MESSAGE FOR SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2002
You may be wondering, “Why on earth did you take on such a long passage of Scripture that you had to read it in two sections?” The answer to that is that this is one of those texts you can’t really divide into separate sections without doing violence to its broad message. For the last 14 chapters of Judges we have been looking at the lives and ministries of the deliverers God raised up for Israel during this chaotic 300 year time period between the conquest of Canaan and the crowning of King Saul. As we’ve seen, because the people failed to drive out all the pagan people from their midst as they were commanded to do, the Canaanites became a snare and a trap for the Jews. They led God’s people into their own wretchedly evil, idolatrous practices. God in his mercy, rather than destroy his covenant people repeatedly disciplined them for their waywardness by allowing them to fall under the oppressive regional rule of these pagan people, whether it be the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines or some other group. As God’s people suffered from the oppressive rule of these enemies of God, they cried out to Yahweh for deliverance and in response to those cries He raised up a deliverer or judge who, through his military leadership beats back the pagan oppression, enabling the Jews to live in peace for a season.
Tragically, the cycle repeats itself as the Jews perpetually repeat their sin of following after the pagan gods and their demonic, cult worship systems. The pull of the pagan, carnal lifestyles proves to be too tempting for the Jews, who although they have been given the law, repeatedly turn from God and his law to chase after the temporal pleasures of the pagans living around them. We have also seen that the Jews, as time progresses ran further and further from God—the cycle of apostasy is not simply a repeating circle. It’s a downward spiral that finds the Jews in a worse spot spiritually after each deliverer has done his job. By the time we get to Samson, things have deteriorated to the point that the people don’t even cry out for a deliverer from the Philistines who were oppressing them. Though these pagans rule over them, apparently God’s people have become so spiritually intoxicated by their sin, they don’t even cry out for deliverance. For his part, Samson doesn’t even rally an army around himself as the other judges have done, but God uses him to begin to deliver the Jews from the Philistines using only his thirst for personal vengeance attached to his overpowering supernatural gifts.
As we said, the primary focus of the author has up to this point been on the deliverers and how God used them to break off the oppressive rule of the neighboring pagans. The deliverer, be it Barak or Othniel or Gideon or Jephthah or Samson has been the center of attention along with his activities. The author has been virtually silent on the spiritual condition of the nation of people these deliverers are leading. When we come to chapter 17, that changes dramatically. The author now is finished looking at the judges and turns his spotlight on the people they are ruling, these apostate Jews and their story is just as depressing (perhaps more so) than the deliverers themselves. Its been said that nations get the leaders they deserve. When you read the story of Samson with all of his enormous failings, its hard to believe how the people of God could possibly deserve, let alone produce a leader like Samson. That is, until you read the rest of the book of Judges. The author in chapters 17 through 21, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit provides the national context for these carnal, self-absorbed leaders. As it turns out, the nation of Jews is just as pathetic as those who lead them and that is the author’s point in these chapters. If you interpret the life of Samson and the other judges from a more popular point of view—that is, they were basically very gallant, heroic and sincere leaders of God, then these chapters that follow seem to be horribly out of place. However, when you carefully study what the author has said about these horribly flawed, at times godless deliverers, then the last five chapters come as no surprise.
In these last chapters of Judges, the author selects two stories from the everyday life of Israel that illustrate where the nation was first, religiously—how they practiced (or, more accurately, perverted) their religion and secondly, morally—how they daily lived their lives. These two stories are presented as two “slices of life” that help us get a vivid and disgusting picture of what life was like in Israel among the common people—those the deliverers were called to deliver. That’s the lens through which we must see these final chapters of Judges if we are to get the author’s meaning and the significance that has for us. The first story, which we read this morning, shows us where the Jews were in the practice of their religion. How did they view and relate to God and what were the goals and intentions of their religious practice? That’s the question these chapters answer for us. As you could tell from the texts we read, the religion of Israel was in a shambles at this point. We could use many adjectives to describe it. It was idolatrous, self-centered, godless, man-centered-- all those words are accurate.
The reason why this story, even with its bizarre twists and turns is actually quite relevant for us in the church is found in what the author characterizes as the root sin of the people. This is the sin behind all the others and it is just as tempting for us to commit as it was for them. We may just express it differently. The author in 17:6 and 18:1 says the reason for all the godless events that transpired was because, “In those days Israel had no king.” What is meant by that? What is commonly understood by that comment is that this is the author’s way of saying that these events took place before the monarchy was established and that kingless environment with no clear authority structures enabled the Jews to run wild into religious apostasy. That is really not accurate if you read this with a good understanding of two truths from the Old Testament. The first truth is that even after the monarchy was established, there is no evidence to indicate the presence of a human king in Israel did much to curtail idolatry. In fact, in the northern kingdom, it was the wicked king Jeroboam who is regularly given credit for the rampant idolatry there. In the southern Kingdom, though David did a good job of setting a precedent for more wholehearted service to Yahweh, in the end the kings became part of the problem in Judah, not part of the solution. It was King Manasseh’s sins that finally brought the judgment of God on Judah. It’s safe to say from Israel’s history that the monarchy did nothing to keep the nation from idolatry. Too often, the kings brazenly led the people into it.
Second, even though there was no human being sitting on a throne in Jerusalem during the time of the Judges, there was in fact a King in Israel during the time of Judges. When we studied the story of Gideon we noted that when they tried to make him king over Israel he refused and he tells us why in Judges 8:23, “…I will not rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.” It was clear to Gideon that the reason he could not be king over Israel was because that job was already filled…by Yahweh. As far back as Exodus 19:6 Moses calls Israel “a kingdom of priests” and implicitly that means Yahweh was their king. In Deuteronomy 33:3 Moses said that when the Lord came from Sinai, “He was the king over Jerushun when the leaders of the people assembled, along with the tribes of Israel.” When the people finally ask for a king, God grants their request because he knows a king is necessary to act as a type of the royal Messiah he would send in the person of His Son, Jesus. But he made it clear that he was not pleased with their desire to be like other nations and have a king. Part of his displeasure over that was rooted in the fact that monarchies cost a lot of money and energy but mainly because, as he tells Samuel in 1 Samuel 8:7, “…it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” When the people said, “Yes” to King Saul, they were saying, “No” to Yahweh.
The author’s point here in Judges 17 is to tell us that the reason these people run wildly after a counterfeit religion is because they refused to submit to their rightful king, Yahweh. This is why the second half of 17:6 explains what is meant by “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” This same dynamic occurs today. When a church has areas of its ministry that are not submitted to the Lordship of Christ or a person has areas of their heart that are not submitted to Christ’s lordship, a false set of self-centered religious attitudes and behaviors will rush in to fill that void. Understand, this in not about people abandoning religion, its about fabricating our own religion that will allow US to be king instead of God. We may TELL God he is King, but we have taken him off the throne and taken that seat for ourselves. This happens all the time today and that’s why we can all learn from the implications of the Jews rejecting their king seen in this story. We must all be on the look out for areas of our church and our hearts where we have rejected the rule of God in favor of the rule of our own self-styled, deceptive, fleshly religion.
The Jews were practicing what Paul might call the religion of the flesh. By flesh, we mean that fallen spiritual inclination within each one of us that strives to live independently from God and follow the way of the world around us, which is governed by Satan. Our flesh, like the Jews’ is self-centered, man-centered, godless and idolatrous. Though we may express that very differently than the Jews who were surrounded by overtly pagan idolaters, we too can easily construct for ourselves a religion that may sound biblical--uses biblical terminology but is in fact a hybrid religion we have crafted for ourselves. In our sinful self-deception we may truly think our religious expression is genuine when really it is a satanic counterfeit. To enable us to connect our lives to this bizarre story, let’s look at several characteristics of the religion of the flesh this story brings out. Let’s see where we, although we are not making statues to bow down and worship, might at points be adhering to a fleshly religion that in some ways looks genuine, but is in fact full of self-deception.
The first mark of fleshly religion is Blindness to internal inconsistencies. What I mean by that is being blind to the fact that you are practicing something or doing something that is completely inconsistent with what you SAY you believe. The Pharisees elevated this into an art form. When Jesus issues his seven woes against the Pharisees, some of them fit into this category. Matthew 23:13 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” He is saying, “You say you stand for this, but by your actions you are actually working in direct contradiction to your stated purpose.” They were BLIND to the fact that they were acting in complete contradiction to what they said they wanted. This story is filled with this mark of fleshly religion. Notice this bizarre opening exchange between Micah, a grown man and his mother. Micah has stolen from his mother the tidy sum of 1100 pieces of silver. This was a lot of money. The author makes it clear by how he tells the story that Micah only confesses his sin AFTER his mother places a curse on whoever stole it. Micah, knowing the power of a curse and not wanting to suffer its consequences, out of purely pragmatic concerns confesses his sin. He’s not sorry about ripping off his mom; he just doesn’t want her curse to land on him. When he does confess his sin his mother replaces the curse with a blessing in verse two as she says, “The LORD bless you, my son!” That’s a twisted response to sin isn’t it? Your adult son steals you blind, makes you mad enough to curse whoever took your dough and then confesses it only after he hears you curse whoever the thief is and your response to that is, “The LORD bless you, my son?” It’s safe to say that today we would call this a dysfunctional family. This is really out there.
The depth of her blindness is even more apparent when she then says in verse three, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol…” That’s a bit on the inconsistent side, isn’t it? She is saying, “I will set apart as a special offering to Yahweh (she twice uses his covenant name indicating this He is a personal God to her, not just a spiritual force) for his pleasure something he considers a complete abomination.” She is blind to the fact that the creation of an idol would not be a blessing to God even though the first two commandments of the covenant that her covenant God has issued forbid idolatry and specifically the creation of graven images. Missiologists call this unholy blending of religions syncretism; the Bible calls it spiritual blindness. This mother’s actions are not the actions of a stupid person, but a blind person. This is tantamount to thinking it would be a great blessing to send someone who has just lost their spouse an invitation to a couple’s only Valentine’s Day banquet. That’s blindness.
The son shows the same kind of blindness when in verse five we read he, “installed one of his sons as his priest.” He establishes his own priesthood and figures his son is as good a candidate as any. Later he finds a Levite and he installs him as his own personal priest. Both those actions display a blindness to what the priesthood is about. The priesthood was a closed fellowship, open to only those who were related to Aaron, whom God consecrated as his priest. The priesthood, by its very nature was GOD’S priesthood. He established it; he determined who would be in it and who would not be in it. For Micah to try to establish his own personal priesthood meant he was blind to the fact that the priesthood belonged to God. He had reduced the priesthood to a merely superficial religious order that performed certain priestly functions—made a few sacrifices, burned some incense, wore some priestly garb and involved surrounding yourself with other priestly furnishings. The fact that he later found a Levite is not an indication that he repented of his sin, but that he wanted a Levite to ensure his blessing from God. After he chooses this shameless Levite to be his priest he says in 17:13, “Now, I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.” The priesthood in his mind existed, not for God to be represented to his people and for God to represent himself to his people, but to act like a spiritual lucky rabbit’s foot. He blindly assumes God will bless something that it is utterly impossible for God to bless because it runs completely counter to his revealed word.
As foolish as that sounds, churches can and do the same things. They ask God to bless the education ministry of the church even though there has been no burden to see that the teachers are those who have been called and gifted by God to teach rather than simply those who, when “recruited” to teach were naïve enough to say, “yes.” How can God bless that when it goes against the way he says his body is supposed to work? Churches ask God to bless and direct the spiritual leadership of the church, but they have not done the hard work of screening out people for leadership who do not pass the stringent qualifications in Titus one and First Timothy chapter three. God will only bless what is in accordance with his word—He cannot deny himself. Churches do this when they ask for God’s blessing on a building project that violates biblical principles dealing with long-term indebtedness or a lack of prayer. How can God bless what he forbids? Churches do this when in the midst of a great church conflict and upheaval, they ask God to calm the tension; but the same church has for months and maybe even years permitted gossips and slanderers to spread their toxic, divisive seed to person after person with no correction brought to them. God is not simply responsible to prevent division in a church when that body has allowed divisive persons to wander about completely unchecked and unrebuked in His body.
We can construct our own fleshly religions on a personal basis, too. Young people do this when they ask God to bless and guide them as they search for the right person to be their life-long covenant partner as they are defiling their bodies through various forms of sexual immorality. How can God bless what is an abomination to him? Parents do this when they ask God to bless their family and children but at the same time they refuse to bring adequate biblical correction as their kids run about like wild animals. How can God bless what he hates? That’s blindness. We are blind when we ask God to bless our marriages but we fail to invest serious time or energy to make them God-honoring. You can ask God to bless your marriage until you are blue in the face but if you are a workaholic and your spouse has to constantly feed on your leftovers or you don’t spend serious time in prayer together, how can God bless a union when biblical principles in the management of it are not being followed? This is just as internally inconsistent as Micah and his foolish mother. This is a blending of two religions and they can’t peacefully coexist. Spiritual blindness comes when we want God to give us blessing “C”, but we have not been careful to following God’s word in the matters of “A” and “B.” It comes when we stop being God-centered and begin to see God as Micah did—as someone who exists to make his life better. This is a religion where we have displaced god from His throne and taken our place there instead. We practice those parts that are appealing to us, but in those areas where we have to die to our self, we improvise and make up our own religious practice. In every way that our heart is given over to our desires above God’s will, we will grow blind. The religion of the flesh shows itself through blindness to internal inconsistencies.
There are several other lessons this story has to teach us about the religion of the flesh that we don’t have time to go into this morning. But before we close we want to give some hope in this area we are all prone to fall into—this area of spiritual blindness to internal inconsistency. All of us are blind in certain areas of our spiritual lives at any given time. We all have areas where we are not submitting to God as our King. If we are blind to a particular area of our hearts or our church and have succumb to the religion of the flesh, we will NOT see it unless God reveals it to us and in most cases he does not enable us to see it ourselves because we are blind. And the reason we are blind in most cases is because we have at some point chosen to not allow the truth to influence our lives in certain areas. These areas of blindness are areas we naturally do not want to visit or bring correction to. But, if we are believers, we will not want to STAY blind, so what is God’s answer? How are we made to see these areas of spiritual blindness when we are blind to them? The answer in most cases is, through the body of Christ.
Paul gives a huge and too often overlooked insight into maturity in Ephesians 4:15-16. He writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Paul says there that growth in the body comes as we speak the truth in love to one another, as each part does its work in this way. The point for us this morning is the way we deal with our blind spots is to admit that we must have some and be willing to be part of a body that can, by speaking the truth to one another in love, expose our blind spots so that we can repent of them and grow together into maturity.
We need each other to show each other our blind spots. We need to tell each other in love about those areas in each other’s lives that we see are not in submission to God as our King and we need to be willing to receive that in humility. If two young people are touching inappropriately, the body should step in and in love bring rebuke to those people. If a gossip or divisive person is going about railing against the church and her ministries, the body needs to act to rebuke that person for their own good—to show them that they are blind in this area. If parents are not disciplining their children, the right people in the body need to come alongside and tell them that God will not bless their family as they would like until they get their kids in line. The body needs to say to that unqualified pastor elder candidate, “this is an area we see some need for growth in before you can assume spiritual leadership here.” Men need to tell other husbands, “Excuse me, brother but your career ambitions are hurting your family.”
Its as we speak the truth in love to each other and gently point out each other’s blind spots so that we can more and more eliminate those areas in our church and in our individual spiritual lives where we have drifted into unbiblical and internally inconsistent religious practices. This means we have to humble ourselves to one another, but James tells us that “God gives grace to the humble, but he opposes the proud.” May God gives us the grace to be the body of Christ so that more and more we as individuals and as a church can practice the pure, truth-driven religion of the Bible.
Page last modified on 11/3/2002
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