Author Archives: mgw

Again

Start Over(Start Over, Luna, 2012, Ultra-fine Sharpie on plain copy paper; GalleryFacebook)

It’s almost February 2013… and if you’ve been visiting this blog for the past year for the purposes of finding guidance and encouragement as you read God’s Word, it is likely that you’ve successfully read through the entire Bible.  If so, congratulations!  However, if you were less than entirely successful… take heart.  You get another chance.  It’s a new year; a fresh slate – an opportunity to start over.

To expound upon this, I’d like to consider one of Jesus’ healings.  In the opinion of this author, one of the most intriguing miracles of the Gospels occurs in Mark 8:22-26.  It is recorded as follows:

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

Why the two-stage healing?  Why did not Jesus simply heal the man completely the first time?  Was He unable?  (Certainly that cannot be true.)  There must be something significant about Jesus’ deliberate approach here.  I could certainly be wrong, but my sense is that Jesus healed the blind man in two stages to teach the disciples (and us, by extension) a very important lesson about faith.

The disciples are not depicted in Mark’s Gospel as the most perceptive bunch.  Consider the following: In chapter 6 the disciples witnessed Jesus feed 5,000 people with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  Soon thereafter, they observed with their very own eyes Jesus walk atop the sea of Galilee.  Upon reaching Gennesaret, Jesus healed many of the sick and infirm who were brought to Him.  In chapter 7 Jesus cast a demon out of the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman.  He then made a deaf man hear again.  At the start of chapter 8 Jesus encountered another large crowd (this time the people were numbered at 4,000) and with only 7 loaves and “a few small fish” (v.7) He fed every hungry mouth.

Jesus’ disciples witnessed all of these signs and wonders.  And yet, when they found themselves in a boat with only 1 loaf of bread (8:14), they began to worry and squabble:

And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-21)

At this point in Mark’s Gospel, the two-stage healing of the bling man is recorded (vv. 22-26).  Yes, I think the Author has an impeccable sense of timing in His storytelling.

You see, the disciples were like the bleary-eyed man who, when peering into his immediate foreground, saw only fuzzy images (people) resembling walking trees (v. 24).  He had encountered Christ and was indelibly changed for the better, but his perception still had a ways to go.  The same was true of the disciples.  They had encountered the Son of God in a radical, transformative way, but they still could not see Him clearly.

Case in point: they sat hungry in a boat worrying about their next meal while presumably only feet away the very Multiplier of Loaves & Fish dangled His miracle-making fingers into the water on which He had only recently walked upon.

It’s almost comical.

But really, it’s convicting.

Because we are no different.  We are bleary-eyed Christians who fail to behold the glory and grandeur of Christ even when it’s staring us right in the face.  We doubt God’s provision.  We confuse His purposes.  We forget His Words.

We miss the point.

And like the bleary-eyed man in Mark 8, we need to be touched again by the gracious hand of God so that we might see Him more clearly.  This is why reading through the Bible should become a regular practice for all Christ-followers.  We can’t possibly perceive everything the first time through!  We need to read it again, and again, and again, and again.  Once we finish reading the Bible, we need to start over.  Each time through the eyesight of our faith improves.  Every time we are exposed to God’s Word we are exposed to God’s Wonder.

So whether this is your first time through or your seventh, there are beautiful, challenging, encouraging, and convicting lessons in store.

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Continuation

(Moebius Birds, Maurits Cornelis Escher, June 17, 1898 – March 27, 1972, lithograph)

To be continued...”  If you’ve ever seen a film or television show conclude with these words you likely have been left with a sense of wonder and anticipation.  The story is not finished.  The conflict has not been resolved.  Questions have been left unanswered.  What will come of (fill in the blank)?

The Gospel of Luke could have ended with the tagline, “To be continued…”

The apostle Luke was one of the disciples of Christ.  He happened to be a physician – a very competent and accomplished man who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts – two books that, together, make up approximately 27% of the entire New Testament with respect to volume of content.  Word for word, Luke wrote more of the New Testament than the apostle Paul.

Each of the four Gospels follows the life, death, and resurrection of Christ the Messiah, the Son of God.  As Luke brings his Gospel account to a close, he provides a preview of coming attractions, as it were, from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  This interchange in Luke 24:44-53 occurs after Jesus’ resurrection.  He appears to His disciples and gives them a charge as the lead agents of God’s mission through the church.

44 Then He (Jesus) said to them (His disciples), “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (essentially ALL of Scripture written up to that point) 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures (which is another way of saying the Old Testament), 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. 51 While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. (This is what is called the Ascension.) 52 And they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. (They worshiped in the Jerusalem temple continually as they awaited “the promise of the Father” mentioned in verse 49.)

In other words, “To be continued…”

Let’s not miss what is happening here: the second person of the Trinity, the incarnated God-Man, has now left (He ascended into heaven) but the blessing of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, would soon descend upon Christ’s followers in a new and dynamic way, empowering them to carry out God’s mission, which is described in Luke 24:47 as follows: “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” – a global mission with its epicenter in Jerusalem.  That is where the story in Acts begins.

And while there a treasury of rich history contained within its 28 chapters, it may be helpful to simplify the scope of Luke’s follow-up account by identifying what Acts is all about: the kingdom of God.  More specifically, it’s about the nature of the kingdom of God; how it’s spiritual, powerful, global, historical, and effectual.

1)   It’s spiritual.  It’s Holy Spirit-ual.  The same Holy Spirit who was present and active at the creation of the world is the same Spirit building God’s church.  The same Holy Spirit who blew across the waters of the Red Sea so that God’s people could be emancipated from the subjugation of the oppressive rule of Egypt is the same Spirit present in our worship each week.  The same Holy Spirit present and active in all of the mighty works of God we read of throughout Scripture is the same Holy Spirit present and active in the hearts and minds of the people committed to City Church in little ole’ Saint Louis 2012.

2)   It’s powerful.  The church is not meant to be spineless and weak, waffling aimlessly in watered-down belief and being battered about by every changing wind of culture.  Quite the opposite, the church is to be triumphant and strong, standing victoriously on the Word of God, relying faithfully on the Holy Spirit to carry out God’s mission in this world with unwavering hope and unmoving truthfulness.  Christians are empowered to be witnesses to the truth of the Spirit to heal and restore lives, to be witnesses to the truth of the resurrection, to be witnesses to the truth of the claims of Christ – to advance the Kingdom of God not by coercion, but by the power of the truth through word and deed.

3)   It’s global.  There are 4 geographical areas cited in Acts 2:1-13 (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth).  As one progresses throughout the rest of the book of Acts these 4 areas will, essentially, be covered in a 3-part progression: the mission to Jerusalem is covered in Acts 1-7, the mission to Judea and Samaria is covered in Acts 8-12, and the mission to the rest of the Roman world (the ends of the earth) is covered in Acts 13-28.  Pentecost occurred in Jerusalem, and so we see that the church’s witness was to begin there, expanding outward like ripples in a pond, embracing Judea and Samaria, and then overflowing beyond those known communities to the farthest reaches of the Roman empire, to the ends of the earth – a global Kingdom.

4)   It’s historical.  The Kingdom of God is thoroughly historical.  It’s based upon actual people, actual events, actual healings, actual miracles, actual sermons, sayings, and teachings, actual movements of the Spirit – actual historical events and accounts.  It happened.  Thousands of people attested to it.  The apostle Paul said as much when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”  In other words, if the resurrection didn’t happen, this is all worthless – a huge waste of time and money.  But it DID happen.  See Acts 1:3, “He (Jesus) presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

5)   It’s effectual.  It doesn’t take much reading in the book of Acts to encounter the miraculous effect of Gospel transformation.  On the day of Pentecost alone, 3,000 souls were saved, not to mention the thousands upon thousands upon thousands (tens of thousands; hundreds of thousands; millions) in the months, years, decades, and centuries to follow – the Kingdom of God is effectual!

The best part?  The “To be continued…” is still continuing.  Each of us is in the middle of the story and has a significant role to play in the grand drama of redemption that God is still telling.  Reading the book of Acts through this lens utterly changes our perspective.

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Favorites

(Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948, Tempera on gessoed panel, 81.9 cm × 121.3 cm or 32¼ in × 47¾ in)

For today’s reflection, two favorites.  The first is the painting you see above.  The second is a verse from the Gospel of Mark.  First, the painting.  It’s called “Christina’s World” and it was painted by American artist Andrew Wyeth in 1948.  While it debuted to relatively little fanfare it has become one of the most recognizable pieces of art from the middle twentieth century.  It depicts a woman lying on the ground in a treeless, russet field looking up at an aging farmhouse on the horizon.  The woman’s name is Christina Olson and she suffered from polio, a condition of muscular degeneration that incapacitated her legs.  Wyeth knew Olson personally and on one occasion had witnessed her crawling across the field, a moment which inspired this piece of art currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

I was introduced to this painting in seminary.  It hung above the fireplace of the on-campus housing I called home from 2001-2003.  It captivated me the first time I laid eyes on it and it has been a favorite of mine ever since (I own a print which I hope to have framed someday).   Until I decided to write this brief entry I’ve never been confronted with the task of articulating my reasons for being so drawn to it.  I’ll give it a shot…

First, I simply find it beautiful.  Wyeth’s use of color and texture are masterful.  Though it is done in a realist style, something about it strikes me as nonsensical.

Also, it makes me sad.

Yet, I find it triumphant, as well.  Christina’s dress seems to subtly protest the indignity of her actions.  The scene is serene but the dishevelment of her hair and the strained grope of her left hand suggest desperation.  We cannot see her face, only the lonely vestiges of decaying buildings (home, presumably).

“Christina’s World” gives me pause.  I imagine the patience, determination, and perspective required to drag oneself through an uncut field.  I can almost feel the discomfort and brokenness of that act.  It reminds me of my sin.

It may just be my favorite painting.

Another favorite of mine involves one of Jesus’ miracles.  In the Gospel of Mark a demon-possessed boy is brought to Jesus for healing (9:14-29).  The father of the boy implores Jesus saying, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  Jesus replied, “‘If you can’!  All things are possible for one who believes.”  Immediately upon hearing this, the father of the boy cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  With that, Jesus cast out the evil spirit and healed the boy.

Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  This is one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture.  If I ever get a tattoo, this will be it.  (Mom, I’m speaking hypothetically.)  Though its words are sparse, it says so much.  Like Wyeth’s painting, its raw and simple beauty provides so much upon which to reflect and ruminate.

My faith in Jesus is so imperfect; so fragmented at times.  Sometimes I believe boldly.  Other times I tuck-tail and run, hiding away in the futility of my own self-sufficiency.  I believe.  I believe not.  I am a conundrum.

Blaise Pascal described humanity well when he declared the following: “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, depository of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe.

So what do “Christina’s World” and Mark 9:24 have in common?  And why would I bother to publish these reflections on a thread of posts related to a Chronological Bible Reading Plan?

Well, to be honest, here’s my train of thought: the Wyeth painting makes me think of my own brokenness, how it incapacitates me, isolates me, and causes pain.  When I consider my sin I am reminded of my unbelief.  And when I contemplate unbelief, I think of Mark 9 and how the wonderful grace of Jesus makes up for my incomplete, fragmented, broken-down faith.  And there I take hope.

Perhaps you’re bogged down in the middle of reading through Ezekiel at the moment and you’re struggling to understand how any of it pertains to the here and now.   Maybe the frenetic pace of life creates anxiousness and unrest within you.  Maybe you’re the parent of a young child or children and the unpredictability of moods, tantrums, and breakdowns sends you over the proverbial edge.  Perhaps you’re unsure of Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ strikes you as either too good to be true or a downright sham.

Whatever the case may be, in our lives there are a thousand places in which belief and unbelief wage war.  That’s just the way it is.  Don’t run from it.  Embrace it.  God does.  And like the father in Mark 9, He tells us to take hope in Jesus.  There is sufficiency in His grace.  In other words, He meets us where we are.  Divine condescension – the doctrine of accommodation in real time.  Even though we may feel as lonely and incapacitated as Christina depicted in that wonderful painting above, God is near.  He is an ever-present help and refuge in trouble.

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.

 


Flawed

(Mike Tyson drawing, John Harding, graphite; www.art-works-australia.com)

**Though we aren’t introduced to the prophet Isaiah for another week (according to the Chronological Bible Reading Plan), I thought I might whet our appetites in preparation for this great book.**

I was in my car this morning listening to Mike & Mike in the Morning (ESPN Radio) as they interviewed Mike Tyson, former Heavyweight Champion of the World.   The once-great fighter has a Broadway show debuting in late July called “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” directed by Academy Award-winner Spike Lee.  The show has already made a successful run in Las Vegas.  From what I can gather it is essentially a dialogical presentation of Tyson’s highs and lows.  It’s part monologue, part Q&A with the audience.  As Mike Greenberg questioned Tyson, trying to get a better sense of the tone of the show, he commented on how Tyson, much like Tiger Woods, has been a magnetic character – for better or worse; someone for whom the public has a seemingly bottomless reservoir of interest.  He then asked, “How do you view yourself?”  Without skipping a beat, Iron Mike responded, “I’m pretty flawed.”  He went on to describe his brokenness with honesty and refreshing transparency, but there was little talk of redemption – or even needing to be redeemed.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and proclaimed, “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other” (45:22).  The problem of sin is universal; Mike Tyson is not the only one who can truthfully confess, “I’m pretty flawed.”  We’re all “pretty flawed.”  And we need to be fixed.  More accurately, we need to be rescued.

In reading for this post I came across Ray Ortlund, Jr.’s commentary on this masterful Old Testament book entitled, “Isaiah: God Saves Sinners.”  This is what he writes at the very start:

God saves sinners.  We don’t believe that.  We bank our happiness on other things.  But God says to us, “I’m better than you think.  You’re worse than you think.  Let’s get together.”

The prophet Isaiah wants to show us more of God and more of ourselves than we’ve ever seen before.  He wants us to know what it means for us to be saved.  Do we have the courage to listen?  We might as well.  Our friends disappoint us.  Our own good intentions let us down.  Sooner or later our very bodies will give out.  But God has opened a way for us to swim eternally in the ocean of His love.  Our part is to look beyond ourselves and stake everything on God, who alone saves sinners.

If you aren’t a Christian believer, I dare you to give Isaiah a hearing.  God speaks through this prophet even today.  How else can you explain the fact that after 2,700 years there is still a market for books on Isaiah?  Why are you [reading] this book right now?  God wants to speak to you through Isaiah.  If you’re a new Christian, Isaiah offers you a God-centered confidence that can face anything.  If you’re an experienced Christian, Isaiah will challenge you to trust God in new ways.  And if you’re suffering, Isaiah will help you reach out and grasp God’s mighty hand on your behalf.

As a pastor, it’s not my job to protect people from the living God.  My job is to bring people to God, and leave them there.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the British minister, asked, “What is the chief end of preaching?”  His answer was, “It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.”  How did he attempt that?

His approach is habitually Isaianic: having surveyed man’s pretensions, his fancied greatness and adequacy, moral, religious, cultural, intellectual, he punctures them, humbling man and exposing weakness, futility and sin, in order then to exalt God as the only Savior.

All prophetic preaching takes that approach.  If all you want is Christianity Lite, this book is not for you.  But if your interest in God is sincere enough not to set preconditions, you may well find a sense of God here.

I do hope you enjoy reading Isaiah.  It’s a fantastic piece of literature in which to meet Christ, get a taste for His identity, and wonder at the sovereignty of God in weaving the grand tapestry of redemption that is the story of Scripture.  As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Folly

(King’s Folly, Ivan Venkov, sculpture; theme – polarity, statement – exploitation)

March 29.  Okay, then.  It’s been 63 days since my last post.  That’s way too long.  I apologize.  My original intention was to write an introduction to every book of the Bible to help orient you as you work through the Chronological Bible Reading Plan.  It was going somewhat smoothly for a while.  And then I missed Ruth.  Not a biggie; only four chapters (the entire reading occurred on April 7 during Holy Week).  Then there was 1 & 2 Samuel.  And having just spent the previous 8 months in a sermon series on the life of David, I failed to act proactively in developing a summary.  Before I knew it, the Psalms were upon us, intertwined with readings from the books of Samuel and, oh yeah, Chronicles.  It began to snowball.  I was then out of town (here and there).  We moved houses.  Before I knew it, two months had passed and it’s 95 degrees outside.

Even so… my hope is that despite my dereliction of duty we’ve all been keeping up with the reading.  I know that it hasn’t always been easy.  There’s some dense and confusing stuff in there.  But I’m back.  And while I know that my brief musings do not necessarily clarify all things, hopefully they at least provide some direction through the muddied waters.

We’ve just begun 1 Kings.  And what we need to see through the telescope of Israel’s history is the future destruction and desolation of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  It provides the foreground for our reading.  In other words, this cataclysm has not yet happened in the story, yet we must read everything that occurs in these books as preparation for that impending fall.  Through the pages of 1 & 2 Kings we learn of Israel’s progressive idolatry, sinfulness, and failed leadership, all of which contributed to the destruction of the Temple, the deportation and captivity of the people, and the desolation of their city and its defenses.

As a 21st century reader of ancient history, what is the takeaway from 1 & 2 Kings?  The primary lesson to be gleaned is that God is indeed in control of nature and all of history.  He is the one, true God and nothing more powerful than Him exists.  Additionally, He is good.  As such, this good and all-powerful God sovereignly oversaw the annihilation of His own prized city, the destruction of His own Temple of worship, and the exile of His own people to the pagan nation of Babylon.

Bad stuff happens.  But God is on His throne through it all.  The King of kings reigns.

It is helpful here to consider where we’ve been, Scripturally speaking.  The astute reader of the books of Kings will see resonance with the book of Deuteronomy, if only by contrast, in the opening section of David’s parting speech to Solomon (1 Kings 2:1-4).  Many themes and phrases are highlighted:

–  “keep the charge of the Lord your God” (Deut. 11:1);

–  “walking in His ways” (Deut. 8:6);

–  “keeping all His statutes and His commandments” (Deut. 6:2);

–  “that you may prosper in all you do” (Deut. 29:9);

–  “that He may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers” (Deut. 9:5);

–  “with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).

So, as we work through Kings, it is evident that these things are not being followed, either by Israel’s leaders or the people.  And so Israel’s great fall should not come as a surprise.  Their folly led to their ruin.  In this way, jumping soon into the wisdom literature of the book of Proverbs (June 3) is not only historically chronological, but quite theologically apropos.  Scripture is to be instructive.  We are to learn from the failures of our forefathers.  This reading plan is not simply for information.  It is meant for transformation.  The Bible teaches us, reproves us, corrects us, and trains us for righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).  Therefore, as we read through 1 & 2 Kings and the subsequent wisdom of Proverbs, be attentive to your heart and what the Holy Spirit may be speaking to you.  And lastly, understand this – where prior kings have failed Jesus has succeeded.  Where prior worldly “wisdom” has failed, the “folly” of Jesus has succeeded (see 1 Cor. 1:18-21).

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


Cycle

(Faithless, Damien Hirst, 1966-, silkscreen, 150 x 78.7cm)

The book of Joshua ends on a positive note.  Although Joshua dies and is buried, the overall redemptive-historical position of Israel is good.  Joshua 24:31 states, “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.”  Under Joshua, Israel went into the land of Canaan and gained effective control.  And whereas they did not completely dispossess the land of its inhabitants as had been instructed (Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13), as a whole they are presented as maintaining covenant faithfulness.

As we enter into the book of Judges, the outlook is far grimmer.  Judges tells the story of the next generation and beyond who were, simply put, unfaithful.  In contrast to Joshua 24:31 above, Judges begins with the following description (Judges 2:10-12): “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.  And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.  And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.

What is a judge?  It’s not what you might immediately think – gavel, robe, and an afternoon time slot on the CW.  An Old Testament judge was simply a ruler or governor who may have exercised legal duties (e.g. Deborah) but more typically led the people by delivering them from their enemies.  They were to be righteous leaders acting as God’s agents of salvation from foreign oppressions.  Sadly, many of them fell short.  Consequently, there is a discernable pattern to the book: faithlessness > oppression > crying out > deliverance through judge > death of judge > faithlessness (repeat cycle).

There are four prominent theological themes that are presented throughout the book:

1)   Faithlessness – This can be summarized thusly: instead of dispossessing the land of foreigners, they instead lived among them and became like them, especially with respect to worship (syncretism will always provoke the Lord’s anger – 2:11-15, 19-21).

2)   Mercy – God judges Israel’s sin, yes, but He also spares powerfully.  Anytime the people repented of their sin and cry out to God, He would send a judge to bring order and deliver them from the hand of their enemies (Judges 2:16, 18).

3)   Deliverance – It is God who determines the winners and losers.  The battle is His.  Time and again the text reminds us of this: “The Lord was with the judge and delivered them…” (Judges 2:18a), “the Spirit of the Lord came upon [Othniel]… and the Lord gave Cushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand” (Judges 3:10a), “the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer…” (Judges 3:9a; 3:15; 4:3; 10:10).

4)   Righteousness – The judges came and went.  And so did seasons of righteousness.  Israel was faithful when they had a faithful leader, but faithless when that leader died.  They needed a king (cf. Deuteronomy 17:18-20) who would uphold God’s law and keep the people accountable to covenant faithfulness.

The last five chapters of the book of Judges show forth Israel’s need for a king.  The complete apostasy and utter wickedness of the people was repeatedly summarized with the following refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel, (everyone did what was right in his eyes)” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).  The implication is that a king was needed to lead the people in righteousness.  And whereas such a need prepares us for the books of Samuel and the Davidic dynasty, it ultimately orients us to the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the embodiment of righteousness.

One final idea that is important to note heading into the book of Judges: the punishment always fits the crime.  Consider one of the most memorable stories in Scripture, Ehud’s murder of Eglon, king of Moab (Judges 3:12-30).  In short, God raises up Ehud, “a left-handed man” (3:15).  Ehud designs his own special sword that he fashions to his right thigh.  He presents the Moabite king with a tribute and informs him, “I have a message from God for you” (3:20).  At that point, Ehud took his special sword that had gone unnoticed by the guards (since it was both smaller in stature and carried uncharacteristically on his right side, rather than left) and plunged it into Eglon’s bulbous belly – “And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out” (3:22).  Why did this punishment fit the crime?  The deathblow occurred at his stomach, which had gotten fat off of Israel’s produce.  Such a correlation of punishment to crime prepares us for the sacrifice of Christ and impresses upon us the magnitude of our sin and the lengths God went to redeem us.  Our sin had to be dealt with and the death of His only begotten Son was the only answer.[1]

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.


[1] I credit Dr. Jay Sklar for these insights and summaries, many of which have been gleaned from his class notes from Old Testament History (OT330, Covenant Theological Seminary, Spring 2004).


Conquest

(Joshua’s Victory over the Amorites, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 134 cm)

Five books down.  Sixty-one to go.  If you’ve kept up with the Chronological Bible Reading Plan, you’re well on your way.  We’ve completed the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Number, and Deuteronomy) and, in terms of the story of the people of Israel, we find ourselves on the cusp of the Land of Canaan as we begin the book of Joshua.

Prior to the transition of leadership to Joshua, Yahweh revealed Himself to Moses and through mighty acts of salvation God redeemed His people out of bondage in Egypt.  Once emancipated, the people received the law at Sinai through which God established His covenant love for Israel.  Now, with Joshua at the helm, God is presented as the divine Warrior who carries His people into the Promised Land where they will find rest.

That sounds nice, right?

Yeah… until you get to the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites, sparing not even woman or child.  What’s up with that?

Even the most seasoned Christian bristles at what initially appears to be divinely sanctioned barbarism used to expand Israel’s territory and annihilate anyone who stands in the way.  Surely it is examples like the ones found in Joshua that incite so many who are hostile to Scripture to accuse God of being blood thirsty, an ethnic cleanser, or, at the very least, bipolar (i.e. the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrathful judgment while the God of the New Testament is a God of gracious love).   Atheist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, is famously quoted as saying, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  Try saying that ten times fast.

If you call yourself a Christian, you can neither downplay these issues with pat answers nor ignore them as inexplicable anomalies.  You see, truth without love is abuse.  Love without truth is neglect.  Jesus Christ, who is the very same God of the Old and New Testaments, embodies the Gospel as an alternative – a third way marrying truth and love in which God’s righteous judgment and His tender mercy exist in perfect harmony.

Therefore, as we seek to navigate the book of Joshua, it will be helpful to keep in mind a few key ideas.  First, God is Creator and therefore all that we see is His.  We are tenants and He is, quite literally, our landLord.  In other words, God owns first right to any and all land.  If He wants a particular geographic area for His purpose, it is well within His prerogative to seize it.  Second, all people are sinners.  Therefore, all people are worthy of the judgment of God who is perfectly righteous and holy.  The Pentateuch provides moral rationale for the destruction of the Canaanites.  Their wickedness was evident and judgment was just (Genesis 15:13-16; Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 9:5).  Israel was the agent through which God’s judgment was administered and a vessel through which His righteous intentions were made clear.  Third, through the Mosaic covenant ratified at Sinai, membership in the people of God necessarily required dual obligations both to the “church” (faith in Yahweh) and the “state” (identity as an Israelite).  In this way, God instituted a theocracy for Old Testament Israel, one whose political and religious purity was to be preserved.  If unrepentant Canaanites were permitted to remain in the land, their influence would likely dangerously syncretize Israel’s life and worship (and eventually, in fact, it did).  Fourth, and finally, while the destruction of the Canaanites was stated unequivocally and uncompromisingly, God’s grace was always available to non-Israelites to surrender and live, especially through a genuine profession of faith (e.g. Rahab in 2:9; the Gibeonites in 9:1-27).  These four factors speak to the justice and rationale for the events that occur in this significant period of Israel’s history.

Before I wrap this up, we must consider the Christology present in the book of Joshua.  As we’ve seen before through Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, many Old Testament characters serve to prefigure Christ in different ways.  The same is true for Joshua, whose name means “to rescue/deliver” (or, more literally, “he saves”).  Etymologically, Joshua = Jesus, so that’s convenient.  But more substantively, Joshua is significant because where Moses failed, Joshua secured victory much like Jesus, on a cosmic scale, succeeded where Adam failed.  Like Joshua, Jesus completed the Exodus in the fullest sense, not simply by capturing the Promised Land (Canaan) through battle, but by securing the Promised Rest (salvation) through bloodshed – His own.  Jesus is the Interceder par excellence.  Plus, the Son of God makes a cameo in Joshua 5:13-15, which is pretty cool (what is known in theological terms as a “Christophany”).

As always, please feel free to ask questions.  You can either email me directly (mike@citychurchstl.org) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog.  Thanks for reading.