MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 24, 2002 FROM JUDGES 17-18

 

            We return again this week to the 17th and 18th chapter of Judges.  You’ll recall that we said the last five chapters of the book of Judges depart from the book’s earlier focus on the individual deliverers God raised up for Israel and here shifts to the nation of Israel as a whole.  Tragically, we see the same self-centered, carnal attitudes and actions among the people of God that we have seen in the judges themselves.  The author in each of these two chapters says the underlying sin behind all their other sins is, “In those days Israel had no king.”  We have seen that he was not referring to any vacancy on the national, political throne of Israel, but rather that the people had not been submitting to their rightful national king, Yahweh.  The people as individuals and as a nation had seized from God the authority to govern their hearts and nation and had taken it for themselves.  Chapter 17-18 highlight how this rebellion of the people against Yahweh as their King influenced the religious practices of the Jews during this time of the Judges. 

            Though the people were in no way submitting to Yahweh as their King, they did still profess him as God and wanted to relate to Him. They continued to pray to him and offer sacrifices and do many of the things that people who truly love God do and they believed they were truly walking with God.  The problem was, their ultimate goal was not truth-driven worship and service to God. Instead, they did what we can easily do.  They did what THEY wanted to do, while at the same time practicing their cherished religious traditions and feeling the security and warmth of having a great God like Yahweh as their own national treasure.  We called this kind of religion that often looks good on the outside but inside is man-made and man-centered, “the religion of the flesh.  One of the religious elements the people maintained in the midst of their rebellion against Yahweh was the Levitical priesthood established by God through Moses.  This morning, we will be looking at another mark of the religion of the flesh as we notice how the people understood the priesthood and that is seen in this one representative Levite the author presents in chapters 17-18.

            You’ll recall that a Jew named Micah from the tribe of Ephraim had stolen a large sum of money from his mother.  When Micah confessed to the theft and returned the money, his mother was so grateful to Yahweh about it, she perversely devoted a portion of it to be used toward the creation of a graven image and an idol in God’s honor.  Micah added a shrine, a priestly garment called an ephod and other idols and even consecrated his son to be the priest over this little religious establishment he had created.  We have previously spoken about the abuse that represented to the Old Testament priesthood.  This morning we want to look specifically at another man who even more represented the priesthood and the people’s understanding of it during this time of the judges. 

            In these two chapters, we meet a young Levite or priest in three separate instances.  Our first exposure to him comes in 17:7 where it says, “A young Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living within the clan of Judah, 8left that town in search of some other place to stay. On his way he came to Micah's house in the hill country of Ephraim.  9Micah asked him, "Where are you from?"  "I'm a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah," he said, "and I'm looking for a place to stay."   10Then Micah said to him, "Live with me and be my father and priest, and I'll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food." 11So the Levite agreed to live with him, and the young man was to him like one of his sons. 12Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13And Micah said, "Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest."

            That introduces this priest to us.  The second time we meet him he is employed by Micah as his priest and five army scouts from the tribe of Dan show up on Micah’s doorstep looking for a place to stay on the way to their scouting destination.  You’ll recall the reason they were on this mission was to find a place where they and their countrymen could live because they had not been able to conquer their own God-given inheritance from the stubborn Amorites who lived there.  We read of this next encounter beginning in the second half of chapter 18, verse two.  “…The men entered the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah, where they spent the night. 3When they were near Micah's house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they turned in there and asked him, "Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? Why are you here?"  4He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, "He has hired me and I am his priest."  5Then they said to him, "Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful."   6The priest answered them, "Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord's approval."   We don’t know why the priest’s voice is familiar to the scouts but this is the one and only time in the story we actually get a chance to see this priest “in action” as he provides some sort of alleged ministry to these misguided Danite scouts.

            Our third and final encounter with this priest comes when these scouts make a return visit to Micah’s house.  You’ll recall, the scouts had discovered a city called Laish at the northern most tip of Israel that just looked swell to them.  It was very fertile and the pagans who lived there would in their judgment be much easier to dislocate than the pesky Amorites who live on the land God had actually allotted to them for their inheritance.  Thrilled at their scout’s good report, the tribe of Dan sent them, along with 600 warriors back to destroy this unsuspecting city and on while en route to Laish; they again stop at Micah’s house.  This time, they don’t make a social call, but instead steal from Micah all the religious equipment he had managed to accumulate in chapter 17 and which the five scouts had apparently coveted when they had first visited Micah.

            This meeting is recounted beginning with verse 18, “When these men went into Micah's house and took the carved image, the ephod, the other household gods and the cast idol, the priest said to them, "What are you doing?" 19They answered him, "Be quiet! Don't say a word. Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn't it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man's household?" 20Then the priest was glad. He took the ephod, the other household gods and the carved image and went along with the people.”  That concludes the author’s treatment of this Levite and his portrayal of him reveals another mark of the religion of the flesh.  This mark of fleshly religion seen in this priest is: Fleshly religion profanes sacred things by reducing them to the merely material realm.  This priest is a glaring example of someone called to a sacred duty but who, because God was not ruling his heart, had reduced the priesthood of Yahweh to a way to make a living. 

            Now remember, a priest of God was charged to minister to God on behalf of His people and give back to God’s people spiritual direction and teaching in the ways of Yahweh from the law.  That is an incredibly high calling and privilege from God.  The priest is in many ways the voice of God to the people.  The young priest here however conceives of his calling in very different terms, which are communicated in verse eight.  The Levite says he had left Bethlehem, “in search of a place to stay.”  This young priest leaves his home and his ultimate goal is to find a place.  God is nowhere in the picture.  In Deuteronomy 18 God established a procedure for when a Levite wanted to leave his home to go and be with other priests to minister in the presence of God (be it in the tabernacle or later, in the temple).  But this idea of a priest wandering the countryside alone looking for a place to ply his priestly trade was nowhere provided for in the law.  He is freelancing here.

At the end of the narrative the author tells us this man’s name is, “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.”  That doesn’t necessarily mean he was Moses’ grandson—the generational relationship communicated in that phrase “the son of” is not as literal as we understand it today.  This priest WAS however a close descendent of Moses and that makes him a priest through Moses’ son, Gershom.  What that means is that this man was using his priestly status, which came to him through his bloodline and not any personal accomplishment, to make a living for himself—to get for himself a place to stay.  This is a corruption of the priesthood and shows us that this man had profaned his sacred calling by reducing it to merely a way of sustaining himself.

It’s important for us to remember that anyone who makes his living by the gospel and who is genuinely called of God should not be doing what they do for the money.  Paul is clear in First Corinthians nine and First Timothy five that, although they have a right to be given financial and other forms of support by those who receive their ministry, that is not at all the same as saying a person should do vocational ministry because it’s a way to earn a living. The called person (Old Testament and New) ministers because they are called of God and to do anything else for them would be disobedience.  As they minister, others support them so that they may devote their full time to vocational ministry rather than having to work outside of ministry to earn a living. The finances and other material support should NEVER be what motivates a person for ministry but sadly that is what is clearly motivating this Levite.

He’s looking for a place and that is purely a material concern.  Micah knows perfectly well what the young man is looking for and in response agrees to give him a handsome salary in addition to room and board and his priestly garments.  We know this is how the priest processed this arrangement because in 18:4 when he is relating the recent events of his life to these scouts from Dan the priest says, “He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, “He has hired me and I am his priest.”  Do you hear how this priest’s ministry is Micah-centered?  The priest says,  Micah hired me and Micah takes care of my needs.”  Again, the silence about God’s role in the priesthood is deafening.  Micah is at the center of this priest’s life and ministry; Yahweh is just the figurehead in whose name he ministers.  His ministry isn’t about God—God is on the periphery.  The fact that the priesthood was God’s idea, that God had called him as a Levite and had given him the richest possible spiritual heritage for a Jew, makes no impression on this young Levite.

We see more of this perverse, shallow            conception of the priesthood when the scouts from Dan ask this priest for direction from God in 18:5.  Then they said to him, “Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful.”  The priest answered them, “Go in peace.  Your journey has the LORD’S approval.”    Remember, these Danites were looking for a way to establish a new satellite community for their tribe because they were cramped for space but had failed to displace the Amorites who stubbornly refused to give up the land that God had allotted as an inheritance for the tribe.  They were doing an end-run around God’s plan and they ask this priest to inquire whether this was the Lord’s will.  The Lord’s ACTUAL will was clear—“go back home, repent of your presumptuous sin and fight for and win the land I have already given you for your inheritance.”  This Levite however doesn’t bother asking the scouts any questions about the reason for their mission.  He doesn’t rebuke them for their unbelief in not defeating the Amorites.  He doesn’t pray and ask God for any clear direction in response to their request.  He just answers them immediately in verse six, “Go in peace.  Your journey has the LORD’S approval.” 

We shouldn’t be surprised by that rather predictable piece of guidance.  He’s already established he doesn’t care about the Lord’s will.  If he had, he would have lived his life as a Levite entirely differently.  God’s will was not on his radar screen.  These men come to his master’s house already en route to Laish, scouting out a place for themselves.  They hadn’t asked for God’s blessing or direction up to this point.  They come to Micah’s house, meet the Levite and figure it might be a good idea to consult God since this priest happens to be so handy for them.  The Levite is no fool as a businessman.  Because he is more concerned about making a living than he is about God, from a business point of view there is only one possible response.  There is nothing to be gained materially by him saying anything other than, “Go in peace.  Your journey has the LORD’S approval.  Because he was man-centered, he naturally tells them what they wanted to hear. 

Everyone is perversely happy.  Micah has tickled their ears with what they wanted to hear and is doubtless feeling good about making these scouts happy and the scouts are feeling good because they have a priestly assurance of God’s blessing on something they were going to do anyway.  This is a truly “win-win” situation on a purely commercial level—which is the only level this Levite cared anything about.  The fact that all of this is an utter sham and these people are so incredibly deceived by their self-centered desires should be sobering for us as we seek to discover God’s will for our lives.

A final snapshot of this priest comes in 18:19 when the spies come back to Micah’s and have plotted to steal his idols.  When the priest asks [verse 18], “What are you doing?”  They answered him, “Be quiet!  Don’t say a word.  Come with us, and be our father and priest.  Isn’t it better that you serve a tribe and a clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man’s household?”  Then the priest was glad.  He took the ephod, the other household gods and carved image and went along with the people.”   Here we see more clearly than at any other point in the story what is in this Levite’s heart.  These scouts and warriors from Dan, who are as godless as the Levite, have the same conception of God’s priesthood that the priest does.  They see the priesthood as a way for a person with the right blood line to make a living and have some influence.  They reason on that understanding that it would be far better to be a priest over an entire tribe than over one family so they brazenly offer that deal to this Levite.

The response of the Levite is telling.  The NASB says, “and the priest’s heart was glad.”  This proposition thrilled the Levite.  Forget about the fact that the text says that he had become like one of Micah’s sons.  He doesn’t hesitate to sell out his beloved “employer.”  He was willing to sacrifice any relationship or personal loyalty on the altar of his own selfish desires.  This was a great career move—more pay and more priestly influence—Jonathan had hit the big time!  Notice how his emotions are consistent with his belief system.  His belief system held that the priesthood was basically a way to make a living.  Because he was prospering materially and in his level of personal influence as a priest, he was glad in his heart.  I’m sure he had “a great sense of peace" about this decision to accompany the Danites with his master’s stolen idols.

His belief system was flawed and that meant that everything that flowed out of it including his emotions were flawed as well.  The fact that he was “glad in his heart” is completely irrelevant to the appropriateness of his decision because the belief system underlying his emotions was godless.  One point of application here is that our emotions are only as trustworthy as our belief systems and it is painfully easy to be deceived about what our belief system really is.  The point is, we should never trust our emotions—our own sense of peace about a given decision unless and until we go back and re-examine whether the belief system that underlies those emotions is biblical.  This goes for career decisions, family decisions and just about any decision we make.

It is tempting to stop at the subjective or feeling level and not do the hard work of searching out our underlying belief system.  Someone offers us something that will very much appeal to our flesh and we feel good about it.  It is easy to think this MUST be God’s will because it “feels” so right to us.  If the feelings, no matter how “right” they feel or how strong they may be, are rooted in a fleshly belief system, they are wrong and should not be trusted, period. This priest illustrates the fact that it is possible to feel very good in our hearts about something that is utterly godless.  The word of God must reign in our hearts, not our feelings. This man is so deceived he actually ends up stealing Micah’s other pagan religious holdings for these foolish Danites.

This story also illustrates another myth that is so common today and that is this issue of influence.  The Danites clearly intimate that this priest’s personal influence will increase with a larger audience.  Aside from the fact that this entire scenario is rooted in lies and the flesh, this attitude, which is often seen today in the church, is absolute drivel.  Here’s one example--a gifted young man graduates from seminary and he goes to a small church and his gifts become known.  Its not at all uncommon for other pastors and denominational representatives to tell him that he could have a much greater impact if he would go to a larger church.  So, he begins to climb the evangelical, ecclesiastical ladder under the pretense that he will have “much more impact for Christ” when he can have a venue “that will allow his gifts to bless more people.”  That kind of thinking, whether its about a pastor or any other Christian, is utter nonsense and it is based much more in fallen, corporate America than it is in the Bible.  That is what is operating in this story and this deceived Levite swallows it.  Tragically, so do many pastors and Christians today.

Think about it.  If its true that influence and impact for Christ comes from having the largest possible forum for ministry, how do you explain people like the apostle Paul?  Can’t you just hear people telling Paul, “Paul, would you just tone it down a little on this message of the gospel. How can you make an impact for Christ when you spend much of your time in prison?”  Paul wrote half of the New Testament and much of it was from a prison cell. The same thing was doubtless said to a man who lived in 18th century England who spent more than a dozen years in prison.  He left a wife and children while he remained in prison for preaching.  The officials told him that if he would commit to stop preaching, they would release him.  He stayed in prison 12 years because he refused to violate his conscience. This man could have done so much good for Christ but there he was wasting his life away in prison.  On one of his subsequent prison stays this man, whose name was John Bunyan wrote a little book called “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  This man wrote one of the most influential books in history.

We could mention Jim Elliot, one of the most gifted young evangelicals of his day.  Why on earth would someone who could benefit so many Christians go into this tiny little tribe in South America to preach to savages who might very well (and indeed did) spear him to death?  There are few people in the last 50 years who have had more influence on the church worldwide than Jim Elliot.  What about Susannah Wesley, who bore 19 children, ten of whom died in childhood? Much of our feminist culture would have considered her life a waste—but she mothered and raised John and Charles Wesley—two of the most influential Christians of the past 200 years.

People who are influential in the kingdom are not people who seek to be influential.  They are people who do what God tells them to do.  Influence is GOD’S job, our job is to be faithful.  Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things [including influence] will be added to you.”  The Levite in this story was glad in his heart because he had more authority, more priestly clout but the only contribution of his life is to serve as a warning to others of how NOT to live and minister.  The religion of the flesh profanes sacred things by reducing them to the merely material.  That profaning of the sacred not only occurs in vocational Christian ministry but to anyone who would make the sacred profane and that temptation is real to all of us because for the Christian, anything they do is sacred.

Paul is speaking to slaves (in our culture we would say employees) when he writes in Ephesians 6:5-8, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.  That text tells us it doesn’t matter whether you work behind a pulpit a desk or an assembly line or a kitchen sink full of dishes, ALL of it is sacred.  And the reason it is sacred is because all of it is to be done, not primarily for material compensation but because your boss is Jesus Christ.  Its simply not biblical to believe that your work is just to earn a paycheck.  We are all priests who are to constantly “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable TO GOD which is our spiritual worship.”  Are we doing that?  To reduce our jobs or our day to day seemingly mundane activities to the material realm is to be guilty of the same sin this priest commits.  It’s the religion of the flesh and we must war against it, not cave into the world’s sinful belief system.

Where are we today?  Are we priests after the order of Jonathan, living life mostly on a material plane or are we living as priests of God before his presence, celebrating the sacred quality of our lives?  May God give us the grace to be faithful to him.

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