Firm Resolution-11:27-28

Jephthah puts it even more simply as his firm resolution is made in verses 27-28. The first element of this resolution is a concluding indictment against God’s enemies—“I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me;…” (11:27a). Here Jephthah concludes his speech with a declaration of his personal innocence and a direct accusation of wrongdoing on the part of the Ammonites for their military aggression against Israel (Block, Judges, Ruth, 363).

Immediately following this indictment is Jephthah’s commitment to let God ultimately take care of the matter in question—“may the Lord, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon’” (11:27b). This is a rare but important acknowledgement of God’s ultimately authority and power in Judges. While in other episodes that we have examined in the book people have grown self-absorbed and self-confident in the midst of conflict, here, at the beginning of this chapter, Jephthah acknowledges that this is ultimately God’s fight for God’s people and God will see them through by judging the Ammonites accordingly. Jephthah is confident in his cause because his confidence lies not in himself, but in his God. this is a lesson that we must all learn from today as we navigate the struggles and difficulties we may come across.

But before we talk about how this all applies to us in appropriate ways, it is important that we at least mention the response of the Ammonites to Jephthah’s case—“But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him,…” (11:28). While Jephthah would have liked to handle this dispute with words and not rush to the battlefield, this response on the part of the sons of Ammon makes military conflict inevitable.

So What?

Regardless of whether Jephthah will maintain this posture of reliance on the Lord and commitment to him moving forward remains to be seen. However, this posture of trusting the Lord with all things and refraining from dependence on oneself is one that all God’s people should assume, regardless of what threats they come up against. Though our world of self-reliance and self-sufficiency would have us believe that “we can do it!” no matter what, the Bible unapologetically reveals that we cannot fight the battles we come against well and reach the victory on the other side in and through our own power. Jephthah realized this early in his tenure as judge. While he was called to serve as judge, God was the ultimate judge in the situation.  Similarly, while the Lord might call us to be agents of change, witness, leadership, and light, only God can provide the transformation, supply the truth, serve as sovereign Lord, and provide the light its source. Maintaining this perspective requires that we remember from whence we came. I imagine that Jephthah’s humble beginnings and early issues with his brothers went a long way in reminding him of his dependency on the Lord to ultimately fight his battles for him (at least here). Similarly, before God called us into his service we were completely flawed and scarred. Remembering this keeps us from believing our own press and helps us return to God all the glory for what he does in and through us and in and through his church.