12 Former Sites of the Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant series (post #2)

While there is a major debate over the current whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, there is no debate as to the sites at which the Bible specifically places it. There are at least 12 of these sites. So, I thought I’d devote a post to listing the sites. In addition to the list itself, I’ll also throw in some details about the effects the Ark had upon the sites. Those details will help explain the supernatural aura the Ark has always held.

Site #1: Mount Sinai

In Exodus 25:10-22, God gives Moses the instructions for building the Ark as part of His whole list of instructions concerning the construction of the Tabernacle and everything that went along with it (Genesis chapters 25 through 30). Then, in Exodus 31:1-11, God explains that He has specially gifted two men — the tribe of Judah’s Bezalel and the tribe of Dan’s Aholiab — to supervise Israel’s other craftsmen and artisans in the building of the Tabernacle and all its components, including the Ark. Of course, even Bezalel and Aholiab worked under the supervision of Moses (Deuteronomy 10:3).

All the work on the Tabernacle was done as the Israelites were encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for approximately eleven months (Exodus 19:1-2; Numbers 10:11) before they pushed on to Canaan. The story of the actual building of the Ark is recorded in Exodus 37:1-9. Since Bezalel’s name is exclusively cited in reference to who built it, that might mean that he personally did all the work.

Site #2: The Jordan River

God’s plan was for the Israelites to leave Mount Sinai, journey straight to the border of their promised land of Canaan, conquer Canaan via a series of battles, and then settle down in Canaan and occupy the land. However, fear prevented the Israelites from conquering Canaan (Exodus chapters 13 and 14), and so God punished them by having them wander in the surrounding wilderness for the next 40 years. During those 40 years all of the Israelites 20 years old or older died off. The only exceptions were Joshua and Caleb.

At the end of the 40 years Israel’s time of judgment came to an end. They were then able to conquer Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. To begin that conquering, Israel’s priests carried the Ark (under veil) to the banks of the Jordan river to lead the people in crossing over the Jordan. Miraculously, as soon as the soles of the feet of those priests stepped into that river — which was overflowing its banks at that time of year — the waters parted (Joshua chapters 3-4), just as the waters of the Red Sea had done during Israel’s exodus from Egypt four decades earlier (Exodus 14:1-31). The Israelites were thus able to march into Canaan on dry land and begin their conquest of the land.

Site #3: The City of Jericho

Once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan river, the first Canaanite city they faced to conquer was the seemingly impregnable Jericho. Historical reports say the city was double-walled, with the outer walls being six feet thick and the inner walls being twelve feet thick. The walls were so massive that houses were actually built atop them.

At the Lord’s instructions, Israel’s army marched around Jericho’s walls once a day for six straight days. The Ark of the Covenant was carried (under veil) by a group of priests as a part of this procession, with seven additional priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns ahead of the Ark. On the seventh day, the army and the priests marched around the walls seven times, after which the priests with the horns blew the horns loudly. That blasting of the horns was then followed by a great shout from all the soldiers. At the moment of that shout God miraculously caused Jericho’s walls to fall down flat. Israel’s army then proceeded to kill all of Jericho’s inhabitants, including even the livestock, and burn the city.

Site #4: Shiloh

Once the Israelites had conquered Canaan and settled it, Joshua had the Tabernacle erected at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1). Since there was no longer a need for Israel’s army to carry the Ark into battle, the Ark was taken to Shiloh and placed inside the Holy of Holies. Shiloh would serve as the location for the Tabernacle for the next few centuries (1 Samuel 1:3).

Site #5: Ashdod

By the time young Samuel arrived on the scene, Israel’s priesthood had become corrupt. Hophni and Phinehas (the two sons of the High Priest, Eli) were especially wicked men (1 Samuel 2:12-17). This resulted in God setting Himself against Eli’s household and priesthood. Because of this, Israel’s army was soundly defeated by the Philistines, resulting in the deaths of approximately 4,000 Israelite soldiers (1 Samuel 4:1-2).

Even though the rout was the direct result of God’s judgment against Israel’s priesthood, Israel’s elders wrongly determined that the defeat had occurred because Israel’s army hadn’t carried the Ark into battle. So they had the Ark removed from the Tabernacle in Shiloh and brought to their battle encampment in the area of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:3-5). Hophni and Phinehas supervised the move.

However, the next battle against the Philistines proved to be an even worse slaughter for Israel than the previous one had been, this time resulting in the deaths of 30,000 soldiers as well as the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 4:10). To make matters worse, the Philistines actually captured the Ark, took it to their city of Ashdod, and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. When Eli, Israel’s high priest, heard the news that his sons had been killed and the Ark been taken, he fell off his seat backward, broke his neck, and died (1 Samuel 4:14-18).

As for the Ark in Ashdod, the first morning it was there the Philistines found the temple’s idol to Dagon toppled over on its face before the Ark (1 Samuel 5:1-3). They propped the idol back up to its rightful place, but the next morning they found it toppled over again before the Ark. And this time the idol’s head and hands were broken off (1 Samuel 5:4-5). In addition to this, God struck the city of Ashdod and its surrounding territory with tumors (1 Samuel 5:6), which most commentators associate with some type of plague.

Site #6: Gath

Not surprisingly, the leaders of Ashdod wanted the Ark out of their city. So the decision was made to take the Ark to another Philistine city, Gath (1 Samuel 5:8). However, once the Ark was in Gath, God turned His anger upon the citizens of Gath and brought some type of unnamed “very great destruction” on the city. Furthermore, He struck the men of the city, both small and great, with tumors (1 Samuel 5:9). All this caused the citizens of Gath to want the Ark removed from their city.

Site #7: Ekron

Next, the Philistines moved the Ark from Gath to Ekron, yet another one of their prominent cities (1 Samuel 5:10). As soon as the Ark hit town the citizens of Ekron began crying out, saying, “They have brought the Ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” They weren’t lying, either. The Bible says the hand of God became very heavy on the city, there was a deadly destruction, and the men who did not die from the destruction were stricken with tumors.

Site #8: Beth Shemesh

By the time the citizens of Ekron insisted that the Ark be removed from their city, the Ark had been in the possession of the Philistines for seven months. Needless to say, those seven months had produced nothing but misery for Philistia as the populations of three of the nation’s five major cities (Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron) had been decimated (1 Samuel 6:1). To say the Philistines were ready to send the Ark back to Israel would be an understatement.

Upon the advice of the Philistine priests and diviners, a cart was built to transport the Ark. This cart was pulled by two milk cows. The priests and diviners also advised that a trespass offering to the God of Israel be sent along with the Ark. This trespass offering consisted of the fashioned images of five golden tumors and five golden rats (1 Samuel 6:2-8). The number five corresponded to the number of major Philistine cities: Ashdod, Gath, Ekron, Gaza, and Ashkelon (1 Samuel 6:17-18).

Such an offering seems strange to us today, but ancient people oftentimes attempted to appease the gods by presenting an offering of whatever it was that was causing the destruction among the people. Evidently, the Philistines saw a direct correlation between their tumors and the rats. This leads many commentators to conclude that the tumors with which God struck the Philistines were caused by the bubonic plague, which medical science would eventually learn is carried by fleas on rats.

Just to ensure that it was really the God of Israel who was troubling Philistia, the Philistine priests and diviners built safeguards into their plan to return the Ark. First, the cart was pulled by two milk cows that were purposely separated from their calves. With the calves being placed in the opposite direction of Israel, the two cows should instinctively go in the direction of their calves. If they took the cart in the direction of Israel instead, that would be a sign that the God of Israel was the one who had decimated Philistia (1 Samuel 6:7).

Second, the two milk cows were also animals that had never been hitched into a yoke. This meant that they shouldn’t immediately understand how to walk in step and pull the cart together. If they started pulling the cart without any problems, that would be another confirming sign that the Philistines were interpreting the situation correctly (1 Samuel 6:7).

Third, the Philistines watched to see if the cows, without being guided, would head in the direction of Beth Shemesh. Beth Shemesh was a Jewish town in northwest Judah that was near the border between Philistia and Israel. If the cows did head toward Beth Shemesh, without being guided, and despite the fact that their calves were in the opposite direction, that would be the final confirmation that Israel’s God was the one with whom the Philistines were dealing (1 Samuel 6:9).

And so how did it all turn out? Every part of the plan went perfectly for the Philistines, and the Ark was returned to Israel. The field in Beth Shemesh into which the two cows pulled the cart belonged to a man named Joshua. When the locals realized the cart was carrying the Ark of the Covenant they were overjoyed. In their ecstasy they used the cart as wood for a fire and offered up the two milk cows as burnt offerings to the Lord (1 Samuel 6:13-14). Later on, when the Levites (Israel’s priests) were summoned to the site, even more offerings and sacrifices were made (1 Samuel 6:15).

Unfortunately for the people of Beth Shemesh, their joy was short lived as they soon overplayed their hand in regards to the Ark. The mistake they made was removing the lid (the mercy seat) and looking inside the Ark. That act so angered God that He struck many of them dead with what is described as “a great slaughter” (1 Samuel 6:19). (The most commonly used Hebrew text that serves as the basis for our translations of the Old Testament says the number of Beth Shemeshites that God struck dead was 50,070. However, many other Hebrew texts cite the number as 70. Obviously the difference in the two numbers is the result of a scribal error in the copying process of some of the manuscripts, but it’s impossible for us to know today which number is the error. Either way, the point is that God was angry with the people of Beth Shemesh for looking inside the Ark.)

Site #9: Kirjath Jearim (also known as Baale Judah)

Following the deaths of many of their neighbors, the remaining people of Beth Shemesh sent messengers to the Jewish city of Kirjath Jearim, which was located about ten miles northeast of Beth Shemesh. The message was simple: Please come and take the Ark of the Lord from us (1 Samuel 6:20-21). The people of Kirjath Jearim agreed, and the Ark was then brought inside the house of a man named Abinadab. Abinadab promptly consecrated his son, Eleazar, to guard and keep the Ark, and the Ark ended up staying in the home of Abinadab for twenty years (1 Samuel 7:1). No doubt the reason for such an allowance was the fact that by this point in history the Ark had reeked so much havoc and struck so many people dead that most people were terrified to even get near it.

Site #10: The House of Obed-Edom

When David became the king over all Israel, he led an army against the city of Jerusalem and won the city from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:1-8). He then set about making Jerusalem the capital city of his kingdom. For one thing, he had a beautiful house built for himself in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:11-12). For another, he determined to transport the Ark from the home of Abinidab in Kirjath Jearim (Baale Judah) to Jerusalem. There David would make the Ark the very center of Israelite worship by housing it in a specially prepared tent. This tent would be different than the actual Tabernacle, which at this time stood at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39).

There was nothing wrong with David’s desire to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, but there was plenty wrong with how he went about doing it. Rather than follow the law of Moses and have the Kohathites (a branch of Israel’s priestly tribe of Levites ) carry the Ark on their shoulders via poles (Numbers 4:1-20; 7:9), David had a special cart built to transport it. This cart was pulled by oxen. He then took 30,000 choice men of Israel and made the journey to Abinidab’s house.

Once at the house, David supervised as the Ark was carefully removed from the house and placed onto the cart. Two of Abinidab’s sons — Uzzah and Ahio — were assigned to drive the cart (2 Samuel 6:3). The grand procession back to Jerusalem was accompanied by music played on various kinds of instruments (2 Samuel 6:5).

Things went well until the procession reached a certain threshing floor along the way to Jerusalem. There, for whatever reason, the oxen stumbled, the Ark wobbled atop the cart, and Uzzah instinctively touched the Ark to steady it and keep it from falling off the cart. At that very moment he was struck dead by God (2 Samuel 6:6).

As soon as David realized what had happened, he became very angry with God (2 Samuel 6:8). In his mind, God’s judgment had been too harsh for Uzzah’s offense. But he also became afraid, afraid that God would never allow him to get the Ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:9). And so right then and there David shut down the entire procession and had the Ark placed inside the home of a man named Obed-Edom, who just happened to live near the site of the tragedy.

The Ark remained in the house of Obed-Edom for the next three months, and God blessed Obed-Edom and his entire household (2 Samuel 6:11). In the meantime, David went to work thinking about what he had done wrong. Somewhere along the way he figured out that his error was in not allowing the Levite-Kohathites to carry the Ark on their shoulders by way of the poles (1 Chronicles 15:1-2). So he sought the counsel of all the Levites and set about to right that wrong (1 Chronicles 15:1-15).

    Site #11: The Tent In Jerusalem

David’s second attempt to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and place it inside the tent that he had prepared for it was successful as this time he allowed the Levite-Kohathites to carry the Ark. Again many thousands of people were involved in the procession, and the entire journey from the house of Obed-Edom into Jerusalem was marked by music, singing, dancing, and much joy. Upon its arrival in Jerusalem, the Ark was placed inside the tent (the tabernacle) that David had erected for it (1 Chronicles 16:1). Offerings were then offered up and thanks was rendered to God (1 Chronicles 16:1-43).

Site #12: Solomon’s Temple In Jerusalem

The Ark hadn’t been in Jerusalem long before David started planning to build a Temple in which to house it (2 Samuel 7:1-2; 1 Chronicles 17:1). It bothered him that the Ark sat in a tent while he himself lived in a fine home. So, he consulted the prophet Nathan and ran the idea of a Temple past him. At first, Nathan told David to do all that was in his heart to do, but later that night God spoke to Nathan and told him to go back and tell David that David shouldn’t build the Temple (2 Samuel 7:3-11; 1 Chronicles 17:2-4.) The reason was that David had shed too much blood in his rise to the throne (1 Chronicles 22:6-8; 28:1-3; 1 Kings 5:1-3).

God, however, was pleased with David’s desire to build a Temple. Therefore, He made two major promises to him. First, the kingdom would never depart from the Davidic family line (2 Samuel 7:8-12, 1 Chronicles 17:11). Second, the son that would succeed David upon Israel’s throne would be the one to build the Temple (2 Samuel 7:12-17; 1 Chronicles 17:11-12).

The record of how David’s son, Solomon, got that Temple built is recorded in 1 Kings chapters 5-7 and 2 Chronicles chapters 2-4. Once the Temple was finished the Levite-Kohathites carried the Ark from its tent in Jerusalem and placed it inside the Holy of Holies room inside the Temple (2 Chronicles 5:1-14). Again the transport was accompanied by much fanfare and celebration. The entire process ended with the cloud of the glory of the Lord filling the Temple so much that the priests had to temporarily stop ministering inside the building (1 Kings 8:1-11; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14). That was God’s seal of approval that the Ark was now exactly where He wanted it to be, and there it would remain until it became lost to history at some point.            

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What Is the Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant series (post #1)

Sometime back a reader requested that I do a post on the current location of the Ark of the Covenant. Finally now, I feel the leading of the Lord to fulfill that request. But rather than attempt to cover the information in a single post, I’m going to break it down into manageable portions and make a series of it. In this series, I’ll describe how the Ark became lost, explore the competing theories of where it might be today, and talk about the Ark’s potential relevance going forward in history. With this opening post, I’ll answer the question: “What is the Ark of the Covenant?”

I once read about a man who mercilessly ridiculed the Bible. He just couldn’t understand how any rational thinking human being could take the Bible seriously in any way. Once, when he was asked to offer evidence that the Bible was the nonsense he claimed it to be, he replied, “Take the ark for example. How can anyone believe that Noah built a boat big enough to accommodate two of every species in the world, and then the Israelites carried such a massive object around with them everywhere they went?” Yes, the ignorant, uninformed skeptic had made the mistake of thinking that Noah’s ark and the Ark of the Covenant were one and the same.

The description of the Ark of the Covenant is found in Exodus 25:10-22, as God gives Moses the highly specific instructions for how to build it. The Ark was a wooden chest made from acacia wood. It was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Most scholars estimate a cubit to have been 18 inches, which would have made the Ark just under four feet long, a little over two feet wide, and a little over two feet high. Basically, it was an oblong, rectangular chest.

The Ark’s wood was overlaid inside and outside with pure gold. On each outside corner was a ring of gold — two rings per side, four in total. Two large poles made from acacia wood and overlaid with gold were inserted into these rings. These poles always remained in place and allowed the Israelite priests to carry the Ark on their shoulders without actually touching the chest itself.

The lid to the chest was an intricately designed slab of solid gold — not acacia wood covered with gold — that matched the Ark’s length and width. Atop the slab, at each end of it, was a hammered gold depiction of a cherub angel with two wings. The two angels faced each other, and their wings were positioned so as to overshadow the lid. The tips of the wings either touched or almost touched over the lid’s center, and the figurative “seat” created was called “the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:17; Leviticus 16:2). The slab itself as well as the cherubim depictions atop it were all one solid piece of forged gold.

God promised that He would meet with the Israelites “from above the mercy seat” and speak to them “from between the two cherubim” (Exodus 25:22). This means that the lid of the Ark of the Covenant served as nothing less than God’s throne upon the earth. Because of this the Israelites referred to God as “The Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; Isaiah 37:16). They also referred to the Ark as “the holy ark” (2 Chronicles 35:3).

Inside the Ark were kept the two tablets of stone upon which God had written out — on the front and back — the ten commandments that served as not only the beginning of His body of law to Israel, but also that law’s moral heart and center (Exodus 20:1-17). Actually, this was the second such set of tablets, Moses having broken the original two in a fit of righteous indignation because of Israel’s idolatry (Exodus 24:12; 31:18, 32:1-19; 34:1-4; Deuteronomy 10:1-5). The two stone tablets were known collectively as “the Testimony” (Exodus 25:16; 31:18), which explains why the Ark was also known as “the Ark of the Testimony” (Exodus 25:22; 26:33; 30:6; 31:7).

We know for sure that the two tablets of stone were always kept inside the Ark (1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10). However, two other items were kept either literally inside it or at least in very close proximity to it. One item was a golden pot filled with some of the manna that God had used to feed the Israelites during their forty years of journeying in the wilderness (Exodus 16:1-35). The other item was Aaron’s rod, the rod that had once budded as undeniable proof that God had chosen Aaron to be Israel’s first High Priest (Numbers 17:1-8). Exodus 16:32-34 says that Aaron placed the pot of manna “before the Testimony, to be kept” (N.A.S.V.). That seems to indicate that the pot sat just in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Likewise, Numbers 17:10 indicates that Aaron’s rod also sat just in front of the Ark. According to Hebrews 9:3-4, though, at some point the pot and the rod spent some time actually inside the Ark alongside the two tablets.

The Ark of the Covenant was housed inside a room called The Holy of Holies (also known as The Most Holy Place). In the early centuries following Israel’s exodus from Egypt, this special room was a part of the Tabernacle that God instructed Moses and the Israelites to build (Exodus chapters 26-30). The Tabernacle was a large portable tent that was supported by a frame of acacia wood. Its walls were made from goat-hair coverings, and its roof was made from rams’ skins and badgers’ skins, dyed red. The inside of the tent was marked by violet, purple, and scarlet tapestries that were sewn together into two sets of five curtains. The tent itself was divided into two sections: The Holy Place and The Holy of Holies (The Most Holy Place). Only Israel’s priests were allowed inside the Tabernacle. Non-priest Israelites could only approach as far as the Altar of Burnt Offerings that was located just outside the entrance to the tent.

As for the Holy of Holies, it was a small, cube-shaped room with a length, width, and height of 15 feet equally. It was the innermost room of the Tabernacle and was separated from the tent’s other section (The Holy Place) by a “veil” that was actually a thick curtain made of fine linen as well as yarn that was blue, purple, and scarlet in color. Israel’s High Priest was the only person who could ever pull back the curtain and enter into the Holy of Holies, and even he could only go in there once a year, annually on the Day of Atonement.

During King Solomon’s reign Israel built a permanent Temple to replace the portable Tabernacle. Still, even though Solomon’s Temple was much more elaborate than the Tabernacle, the basic sections of it essentially followed the same layout as the Tabernacle’s, especially in regards to the Most Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. So, the Ark of the Covenant was moved from the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies to the Holy of Holies inside Solomon’s Temple. This is the room from which it ultimately went missing from history.

In my next post, I’ll trace the Ark’s movements from the time it was built until the time it pulled that vanishing act from mainstream history. Also, I’ll describe the supernatural effects the Ark was known to produce and explain the circumstances surrounding how it went missing. So, until then, stay tuned. This series is just getting warmed up.

 

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Self-Preservation & Jesus

A man interviewed for a job at a famous art gallery that housed dozens of priceless masterpieces. As part of the interview process, he was asked, “If a fire broke out in this gallery and you could only save one picture, which one would it be?” The man’s answer was, “I’d save the one closest to the exit.”

The survival instinct: we’ve all got a touch of it, don’t we? As a character in an episode of an old western series once said, “When it comes to living a little longer, every man has some wolf in him.” For the Christian, however, this wolf poses a problem. I’ll state the problem by playing off that quote: “When it comes to following Jesus Christ and serving Him, every Christian must have some sacrificial lamb in him.” Consider the following passages (all from the N.K.J.V.):

Jesus: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

Paul: “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31)

Paul: “As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.'” (Romans 8:36)

Paul: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (1 Timothy 3:12)

Peter: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)

John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)

How out of place these passages (and others like them) seem in this age of “health and wealth” and “prosperity” preaching when you are encouraged to live, as one best-selling religious book puts it, “your best live now.” In such a time, sermons on subjects such as self-sacrifice, turning the other cheek, and enduring persecution certainly don’t fill the pews of the average church, do they? And yet, this is the life of radical faith. This is the life of selling out to Jesus completely regardless of the consequences. This is the life of standard New Testament discipleship.

Again, we aren’t talking about self-preservation here. We aren’t talking about making comfort your top priority or leisure your life’s goal. You say you want safety, comfort, earthly treasure, and praise from the masses? Then you’ll never live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Why not? That simply isn’t the life He is proposing when He says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Trust me, no one ever took up a Roman cross to play it safe, enjoy himself, and live a little longer.

It’s not that Jesus wants us to go around with a death wish. To the contrary, He wants us to appreciate life, get out there, and really LIVE it for Him. But let’s be clear about one thing: His idea of LIVING it for Him is far different from our worldly ideas about what LIVING it for Him looks like and produces. We mustn’t forget that this is same Savior who promised, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Those aren’t words that we Christians want to hear, are they? Undoubtedly, though, they are every bit as true and as relevant to us as John 3:16.

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The Importance of the Father/Child Relationship

And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse. Malachi 4:6 (N.K.J.V.)

Did you know that the last verse in the Old Testament talks about fathers and their children? If we believe that the words of the Bible are nothing less than inspired by God (and we do, 2 Timothy 3:16), then it must be significant that God chose to close the Old Testament record with a word about the importance of the father/child relationship. This fact alone should teach us just how important that relationship is.

As we study the context of this verse, we find that it involves a prophecy concerning Elijah and his return to the earth sometime before “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” I think this explains why the fathers/children aspect of the verse doesn’t get preached as often as it should. Whenever a preacher does take this passage as a text, he spends so much time answering the questions “Was John the Baptist the fulfillment of this prophecy?” and “Will the actual prophet Elijah literally return to this earth one day?” that he doesn’t have time to do justice to the word about fathers and children. (By the way, if you are really interested in the question of Elijah returning you should read my blog post “One Mighty Angel and Two Incredible Witnesses.”)

For the purposes of this post, though, I just want to hammer home the fact that God equates true revival with the hearts of fathers being turned to their children and the hearts of children being turned to their fathers. You see, if you want to know how spiritually healthy a land is, conduct a national poll and find out how the fathers feel about their children and the children feel about their fathers. That’s not a spiritual barometer that we typically check, but it’s one that we should.

Significantly, our text verse lists the hearts of the fathers being turned to the children before the hearts of the children being turned to the fathers. This order makes perfect sense in light of the fact that it’s a lot easier to get a child to love its father when that father has first shown a love for the child. What this order also indicates is that if there has been a breakdown between the relationship between a father and a child, God will typically start with the father to build the bridge of reconciliation. It’s not that He will never start with the child; it’s just that He would prefer to start with the father.

As for our world today, it’s an understatement to say that many of the relationships between our fathers and our children could use some work. The fact is, though, that all of this work could be accomplished if each father and each child would truly get 100% right with God. No, this isn’t going to happen, but the failure is on our end, not God’s. If He had His way, every father/child relationship would be as He intended it to be.

I don’t know where this Father’s Day weekend finds you in terms of a father/child relationship. Perhaps you are a father. Perhaps you are a child. Perhaps you are, like me, both. Likewise, I don’t know the shape in which your relationship currently finds itself. All I know is that the Biblical principle is this: The land in which the hearts of the fathers and the children are knit together is one that can experience the fullest extent of God’s blessing, but the land in which those hearts aren’t knit together is one that is staring down the gun barrel of being struck by God with a curse.

If this isn’t proof of just how much God prioritizes the father/child relationship, I don’t know what is. Consequently, it is our job as individuals to make sure that each of us is doing his or her part to keep those hearts knit together. That’s why I encourage you to examine yourself this Father’s Day weekend and ask God to reveal to you anything that He wants you to either do or stop doing to play your role in the father/child relationship. Perhaps you don’t need to change anything, and if that’s the case, good for you. But if God does burden you to either do something or stop doing it, you should mind Him because, as we learn from Malachi 4:6, a lot really is riding on it.

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Two Different Bible-School Meetings

The months of June and July constitute Vacation Bible School season in churches all across America. It is with this in mind that I’d like to share a story that involves V.B.S. Actually, the story’s real subject is the spiritual state of two different churches.

After a relatively successful V.B.S. at one of my former churches, I called for a meeting of the teachers and workers who had been involved with the effort. My purpose for the meeting was to assess what had gone well about the V.B.S. and what hadn’t. All I wanted was a friendly, open, candid discussion that would help us identify the areas in which we could improve our V.B.S. the following summer.

And I’m happy to report that the meeting went exactly as purposed. Even when negative subjects were discussed, the meeting retained a warm, friendly spirit that allowed for helpful dialogue and a free-flowing exchange of ideas. No one had an agenda. No one got defensive. No one brought personal issues into the fray. Basically, it was one of the better church meetings that I’ve ever experienced.

Now let’s fast forward to my first year in my next pastorate. Once again my church enjoyed a relatively successful V.B.S., after which I scheduled a followup assessment meeting of the teachers and workers. Since this type of meeting had gone so well at my previous church, I just assumed the same would be true in my new church. I soon learned, however, that my assumption was dead wrong.

The problems started early with a complaint from a teacher that the music director had ignored a song request the teacher’s class had suggested. That, in turn, caused the music director to get defensive. That, in turn, caused the teacher to ratchet things up a notch in terms of tone. That, in turn, caused the music director to match that ratcheting up. So there we all were, just a few minutes into the meeting, and things were already at Def-Con 4.

As the moderator (and I use that word loosely) of the informal meeting, I allowed the verbal exchange between the teacher and the music director to continue for a few uncomfortable seconds. In the end, this would get me accused of siding with the teacher. The truth is, though, that I had two reasons for allowing the argument to last a bit longer than I could have. First, I was caught completely off guard by the turn the meeting took and had to play catch up there for a moment. Second, it was obvious to me that some venting would do both parties some good, you know, sort of like releasing the built up pressure in a pressure cooker. I hoped that once the sore subject of the debated song was out in the open, emotions would settle down and we could discuss the disagreement calmly and rationally. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for that calm, rational discussion.

You ask, “And what did the rest of the people at the meeting do during the argument?” Well, for one thing, they weren’t about to get involved in that dust-up. So they just sat there watching the show. All they needed was some popcorn. For another thing, some of them didn’t really want to be at the meeting anyway because they themselves were still pouting over different little issues from the recent V.B.S.

Fear not, though, because those issues did eventually get brought up in the meeting as well. And, like the issue of the song, they weren’t brought up in what you might call an ideal spirit. The spirit wasn’t the raw anger and emotion of the exchange between the teacher and the music director. Instead, it was a sober, solemn kind of spirit that more or less conveyed the idea: “If we have to do V.B.S. the same way next year, I might not help with it. I just didn’t enjoy this year at all.”

But now let me tell you the real reason why those two followup V.B.S. meetings at those two churches played out so differently. Here’s the thing: The first meeting involved a church that was in a good place spiritually, but the opposite was true for the second meeting. Simply put, one church was in the midst of a time of peace and even a bit of a revival, but the other one was in the midst of a time of civil war and division.

Before I had become the pastor of that second church, the church had experienced some serious problems that had prompted the resignation of the previous pastor. Following that, a pastoral vote on a new potential pastor hadn’t received the necessary percentage for the man to be called by the church. In the wake of that failed vote, I myself had barely received the required percentage to become their pastor.

All this serves as evidence that the church that I had come into was a deeply divided one, marked by cliques, emotional wounds that hadn’t yet healed, and power struggles over who was going to “run” the church. It was a church that a lot of pastors would have avoided. For my part, though, I felt genuinely called of the Lord to wade into the mess and try to help. I ended up staying there three-and-a-half years, and I at least got them to the place where they could get healthy after I left, but I’ll guarantee you that we didn’t have another followup V.B.S. meeting. I had no desire whatsoever to open up another such can of worms.

The point I’m trying to get across in this post is this: Churches that are where they need to be spiritually can deal with virtually anything in a positive way, while churches that aren’t can’t even get through a Vacation Bible School without incident. That’s why it’s so hard for a church to right itself once it’s gone down a wrong path. The people who created the problems are usually the worst candidates to fix them because fixing them would require humility, brokenness, admission of mistakes, confession of sin, authentic repentance, forgiveness, and a willingness to work together to make the necessary changes. I’m not saying that troubled churches can’t rise to these things (or lower themselves to them, depending on how you look at it), but if such behavior came easily for the people, the church wouldn’t have gotten itself into such sad shape initially.

So, if you ever find yourself in a church that has major issues, tread lightly. Always keep in mind that something that would be harmless in another church might very well light the fuse to a powder keg in yours. V.B.S. meetings, changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, putting in new light fixtures, issues involving the church cemetery, changing the Sunday School literature, committee member appointees, changes to the church budget, etc., etc., etc. all have the potential to create problems and even a church split if the church is sick spiritually. This is the sad truth, and it is undoubtedly playing itself out in some church somewhere right now even as you read this.

Posted in Attitude, Backsliding, Brokenness, Church, Confession, Criticism, Forgiveness, God's Work, Pride, Problems, Reconciliation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

My Anger Management Plan

One day a wife asked her husband, “Why don’t you play golf with George anymore?” The husband answered, “Would you play golf with a man who moves the ball and puts down the wrong score while you’re not looking?” The wife said, “Certainly not.” The husband replied, “Neither would George.”

Sinful behavior — it does affect our lives, doesn’t it? My youngest son Royce has been playing some summer baseball, and recently he struck out by foolishly swinging at a pitch that was in the dirt. On his way back into the dugout, he threw down his helmet in a fit of anger. And what was my wife Tonya’s knee-jerk reaction to that? She smiled and said, “I wonder who he gets that from?” (And, no, she wasn’t talking about herself.)

Okay, I’ll admit it, when I get really mad my first reaction is to throw something, kick something, or slam something. For example, several years ago Tonya stood in the kitchen and watched me get aggravated at a troublesome weedeater and launch it into space. That incident reminds me of the story about the little boy who was watching a preacher try to start an old pull-cord mower. When the boy commented, “That mower is enough to make a fellow cuss,” the preached said, “Son, I used to cuss, but I stopped that filthy habit when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and it’s been so long now since I cussed I’m not even sure that I would remember how.” To that the boy replied, “You keep pulling on that cord and it will all come back to you.”

The truth is that each of us struggles with some specific sin or pattern of bad behavior, and no matter how long we go without tripping over that old log, we’ll eventually find ourselves again face first on the ground in front of it. One of mine (and yes, there are others) is my temper. That’s my personal admission for the day. But how about you? What’s your problem area? Is it worry? Doubt? Greed? Impatience? Lust? Jealousy? Ego? Vanity? Pride? Something else?

Royce and I have already had the conversation about him not slamming down his batting helmet. That subject didn’t take long to address. Unfortunately, the underlying cause of that little fit of rage is something that he will have to contend with for the rest of his life. I speak from personal experience on this because I am 50 years old and still contending with my own case of it. For me as a Christian, one of the best things about heaven is the fact that I will be eternally rescued from this mortal flesh, a flesh that is polluted and tainted by sin. Until then, though, there will always be the temptation to slam down helmets and throw weedeaters. That’s the daily challenge that Royce and I must face.

The only real help that I’ve ever found to combat my faulty inner wiring is Jesus Christ. When I placed my belief in Him as Savior, God the Holy Spirit came to take up residence inside me, and His presence allows me a fighting chance to keep my pet sins and bad behavior at bay. Even with the Spirit living inside me, I still show my temper every now and then. With His help, though, those occasions aren’t nearly as numerous as they once were, and I have hopes that they will occur even less as I grow older. This, you see, is my anger management plan. And the plan will work as long as I work the plan by letting the Holy Spirit control me from the inside.

Posted in Doing Good, Doubt, Greed, Heaven, Impatience, Jealousy, lust, Personal Holiness, Pride, Salvation, Sin, Sports, The Depravity of Man, The Holy Spirit, Worry | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Worship Wars

Some years ago I met with the pulpit committee of a certain church about the possibility of me becoming that church’s next pastor. I don’t normally take Tonya along for such meetings, but this committee wanted to meet her as well. So, we made the drive to a designated restaurant that split the mileage distance between our home and the church. Once at the restaurant, we all ordered our food and then proceeded with the discussion at hand.

The church was one that church growth experts call a “graying” congregation. That simply means it had a lot more old folks than young folks. In this case, the “graying” was evidenced by the pulpit committee, which consisted of two men and three women. Each committee member was over 55, and the chairman was well into his 70s.

Much of the meeting consisted of the committee members, particularly the three women, bemoaning the fact that their church had become a shell of its former self in regards to attendance. The church’s heyday had been in the ’60s and ’70s, and they wanted things back to the way they used to be. Whereas they had once boasted numbers of close to 200 on Sunday mornings, they were now down to 50 or so.

According to the committee, the main culprit in their church’s declining attendance was a megachurch’s new satellite campus that had set up shop just a few miles down the road from their church and was pulling in large numbers of people, especially young couples. In case you don’t know what a satellite campus is, here’s how it works. A megachurch rents a large building in either a different town or at least another part of town, and sends some of their staff to that new site to work it. It is the job of these staff members to get the new congregation up and running. That means knocking on doors, handing out flyers, running ads in the local paper, renting billboards, creating a Facebook page, and whatever else it takes to get folks in the door.

The megachurch pays the bills to equip the site with the best of anything and everything. The audio and video systems are cutting edge. Comfortable chairs are used instead of padded pews. Contemporary Christian songs are used instead of classic hymns. A praise-and-worship team and band are used rather than a song leader and choir. Words on a big screen are used instead of hymn books.

The target group for any satellite campus will always be the young couples with children. If something appeals to that generation, that’s what will be prioritized. That means youth programs and lots of them. It also means casual dress, modern translations of the Bible, and sermons that focus less on doctrine and more on issues relevant to the ones such couples face today.

Every satellite campus has a campus pastor, but these pastors don’t normally do any preaching. Instead, the sermons from the lead pastor of the megachurch are piped in via video and played. The campus pastor’s job is to manage the staff, make sure the building is always up to spec, collect the offerings, and funnel everything back to the megachurch. Whatever vision the megachurch has for the satellite campus, the campus pastor is responsible for implementing it. He might also do some counseling and fundraising, but no matter what he does he is always working under the lead pastor of the megachurch.

Okay, so this is what the members of that pulpit committee were up against. A massive church that was located about 30 minutes from their church had launched a satellite campus in their town, and that satellite campus had become the hot new thing in that town. So, the question those pulpit committee members wanted me to answer was, “How would you go about getting our church back to its rightful place of prominence in our town?”

Keep in mind now that they had also made it clear that they: didn’t want to convert to contemporary Christian music, didn’t want to use any translation other than the K.J.V., didn’t want to forego Sunday night and Wednesday night services, didn’t want to change anything about their Sunday School organization, and expected me to wear a coat and tie when I preached. They also loved their beautiful, old sanctuary. But they wanted to grow. That’s a line I remember very well. “We want to grow.”

Well, according to Tonya, I was far too blunt and far too honest in my answer, even though I really wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings or tick them off. All I told them was that their church might never get back to what it had been in the ’60s and ’70s, but that didn’t mean that God had forsaken the church. The church still had an important ministry, but perhaps it was a ministry that should focus on the elderly who still loved that style of church. After all, that generation is every bit as important in God’s eyes as the younger generation. I explained that times had changed and that the church simply wasn’t going to attract the young couples by using a church model from the 1950s. Basically, I said something to the effect, “I can’t promise you that I can lead your church back to where it once was. All I can promise you is that I will faithfully preach the Bible, visit the sick, and lead the church in the direction in which God burdens me to lead it. And as long as what we do is pleasing to Him, we’ll be fine.”

I myself thought that was a reasonable answer, and as Tonya and I left the restaurant the committee chairman leaned toward my ear and said, “We’ll let you know if we are interested, but I feel confident that you’ll be hearing from us soon.” That led me to believe that the meeting must have gone pretty well. However, once Tonya and I got in the car she informed me that I had thrown cold water all over that committee, particularly those three women, and she had serious doubts that I would ever get a call. When I attempted to defend myself by saying, “But everything I told them was the truth,” she responded, “Yes, it was, but those women wanted you to tell them that their church is as great as they think it is and that there is no doubt that it can get back to what it used to be.”

And so how did things turn out? Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, I’m still waiting on that call. Evidently that chairman was in the minority with his assessment of the meeting. I really don’t know what became of that church or who they elected as pastor. What I do know is that the satellite campus from that megachurch is still operating full bore in that town. I also know that the entire experience was a memorable one for Tonya and myself. Rarely have we seen the stark conflict between the older generation of churchgoers and the younger generation on better display than we saw at that restaurant that night. Church growth experts have even coined a term for this conflict. They call it “worship wars.”

Really, though, the reality of the situation is that the “worship wars” lessen a little more with each passing year. The reason is obvious: The older generation is dying off. That’s why there won’t be any more “worship wars” in twenty years or so, perhaps even sooner. And, needless to say, the winning side has already been determined. Until then we pastors must stand in the gap between those who favor the old way of “doing church” and those who favor the new way.

I don’t mind telling you that this is a difficult challenge. Somehow, though, in the midst of it all, we must try to stay in tune with God and hear His still, small voice of direction, guidance, and spiritual discernment. Sometimes that voice promotes the new, but other times it promotes the old as each situation (each congregation) is unique. Like I said, it’s a tough balancing act for a pastor. I just wish that more churchgoers on both sides would be more open minded to the other side’s position. Even more important than that, I wish that all of us Christians would be more open minded to what God wants as opposed to what we want.

Posted in Aging, Balance, Change, Church, Church Attendance, Doctrine, God's Will, God's Work, Ministry, Music, Personal, Sunday School, Truth, Worship, Youth | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment