Thursday, February 25, 2021

Thank You God- Colossians 1:1-8

 I do not know about you, but I love receiving letters, especially those that are hand-written. Fewer things bring me more encouragement than to know someone has taken the time to put pen to paper to share their thoughts with me—encouraging words, thanks, sympathy, etc.. Though this is a dying art in many parts of our world today, in Bible times, it was the primary means of long-distance communication. Before email, text, or phones, people were limited to communicating via letters that were delivered by trusted couriers to their intended recipients. Today we are going to begin reading and studying one of these ancient letters—a letter written by Paul to the church in Colossae. Imagine with me if you would how excited you would be as a small church in a relatively obscure location to receive a letter from the apostle Paul. Imagine how eager you would be to open it and share it with your congregation that next Sunday. Thankfully, while this letter was written to a specific church at a specific time, in a specific context, to address specific issues, we can stand to learn a lot of important principles from what is shared by Paul in this personal correspondence and apply what he says in our world today. Let us begin today by exploring four reasons why Paul is thankful for the faith found in Colossae in the opening verses of this epistle—Colossians 1:1-8.

Before we look at the four reasons given for being thankful, let us examine the opening greeting and background of this letter. First, we learn that this letter is written by Paul, the apostle, and is being sent with both his and Timothy’s salutations—“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother” (1:1). Very few if any reputable scholars have seriously questioned that this letter has Paul as its author (that is, until the nineteenth century and even there the evidence to the contrary is slim). Paul writes this letter as one with apostolic authority—very high credentials that would have made those who received the letter sit up straight and pay careful attention to its contents. This letter, like those to the Philippians Ephesians, and to Philemon, are among the correspondences Paul wrote while imprisoned in Rome “the “Prison Epistles” around 60AD. It is from this captivity that Paul is moved of the Holy Spirit to send word to several churches to provide much-needed encouragement and correction.

This particular epistle is written “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae” (1:2a). This reference to the recipients identifies a specific group by means of two locations (one spiritual and one geographic) (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 189). First, they are “in Christ.” It is important to recognize that Paul is writing to those who are already saved and pursuing Christ together in this specific congregation. Their position in Christ will come up again as Paul will address several theological concerns later. Second, they are in “Colossae” (a small town that saw itself on the decline in Asia Minor). What prompts him to write to this relatively small and obscure church? As the letter unfolds, we will learn that false teachers threatened to undermine what the church planter and others like Epaphras had taught them when the church was founded. The consequences of these false teachers and their message threatened to remove the church from its strong Christian foundation and Paul seeks to prevent that by providing much-needed clarification on some of the foundational doctrines of the faith (particularly Christology) and explain how these doctrines ought to impact a believer’s life.

After the source and recipients are identified, Paul issues his greeting—“grace to you and peace from God our Father” (1:2b). This is a familiar greeting that the apostle often provides which identifies both the basis of a new life in Christ (“grace”) and the result of that new life in Christ (“peace”) which are sourced in “God our Father.” Paul greets this church as a fellow believer who has and continues to benefit from God’s program of salvation—even while sitting in a prison cell.


Following this greeting, Paul demonstrates his thankfulness for the faith witnessed in the church of Colossae. The apostle often begins his letters in this way, even if he had never personally met the people in the Church (see Romans), or if the church was in a very rough way (see 1 Corinthians), or if it was threatened by heresy (as here in Colossians). Paul writes in verse 3—“We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3a).

Paul’s thankfulness in verses 3-8 comes in the form of a prayer that celebrates several reasons he is grateful—“praying always for you” (1:3b). In fact, the passage contains several synonyms for prayer (“praying,” “giving thanks,” “asking”) that together demonstrate the importance of prayer for Paul. The significance of prayer for Paul was not just witnessed in the many different verbs he chooses to use for prayer, but in the form these verbs take—they are present progressives. The church was regularly in Paul’s mind and prayer life constantly. These prayers were also personal (“for you”) and directed to God. These prayers were also more concerned about people than they were events. such are just some of the hallmarks of Paul’s prayer life that he intends to share with the church (consistency in prayer, personally focused prayer, and prayer preoccupied with people). Here, “The joys and concerns of the Colossian congregation meant enough to Paul that he prayed about them” often (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 194).

Are the concerns and people in your church consistently in your mind and in your prayer life? Are you moved by the concerns and joys of God’s people today enough to pray for them consistently and in a variety of ways? Though this is not a major thrust of this passage, Paul’s example of prayer for God’s people in Colossae is especially compelling. Spend a few moments right now in prayer for your church and the people therein. Pray specifically, that they might be kept from false teaching and be encouraged by the grace of God and the peace that comes with salvation. Pray a prayer of thanksgiving, much as Paul does here, for the church and the people therein.

After framing his thanksgiving in the context of prayer, Paul finally reveals the first thing for which he is thankful in verse 4—“since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints” (1:4). Here, the apostle is thankful for the presence of faith and love which evidenced the Christian character of the Colossians church (as the two go hand-in-hand). News of the Colossians’ “faith in Christ Jesus” had revealed to Paul that this was a believing church—believing in the person and work of Christ. However, this was not just a believing church, this was a behaving church (as one necessarily leads to the other). Not only did they evidence true belief in their theological convictions, they demonstrated true belief in “the love which [they had] for all the saints” (1:4). This particular use of “love” (“agape”) with the definite article and the phrase “for all the saints” reveals at least two truths about this church. First, they employed a sacrificial love each other that modeled Christ’s own sacrifice. Second, this love was indiscriminate—“for all the saints.” In other words, the love this church demonstrated among its membership modeled the love of Christ both in nature and in scope (sacrificial and wide-ranging—John 3:16). Elsewhere, Jesus indicates that love for the brethren is the distinguishing mark of true faith in him.

John 13:35-“"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."”

Such love fulfills two objectives: it represents Jesus to the world and it builds up the body of Christ (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 196). The church of Colossae was fulfilling these objectives as evidenced by true faith, resulting love for all the saints in the congregation.

This was truly something for which Paul could be thankful. He is writing a church that “gets it” about Jesus. This was evidenced in proper orthodoxy AND orthopraxy. Could the same be said of those in our church? If Paul wrote to Crystal Spring Baptist, would he be able to give thanks for the faith witnessed here, evidenced in our beliefs and love for one another?


After celebrating the faith witnessed in the lives of those in the church of Colossae, Paul gives thanks for the basis for faith as found in the gospel. First, he applauds the result of the gospel—“because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (1:5a). A gospel-focused life is one that looks up and ahead for inspiration and persevering strength. Consider what Paul saw when he looked around him—the walls of a prison cell, threats from all angles, churches dealing with a host of issues. If that is all that Paul took time to consider, you can imagine that he would get really discouraged very quickly. However, his focus was directed to “the hope laid up…in heaven” and it is to that hope that he directs this church here in the beginning of verse 5. In fact, so sure is this hope that the present tense of the verb suggests this hope is being stored up and will continue to remain on reserve for God’s people.

What are you spending your time thinking about, looking at, considering. If the spirit of thanksgiving that we witness in this text is missing from your life, perhaps you are not looking up and ahead as often as you should to consider what is waiting for believers in heaven.

This hope in what is to come for God’s people is rooted in the gospel message. Paul continues in his remarks by remembering the reception of the gospel in the lives of those in the church of Colossae—“of which you previously hear in the word of truth, the gospel” (1:5b). The gospel (good news of Jesus Christ—the good news that is from, about, and is Jesus Christ), is the basis of faith that inspires hope and for this Paul is exceedingly thankful. The way that Paul describes the gospel here is especially telling given the occasion of the letter. It is called the “word of truth” and ought to be distinguished from false gospels that are full of lies. The definite article used in “the word of truth” might be considered an article of exclusivity—i.e. “the only word of truth.” Do not be confused, there is only one message that saves and brings ultimate hope to people—it is the message of Jesus Christ.

John 14:6—“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes unto the Father accept through me.”

Therefore, the basis of faith that Paul celebrates here is in a particular word (the true gospel) about a particular person (Jesus Christ) that provides a particular hope (in heaven) for those who believe.


The third and final thing for which Paul gives thanks in this opening prayer is the testimony of faith in verses 6-8. The first element of the gospel testimony that is praiseworthy is its enormous scope—“which has come to you, just as in all the world” (1:6a). Paul marveled at the rapid and global spread of the gospel message. To be sure, in just a short time (a few years), the gospel had made its way out of Jerusalem and spread to the major corners of the Roman Empire, even reaching into Asia minor (where Colossae was). The fact that the gospel has reached new people everywhere was something that Paul celebrated and desired for the church to celebrate along with him.

Not only had the gospel reached many contexts in and around the Roman empire, but Paul says, “also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing” (1:6b). “The actual terms used, when pressed to their original ideas, suggest reproductive capability (‘bearing fruit’) and maturing capability (‘increasing’) (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 198). In other words, the gospel not only creates converts, but breeds disciples. It is the only transformative message that is truly capable of such life change and for this Paul give thanks.

Rom 1:16-“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Eph 1:13-14-“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

1 Cor 5:17-“ Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

The gospel, according to Paul, had not just traveled the greatest distance (“all the world”) it instilled the greatest transformation (“constantly bearing fruit and increasing”).

The church of Colossae knew these things firsthand given their own testimony as recorded in verses 6-7—“ even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bondservant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on your behalf,…” (1:6c-7). This church had been personally reached and affected by the gospel in a profound way. They had their own testimony of life change brought about by the redemption story of Jesus Christ and the proof was witnessed in their love.

4. THE RESULT OF FAITH-1:8-“…and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit,…”

Paul continues with “and he also informed us of your love in the Spirit” (1:8). Love is the residue of repentance. Love is the fruit of saving faith. Love is the calling card of one’s conversion. Love is the proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. This church loved well and in so doing evidenced that they had been personally impacted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1 John 4:19—“we love because he first loved us”

In this way, Paul’s comments come full circle. At the beginning of this prayer of thanksgiving he connected faith and love--“ since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints,…” (1:4)—and here he ends with that same connection between the apprehension of the gospel in faith and the application of the gospel in love.

So What?

No doubt it did Paul’s heart good while sitting in that prison cell to hear about, remember, and reflect on the church of Colossae. We will soon learn that this was not a perfect church, but it was a church committed to the gospel she had received as evidenced by both its great faith in Christ and its great love for each other. It ought to do your heart good to be able to reflect on the same things today. However, some listening may not have received yet the gospel message that the church in Colossae embraced and believers are committed to today. Maybe you do not yet have a testimony of faith in the only source of salvation. Maybe instead you are following another savior, maybe yourself, trying to achieve salvation in your own way and not making any progress. If that is you today, I invite you to seriously consider what Paul calls the word of truth [that we are sinners in a broken world and in desperate need of saving (something that we cannot accomplish on our own behalf or find in anything the world offers). Jesus, God’s only Son was sent into the world to accomplish and provide salvation through his death and resurrection and offers it to everyone who will turn from their former ways and embrace who he is and what he has done in faith (trusting him and surrendering to him as Lord and Savior)]. If you have already embraced the word of truth and are a member of the church body today. If you have faith, does the way you love prove it? Does the way you love prove the faith that you claim? If not, there is a problem there. After all, Christian faith is in the One who loved us so much he died for us. Shouldn’t those faithful to him be the most loving ones of all? If you have faith, does your life reflect the confident hope you have in heaven? If not, there is a problem that needs addressing. After all, Christian faith is in the One who rose from the grave, defeating death and confirming the life that believers can expect in the end. Church, we can say we have faith all we want, but if we are not loving and we are not confident in what is to come, there might be a crisis of faith that we need to invite the Lord Jesus to address in our lives.   

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

More Like Jesus in 2021: Helpful Instructions- Luke 17:1-10

 At the beginning of this year, we introduced a theme that we will continue to revisit as a church through 2021. Our theme is “More Like Jesus” and more than a phrase, “More like Jesus” is a calling that I believe God would have us all pursue in special ways as we seek to know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ to others at Crystal Spring Baptist Church. As we are in between sermon series today, I thought we would revisit this theme in a special way by looking at a passage of Scripture that offers very clear instructions that will help us to, in God’s grace, look and live more like Jesus. The passage is Luke 17:1-10 and in this short passage, four important instructions are provided on a host of issues that I’m sure will bring a special challenge and encouragement to all of us who are willing to listen carefully and apply what is revealed.


Luke 17 marks a significant change in the context of this gospel. In the previous passage (Luke 16), Jesus was warning the Pharisees about the eternal implications of their failure to properly understand and believe God’s revelation (16:14ff). Here, in verse 1 of chapter 17, Jesus returns to his address of his disciples (and even more specifically, the apostles) (see verse 5). In this address, Jesus offers four “sayings” that instruct the disciples in how they should follow him. The first of these sayings (in verses 1-3a) might be summarized as “don’t entertain false teaching.”

First, Jesus admits that it is inevitable, given the fallen nature of our world and those in it, that stumbling blocks will exist—“Now he said to His disciples, ‘It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come,…” (17:1a). The original language reads “it is impossible for stumbling blocks not to come.” A “stumbling block” ought to be understood as someone who entices people to sin or lures them to some kind of failure (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1384). In this case, the failure is a failure of faith. “Jesus’ point is that the presence of those who would tempt people to defect or be led astray is unavoidable” (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1385). Such deceivers and/or distractors of the flock of God exist and disciples ought to be aware of and their presence. To follow Jesus well requires an awareness of those influences that would seek for you to follow something/someone else.   

To those who would lead his people astray, Jesus says “but woe to him through whom they come! It is better for him if a millstone is hung around his neck and he is thrown into the sea, than that he may cause one of these little ones to sin” (17:1b-2). Jesus warns that anyone who proves to be a false teacher that would lead God’s children astray will incur the fierce wrath of heaven. This warning is introduced with an emphatic “but Woe!” statement that introduces a vivid illustration of the kind of death that God would prefer for these false teachers. Jesus says it is better to drown by having a heavy millstone tied around the neck and being thrown into the sea than to mislead his disciples (see also Matt 18:6 and Mk 9:42), particularly those followers who might prove new or immature in their understanding (“little ones”).

This is not only a warning against those who would seek to deceive Jesus’ disciples, but it is a call for diligent teaching and guidance. If this is how serious God will deal with those who teach incorrectly, those who seek to teach the things of God ought to take their enterprise very seriously. This is why this first instruction toward Christ-like living is punctuated with “be on your guard” (1:3a). Be sure to check what you are consuming (what you read/listen to). Pay careful attention to who you watch or look to for instruction. Be not deceived church—not every voice that claims the name of Christ is trying to lead you down the path of Christlikeness. Be discerning church, especially in our 21st century world that seems to reward imposters and elevate the loud and provocative over the true and godly.

1 John 4:1-“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

2 Peter 3:17-18a-“Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”


The next saying/instruction Jesus gives his disciples as he encourages Christ-like living is “deal with offenses completely.” It is clear in verses 3-4 and elsewhere in the New Testament that the disciples’ relationship with each other is a key concern of Jesus (he desired so much that his followers get along with one another).To this end he offers a two-fold admonition: disciples have the responsibility to rebuke one another about sin and to forgive one another upon repentance—“If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (17:3). The point being made here is that when one disciple does certain things, other disciples have certain responsibilities.

The 2nd person pronoun “your” in “your brother” seems to personalize the scope of what is in mind here. It is likely that the presumed sin Jesus has in mind is something that the victim personally witnessed or was the object of (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1387). In other words, this admonition does not give one license to be a watchdog that takes it upon himself/herself to investigate here-say and call out alleged sins and/or offenses committed by everyone everywhere. Instead, it is far more interested in private discussions pertaining to those things that have personally come about in interpersonal relationships. This is why the instruction implies “known actions” (not presumed or suspected) and limits the scope to those sins have been committed directly in front of or against one personally.

Another check/balance against the abuse of this admonition that would turn disciples into self-appointed investigators or crusaders who involve themselves unnecessarily in the lives and relationships of others is the purpose of the admonition in the first place. Disciples are to share in each other’s commitment to pursue righteousness. This is what this call to rebuke is all about. Disciples ought not rebuke each other (even in the relatively constrained capacity implied in the context), unless they are seeking the righteousness of their brother or sister. A careful rebuke does not leave someone feeling belittled or worthless. In his comment on this passage Darrel Bock says, “Jesus exhorts (his disciples) to rebuke a believer who sins, not because he wishes disciples to meddle in the affairs of others, but because he wishes the community to desire righteousness that results in accountability to one another for the way they walk” (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1387).

The encouragement’s second half also provides balance to the teaching—“and if he repents, forgive him” (17:3c). Disciples are not only to rebuke; they must also be quick to forgive when repentance is present. In other words, you ought not be so inclined to rebuke a brother or sister unless/until you are willing to extend forgiveness to him/her when they acknowledge their error and seek to correct it. Again, for disciples of Jesus to pursue Christ-likeness well in the context of Christian community they must be just as inclined to forgive as they are to point out sin. Some, to be sure, find one of these activities easier or more natural than the other. However BOTH are necessary and integral to be more like Jesus.

In fact, Jesus seems to hint at which of these practices is more difficult for more people in verse 4 as he discusses the latter—forgiveness—more than the former (rebuking). He continues by saying, “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent’ you shall forgive him.’…” (17:4). This is similar to Jesus’ comments in Matthew 18.

Matt 18:21-22-“Then Peter came up and said to Him, ‘Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times.’”

Ultimately, Jesus’ instruction here is that God’s people ought to be liberal in their willingness to forgive others and careful in what they rebuke (minding their own business and approaching offenders personally for the purpose of working together toward Christ-likeness). Are you stewing over an offense committed against you and waiting for something to be acknowledged and dealt with? Ask yourself, have you personally approached the person in love to let them know what has been committed (either accidentally or on purpose) so that it can be addressed and dealt with? Are you taking it upon yourself to investigate presumed offenses in the lives of others everywhere and worried about what you may or may not know about what is going on in the lives of others. Ask yourself, don’t I have better things to think about and better ways to spend my time? Those who seek to be more like Jesus ought to deal with offenses completely and appropriately. Getting along with our brothers and sisters makes us more like Christ. After all, he was able to get along with those who neglected him, misunderstood him, and failed him. After all, he chooses to get along with you and me!  


The next instruction Jesus gives to his disciples in this passage is “Dare to ask for big things in faith” in verses 5-6. This instruction is prompted by a request voiced by the apostles in verse 5—“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (17:5). How many of you can personally identify with this kind of request? “Lord, increase my faith!” The disciples in this request demonstrate that while they could trust in the Lord to some degree, they longed for a greater faith capacity. Perhaps the pressures surrounding them were growing more acute. Perhaps some of what Jesus taught proved confusing. Perhaps all these things and more made their following Jesus more difficult. For whatever reason, the disciples as for greater faith than they already had (Stein, Luke, 430).

I cannot help but remember the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus in Mark 9. Apparently, there was a spirit afflicting his son that rendered him mute and made him convulse, foam at the mouth, and land in the fire. Unable to help his son in his own power, the father brought him to Jesus for healing. We pick up the story in verse 22 when the father says to Jesus “…’But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!’ But Jesus said to him, ‘If you can?’ All things are possible for the one who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, ‘I do believe; help my unbelief!’” Ever been there? Ever been brought to the end of your capacity/power—brought to the end of yourself with nowhere else to go but Jesus and, even there, struggle to believe that he will/can come through? Ever say in so many words “I still believe, want to believe, need to believe, but I’m struggling to believe that you can do this”? I don’t mind admitting to you that I’ve been there and said along with this father  in Mark 9 “I believe, help my unbelief” and with the apostles in Luke 17 “Lord, increase my faith!”

Want the good news? God’s capacity to do great things is not dependent on the amount of faith you have—just that you have faith at all. In response to the apostles’ request Jesus says “But the Lord said, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you’…” (17:6). Notice how Jesus alters the request for more faith by speaking of “having faith.” “Faith’s presence is more crucial than its quantity” (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1390). Jesus is essentially saying that God can do a lot with a little trust.

I am convinced that the disciples here (and many of Jesus’ disciples today) convinced themselves that they cannot ask for big things unless they have great faith. As a result, they forgo calling upon the Lord to move mightily, waiting for their own faith (or lack thereof) to catch up with the “size of the request.” Jesus says this is faulty thinking. In fact, if God’s people waited for their faith in this or that situation to grow prior to asking for God to move, requests might never be made at all! To his disciples Jesus says, “are you struggling with your faith or find your faith lacking? Ask for big things anyway and let me show you how I am strong even when you are weak!” To be more like Jesus, one must dare to ask for big things in faith (even/especially when trusting proves difficult).


Jesus’ last instruction to his disciples in this series of sayings is “Don’t always anticipate an immediate kick-back” and is found in verses 7-10. His presentation of this final encouragement begins with a hypothetical scenario posed as an illustration of what kind of heart and expectation a disciple of Christ ought to have—“’Now which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him after he comes in from the field, ”Come immediately and recline at the table to eat”?’…” (17:7). The rhetorical question here would have been met with surprise and perhaps even a few laughs. After all, the institution of servitude in the ancient world saw the servant tending to the master’s needs well before tending to his own. Even though a day might be filled with chores, at the end of that day, there was still a meal that needed to be prepared and other things to be given priority before a servant served him/herself.

This is confirmed in verse 8—“’On the contrary, will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink”?’…” (17:8). The force of the master’s statement here is “Go at once and prepare a meal and then gird yourself so you can continue to serve the meal at the table” (Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, 1393). Again, as always with a servant, the master’s wishes come first.  It is only after the master is served that the servant can tend to himself/herself.

The illustration concludes with a question—“He (the master) does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?’…” (17:9). This question, like the ones before it is rhetorical. This time, the question presumes a negative response—“Of course not!” No “thank you” accompanies the activity, for the servant has only performed what he was supposed to do. While this might sound harsh, this, no doubt, was the way things worked in the first century world, even among those households represented by the disciples. The house that serves as the basis of this illustration (having only one servant) is not a household of means and the scenario that Jesus paints would have been very familiar to his audience. Servants served out of duty to the master and didn’t expect nor demand immediate kick-backs, congratulations, or commendations for services rendered.

Applied to disciples and Christ-likeness, Jesus drives the point home in verse 10—“’So you too, when you do all the things which were commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’…”. What Jesus teaches here is that obedience in the life of a disciple is not to be accepted as a cause for merit, but as a fulfillment of duty. Disciples are to serve faithfully, not with an eye for the pat on the back or the kick-back, but out of humble duty for the master. What are the disciple’s chores? What are Christ’s servants to do? The answer is provided in verse 10 when Jesus says, “all the things which were commanded you.” At the end of all things, those disciples who faithfully carry out their duty should say “we are but unworthy slaves, just doing what we have been asked to accomplish.” In other words, Christ-like disciples recognize their unworthiness to command themselves and serve out of loyalty and obedience to their Master.

Adopting this attitude helps prevent pride and protects against fleshly disappointment. If God’s people serve for accolades/awards, they will be tempted to judge their service against the service of others and use their rewards to puff themselves up above those around them. Also, if disciples serve with immediate or visible results/gains as their aim, they will inevitably be left disappointed and depressed more often than not when expectations are not met. In contrast to these very natural/carnal tendencies, those who want to be more like Christ serve simply because they are called to. This keeps them humble and satisfied as the master, not the servant or the services rendered, takes precedence.  

So What?

As we continue to pursue being more like Jesus in 2021 both individually and as a church body, ask yourself which of these instructions need to be followed more closely in your life. Perhaps there are a couple that are deserving of more attention as you seek Christ-likeness. The same dangers/issues Jesus’ apostles faced in their first-century world continue to plague the world of Jesus’ disciples today and as we are on mission here to take the gospel to our city and beyond, we must not entertain false teaching, we must deal with offenses completely and appropriately, we must dare to ask for big things (even with little faith), and we must serve out of obedience and faithfulness, not relying on a kick-back or accolades. These are not just good habits or just helpful advice, these are integral practices that help us grow more like Jesus in a world that would have us look more like someone/something else.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

God is Bigger Than Our Mess- Judges 21:1-25

 While there are incredible joys associated with parenting young children, sometimes this precious territory includes messes. Sweeping, wiping, and picking things up off the floor are consistent behaviors in our home in this season of life. While most of the time we call upon our children to clean up the messes they create, as I am sure many parents will testify, sometimes the clean up leads to a worse mess than was there before. There are certain messes that our small children are incapable of cleaning in their own power. In fact, sometimes, they will make a bad thing worse if they try to wipe certain spills or pick up the broken jar themselves. This is not unlike what we have seen in our Judges series. In our journey through the Book of Judges we have witnessed the people of God create a mess for themselves again and again and then prove to make matters worse by trying to clean things up in their own power. The final chapter of this Old Testament work is a prime example of this and, in many ways, summarizes the condition of God’s people in this period of Israel’s history. Today we are going to conclude our Judges series by looking at four elements of the mess God’s people find themselves in as a result of their idolatry in Judges 21:1-25. Afterward, we will be reminded that there is a better way to live and a loving Father who is both qualified and willing to completely clean our mess of sin and death.   

a. ELEMENT #1: The People of God Recognize Their Mess-21:1-7

Given the atrocities committed by some of the Benjamites in Judges 19 and the unwillingness of the Benjamites to hand over the criminals who committed the crimes, the men of Israel determine than none of them should marry off their daughters to this tribe—“Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpah, saying, ‘None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin in marriage’…” (21:1). Remember, in chapter 20, the men of Israel had already gone to war with this tribe, destroyed Gibeah, and run off most of the surviving Benjamites. The women of Benjamin had also been slain and only 600 men escaped—doomed to live a life of celibacy unless they decided to marry outside Israel. This would have seen to it that the tribe was in jeopardy of going extinct. Such a sanction would have significantly crippled the ability of the tribe to continue its line and was, at least in the ancient world, perhaps the worst punitive measure taken so far in this saga.

After this oath is made, the Israelites appear to immediately regret it—“So the people came to Bethel and sat there before God until evening, and lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. They said, ‘Why, O Lord, God of Israel, has this come about in Israel, so that one tribe should be missing today in Israel?’ It came about the next day that the people arose early and built an altar there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings…” (21:2-4). The people’s weeping described here is similar to the cries heard in a funeral dirge (Block, Judges, Ruth, 570). This wailing is voiced as the Israelites mourn what they believe to be the death of an entire tribe. Notice, however, their outrage over the situation is directed toward heaven. The mourner’s question why this has all come about when all the while their own actions and idolatry was to blame for this predicament. That is the thing about unchecked and unrepentant sin—it blinds a person from their own culpability/responsibility in the situations in which they find themselves.

Desperate to hear from God, the people rise early the next morning, set up an altar, and offer their whole burnt and peace offerings. Perhaps they believed that God was obligated to show up and speak if they performed the right rituals. However, God does not answer (and I cannot say that I blame him) and the people are thrown back on their own resources. This is an important element in the story. God is under no obligation to speak/move at the beck and call of those who have so consistently ignored or betrayed him. The Israelites had pretended their God and his Word didn’t exist and now God was allowing them to feel the full weight of what that may actually be like. YIKES!

The mess grows even worse as we keep reading in verse 5—“Then the sons of Israel said, ‘Who is there among all the tribes of Israel who did not come up in the assembly to the Lord?’ For they had taken a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the Lord at Mizpah, saying, ‘He shall surely be put to death’…” (21:5). Evidently, prior to the civil war that commenced in chapter 20, the men of Israel had made another promise that anyone who did not participate in the battle against Benjamin would be executed. Therefore, you have a tribe on the verge of extinction (Benjamin) and a warrant out for the execution of non-participants in the questionable war that was waged against this same tribe. Ill-conceived oaths and commitments abound as the people of God produce this mess of epic proportions. It really is as simple as this: The Israelites had determined to extinguish Benjamin and anyone who did not help them do it. Now Israel appears to be sorry for their brother and without any recourse to help them.

The ambivalence and confusion in this situation continues as we read verse 6-7—“And the sons of Israel were sorry for their brother Benjamin and said, ‘One tribe is cut off from Israel today. What shall we do for wives or those who are left, since we have sworn by the Lord not to given them any of our daughters in marriage?’…” (21:6). This was not the first time that the people of God placed themselves in hot water after a questionable oath was sworn. Remember Jephthah? He had foolishly and unnecessarily promised God that he would offer the first thing to come out of his house as a sacrifice after his victory in battle. This led to the tragic death of his own virgin daughter! Here, God’s people were making oaths left and right that they believed they could not get out of. As a result, they have painted themselves in a corner and, at least as far as they could tell, they are made to try to clean up the mess as best as they can by themselves.

b. ELEMENT #2: The People of God Try to Clean Their Mess-21:8-15

First, the people of God decide to make good on their promise to kill those who did not join them in the battle against the Benjamites—“And they said, ‘What one is there of the tribes of Israel who did not come up to the Lord at Mizpah?’ And behold, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh-gilead to the assembly. For when the people were numbered, behold, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there” (21:8-9). Apparently, no one from Jabesh-gilead was found on the battlefield in chapter 20. As a result, they become the target of the Israelites (the in-fighting that began between Israel and Benjamin now leads to more infighting here).

“And the congregation sent 12,000 of the valiant warriors there, and commanded them, saying, ‘Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the little ones. This is the thing that you shall do: you shall utterly destroy every man and every woman who had lain with a man’…” (21:10-11). Let us quickly remind ourselves that this whole effort is NOT sanctioned by God. God has remained silent for the better part of the last half of the Book of Judges in response to Israel’s idolatry and this campaign is a mis-guided man-driven effort to clean up a mess that this nation has gotten herself into. When men and women are driven by idolatry and are then left to their own devices to clean up the messes they inevitably get themselves into, disaster always ensues. Here, the disaster takes the form of bloodshed, including of women (married women) and children.

Perhaps to kill two birds with one stone (dealing with their guilt over the expected extinction of the Bejamites and executing those who did not join them in battle against the Benjamites), the Israelites have the foresight to exclude the virgins in their campaign against Jabesh-gilead. See if you can follow the logic here: We hate the Benjamites for allowing the atrocities against the Levite’s concubine so we are going to kill as many of them as we can and promise not to marry our daughters off to any survivors; we are going to execute anyone who didn’t join us in battle against the Benjamites; we now regret that we’ve nearly extinguished the Benjamites; we will find virgins from among those who didn’t join us in battle to hand over to the Benjamites so that their line may continue. If this sounds backwards and crazy that is because it is! However, once again, this is the kind of logic that is possible and the kind of clean up effort that can take place, when God is forgotten and people are being led by their own devices. As before, women are being treated like property that can be easily exchanged (which is, by the way, how this whole mess started back with the Levite and his concubine). Such treatment of women is again another horrible stain on God’s people’s record here in the days of the Judges.

The determination to hand over the virgins to the remaining Benjamites is confirmed in verses 13-15—“Then the whole congregation sent word and spoke to the sons of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon, and proclaimed peace to them. Benjamin returned at that time, and they gave them the women whom they had kept alive from the women of Jabesh-gilead; yet they were not enough for them. And the people were sorry for Benjamin because the Lord had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.” Even this backwards crazy solution to the problem they created for themselves does not appear to be enough to clean up the mess of their own doing. Unfortunately, rather than learn from their many mistakes, the people of God take matters into their woefully incapable hands AGAIN and create a new mess in verses 16-24.

c. ELEMENT #3: The People of God Create a New Mess-21:16-24

After coming up short on wives for their Benjamite cousins (as if wives are something you can just go out and get in such a casual way), “the elders of the congregation said, ‘What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?’ They said, ‘There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, so that a tribe will not be blotted out from Israel’…” (21:16-17). While the Israelites seem bent on procuring wives for the Benjamites so that their line may continue, the hurdle that remains for them to help continues to be the oath that they made about marrying off their own daughters to this tribe—“’But we cannot give them wives of our daughters.’ For the sons of Israel had sworn, saying, ‘Cursed is he who gives a wife to Benjamin’….” (21:18).  What are they to do? Given the track record of how they have handled things, I’m not sure we can be optimistic concerning what their response here will be.

The account of the solution to this problem is given in verses 19-22—"…So they said, ‘Behold, there is a feast of the Lord from year to year in Shiloh, which is on the north side of Bethel, on the east side of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and on the south side of Lebonah.’ And they commanded the sons of Benjamin, saying, ‘Go and lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to take part in the dances, then you shall come out of the vineyards and each of you shall catch his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. It shall come about, when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, that we shall say to them, “Give them to us voluntarily, because we did not take for each man of Benjamin a wife in battle, nor did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty.”’…” (21:19-22). Wow! While before women were treated like property to eb exchanged, here they have been devalued even further to prey that can be snatched up. The Benjamites are encouraged here to hunt for a wife among the dancers in Shiloh and then, if the fathers of these women cause friction, they will be pressured into giving them up by force. Here, the common cousins of idolatry are in full view. Entitlement, satisfying fleshly lusts, and disrespect of human persons made in the image of God are all involved in this final scene in the book of Judges.

The advice given is taken and things return to relative normal in verses 23-24—“The sons of Benjamin did so, and took wives according to their number from those who danced, whom they carried away. And they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the cities and lived in them. The sons of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family, and each one of them went out from there to his inheritance. In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes…” (21:23-24). While for the tribes of Israel things seem to be back on track (at least in some ways), one must wonder “at what cost?” The atrocities witnessed in chapter 19 were reacted to in such a way that more atrocities were committed involving destruction, death, and the devaluing of those made in the image of God. What a mess! How is this possible, especially among the people of God? The answer is given as we read the final element in the book.

d. ELEMENT #4: The People of God are a Mess-21:25

The people of God (in and of themselves) are a mess. The final verse, which is a repeat of what has already been mentioned three times prior in the book, indicates two related reasons for why things have gone so wrong. First, there is a lack of godly leadership—“In those days there was no king in Israel” (21:25a). You might say, “I thought Israel didn’t need a king and should not have required such.” Later in 1 Samuel, the desire for a king was questioned and discouraged as God was to be understood as the supreme leader of his people and that was to be enough. Applied here in Judges, it is clear the vacancy of a godly human leader also indicated that God’s people were not submitting to God himself as their king.

This vacuum of godly leadership led to pervasive selfish autonomy. The book concludes with “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25b). This, perhaps more than anything else, indicates how the mess that is this final chapter (and, perhaps this entire book), took place. People acted according to what was right in their own eyes and in this way they followed the path of idolatry of the self rather than submission to the Lord God Almighty.

So What?

Ultimately, this sad concluding chapter in Israel’s history reveals that there are ultimately two ways to live your life—reveling in a mess of your own creation or following the Lord’s leadership to ultimate blessing. The good news following this disastrous end of the book is that God has made a way out of the mess that we all find ourselves in. He has given a king of kings so that we are not left to our own devices. He provides the godly leadership that we require each and every day of our lives. His name is Jesus. He alone is worthy of calling the shots, leading the way, and carrying us to where God wants us to go. Perhaps you need to turn away from the mess you are in, quit trying to fix the problem in your own strength, and trust in him instead.

Perhaps you have already placed your faith and trust in Christ Jesus. Maybe today you need to be reminded that the mess of this world is not going to be fixed by man-made efforts, strategies, and schemes. The mess of this world has been answered in the person and work of Christ who put an end to sin and death through his own  death and resurrection. This same Jesus will come again one day to forever eradicate the evil and wickedness we see around us. This ought to instill hope amid the brokenness and keep us from pridefully considering how we can take the place of our only Savior in this or that situation. While in the case of the Judges for God’s people there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes, let us remember as God’s people today that there is a King in our lives (his name is Jesus) and may we commit ourselves to doing what is right according to his word.