Thunder Balanced With Love

From everything we can tell about Christ’s chosen 12 apostles, John was the youngest. He was the son of Zebedee and the younger brother of fellow apostle James (Matthew 4:21). By combining certain passages – Matthew 27:56,  Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 – we deduce that Salome was John’s mother and that she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If this deduction is correct, it means that John and James were first cousins to Jesus and explains why Jesus, on the cross, committed Mary to John’s safekeeping (John 19:25-27).

Evidently, Zebedee was well to do in the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. Mark 1:20 mentions that he employed servants that helped him on his fishing boat (or boats). Perhaps James and John were partners with their father. Then again, Luke 5:10 says the brothers were partners with Simon (Peter), which presumably means that Peter’s brother, Andrew, was also in on the partnership. Whatever the exact details were, what we know for sure is that James, John, Peter, and Andrew all left the fishing business behind and accepted Christ’s call to follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11). Before that, John and Andrew had been followers of John the Baptist. (It is unanimously believed that John is the unnamed apostle mentioned in John 1:35-42.)

To me, though, the most interesting thing about James and John is that they were both hotheads. Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). Once, while Jesus and the 12 were making their way to Jerusalem, a certain village in the region of Samaria refused to let the group pass through the village. The “Sons of Thunder” didn’t take this slight lightly and asked Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:51-56) Jesus answered them, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” The group then continued on to another village without harming anyone. But it’s interesting that James and John’s first reaction was to lay waste to the offending village. They didn’t even ask Jesus to do it. They wanted Him to give them the power to do it!

The brothers were also ambitious, even to the point of being greedy. In Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45, we read the story of how they, along with their mother, approached Jesus and asked if He would grant them the incredible honor of sitting next to Him in His kingdom, one at His right hand and the other at His left. If James and John truly were first cousins to Jesus, perhaps that had something to do with the lofty request. But Jesus informed them that He didn’t get to choose who received those choice positions. That threw cold water on the request. The problem then arose that the audacious request had ticked off the other apostles. Things got so tense that Jesus had to give the entire group a refresher course on the fact that true greatness comes from humble servitude. I’m sure that’s not what James and John had in mind since they surely were thinking of Christ’s kingdom in terms of a political, military reign that would oust Rome and reestablish Israel to preeminence.

Still, despite John’s natural temper and ambition, he somehow ended up being historically known as “the apostle of love.” How did that happen? It’s primarily the result of him writing the epistle of 1 John, which features love as one of its main themes (1 John 2:1-11, 3:10-23, 4:7-21, and 5:1-3). As a matter of fact, that epistle contains more about love – loving God, being loved by God, loving others, loving not the world – than any other New Testament book.

There are various possibilities as to why John changed somewhat over the course of his life. Perhaps he finally just grew into all the training he had received from Jesus during the years he spent with Him. Perhaps becoming indwelt by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost had something to do with it (Acts 2:1-4). Perhaps caring for Mary did as well. While I’m not dismissing any of these factors, I would suggest one other thing that I’m sure had a profound influence upon John: the martyr’s death his older brother James died.

The story of James’ death is found in Acts 12:1-2. As a means of keeping the burgeoning Christian church in Jerusalem at bay, Herod Agrippa I had James killed, making James the first of the chosen 12 to be martyred. No mention is made of how John reacted to his brother’s execution but experiencing something like that would have to knock at least some of the “thunder” out of you.

This is not to say, though, that John lost all the fight that had once characterized him. While the epistle of 1 John does have a great deal to say about love, it also features other themes and is written in language that is so bold, direct, matter of fact, absolute, and dogmatic that it is shocking to the “politically correct” reader. Consider the following passages and as you read them think about how a man with John’s ultra conservative viewpoints and blunt speech would fare in our society today.

  • “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:6)
  • “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8).
  • “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)
  • “He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now.” (1 John 2:9)
  • “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)
  • “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” (1 John 2:19)
  • “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is anti-christ who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22)
  • “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)
  • “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” (1 John 3:6)
  • “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12)

You see, even though John did tone down his “thunder” over the years, he never lost it completely. As further evidence of this, his epistle of 2 John is a warning to Christians about the dangers of embracing false doctrine, and his epistle of 3 John specifically warns against a man named Diotrephes who was causing problems in the church at the time. And then, of course, there is The Revelation in which John describes nothing less than the end of the world.

All told, I think we can look upon John as a wonderful example of a Christian who matured to the point where he struck the proper balance between thunder and love. He never became so open minded, tolerant, and mush and gush as to accept all manner of sin in the name of love, but he did get out of the habit of looking for unbelieving villages to nuke. Living in this world in which extremist mentalities are becoming more commonplace, you and I would do well to learn from John. His balance of thunder tempered with love should be our goal, and I truly believe the Lord will help us get us there if we will let Him mold and shape us.

Posted in Aging, Attitude, Balance, Character, Family, God's Love, Greed, Love, Ministry, Persecution, Preaching, Truth | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Rebuked & The Rebuker

“It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:5)

“…Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

“…a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” (Proverbs 13:1)

These three verses show us what the Bible teaches about responding to a godly, accurate, wise rebuke. You should see the rebuke as something good and helpful, something that can lead you to become a better person. The person doing the rebuking has done you a favor. The worst thing he/she could have done to you was leave you unchallenged in your erroneous ways.

Unfortunately, this is definitely not how most of us respond to such a rebuke. To quote the Ecclesiastes verse, we’d rather “hear the song of fools” than be told, “What you’re doing is wrong.” Rather than love the one who rebukes us – as the Proverbs 9:8 verse instructs – our natural tendency is to hate the person, become the “scoffer” described in Proverbs 13:1, and continue on in our wrong behavior. As Amos 5:10 says:

They hate the one who rebukes in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly.

Over the past 20+ years, there have been some times when God has burdened me to play the role of the rebuker. I’ll mention three such times. Once, it involved me preaching a certain sermon to a church I was pastoring that was going down the wrong road on a particular issue. Another time it involved me confronting a church member about the fact that she was living out of wedlock with a man. Another time it involved me taking on the local high school football coaches about some egregious problems in the program.

And how did each of these episodes end? Not very well for me. Episode #1: After I preached the sermon, several church members left and many of the ones who stayed mourned over the departed ones so much that I could no longer carry on an effective ministry there and had to resign. Episode #2: The member that I rebuked for living out of wedlock with the man quit church and never darkened the door again until I left that church. Episode #3: The coaches implemented many of the changes I suggested and bettered the program, but they despised me and took out their anger on my oldest son, who had been a two-way starter on varsity as a sophomore but hardly touched the field his senior year.

I offer these illustrations as evidence that I know what I’m talking about when I say that people don’t typically respond well to rebuke, even if it’s godly rebuke. Rather than love you for what you’ve said, more often than not they’ll hate you. The ironic (and sad) part is that they will still hate you even if they eventually make the necessary changes you suggested in your rebuke.

So, Christian, in light of this, perhaps you are thinking, “Then why on earth would I ever rebuke someone? I don’t want to be hated.” Well, for one thing, if you are serious about being the “salt” and “light” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:13-14, you have a God-given responsibility to speak truth into peoples’ lives, and oftentimes that truth will of necessity involve some sort of rebuke. You say you want to be like Jesus? Fine. Do you think it was Him complimenting the Jewish religious leaders and Roman political leaders that got Him nailed to a cross? No, it was Him rebuking them.

And then, for another thing, there really is a small percentage of people who will appreciate your rebuke for the help it is and will appreciate you for caring enough to offer it. Fortunately, I’ve had a few of these experiences as well. I haven’t had as many of them as the bad ones, but I’ve had enough to keep me encouraged that a godly rebuke offered in the way God leads you to offer it can sometimes produce ideal results. Again, it’s the exception to the rule, but it does happen.

And, with that said, I’ll now close out this post by citing two more passages that deal with rebuking. At first glance, these two passages seem to contradict each other, but it isn’t all that hard to figure out the explanation. The first passage is Proverbs 9:7, which says:

“He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, and he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself.”

The second passage is Proverbs 24:25, which says:

“But those who rebuke the wicked will have delight, and a good blessing will come upon them.” 

After reading these two verses, you might be thinking, “Which is it, God? Does the one who rebukes a wicked man harm himself and bring shame to himself? Or, does he have delight and have a good blessing come upon him?” The answer is, Yes.

As we learned previously from Proverbs 13:1, a scoffer (wicked person) will not take kindly to being rebuked. Such a person will hate the rebuker and will criticize him/her for offering the rebuke. That will bring shame and harm to the rebuker, which is exactly what Proverbs 9:7 predicts. But that isn’t the end of the matter. It isn’t the end because even though the wicked person won’t appreciate or bless the rebuker, God will.

You see, it’s God, not the scoffer, who grants the delight and the good blessing upon the rebuker. He does this because He truly appreciates those who have the courage and the wisdom to do the unpleasant job. Sometimes this reward will be poured out on earth, but most of the time it will have to wait until the afterlife. Never doubt, though, that the reward will be granted somehow, somewhere, someday. And that should be incentive enough for you, Christian, to play the role of rebuker whenever God burdens you to do it.

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Blessed By God or Blessed By Satan?

Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:9)

Let’s take a quiz. You see a businessman who is enjoying a high degree of worldly success. He has the beautiful home, the nice car, the big bank account, and all the rest of it. What is your first thought about the source of his success? Or, you see a woman who rises to the top of her profession. She gets the job title, the large salary, the spacious office, and all the power and influence that goes with the rank. What is your first thought about the source of her success? Or, you see a coach whose teams win game after game. This fellow is beloved by a fanatical fan base, respected by his peers, and can seemingly do no wrong. What is your first thought about the source of his success? Or, you see a church that has the highest attendance in town, huge offerings, and a bulletin full of programs. Again, what is your first thought about the source of that success?

Going way back into history, it has been human nature to equate worldly success with God’s blessing and a lack of worldly success with God’s cursing. The story of Job is one of the oldest in the Bible. It is generally believed that Job lived sometime during the time of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Job was the wealthiest man in all the East. He was also a man who feared God, shunned evil, and was blameless in the eyes of God. But when God allowed Satan to attempt to break Job of his devotion to God, Job lost his children, his wealth, and his health. That’s when Job’s three friends enter the story. Their names are Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. And what do they immediately assume about Job’s situation? They assume that God has stopped blessing Job and started cursing him because Job has somehow sinned.

Eliphaz says, “Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright ever cut off? Even as I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the blast of God they perish. And by the breath of His anger they are consumed” (Job 4:7-9). Translation: “Job, the innocent aren’t the ones who get cut off. Therefore, surely you’ve plowed iniquity and sown trouble. That’s why all this has befallen you. God has blasted you for your sins.”

Bildad says, “Does God subvert judgment? Or does the Almighty pervert justice?…If you were pure and upright, surely now He would awake for you and prosper your rightful dwelling place…Behold, God will not cast away the blameless, nor will He uphold the evildoers” (Job 8:3,6,20). Translation: “Job, God doesn’t make mistakes in His justice. If you were pure and upright, all this wouldn’t have happened to you. The fact that all this has happened to you is proof positive that you are an evildoer.”

Zophar says, “For you have said, ‘My doctrine is pure, and I am clean in your eyes.’ But oh, that God would speak and open His lips against you…Know therefore that God exacts from you less than your iniquity deserves…For He knows deceitful men. He sees wickedness also” (Job 11:4,5,6,11). Translation: “Job, you can proclaim your innocence all you want but you’ll never fool God. He knows how deceitful and wicked you really are. As a matter of fact, you’re lucky that He hasn’t judged you even worse for daring to say that you are innocent.”

And it isn’t just in Old Testament times that we find this wrong mindset on display. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus talks about two events that had recently rocked the Jews. First, Pontius Pilate had ordered the killing of some Jews from Galilee, evidently while they had been in Jerusalem at the temple bringing their sacrifices. Jesus asks, “Do you suppose these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?” Second, He references a tower in Siloam that had recently fallen and killed eighteen people in the process. He asks of those eighteen, “Do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?” The point of both questions is: Just because something awful has happened to someone, don’t assume it happened as a way of God “getting them ” for their wickedness.

You see, such reasoning starts from a wrong premise and ends up at a wrong conclusion:

“God only lets bad things happen to bad people. Something bad happened to you. You must be bad.”

And the flip side of the coin is just as wrong:

“God only lets good things happen to good people. Something good happened to you. You must be good.”

These assessments are far too simplistic for not only life but also the God of the Bible. The categories simply don’t divide that cleanly and evenly. Does God sometimes pour out His blessings upon His devout followers? Yes. Just ask Abraham. And does God sometimes pour out His judgment upon the wicked? You bet. Just ask Sodom and Gomorrah. But does He sometimes allow bad things to happen to “good” people? Yes. Just ask John the Baptist.

Even harder to understand, does He sometimes allow good things to happen to “bad” people? Absolutely. Just ask any brutal dictator who oppresses his own people, has them put to death by the thousands, and yet still lives to a ripe old age in the lap of luxury. Cuba’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who died at the age of 90, leaps to mind. Does anybody want to stand up and say that his wealth, power, and long life were the result of God’s blessing upon his life?

This brings us back full circle to our text passage. When Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, Jesus didn’t say, “Hold on there, those aren’t yours to give.” To the contrary, in other passages, Jesus calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31, John 16:11). Likewise, the apostle Paul calls Satan “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

And so, if Satan has the world’s “good stuff” at his fingertips and is looking around for someone upon which to bestow them, who do you think he’s going to choose? Will it be the devout Christian who is making a marked difference for God in the world? No. It will, instead, be the person whose efforts are pleasing to Satan and who is furthering Satan’s work in the world.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that everybody who is experiencing success the way the world views success is getting it from Satan. That’s another one of those inaccurate blanket statements about good/bad, blessing/cursing that can’t be supported from either life or the Bible. What I’m saying is that a lot of people who are experiencing such success ARE getting it from Satan. And it takes a high degree of spiritual discernment to figure out where blessings are coming from and who is truly living a life pleasing to the Lord. May we be up to that challenge.

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Micah’s “Church” (part 2 of 2)

As we pick back up with our story, the young Levite named Jonathan has just been hired to serve as the priest of the “church” that Micah has set up at his home. This “church” is a shrine Micah has built to house his two false gods – a carved image and a molded image. Micah’s son has previously been serving as the shrine’s priest, complete with wearing a priestly ephod, but it’s Jonathan who now becomes the lead priest.

Jonathan is a young man completely out of God’s will for his life. Even though he is from Israel’s priestly tribe of Levi, he is not from the line of Aaron and therefore has no business serving as a priest anywhere. Furthermore, whatever form of ministerial service he is qualified to perform, he is supposed to be doing it at Israel’s Tabernacle in Shiloh, not some idolatrous shrine that Micah has erected at his home in the mountains of Ephraim. To make matters worse, Jonathan allows a bond to develop between Micah and himself, a bond that causes him to become like a son to Micah (Judges 17:11). And, as always, whenever someone finds himself in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, eventually trouble will ensue.

In Jonathan’s case, the trouble takes the form of five men from the tribe of Dan who come knocking on Micah’s door. These men are on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the surrounding area for their tribe. And why is the tribe of Dan doing such recon work? It is because that tribe, even though it is 64,000 strong (Numbers 26:43), has been unable to completely drive out the Amorites and thus hold the territory it has been allotted following Israel’s conquering of Canaan (Joshua 19:40-48, Judges 1:34, Judges 18:1).

The main problem is that the Amorites continue to possess the lowlands of Dan’s inheritance. That forces the Danites to live in the hill country, and hill countries aren’t conducive to planting and harvesting crops on a scale large enough to feed over 60,000 people. So, the tribe is now seeking to conquer other lands further north and settle them. But are these expansion efforts God approved? Not a chance. God wants the Danites to trust Him to help them drive out the Amorites rather than search out lands that are easier pickings.

Perhaps the five Danites know about Micah’s home as they make their way northward, or perhaps they just happen upon it, but either way the house becomes a lodging place for them (Judges 18:2). While they are there, it doesn’t take them long to ask Jonathan why he is living there. Verse 3 says “they recognized his voice,” which most likely means they realized that his dialect wasn’t from those parts. When Jonathan tells them that he is Micah’s priest, they excitedly ask him to inquire of God for them whether or not their mission will be successful (18:5). Jonathan answers, “Go in peace. The presence of the Lord will be with you on your way” (18:6). Here again we see evidence of these people’s strange mix of belief in idols and belief in the one true God of Israel.

But is this a genuine word from God through Jonathan? Please. Let’s not forget that if God had His way Jonathan wouldn’t be at this house and these Danites wouldn’t be on this mission! So, for Jonathan to tell them, “The presence of the Lord will be with you on your way” is about like a preacher saying the same thing to a husband about to meet his mistress in a hotel. Did you notice that no mention is made of Jonathan inquiring of the idols, let alone him inquiring of God? No, as J. Vernon McGee says, “This is the sweet talk of a hired preacher who says what people want to hear.”

Well, the five Danites head off on their mission and eventually come upon the city of Laish, which is located about 100 miles from Dan’s territory and is actually outside the territories the people of Israel occupy. The surrounding land is large and lacks nothing (18:10), and the people of Laish are a quiet, peaceful people who all get along with one another and have no official alliances or treaties for protection (18:7). In other words, Laish is exactly what the Danites have been hoping to find. Taking land from these people will be a cakewalk compared to claiming the full inheritance of their portion of Canaan from the Amorites.

So, the five spies go back to their tribe, which is spread out over the territories of Zorah and Eshtaol, and convince the tribe to march against Laish (18:8-11). 600 of Dan’s finest soldiers then head out armed with weapons of war (18:11). Their families travel with them (18:21) on the assumption that Laish will be defeated and the city will be ready for immediate resettling.

After first camping at Kirjath Jearim, the army moves into the mountains of Ephraim and comes to the house of Micah (18:12-13). There the five spies basically say to the rest of the group, “You won’t believe what’s going on at this place.” After being greeted at the site’s gate by Jonathan, the army remains at the gate with him while the five spies go in and loot the place by taking the carved image, the molded image, the ephod, and Micah’s other household idols (18:16-17). Imagine the absurdity of stealing “gods” that weren’t even powerful enough to keep themselves from being stolen!

When the spies get back to the gate with their stolen goods, Jonathan initially objects to the theft (18:18). But when the Danites ask him to come with them and serve as the priest to their entire tribe, he shows his true colors as nothing more than a hireling shepherd by gladly accepting the offer and taking his place in their ranks (18:19-20). After all, a fake preacher will go with the higher offer every time.

And so, the Danite army resumes their trek to Laish, this time with false gods and false priest in tow. Meanwhile, back at the house, Micah rounds up a group of his neighbors and they manage to catch up to the army (18:22). In a funny exchange of words, the Danites ask Micah, “What’s the matter with you?” Micah answers, “You took my gods and my priest and now you ask me, ‘What’s the matter with you?'” But since Micah and his little group are vastly outnumbered, he can’t actually do anything to stop the Danites. So, when the Danites threaten to kill him and his entire household, that settles that, and Micah and his group return to their homes (18:25-26).

All that is left now is for the Danites to lay waste to helpless Laish, and they accomplish that in short order by attacking unexpectedly and burning the city (18:27-28). Following the slaughter, the tribe of Dan rebuilds the city, renames it Dan, and relocates there (18:29).

And what becomes of Jonathan and the idols? The Danites erect the carved image as their god and make Jonathan the priest of their new religion (18:30-31). Over the course of time, Jonathan marries and has sons and those sons also become priests to the Danites (18:30). In other words, Jonathan’s family illegitimately becomes to the tribe of Dan what Aaron’s family legitimately is to Israel. The whole story even closes out by noting that all this took place while the house of God (the Tabernacle) was in Shiloh (18:31). That reminder serves to show the stark contrast between God’s will at Shiloh and the whole sordid mess at Dan.

Now, as I bring this two-part study to a close, I’d like to leave you with three more spiritual lessons that we learn from this fascinating story. First, we learn that any so-called “spiritual” work that is done apart from God and His will simply won’t produce genuine, lasting fruit. Micah acquired his false idols, built his shrine, hired his personal priest, and said, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me.” But everything he did was done according to human logic, planning, and ingenuity, and God wasn’t the least bit impressed by it. And we are left to wonder just how much supposedly “spiritual” activity going on in our churches, denominations, Christian schools, and para-church organizations today is genuinely God’s will and thus able to produce the right kind of lasting fruit for Him.

Second, we learn that most people, when faced with difficult times, will grab onto the easy way out when it presents itself. This is what the homeless, jobless Jonathan did when he happened upon Micah’s place and was offered a job as the priest of Micah’s little “church.” As soon as he heard the salary package of ten shekels of silver per year, new clothes, and room and board, he was sold on the idea. This is also what the tribe of Dan did when they couldn’t easily drive out the Amorites from that section of Canaan that God had allotted to the tribe. Rather than keep warring against the Amorites and trust in God for the victory, the Danites bailed on God’s will, aborted the spiritual lessons that God was trying to teach them through their difficulties, and took the easy way out of conquering Laish instead.

Finally, third, we learn that when an individual misses God’s will, it can have consequences that are so far ranging as to be almost inconceivable. Follow along with me here. Approximately 400 years after this story in which the tribe of Dan embraced idolatry, the nation of Israel went through a civil war as the ten northern tribes broke away from the two southern tribes, formed their own new kingdom, and installed a king named Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:1-24). Jeroboam then promptly plunged the northern kingdom into full-blown idolatry by erecting two golden calves for worship (1 Kings 12:25-33). One calf was at Bethel, which was located in the mountains of Ephraim. Sound familiar? That’s where Micah had lived.  The other calf was at Dan. Sound familiar? That was the city that had formerly been known as Laish. You see, the idolatry that came to characterize Israel’s northern kingdom can be traced all the way back to Micah’s false gods and his false priest Jonathan. By the way, do you know what ultimately happened to the northern kingdom? In 721 B.C., the Assyrians conquered it and carried the people away as captives. Why did God allow that to happen? He did it as a judgment against the northern kingdom’s idolatry. Wow.

So, just to put a period on this whole study, let us be careful not to make the same mistakes as Micah, his mother, his son, Jonathan, or the tribe of Dan. Nothing we do that goes against God’s will can be considered harmless, and we would all be scared to death if we knew the long-range damage that our poor choices can create. In the end, Micah’s little “church” played a foundational role in leading the ten northern tribes into idolatry, and that in turn eventually led to their downfall. And if that isn’t enough to convince us that big doors swing on little hinges when it comes to spiritual matters, I don’t know what would be.



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Micah’s “Church” (part 1 of 2)

“Now there was a man from the mountains of Ephraim, whose name was Micah.” Judges 17:1

The time period of the book of Judges is famously known as the period when “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Sadly, spiritual matters certainly weren’t spared from all the ungodly behavior. The story found in Judges chapters 17 and 18 is a case in point. It involves a man named Micah, his mother, his son, a false priest, and some members of the tribe of Dan. Would you believe that not one single person from this entire cast of characters walks away from this story looking good in the eyes of the Lord? This story is so rich in spiritual lessons that I’m going to devote a couple of posts to it.

The story begins as so many of life’s stories do, with a money issue. A man named Micah, who lives in the mountains of Ephraim (Judges 17:1), confesses to his wealthy mother that he is the one who stole her 1,100 shekels of silver (17:2). Apparently he wasn’t worried about the theft until he heard her pronounce a curse upon whoever robbed her. That threw enough of a scare into him to get him to confess his crime and return the money.

Surprisingly, however, Micah’s mother isn’t angry with him. Rather than scold him, she calls off the curse by evoking the name of the Lord in saying, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my son” (17:3). What the woman does next is fascinating and it’s here that we get our first indication that this story is going to feature an undercurrent of belief in God mixed with out-and-out idolatry. Even though she once named her son “Micah” (which means “who is like Jehovah”), she now says, “I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the Lord for my son to make a graven image and a molten image” (N.A.S.V.).

Are you kidding me? Did that mother just dedicate a large amount of silver to God to be used to make false idols for her son? You talk about warped theology! Remember that this family is Jewish (the name Micah actually means “who is like Jehovah”), and the first and second commandments of God’s law plainly say: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:3-4).  And this mother stands true to her commitment by taking 200 shekels of the returned silver – a sum worth many thousands of dollars in our currency – to a silversmith and having him fashion a carved image (wood overlaid with silver) and a molded image (solid silver) from them. She then gives both idols to her son to keep in his house (17:4).

Micah, for his part, absolutely loves the idea of having idols under his roof. Judges 17:5 and 18:17-18 mention him having “household idols.” These were probably smaller-scale idols like the ones mentioned in Genesis 31:19,34. Evidently, Micah had these smaller idols even before his mother gave him the carved image and the molded image. Now he adds the two new images to his shrine. (The Hebrew word translated as “shrine” literally means “house of gods.”) Micah even goes so far as to install one of his sons to be the priest over the shrine (17:5) and makes an ephod for the son to wear in his priestly role. (An ephod was a vest-type garment, a breastplate, that a high priest wore over his chest while performing his priestly duties.)

So, Micah now has his own personal “church,” complete with his false idols and his handpicked priest. He either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that all this is a million miles outside God’s will. At this time the center of worship in Israel is supposed to be the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 12:1-14), which is located in Shiloh (Judges 18:31). There the descendants of Aaron serve as Israel’s God-sanctioned priests. As a matter of fact, if anyone outside Aaron’s line tries to serve as a priest, he is to be put to death according to the law of Moses (Numbers 3:10). But Micah isn’t concerned with any of these obvious contradictions to what he’s doing. He has his own private “worship” set-up and is thrilled about it.

And Micah’s life gets even better when one day, completely unexpected, a young man named Jonathan (18:30), from the tribe of Levi, shows up at his doorstep looking for a place to stay (17:7-8). This young Levite has been living in Bethlehem of Judah and I think it’s fair to say that he’s as confused as a goose in a hailstorm about what he’s supposed to be doing in life. In order to understand the low level to which he has sunk, you need a little background information.

There were three clans that made up the tribe of Levi, with each clan taking its name from one of Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Each clan had specific duties to perform in service at the Tabernacle. The clan of Kohath included the descendants of Aaron (Israel’s first high priest), and Israel’s official priesthood was made up of males from Aaron’s line. The males from the other two clans, the clans Gershon and Merari, were set apart as caretakers of the Tabernacle and aides to the priests. Summing things up, all the Levite males ministered in some way at the Tabernacle during their appointed times of the year. When they weren’t “on shift” at the Tabernacle, they were free to go about the business of their lives.

When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the tribe of Levi was not allocated a specific region of the land the way the other eleven tribes were. Instead, the Levites were given 48 Levitical cities that were scattered throughout the land (Numbers 35:1-8, Joshua 21:1-8), with each of the eleven other tribes proportionately contributing certain cities from their territory. The Aaronite priestly division of the Kohath clan was given thirteen cities, while the rest of the Kohath clan was given ten. The Gershon clan was given thirteen cities, and the Merari clan was given twelve.

But guess which city wasn’t one of the 48: Bethlehem of Judah. This raises the question of why this young Levite had recently been living there. I don’t want to drift off into wild speculation here, but there just doesn’t seem to be any God-approved reason for him to have been living in a city that wasn’t on the list of the 48. This indicates that this young man was in a spiritual fog himself, backslidden, and far outside God’s will as he hiked into the nearby mountains of Ephraim looking for a new life. One thing we know for sure: When he knocked on Micah’s door, he was about to go from bad to worse spiritually.

As soon as Micah learns who Jonathan is, he starts concocting a plan to install this young Levite as a priest over his “church.” In Micah’s way of thinking, at least Jonathan is a member of Israel’s priestly tribe, even if he isn’t a member of the Kohath clan from which the actual priests come. This would be like someone today favoring or handpicking a person simply because that person is from a certain family. It’s unclear whether Micah plans to demote his son as priest or if he simply wants to add Jonathan to the ministerial staff, but Micah’s offer to Jonathan is simple: “Live with me, be a father and a priest to me, and I will pay you ten shekels of silver per year, plus new clothes, food, and lodging” (17:10).

Well, since young Jonathan is currently homeless and destitute, he jumps at the offer, and Micah quickly installs him as his own live-in priest over his little “church” (17:11-12). The foolish, undiscerning, quasi-religious Micah even says, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since I have a Levite as a priest!” Talk about spiritually clueless! He’s stolen money from his mother, initially lied about stealing it, accepted false idols from her, brought the idols into his home, built a shrine to them, installed his son as a priest, and has now installed another unqualified young man as priest. Yikes!

Here again we find this family trying to sprinkle God over their ungodly behavior. Notice that Micah doesn’t say, “My idols will be good to me because I have a Levite as a priest.” No, he says, “The Lord will be good to me….” Oh sure, Micah, you and God are just fine! Don’t you hate it when people do things of which God couldn’t possibly approve and then try to get all spiritual by talking about how good He has been to them? You just want to look at them and say, “Stop it. Just stop it.”

And that’s where we will leave off the story until next time. It’s like those movie cliffhangers from the old days. “What will become of Micah and his ‘church’?” “Will young Jonathan come to his senses and repent of his sins?” “What will become of the false idols?” “Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion of Micah’s Church.” Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I saw too many reruns of the old Buck Rogers serial featuring Buster Crabbe when I was little.

But before I close this post, let’s ask the question, “What lessons have we learned so far from this story?” Well, first, we’ve learned that some people try to blend idolatry and walking with the Lord. Micah, his mother, Micah’s son, and Jonathan all tried to play this unwinnable game. Trust me, if you have undeniable, obvious sin and wrongdoing in your life, you and God aren’t fine. No way. And that sense of so-called “peace” you have about whatever your idol happens to be is either the devil lying to you or you lying to yourself. Beware of believing your own rationalizing.

Second, we’ve learned that some people try to dictate the terms of their worship and religion. Do you know where you will find Micah today? You’ll find him serving on a pulpit committee, treating the whole process of finding his church’s next pastor like a business decision rather than a spiritual one and working hard to get “his” man in as pastor. Or, you’ll find him lording over a deacon board ensuring that the church goes in the direction in which he wants it to go. Or, you’ll find him holding an influential office in his denomination, making important decisions based upon his personal likes, preferences, and mindsets rather than honest spiritual discernment.

And, of course, all the while as these modern-day Micahs are out there creating their personal shrines and staffing them, they are praying, making a show of religion, and talking about how right they are with God and how much He is blessing them. If you want to know what’s wrong with our churches and denominations these days, look no further than all the Micahs who are currently reeking havoc on God’s will and God’s plans.

And then, third, we’ve learned that just because someone is in the ministry, that doesn’t mean they are in God’s will being there. Just as there are many modern-day Micahs, there are plenty of modern-day Jonathans too. How many uncalled people are in the ministry right now? How many unqualified pastors are in pulpits right now? How many preachers would preach for free if that’s what it took to preach? How many pastors would serve without what they considered to be an adequate salary package? How many evangelists would stick with it if there were more bills than converts? How many missionaries would remain in foreign lands if the persecution hit hard? How many chaplains would keep ministering if they became despised and rejected for being too narrow minded, politically incorrect, and in tune with the Lord? I truly believe that if God peeled back the curtain and allowed us to know the answers to these questions, we would be shocked and saddened. You see, the fact is that we are not nearly as removed from the days of the book of Judges as we like to think.

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Reaping In Due Season

Dean Smith was the legendary basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Over the course of his 36 years at the school, his teams amassed 879 victories, won 17 ACC regular season titles, won 13 ACC tournament titles, qualified for the NCAA national tournament 27 times, and won the NCAA tournament twice. Smith himself was named conference coach of the year eight times and national coach of the year four times. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, was named as a member of the founding class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. On and on the accolades go, but suffice is to say that the man was one of the greatest coaches that America ever produced.

There was a time, though, when Smith was criticized for not being able to win the “big one.” That reputation stemmed from the fact that his teams had made it to the final four of the NCAA national tournament six times but had never won the national championship. Even many UNC fans honestly didn’t think Smith had what it took to win on the largest stage of them all in college basketball.

But that all changed in 1982 when Smith took his seventh team to the NCAA final four. That year his UNC Tarheels beat Georgetown 63-62 in the championship game to win the national title. That game was an all-time classic that could just as easily have been won by Georgetown. The deciding shot was made by a UNC freshman named Michael Jordan who would go on to basketball greatness himself. Even after Jordan’s shot, Georgetown still had a chance to win but turned the ball over to end the game. When the final buzzer sounded, Dean Smith was the head coach of a national championship team for the first time.

All this is common knowledge among basketball fans and UNC fans, but what isn’t so well known is what Smith said to Roy Williams, one of his assistant coaches, after the game. The quote went something along the lines of, “I’m not any better of a coach after winning the national title than I was a few hours before it.” You see, Smith understood that Michael Jordan’s jumper could just as easily have missed. He understood that Georgetown, instead of turning the ball over on their final possession, could have thrown in a lucky shot at the buzzer to win the game. He understood that some of his previous six teams that had made it to the final four had been good enough to win the national championship if they had gotten a lucky break here or there at some critical juncture of some game. He understood that when you are a coach sitting off the court in a chair, there is only so much you can do to affect the outcome of the game.

I have lived in North Carolina my whole life, but I’ll admit that I have never been a UNC fan. My favorite team has always been NC State. I’ll also admit that my jealousy over Smith’s frequent success over my beloved NC State teams made me glad to see his teams lose in the final four. With that said, though, I’ll give respect where it’s due, and Smith certainly spoke truth with that line after that Georgetown game. As a matter of fact, I consider it to be one of the greatest assessments that has ever been uttered by anybody about anything. It takes a great deal of wisdom to understand that success in life can be a superficial, shallow, fickle thing that doesn’t always land on the most deserving person. To the contrary, it oftentimes seems to go out of its way to avoid such people and land on the most undeserving people.

Christian, I want you to remember this whenever you get out of heart because your service to the Lord isn’t producing worldly success or the results of which they are worthy. Never forget that God doesn’t keep score on a scoreboard, doesn’t tally up his totals at the end of a season, pays no attention to the roar of the undiscerning crowd, and isn’t nearly as impressed with earthly wins as we are. He is always working from the grander, eternal perspective. With Him, no score or end result is truly final until the afterlife. The Bible’s best passage on this is Ephesians 6:7-9, and these are the words I’ll leave you with today: Read them carefully and thoughtfully.

“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us now grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”





Posted in Adversity, Disappointment, Doing Good, Encouragement, God's Omniscience, God's Work, Heaven, Impatience, Ministry, Perseverance, Prosperity, Reward, Sacrifice, Service, Sports, Suffering, Trusting In God, Waiting | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lighter Side of Thanksgiving

Oh, that men would give thanks to the Lord for His goodness. And for His wonderful works to the children of men! For He satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness.” (Psalm 107:8-9)

In my “Thanksgiving” file folder, I have various illustrations that I’ve collected down through the years. In lieu of me writing anything original or profound today, I thought I’d just share a couple of my favorites. Enjoy.

A man joined a monastery in which by rule you could only speak two words every five years. After he had been there five years, the overseers called him in and allowed him to speak his two words. The man said, “Cold room.” Another five years passed and they called him in again. This time he said, “Hard bed.” Then another five years passed and they called him in again. This time he said, “Bad food.” Five years later he got another chance. This time he said, “I quit.” At that point the head overseer looked at him and said, “Well, you might as well quit. You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”

A father in Phoenix called his son in New York the day before Thanksgiving and said, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing. We’ve both been miserable for 45 years and that’s enough. We’re done.” The son panicked and said, “Dad, you two can’t do this!” The father replied, “Yes, we can. We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of even having to talk about it. So you call your sister in Chicago and tell her. Good-bye.” Frantically the son called his sister and dropped the bombshell. She told him, “No way are they getting divorced! I’ll take care of this. You just hold tight.” Then she called the father and said, “You two are not getting divorced. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do ANYTHING. Do you hear me? Don’t do ANYTHING! Bye.” The father hung up the phone, turned to his wife, and said, “Okay, you can start cooking. They’re both coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way.”



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