I was recently interviewed by Randy Hekman for an upcoming radio broadcast. Randy is the leader of The Grand Awakening, a prayer gathering of believers across Grand Rapids (they'll be meeting at Berean on Aug. 1 and 15 from 7-8). He is also the co-chair of the Prayer Team for the upcoming CityFest that the Palau organization is organizing in GR for fall 2018. The full interview will be available by radio in the coming weeks but for now here is this excerpt
This marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for our church as well as this weekend being in some ways the "officially true" (to borrow a phrase from my daughters) beginning of summer. As we look ahead, our church faces some exciting opportunities as well as some daunting challenges (and the two are related). God is most definitely directing our steps and presenting us with opportunities to engage in his mission. As I have shared recently, we are seeing God draw the churches of GR and especially those we partner with in our neighborhood to build His kingdom together in our communities. We anticipate the next year of activity as the Palau organization prepares for its CityServe and CityFest initiatives. We rejoice in our recent combined prayer service with our neighborhood churches and anticipate the next one on July 30 (mark your calendars!).
We are also humbled by how our Wednesday night Gathering has introduced us to our neighbors in the community. We praise God for the relationships Jim and his staff and our youth have built at The Well and how those will grow on their upcoming canoe trip. We are thankful for the funds our Capital Campaign has raised and the improvements already made to our facilities as a result. We look forward to the coming projects and how they will bless and allow our ministries to grow in impact. Our recent VBS, Celebration service and carnival saw much engagement from the community.
Most importantly a dedicated group of us has faithfully met on Wednesdays to seek God's presence, guidance and provision for our body. Revivals have started with less and we need revival! That brings me to the challenges. We face shortages of volunteers and funds that pose a gap between what we can see in the present and what we feel God is presenting us with as a vision for our future. Rather than being discouraging to me, I receive this gap as an invitation. Joining God in His mission is not automatic. It will require that we invest our time, treasure and talents in contexts that may be unfamiliar or intimidating. We will need all hands on deck to sacrificially pursue the goals God has for us. I have already been challenged by what I have seen in Paul's life in our Bondservant series and how necessary it is for us s a church to hear.
The next two weeks will be especially significant in applying the themes of Gospel Mission and Discipleship to our church. If you are unable to attend either this week or next, make sure to listen to these two messages online. Let me encourage you to take time this weekend to reflect on your commitments to Berean and consider how God might be asking you to do more. Specifically, I would ask you to join me in praying specifically for our church daily for revival (my prayer has been focused around Philippians 1:9-11) and to join us at least once over the summer on Wednesdays to "Watch One Hour". I would ask you to consider your giving and whether God is asking you to be more invested in His mission at Berean through your finances.
Finally, I would ask you to consider your involvement in serving. I know many of you devote sizable time to our body and I am so grateful for it, but I also know that some of us have not made the step of doing much more than attending on a regular (or semi-regular) basis. I am excited for what God is laying before us and I pray that all of us are counted worthy of participating in it. May we be used to build Hs Kingdom for His glory in our lives, our church and our city!
For the past three or four decades the evangelical movement has been at the forefront of the "culture wars" in Western society, and especially in the U.S. Issues come and go in their prominence but have included school prayer, evolutionary theory, the content of entertainment, abortion, same-sex marriage and numerous others. The forum for these wars has been just as diverse: the media, the courtroom, the legislature, and the marketplace as well as the church and school. One consequence of this engagement is that the word "evangelical" has taken on more of a political significance than its original theological emphasis. This has had the related effect of branding our movement by what we are against, rather than things for which we stand. While that oft-quoted phrase is of concern to me, as I shared in my sermon this past Sunday, I am more concerned about the impact these developments have had on our understanding of the mission of the gospel.
One way to think about this is to ask "What is the greatest threat to the church?" If we adopt a "culture war" mentality, then the greatest threat would be something like a liberal legislative agenda or the curtailing of "religious freedoms". Behind those threats would be the people advancing those programs who then become opponents or adversaries. We then dutifully take up arms to defeat those people in order to save the church. In adopting this mentality and approach, we forget the heart of the gospel, miss the nature of the true threat to the church, and ensure the failure of the mission of the gospel (in our lives or congregations anyway, not absolutely, as there is always a faithful remnant). The heart of the gospel is that Jesus put himself in the power of his enemies so they could kill him, so that he could save them from their hatred of God. As his followers, we are called to lead lives of willing sacrifice for the good of those who oppose us. This is what Jesus meant by saying we are salt and light right after saying that we are blessed when we are persecuted for His sake. The gospel way is a radically different way of bringing about change in our world. The world can form institutions that fight for their rights and advance an agenda through the powerful tools of media, education and politics. The impacts produced by those means are always temporary and are regularly incomplete. Only the church, through the foolishness of the proclaimed Word, matched by truly selfless acts of love, can bring about eternal blessing through changed hearts as the Spirit is unleashed in and through us.
I was recently made aware of a tangible expression of what this looks like in the real world. Kevin Palau, the son of renowned evangelist Luis Palau, has been ministering in the city of Portland, Oregon for many years now with his father's evangelistic ministry. In his book, "Unlikely", he chronicles the impact they have had in the city of Portland. I have just started reading the book and have been struck already by the nature of the story. What grabbed me more than the story itself, is the fact that Sam Adams wrote the foreword for it. He was the mayor of Portland when Kevin began his initiative in the city and was notable for being the first openly gay mayor of a top-25 U.S. city. You can sense the immediate pressure of the "business-as-usual" approach of the culture wars calling Kevin to arms. However, in his foreward to the book, Sam Adams chronicles how, without abandoning their convictions on which they differ, they were able to partner together for the good of the city. He was able to see people whom he expected would regard him as an enemy demonstrate genuine (not self-interested) love and concern for him and for the things he cared about (the well-being of his city). Far from being a denial of the gospel, it was the fullest imaginable expression of it. For it is precisely in loving those who are enemies of God that we live out the drama that God loves us, who were his enemies, to the point of sacrificing Himself for them.
All of this serves to remind us that the true enemy is never a person, group, or institution. It is the forces of sin and death that capture human hearts and drive us to hate God and others. If we can be yielded to God's Spirit, he will convert us to be lovers of the self-sarcrificing God and of all people, especially those who have no love lost for us. May we be devoted to fighting the real enemies and gain many friends of the gospel as a result.
The first two weeks of May we addressed the broad topics of Gender, Sexuality and Marriage in our "Impolite Savior" series. We explore the teachings of Jesus on the subject from Matthew 19 and their foundations in Genesis 1-3 as well as the expansions Paul gave us in 1 Corinthians 7. The ideas presented are also in our Board's Position Paper on the subject (check it out here). Our focus was on our community's views and practices related to those areas. There are, however, bigger fish to fry on a global scale where these issues come up.
As I mentioned in a recent post, Kelsey and I have been reading a book entitled "Half the Sky" (authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn) that explores the plight of women on the global scene. We are only four chapters in and I am by no means an expert in the field. The little that I have read and become aware of, however, has shaken and moved me deeply. I have been prompted to start asking why I have not been aware of these types of issues and what sort of response Jesus would have me adopt. The book is easy to read in that it deals with very personal stories of women the authors have met, rather than being a purely academic work of policy prescriptions. It is that very approach that also makes it difficult to read, because the stories told detail how these women have been on the receiving end of some of the most shocking and abusive behavior imaginable. At one point as I was reading aloud to Kelsey I could barely finish a paragraph because of how distressing the narrative was to read.
The book takes the reader into a world almost unrecognizable to us and yet common for a large portion of the world's population. It is a world in which women are regarded as second-class humans (or worse) with the result that they not only do not enjoy the privileges Western women are accustomed to (driving, education, voting rights, relative autonomy) but are also subjected to violence, trafficking and poverty with no recourse in the legal system. Consider the following exchange between the author (Nichlolas) and an Indian border guard recounted in the book:
"So what exactly are you monitoring?" Nick asked
"We're looking for terrorists, or terror supplies," said the man, who wasn't monitoring anything very closely, since one truck after another was driving past. "After 9/11, we've tightened things up here. And we're also looking for smuggled or pirated goods. If we find them, we'll confiscate them."
"What about trafficked girls?" Nick asked. "Are you keeping an eye out for them? There must be a lot."
"Oh, a lot. But we don't worry about them. There's nothing you can do about them."
"Well, you could arrest the traffickers. Isn't trafficking girls as important as pirating DVDs?"
The intelligence officer laughed genially and threw up his hands. "Prostitution is inevitable." He chuckled. "There has always been prostitution in every country. And what's a young man going to do from the time when he turns eighteen until when he gets married at thirty?"
"Well, is the best solution really to kidnap Nepali girls and imprison them in Indian brothels?"
The officer shrugged, unperturbed. "It's unfortunate," he agreed. "These girls are sacrificed so that we can have harmony in society. So that good girls can be safe."
"But many of the Nepali girls being trafficked are good girls, too."
"Oh, yes, but those are peasant girls. They can't even read. They're from the countryside. The good Indian middle-class girls are safe."
That exchange should sober us. It should also remind us of a reality we are prone to forget in our context: the world is today, and has been historically, a dangerous place for women. As I discussed in my message on Genesis 1-3, God's statements after the Fall indicate that the dysfunction in the relationship between men and women are a cornerstone of the effects of Adam and Eve's rebellion. As much as we want to avert our eyes from these realities, Scripture brings it up more often than we might realize. The OT laws regarding women, so often seen as repressive, primitive and barbaric, actually afforded women in Israelite society degrees of protection not found in other ancient societies. While we might still feel uncomfortable with the civic regulations in Exodus and Deuteronomy and certainly not wish to enact them. We need to remember two things. First, while it is God's law, it is his regulation of a fallen world and not his prescription for an ideal one. Secondly, his law is first and foremost an instruction about His character and our hearts. As such, the laws regarding women acknowledge that men's hearts tend to be calloused towards women rather than cherishing them as the image-bearing allies they were created to be.
The exchange also sobers me to realize that while it is easy to be appalled at the border guard's cavalier attitude towards the issue, for all of us, it is often easy to ignore a problem if it is not happening to "our people". The OT law, and Jesus' application of it in Matthew 19, reminds us that God's heart is to protect and lift up those that are prone to being ignored, marginalized and exploited in society. That should inform our gospel response to the global situation of women. It should grieve us, but not shock us to find these circumstances. It should sadden us but not despair us to see the scale of the problem. The gospel can and does change hearts and it is our mission to take it into the darkest areas of our world. So what does that mean for us? Like I said, I am just beginning to wrap my head and heart around this issue, but I am inviting you to explore it with me, confident that Jesus would not have us ignore it, would have us bring it before His Father for prayer, and may, by His Spirit call us to do something about it.
Think about the activities you've engaged in this past week. Everything you did. How much of it involved economic transactions? If you think about it, even if money didn't change hands in the moment, a great many things we do in any given day are economic in nature or depend upon economic activity in order to occur. It is the result of the simple fact that in any complex society, no one can directly provide everything they need for themselves. We need other humans to work for us. This then requires exchanges to take place. These exchanges occur on a spectrum between being voluntary and involuntary. Because of the need for economic exchange for survival, there is tremendous opportunity for exploitation in this realm. Especially in the 21st century, the sphere of economic activity has become so extensive that it is easy for that exploitation to go unnoticed.
When such exploitation gets noticed our tendency is to remove it from the sphere of our responsibility. We, in effect, ask "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answered that question by describing one who loves others without asking whether he ought to (and at financial cost to him). So in a global economy where we are all ultimately connected in a (seemingly) never-ending web of economic interactions, how far does our responsibility reach? Oftentimes as believers in a Western evangelical tradition, we approach our faith with an individual mindset. God loves me and sent Jesus to die for me and I believe in him and His Spirit lives in me so that I can obey Him and I will go to heaven when I die. In the realm of the stewardship of our finances, this individual focus can result in thinking that the only responsibilities we have are how we budget our money and to be honest in the transactions we are a direct party to. Scripture, however, always pushes us to broaden the scope of our sense of responsibility.
This is where balance becomes tricky. On the one hand, deep down, we know that ignoring the plight of oppressed people in the developing world (or downtown) is out of step with the heartbeat of Jesus. When we become aware of how many slaves there are in the world (45 Million at last count), the Spirit within us should be grieved. On the other hand, we can be overwhelmed when our sense of responsibility and our sense of impotence collide. What can we do about it? What should we be expected to do about it? Are we really accountable for the plight of those millions?
Recently I have been reading the prophets and I started doing some digging that led to a disturbing revelation. This issue of economic justice is often at the center of the prophetic message to Israel. Consider Isaiah 58 for instance. God rebukes Israel for its fasting in which it seeks to draw near to Him because "in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers." (Is. 58:3) The rest of the chapter calls on them to correct economic oppression as a "true fast". Chapter 59 continues the theme and pictures God strapping on his armor to go out and work deliverance for the oppressed since His people will not.
Ezekiel's famous reflection on individual accountability to God in chapter 18 (phrased as "the soul that sins) offers another insight into how central this concern was. In cataloguing the sins for which a soul would die, a series of lists are presented of righteous deeds and transgressions. By my count, 2 items pertinent to outright violence, 4 pertain to sexual transgressions, 7 pertain to idolatry and 23 pertain to economic injustice. Not only is that a striking disparity, it is the reverse of how we usually construct our sliding scales of sins. Among the 23 items in that category of economic justice are the following: oppression, extortion, retaining a pledge, robbery, withholding food and clothes from the needy, and perhaps most sobering for us in a capitalist culture, lending at interest and taking profit. Is it possible we've missed something crucial in our approach to sin and righteousness?
Jesus would seem to indicate that that is possible. When I was preparing to preach on his clearing of the temple in Mark 11, I studied the verse he quotes from Jeremiah 7:11 about the temple being a "den of robbers" (referring not to outright theft but to the economic exploitation both within the temple and by the religious leaders in their positions of power). The startling fact came to light that a den is where robbers go for shelter after they have robbed. This is in fact what Jeremiah says. In verses 5-7 Jeremiah catalogues Israel's sins which include oppressing the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. He casts those in the same light as idolatry and murder. It raises the concern that it is possible for us to engage in sincere worship and spirituality and be guilty of robbery through economic oppression.
If our calling as disciples is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, then certainly our economic activity is included. Furthermore, if our calling as disciples is to also love our neighbor as ourselves then certainly, we must be attentive to how our purchasing decisions impact all of our neighbors as much as possible. Someone recently summed up this calling by saying that we must seek to carry out "everyday, just, right decisions." We may not be able to end every economic injustice singlehandedly, but we can be more vigilant to seek to ensure that our purchases are not offending our God by supporting oppression and economic injustice against our neighbors.
In the past couple of months I have been enjoying a renaissance in my outside reading. Reading is of course an occupational hazard but the reading I do for sermon prep often crowds out mental energy for other reading. Recently, though, I have been enjoying a number of books and thought I'd take a moment to share some of them.
On the purely entertaining end of the spectrum, Kelsey and I have enjoyed some suspense novels that we read aloud together. A while back we had read "Gone Girl" and enjoyed it, so recently we have been on a kick of reading similar offerings from world of mystery/suspense.
On a more substantial level, a good friend recommended a book that Kelsey and I have been reading separately called "Half The Church" by Carolyn Custis James. This compelling book explores God's design for men and women in the church, interacting heavily with Scripture as well as the state of women globally today. Kelsey and I are also reading a book that "Half The Church" is in part inspired by called "Half The Sky" written by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. We are only a couple of chapters in and already our eyes are being opened wider to the plight of many people, women in particular who are oppressed in the world of trafficking and slavery. In a couple of weeks when I preach on gender, sexuality and marriage I will be sharing some of the insights gained from these books.
On my own, I have been reading a couple of books recommended by friends that have nourished my spiritual life greatly. The first is Charlie Davis' excellent book "Making Disciples Across Cultures" that I read last year and that formed the foundation of our 6/12 groups in our new discipleship initiative. It is a rich resource indeed for which I am grateful! One, that I am still not done with is "Praying With Paul" by D.A. Carson. I had studied the prayers of Paul years ago as a spur to my prayer life. Carson, with his unique blend of a scholar's mind and a pastor's heart has brought them to life in a powerful way for me that has been part of a renewal of my prayer life in recent months.
One other that I recently finished is called "Growing the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit". It has served to challenge me in both my thinking as well as in my approach to ministry and leadership and to ask whether I really operate as though Jesus, by His Spirit, is leading the church, or whether I am. It is admittedly of a charismatic bent, but the core principles the authors (Brad Long, Paul Stokes and Cindy Strickler) expound are all solidly biblical and hard to argue with. The basic idea is absurdly simple and should be obvious to us: the Holy Spirit is alive and well and stands ready to lead and empower the church of Jesus Christ to advance His kingdom if we will let him. Resonating in my mind as I read it was the caution Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 5 not to "quench the Spirit". I share the following passage form the book with you to give a flavor of what I mean. In it they contrast the attitudes of "gullibility" and "skepticism" regarding the Holy Spirit. Listen as they challenge us:
By 'gullibility' we mean the attitude that simply assumes that everything that is claimed to be from God truly is from God. Certainly this is not always the case. So if we are diligently obedient to this so-called 'guidance' we receive, then sometimes we will be acting on the basis of inauthentic guidance, pursuing wrong agendas and speaking inappropriate or even harmful words. Similarly, if we fail to be critically discerning, we place ourselves at the mercy of everyone who claims to have a word from the Lord, leaving the church vulnerable to the whims of manipulative individuals. This all-embracing attitude easily gives way to an emphasis on emotionalism (in contrast with the proper freedom to allow emotions as an authentic part of our whole-person worship). And most damaging of all, this approach can bring discredit to Jesus when alleged 'guidance' is gullibly embraced yet turns out to be fictitious. No wonder the Bible instructs us to 'test everything' (1 These. 5:21) and to 'test the spirits to see whether they are from God' (1 John 4:1).
By 'skepticism' we mean the attitude that assumes either that God no longer speaks and that every purported word from the Lord is unreal, or that we cannot be certain and therefore are better off avoiding the issue. These approaches have sometimes emerged as a well-intentioned way of protecting the church from the dangers of deception and abuse, yet they themselves are dangerous because they place us in opposition to the Holy Spirit's ongoing activity of distributing spiritual gifts and making real the lordship and leadership of Jesus Christ. Skepticism can give way to a proud intellectualism that exalts human reason above divine sovereignty. It also frustrates the effectiveness of the body of Christ by depriving the church of the very resources Jesus intended us to have. Thus the Bible instructs us: 'Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good.' (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Likewise, we should, 'be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues' (1 Cor. 14:39).
So that's what I've been reading. It is said that at the end of your life you will be the same person as at birth except for the people you've met and the books you've read. It is impossible not to be affected in some way by books. Therefore, it has also been said that books are dangerous as they tend to upset our normal patterns of thinking. Of course the most dangerous book ever written does exactly that and indicates that allowing our thinking to be shaped by it is a positive transformation called "growth". And the people of the church, being committed to that Good Book, help one another appropriate its way of thinking in relationships and occasionally by writing their own books. Have you read anything good lately?
On February 5th, I preached on the inheritance passages in Joshua 11-21 and asked the question "What if 'all of Berean' did the following four things?" Because I feel that these four things are foundational to our growth as a church moving forward, I wanted to take the chance to reiterate them and ask that each of us prayerfully consider our current involvement as well as what God might be calling us to do. Here are the four things I believe constitute base-line participation in the "inheritance of the saints":
1) Participation in Worship - Hebrews 10:24-25 admonishes us that meeting together for worship is an essential aspect of faithful discipleship. This is not about simply showing up and "watching a service" as though we are legalistically checking off boxes on an attendance sheet for heavenly merits. Rather, it is because our endurance and growth as believers is directly connected to being in regular fellowship for encouragement and exhortation in the faith. We have intentionally structured our Sunday morning to be an environment for that to happen. We begin by gathering all together from the diverse lives we lead Monday through Saturday to enter into the assembly of the heavenly places made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ (Hebrews 12:22-24). We offer up our prayers and praises to God, asking him to intervene in our lives and then we eagerly anticipate hearing from him in his word. Because his word requires a response from soft hearts, we then disperse into our growth groups to discuss with our brothers and sisters how we heard Him speak and to consider what he is asking of us. We then pray and ask that His Spirit would bring those responses to bear and that we would be faithful. If all Berean weekly engaged in this type of worship, think of what God could do!
2) Invest in fellowship - Each of us must make an individual commitment to follow Christ, but when we follow him, we automatically join the global family of God. Belonging to that family is as much what salvation means as our individual status with God changing. The NT speaks of each of us as being "gifts" to the body of Christ and so for others to grow, we must each make ourselves available and invest in the lives of others in our fellowship. In our context, our Growth Groups are a starting point for this, but we also encourage people to be involved in smaller groups of intimate, transparent relationships where God can use us to sharpen and spur one another on. Our 6/12 groups, which are just starting, as well as our Bible study groups, small groups and even ministry teams are all environments where these relationships can form. The emphasis is not on a particular structure or program, but rather on being in those sorts of relationships and being intentional to always be shepherding others and open to being shepherded ourselves. If all Berean intentionally loved and shepherded each other that way, imagine what God could do!
3) Serve in our gifting - To carry out the ministries that go on in the body to make possible the first two things, as well as to open our congregation to those in our neighborhoods and communities, requires that we be leading lives of sacrificial service. All of what we do in our lives is to be worshipful service (Rom. 12:1-2) carried out as priests before God (1 Peter 2:4-5) and ambassadors of reconciliation to those around us (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Thus, our oles in our families, our workplaces, our educational institutions, our community groups and organizations and our everyday economic activity should all be conceived of as service. Connected to item 2 above, we all are called to serve one another in informal and relational ways within the context of our local church. For most of us, this will also translate into formal service in a program of some kind to further the work of this body. Our desire is that each member serve in some capacity on a weekly basis. A couple of weeks ago we had a list in the bulletin of all the areas where there are opportunities to serve in that way. We do not desire to burden our people's schedules with an expectation to "be here every time the doors are open", but to commit to at least one thing that they can pour themselves in to. If all Berean were serving in this way in their lives and in our church, imagine what God could do!
4) Give faithfully - It is no secret that to accomplish anything in a fallen world requires financial resources. We are called to steward what God has given us (which is everything!) in obedience to His purposes for us. Every dollar (as well as every minute) will be accounted for someday. Again, this is not a legalistic "ought to" but it is necessary to the health and growth of us as disciples to guard our hearts from the toxin of boastful pride that glories in our possessions. It is also a demonstration of love for the church as well as a commitment to the mission of the gospel of Christ. If all Berean gave faithfully, regularly and sacrificially, imagine what God could do!
In putting these things forth in the message on February 5th and reiterating them here, I am not suggesting that none of us are doing these things already. Indeed, Berean has many people who are doing a good deal above and beyond this baseline. All of us, though, need to constantly evaluate our discipleship and whether we are heeding God's voice. Also, I do not claim to be able to say specifically what any one should do, but these four broad categories are biblically the types of things that characterize healthy spiritual growth and so I have attempted to provide insight into how those are given expression in our context. Finally, my heart is to encourage us to look beyond what we see in front of us and to envision the scope of the inheritance God has for us if we would just step out in faith to claim it. Imagine what God could do if we would let him!
In the movie "What"s Up Doc?" a series of madcap events leads to a final scene in a courtroom in which an overworked and frazzled judge tries to make sense out of the chaos. In trying to determine what he is dealing with as he hears various characters offer their explanations, he says several times "I think I want to skip over this part." As we have been making our way through the book of Joshua, you may have had a similar thought. These are not the portions of Scripture from which Precious Moments draws its source material. In particular our passage from a past Sunday dealing with Achan's sin and punishment causes us to recoil as an entire family, including children (although ages are not given) is stoned for the sin of the father. In addition there is the second instance of a city (Ai) being slaughtered to the last person at the command of God. In my messages the last two weeks, I have not attempted to offer a thorough apologetic for these stories. Rather I have suggested a starting point that our discomfort with them is most likely rooted in a failure to fully appreciate two things: 1)the honor that is due to God and 2) the depths of our sin and rebellion against him. That is certainly the message of these passages and to the extent we focus our attention there, we will glean much spiritual benefit from them. That being said, it is helpful to consider a few things as we seek to understand how a good and great God stands behind these stories. I will confess that at the end of the day I still feel a degree of discomfort with these stories. And I am not uncomfortable uttering along with Abraham the confession of faith in God's ultimate justice "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Gen. 18:25)
With that as a prologue, here are some thoughts to consider as we encounter stories of humans commanded to exact this sort of violence at God's command either in war (Jericho and Ai) or in judicial settings (Achan).
1) I addressed the idea of "cherem" or being devoted to Yahweh in a message. It calls to mind that everything and everyone in the universe ought to be directed towards God's glory and mankind is tragically fallen by rebellious choice. Thus, everyone has forfeited life and rendered ourselves "cherem".
2) This comes at Yahweh’s command found in Exodus 23:20-33, so this is not Moses’ or Joshua's idea, but God’s given at Sinai. It represents a continuity of his character and actions in the flood, at Sodom, and in the plagues against Egypt.
3) The cause of the command is a judicial sentence against the wickedness of the Canaanite nations (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:3-6) and not the superiority of Israel’s character or strength.
4) The purpose of this action is to secure a safe space for Yahweh’s covenant to be lived out as a witness to the world of his redemption.
5) The purposed outcome of the commandment was evacuation rather than total annihilation.· A survey of the passages shows a heavier use of words such as "drive out" or "removed" than "killed" or "destroyed".
6) Regarding the taking of people as booty, it seems odd to us and the death of every male seems harsh. These were, however standard practices in the ancient world and reflected the need to protect from future attacks from the men of a conquered city. It constitutes God’s gracious provision for his people of a land that is not barren but settled, built up and productive.) This is not a divine sanctioning of one nation against every other. There are limits and restrictions placed on their warfare, they are agents of God, he is not their agent.
7) The above point is illustrated in the distinction between "cities nearby and cities far away" in Deut. 20. Cities far away were to be offered peace before being attacked. The offer of peace is not a peace with Israel but a peace with Yahweh whose land this is and he is giving it to Israel. There is thus opportunity to participate in covenant life. The story of Gibeon in Joshua 9 illustrates this concept.
8) The fact of threatened reciprocity against Israel (Deut. 8:19-20) as well as internal policies against faithless Israelite cities (Deut. 13:12-18) prove the above statements and also indicate that the issue is not ethnicity. This is further proven in the Rahab narrative.
9) Rahab demonstrates that Canaanites can move from being devoted to destruction to being devoted to Yahweh. Acahan demonstrates that Israelites can move from being devoted to Yahweh to being devoted to destruction. It is worth noting that in each case their family shares their fates without a clear statement that they agreed with the choices of those who represented them.
10) It should also be noted that the commands given in the conquest regarding both the Canaanites and Achan do not become normative practice for the Israelites. In future wars, except the case of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 13-15, these principles are not commanded or followed. In no other case is a family punished for the sin of the leader. The time of the conquest represented a fragile phase of God's redemptive program that required drastic measures to protect the people of Israel from having their nascent faith in Yahweh corrupted by competing agendas. This is not to say that God is employing unjust punishments in a utilitarian way. We are organically connected and identify with groups such that we cannot distance ourselves totally from the sin of others, nor can we prevent our sin from impacting others.
11) Yahweh’s love drives him to redemptive judgment in such a way that his judicial hatred and wrath does not negate nor is it negated by his merciful love. This is best reflected in the cross where we often see mercy but frequently forget judgment. Jesus himself is a divine warrior-king so to think of Him as only gracious and merciful is to forget the portrait of him in Revelation 19:11-18.
A few months ago we had a night of prayer, praise and testimonies with our church. It was a tremendously encouraging time to seek God together, be reminded of his goodness and faithfulness and to celebrate what he has been doing in our lives. Children were a part of this service and so as our worship pastor extended an invitation for any others to share a testimony, my 5 year-old daughter Zoe jumped up and indicated that she had a word to share with the congregation.
Now I love my daughter. Her smile and laugh delight my heart and her creativity is a source of pride and joy to me. She is also not shy and is a bit of a ham who loves to elicit laughter from people. So it was with a fairly high degree of nervousness that I watched her approach the microphone. She started by sharing with the group that she wasn't sure what were going to have for dinner, which I took to be a prayer request. She then transitioned to confession by saying "Sometimes I'm naughty." This drew a hearty chuckle from the assembly and called to my mind the phrase "out of the mouths of babes".
Before I could feel too much pride in my daughter's awareness of, and honesty about, her sin, she followed it by saying "Well...let me rephrase that." I don't recall exactly what she said after that but it somehow shifted guilt for her naughtiness away from her. Aside from being a memorable and endearing moment for me as a father, it reminded me that children are often far more honest about things than we are. It usually shows up in ways that make the rest of us squirm. But I realized that I am the same way. I want to limit the reality of my sinfulness by saying "sometimes" and by using words like "naughty" that make it seem not quite so bad. I feel the satisfaction of partial confession, knowing that that can be seen as an admirable thing. Even then, I usually feel the urge to "rephrase that" so it doesn't seem quite so damaging.
Believe me, I am not finding fault with my daughter's confession. In fact, I think I caught a glimpse of how our heavenly father sees us as I heard my daughter's very honest testimony that night. We are never totally honest (often because we are never totally aware) with God or others about our sin. Yet God is not put off by it. I knew the truth about my daughter just as God knows perfectly the truth about my heart. In that moment I loved my daughter more than ever and realized that no amount of naughtiness would ever undo that. Just as our Father purposes that nothing in us can ever separate us from his love. This is not to say that He winks at or excuses sin, or finds it cute. Rather, on the basis of Christ's sacrifice we have been made His children and that is a bond that is stronger than our sin.
My prayer for my daughter (and my other two children) is that she would grow in her awareness of her sin, grow in awareness of God's love for her and that the confidence she might have in Christ's redemption would prompt her to never feel that she has to hide her sin from either her heavenly Father or her earthly one.
My daughter's testimony reminded me of the truth that there are two things we can never underestimate: the severity of our sin and the reach of God's love and grace. So my prayer for her is also my prayer for me. God is so good to us, is He not?
Listen family, when you set yourself up to be Jesus’s public relations figure, you’re putting yourself in a position of incredible scrutiny. Not by your audience, but by the one for which you claim to speak. Here’s the deal, God’s word can never be mistaken, but the rest of us can’t go more than five minutes without getting off-track in thought, word or deed. It would take a true saint, be a mark of true perfection, if a person never said, posted, tweeted, or snapped something they didn’t instantly know was going to come back to bite them. You could trust that person to never do anything wrong…ever! We use such small buttons and switches to power enormous machines; a handheld joystick can smoothly direct the flight of a space shuttle! And now our thoughts can be quickly sent out through the handheld devices we carry with us everywhere. Wildfires that burn thousands of acres start with a single spark, but they’ve got nothing on the way a 140 character tweet can inflame passions. It can blaze right through the body of believers, leaving third degree burns that at best will scar, and at worst might never heal. This is just what our enemy wants, being the master of the quick word that can derail a person’s life and set them on a road to ultimate destruction. So much of our world has been brought to heel in this modern age. We cross rivers, mountains and oceans without a thought, we cure diseases, we have made famine a foreign concept and we predict the weather. All that control and yet the same ability has allowed us to unleash our words with less restraint and to greater harm. Our words now go viral, infecting our lives with toxins worse than any carcinogen. The same FB feed features inspirational thoughts about God (#blessed!) and wild rants that portray our “friends” as the worst possible monsters. Scrolling through such a world presents us with an impossible reality. You don’t turn on the tap wondering whether water or raw sewage will emerge, do you? No more than you expect McDonald’s to replace the BigMac with a raw Kale wrap.
Don’t buy the culture’s view of what makes someone sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Real savvy consists in refusing to blare your “POV” just because you can. It is a hellish version of wisdom that feel the need to assert itself just to prove its superiority to others. That kind of bullying is born of bitter hearts that pervert the truth. It is the product of an earth-bound values system in which “might makes right.” God’s approach makes peace because it is single-minded in its devotion to His kingdom and is therefore unafraid of the thoughts of others, willing to extend grace and to do good to all, never making the mistake of taking sides in merely human disagreements. That’s why it is always discreet and sincere. It produces the outcome of the blessing of God’s shalom, recognized by all who see it.
Marcus Little is the Senior Pastor of Berean Baptist Church. This blog is a place where he can share his thoughts and reflections on how Scripture intersects with life, work, community, culture and the events of our times.