DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

A Mess From Top to Bottom (Judges 17-18)

We're getting toward the end of the book of Judges. I figure it's as good a time as any to ask the question: what is the point of this book? The author wasn't just recording history. These authors were expert writers who were communicating something through the stories. That's why it's important to spend some time thinking about what the author was trying to get across in writing the book of Judges.

The most common view of why Judges was written comes from a statement that is repeated four times in the last five chapters of the book: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Some people say that the author was arguing that the problem with Israel is that they needed a king. In other words, it's building a case for a king like David. But I'm not so sure about this view. The writer doesn't paint a very positive view of leaders as the solution to the problems of Israel.

I believe there is another purpose, one that is just as relevant to us today as it was when it is written. Like an expert storyteller, the writer includes two stories at the end of the book of Judges that bring the problem right to our doorstep. I'd like to look at the first of these two stories with you today, and explain how the problem he's addressing is still a problem that we are facing today.

The Problem with Micah

We read in Judges 17:1-2:

Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, "The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it."

Then his mother said, "The LORD bless you, my son!"

By itself, this story seems rather insignificant. I'm sure that many parents have discovered that money has disappeared from their purse or wallet, and they find out that somebody's fingers in the family have become a bit sticky.

Here a mother discovers that eleven hundred shekels is missing, and she curses the one who took it. To give you an idea of what eleven hundred shekels is worth, it's the amount that each of the Philistine governors gave Delilah for betraying Samson. Later we read of a priest who gets a salary of 10 shekels a year, so this money is worth over a hundred years salary. So we're talking about a huge amount of money here. This isn't $20 going missing from your wallet. This is your whole life's savings going missing.

When you hear of a son stealing this amount of money from his own mother, you have to ask, "What is wrong with the boy?" There's obviously a huge moral defect in this son. You just don't go around stealing your mother's life savings. That's just not what being a good son is all about. It's also interesting that Micah doesn't return the money out of remorse. He was motivated by superstition - he heard his mother utter a curse and didn't want the curse to come true.

I read this and think that something really stinks about this whole situation. But then we read and realize that the problem is a whole lot bigger than it first appears.

The Problem with the Family

We don't just have a problem with a son here. It turns out that we have a problem with a whole family. How do you respond when your son returns what he's stolen from you? She responds by saying, "The LORD bless you, my son!" - which isn't exactly how I would react.

But then you realize that she has issues too. Verses 3-4 say:

When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, "I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you."

So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekels [b] of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah's house.

She sounds godly. She wants to dedicate this money to the LORD. But she doesn't present her gift to the priests at Shiloh, where she should have gone. Instead, she gives only 200 shekels out of the 1,100. And what does she do with it? She makes an idol with it. First, we're talking about only about five pounds of silver, which wouldn't have made that impressive an idol. But an idol? Whether it's impressive or not, what is she doing making an idol?

It gets worse. Red verses 5 and 6: "Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest. In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

So we have more than a problem with a boy, we have a problem with a whole family here.

Does anybody here know of families that have problems, even serious ones? Sure, we all do. At this point you can just say that we have a family with some serious issues. Except - and watch this - we're being sucked in. There's a problem with a boy. Fine. But the problem isn't just with the boy, it's with the whole family. Fine. But then, the author expands the scope. It turns out that there's an even bigger problem.

The Problem with Spiritual Leaders

The problem isn't just with a son or a family. You start to get a glimpse of the bigger problem as the story zooms out another level. In verse 7 we're introduced to a young Levite who passes through looking for a place to stay. Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel. This tribe was given responsibility for the spiritual leadership of Israel.

Micah meets him, and realizes that this is a golden opportunity. Micah has appointed his own son as priest, but here is his chance to hire a real professional. Micah says to him, "Live with me and be my father and priest, and I'll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food" (Judges 17:10). The young priest agrees, and we read the results in verses 12 and 13: "Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13 And Micah said, "Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest."

What we don't read right away is who this young priest is. Maybe the author is keeping the man anonymous so that we generalize. This nameless priest could be any priest. He represents the entire tribe. But we read in the next chapter, in Judges 18:30, that this priest indeed has a name: Jonathan. Not only is his name Jonathan, but we also read that he is the grandson of Moses.

What's wrong with hiring a priest? If you are a Levite, you are not supposed to make your services available to the highest bidder. Not only does this priest hire himself out, but he does so at someone's private, idolatrous shrine. He's become a chaplain to a family's idolatrous worship. Micah thinks that God will bless him because he's hired this priest. Daniel Block writes:

In the words of Malachi, the heirs of "the covenant of Levi" have corrupted their high calling. Instead of serving as an agent of life and peace, revering Yahweh and standing in awe of his name, offering truthful and righteous instruction...turning Micah back from iniquity...this Levite has himself apostatized...The religious establishment in Israel has been thoroughly infected with the Canaanite disease.

And don't forget. This isn't just any priest. This is the grandson of Moses. Things have gone downhill fast.

So you have a problem with a son, but the problem isn't just with a son. The problem is with a whole family. But the problem isn't just with a whole family. It turns out that the problem is also with the religious leadership. We're talking about the corruption of the pastoral ministry. But - and you know this is coming - the problem is even bigger than that.

The Problem with a Whole Tribe

We start out thinking that the problem is with a son. Then we realize it's an entire family, then the entire religious establishment. But then we come across some Danites in chapter 18. We read:

In those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. So the Danites sent five of their leading men from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all the Danites. They told them, "Go, explore the land." (Judges 18:1-2)

The problem that the Danites faced is not that they weren't given an allotment of land. Instead, they had failed to take possession of the land that God had given them. Instead of seeking God's help to conquer their allotted territory, they instead went looking for land elsewhere.

So in verse 3, they stop in Micah's house and recognize the priest's voice - most likely his southern accent. They discover that Micah has a personal priest. A little later, they return with a bit of an army to try to take some land. On the way, the spies realize that Micah's house contains everything they need to set up a religious shrine, so they go to steal it. When the priest sees this, he protests, until they make him an offer. "Be quiet! Don't say a word. Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn't it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man's household?" (Judges 18:19) Look at how the priest responded: "The priest was very pleased. He took the ephod, the household gods and the idol and went along with the people" (Judges 18:20).

This still happens today, by the way. Daniel Block writes:

The question the Danites posed to him is asked every day by pastoral search committees: "Which is better, to be the pastor of a small family or to be the pastor of a megachurch?" The contemporary problem of ambition and opportunism in the ministry has at least a three-thousand-year history.

The priest goes with them, and in verse 27 we learn that they attack and burn the city of Laish, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." And the story ends in verses 28-30:

The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. They named it Dan after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

The problem, it turns out, is not with a son or a family or a priest or even the whole religious establishment. The problem is with an entire tribe of the nation. The entire tribe has been corrupted. In fact, the good guys - Israel - have become the bad guys, and the bad guys - the Canaanites - have become the good guys, "a peaceful and unsuspecting people." Israel hasn't just sunk to the level of the Canaanites. They're now even worse.

You've got sons stealing from mothers, mothers building idols, priests for hire to the highest bidder, idolatrous worship, the slaughter of peaceful people. It's a mess. The corruption is at every level. There isn't a single admirable character in these chapters. "No one displays any devotion to Yahweh;" writes Block, "no one demonstrates any concern for national well-being; no one behaves with any integrity." The integrity of the entire nation is at stake.

Understanding the Real Problem

So with this story in mind, and everything that we've covered so far, what is the point of the book of Judges? I think this is the perfect story to get to the root of the purpose and the relevance of Judges. I want to get at it in two ways: by asking what is our problem? And what is the solution?

What is our problem? Judges is clear that we have a problem, and it's a serious one. It's not a problem of a person or a family or a particular pastor or a particular group. It's every person, every family, every pastor, and every group. And it's not just a problem of people who lived long ago and far away. It's our problem too.

One commentator writes:

We must not be so naive to imagine this to be a problem confined to ancient Israel or to primitive tribal communities. The essence of idolatry is to want to bring God within our pockets, so as to control him. Foolishly, we imagine that we can deal with the source of life on the same level as ourselves, so we can bribe him, or drive a bargain, or compel him to give us what we want out of life. Above all, and at all costs, what natural human beings want is a god that will not make demands on our lives. (D. Jackman)

I think we need to be clear that this is our problem too. The problem is idolatry. It has affected each of us. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Idolatry happens any time we make good things ultimate things, when we value anything more than we do God. Ironically, idol worshipers often think they are worshiping God, and do not realize that, like Micah and the whole tribe of Dan, they have made a religion in which God revolves around them. Idolatry is the default mode of the heart, and it has affected all of us.

Judges is written to tell us that we have a problem. The problem is not what we think it is. It's much deeper. You may remember what English author G.K. Chesterton wrote in answer to the question, "What's wrong with the world?" He wrote, "I am." I don't know of any book that brings this home more than the book of Judges. We can't look at others as the problem. The problem is us. But it's not just us. What's true of us as individuals is true of our families, our religious leadership, and in fact our entire groups.

We're often guilty of the very thing that we found in today's story. We do not act as if we exist to serve and adore God; instead, we use God as a means to an end. Instead of serving God, we want God to serve us, our dreams, and our requests. We still believe in God, but our lives don't revolve around him. We expect God to adapt to us.

Judges is important because we have a tendency to underestimate our problem. Judges, and in fact the whole BIble, won't let us away with this. What is the problem with your life, and what is the problem with our church? We could answer that we need to lose ten pounds or make more money or get a little more organized. At the church level you could say that we need better leadership or better structures. But Judges points us to a much deeper problem, and the solutions have to go beyond trying harder or getting a new leader. The problem with the world is us. The problem is that we need new hearts.

So what is the solution? A lot of people think that the purpose of Judges is to argue for kingship. Judges 18:1 says, "In those days Israel had no king." A lot of people take their cues from this and think that Judges was written to point out the need for a king to change people's hearts; in other words to build a defense for David's kingship.

But if you know anything about David and the other kings of Israel, you know that they sometimes provided help, but often they were no better than the judges. This book doesn't give a rosy view of leadership as the answer to every problem. In fact, the problem is with leaders. We are all the problem. The problem is much deeper than a new king or a new pastor or a new leader can fix. The problems are far too deep. A new leader can help, but there's a much deeper problem.

I believe that Judges was written to God's people to demonstrate the depth of the problem, and to call us to the only solution, which is a return to the God we have abandoned. In other words, it is a book that shows us our condition and that calls us to repentance.

We, as North American Christians, have largely forgotten the covenant Lord, and have taken his gracious work on our behalf for granted. Like the people of Israel, we have been squeezed into the mold of the world around us. We are preoccupied with materialism; we worship on our own terms; our values are similar to the world around us. We have reluctant to hear God's call into service. We are prone to pray, "My kingdom come" rather than "They kingdom come." We fight the Lord's battle with our own resources. We do not live God's priorities. Judges shows us that this is our problem, and it also shows us where it all leads. It's not a pretty picture.

The problem is that we need help, and that help has to come from outside of ourselves, because all of us have been affected. We have all fallen in the pit, as it were, and therefore nobody is able to lift us out. We need someone to help us who is not part of the problem.

There is a leader who eventually does come, who has not fallen into the pit, and he alone is able to solve the problem with this world. He is the Judge that Israel, a King who is better than David. His name is Jesus. Judges invites us to return to God in repentance, and the rest of the Bible comes in to tell us that God has provided a Judge, the Judge that these people never had, the Judge that we desperately need to deliver us not only from our enemy, but from ourselves.

I'm going to invite you to come to that Judge this morning. His name is Jesus. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Our salvation is 'from outside ourselves' (extra nos). I find salvation, not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ...What we call our life, our troubles, and our guilt is by no means the whole of reality; our life, our need, our guilt, and our deliverance are there in the Scriptures.

It's found in Christ. Let's turn to him in repentance today.

The Danger of Strength (Judges 13-16)

What does it take for a person to be used by God in an extraordinary way? If God wants to move and to do something really unique, what kind of person does he choose? I've been thinking about these questions.

I spent some time thinking about people that God has used in my life. I thought of a preacher. I don't know him personally, but I heard him preach almost thirty years ago, and to this day I can still tell you what he said. I remember being captivated as I heard him speak. Just the other week I met with some friends who were also at the same service, and they said, "Remember when we went to hear that guy preach?" Not everyone can preach in a way that different people remember the same sermon thirty years later. He was a mean with extraordinary preaching gifts.

I thought of some of the preachers on my iPod. I have two or three people on there, and their sermons are consistently good. They have a way of expressing themselves. In some cases entire churches have risen up around their speaking abilities. They have a way of communicating that makes truth come alive.

I have a friend who started a church five years ago in one of the most challenging cities in America. His church has grown like crazy. A magazine for pastors arrived in my mailbox not long ago. I opened it and saw a full page picture of him along with an interview and a recommendation for his book, which is a really good book by the way. I'm excited for him. He's uniquely gifted and God is using him.

Then I thought of some of the dead whose lives have long been over, but whose influence continues: Martin Luther, who changed the course of church history and helped us rediscover the gospel; John Bunyan, a tinkerer who fixed pots and pans, and who wrote a novel that's one of the great works of English literature; Jonathan Edwards, a brilliant thinker and a spark in the revival they call The Great Awakening; C.S. Lewis, who called himself "the most reluctant convert in England," and yet who wrote one of the clearest books exploring Christianity, and volumes of other great works.

I could go on. What all of these people have in common is that they have unique and, I guess you would say, exceptional gifts. You look at them and realize that they have extraordinary gifts that have been used by God in such a way that they have a huge influence. I guess you would have to say that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts.

As a result, we're always looking for that unique person to follow. We live at a time in which the really exceptional individuals can become prominent. So if I asked you to name some people that God is really using across North America at the present time, you would probably come up with five or six people that most of us would recognize from TV or radio or books. We look to these people to set the pace, and we realize that we'll never be these people. It's not that God won't use us; we just don't expect as much because we're not exceptional in the same way. These people are extraordinary, which by definition means they're not like the rest of us.

I don't want to put down these exceptional people. I'm grateful for them. I know that a lot of them didn't ask for the prominence or influence that they have. God has given them exceptional gifts, and with that comes a lot of responsibility and pressure. So I pray for them. I pray that God would continue to use them and that they would stay faithful.

Samson's Exceptional Gifts

But I'd like to look at a story today that calls into question whether we're really looking at the right things when we look at the people we think God is going to use. We're going to look at the life of an extraordinary man, and we're going to realize that in the end, extraordinary gifts aren't always what God uses. Today we're looking at the most famous judge in the book of Judges. If you had to compile a list of the most gifted people in the Bible and throughout history, he would have to appear on that list. His name is Samson.

In all of history, there are few people who showed the promise that Samson did. The story of his birth takes an entire chapter. You can make a short list of people whose birth was miraculous and announced by angels and miracles: Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Samson. Before he's even born, God's hands are on this kid. We read:

You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:5)

This is completely unparalleled. I think this is the only case of a lifetime Nazirite. Nazirites were men or women who voluntarily dedicated themselves to God's service for a limited period of time. For the time that you were a Nazirite, you could not take alcohol, touch a corpse, or get your hair cut. When the temporary period was over, you could go back to normal.

We read a couple of verses later that Samson is to be a "Nazrite of God from the womb until the day of his death" (Judges 13:7). Samson is unique. He's a Nazirite, but not for a limited time, and not voluntarily. He's chosen by God to be a lifelong Nazirite, somebody whose entire life is dedicated to God in sacrificial service.

At the end of the chapter we read, "He grew and the LORD blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him" (Judges 13:24-25). He is most likely to succeed, what they call a wunderkind - a person who achieves great success when relatively young.

Once in a while, somebody comes on the scene, and it's clear that God's hand is all over that person. Before we had kids, I used to debate nature versus nurture. I wondered how much of the way kids turned out is because of the way they're raised. Then I had children, and the debate was over. Children don't arrive in this world as blank slates. They arrive with certain bents, and of course nurture plays a role too. Here is somebody who shows up who is, both by divine design and the way that he is raised, meant to make a difference.

And we see that Samson does demonstrate extraordinary ability:

  • When attacked by a lion, he tears the lion apart with his bare hands, "as he might have torn a young goat" (Judges 14:6). That makes it sound like it's easy to tear apart a young goat with your hands. Personally, I'm impressed if you're tough enough to tear apart a young goat. To tear apart an attacking lion is way beyond impressive.
  • When he loses a bet and has to pay the wager - thirty pieces of clothing - he doesn't buy the clothes. He goes to a major Philistine city, kills thirty men, and takes their garments to pay the winners who won the bet. No idea how he can go into a major enemy city, kill thirty men, and return with their clothes.
  • When he gets angry with some Philistines, he catches three hundred jackals, ties their tails together, lit their tails, and sent then into grain and orchards. Think about what it would take to do that.
  • When he's bound, he's able to break the ropes like they're nothing. He's then able to use a fresh jawbone as a weapon. Fresh bones were not yet dried out and hard, and therefore less useful as a weapon. But it was enough for Samson to kill a thousand men.
  • When Philistine men lay in wait for him, he not only gets past them but he unlocked the huge city gates and their bards, put them on his shoulders, and carried them away.

I know a lot of this is gruesome, but it's supposed to be. Samson was born to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistine enemies. He shows that his strengths are more than equal to the task. This man can do practically anything.

Samson has been announced by angels before he's born. He has superhuman strength. He wins fights with the enemy without seeming to even try. He is one of the most gifted and capable people in history. No deliverer in the book of Judges matches his potential.

Samson is the child prodigy who shows talent at an early age; the author whose every book is a bestseller; the preacher that can't help but pack out the church every time he preaches. He is, actually, a picture of Israel: chosen by God, brought into being by his power, commissioned at an early age, dedicated to God.

Yet in looking at Samson, we come to realize that his life is a downward spiral into tragedy, the story of a great leader who squanders everything that he has been given and never lives up to his potential. Despite all of his gifts, he wastes his life. In the end, the best thing that he ever does is die. He accomplishes more by dying than he ever did by living. Talk about a wasted life.

Samson's Wasted Life

Do you realize that in Samson's entire life, despite all of his strengths, he never once leads an army into battle against the Philistines? His whole life is a series of personal crusades based on his whims and desires.

Not to mention all the times that he violated his Nazirite vows. He wasn't supposed to drink wine, yet he is attacked by a lion near a vineyard, and spends a week drinking with his Philistine buddies. He wasn't supposed to touch a corpse, yet he tears animals apart; he eats honey out of the carcass, and he uses a donkey jawbone as a weapon.

He was supposed to deliver Israel from the Philistines, right? Instead, he takes a Philistine wife and frequents a Philistine prostitute. He violates his Nazirite covenant at every turn. He is foolishly arrogant, rash, insolent, impetuous, and he gets himself into all kinds of compromising situations. He's drawn to idols - the idols in his life are foreign women. Never in the entire narrative does he act in anyone's interest but his own.

Eventually, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, Delilah, and gets entangled with her and loses his strength. Why? His strength wasn't in his hair. The reason that he lost his strength is much more serious than that. Judges 16:20 says, "He did not know that the LORD had left him." Daniel Block, a commentator on Judges, writes:

To be abandoned by God is the worst fate anyone can experience. Now the divinely chosen agent of Yahweh has lost him. Samson's game is over. For a whole chapter he had been playing with his God-given talent; now he discovers that he has frittered it all away.

God raises up this man and gives him extraordinary gifts, but in the end walks away from him. Gifts aren't enough for God to use him.

Even at the end of Samson's life, with his eyes gouged out, Samson prays to God which is good, but he prays a very self-centered prayer. "Sovereign LORD, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes" (Judges 16:28). No mention of the national emergency or the divine agenda he was supposed to fulfill. No thought of God's long-range plan. He's completely self-absorbed.

But - God answered his prayer. The Nazirite, set apart from God's service, pulls down the pillars of the temple and dies with the enemy. The narrator comments, "Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived" (Judges 16:30). That's not a compliment. It's tragic. "This man, with his unprecedented high calling and with his extraordinary divine gifts, has wasted his life. Indeed, he accomplishes more for God dead than alive" (Daniel Block).

Israel is better off with the death of Samson than they ever were with his life. It's a wasted life, a tragedy. It's only at the end that you see even a glimpse of his promise.

Somebody's written:

Samson is the archetypal strong man who could defeat his enemies in battle but could not control his sensual appetites. Most tragic heroes are afflicted by a single dominant flaw of character, but Samson exhibits multiple flaws. We can bring them into focus by completing the formula "the dangers of...": the dangers of self-reliance, physical strength, success, appetite, self-indulgence, overconfidence, susceptibility to women of questionable character, religious complacency, recklessness, misplaced trust, squandered gifts from God, and broken vows. (ESV Literary Study Bible)

Another person comments, "Never has so much been given to someone who accomplished so little."

Spiritual Fruit and Ministry

What do you make of all of this? I asked you at the start of this sermon what it takes for a person to be used in an extraordinary way. We said that God uses people to who have exceptional gifts. I think of many of the people that I mentioned - the extraordinary preachers, the thinkers and writers and other people who have had a huge influence. But as I think about it now, their strengths are only part of the picture. The preacher I heard thirty years ago, whose sermon was riveting - he's a great preacher, but I'm not sure he's a great man. We really value gifts, but you can have all the gifts in the world and still end up wasting your life.

I actually think we need to revise this now. Samson had exceptional gifts, but he does not represent someone that God uses in an extraordinary way. He represents someone who wasted his talents, and who in the end wasted his life.

I don't understand why some people are extraordinarily gifted by God, even though they're anything but godly. Remember Amadeus, the movie about Mozart? Mozart's contemporary, Antonio Salieri, prayed as a young man, "Let me make music that will glorify you, Father. Help me lift the hearts of people to heaven. Let me serve you through my music"

God didn't answer that prayer. Salieri never became that great musician. But Mozart did. Mozart dazzled the crowds, playing music as if it was second nature to him. His melodies were complex and fun all at the same time, songs that soared till they seemed to bring heaven right down to earth. Yet Mozart was an obvious sinner. He was immature, vulgar, and obscene. He made off with the ladies every chance he could get. Salieri never understood why God chose to give Mozart extraordinary gifts and not him.

The problem is that we often confuse spiritual gifts with spiritual maturity, and spiritual maturity is far more important than exceptional spiritual gifts. We tend to confuse the two, and it's one of our most deadly mistakes. You may not be a person of exceptional spiritual gifts, but through the power of the Spirit you have the potential to be a person of spiritual maturity. And these are the people - not those with exceptional gifts - that God delights in using.

Spiritual gifts, extraordinary gifts, are nice. But you can have all the gifts in the world and end up wasting your life. In the end, what God uses is not people with extraordinary gifts. It's people who are moving toward spiritual maturity. It's people who come to understand and apply the gospel, no matter how much or how little they're gifted.

In the refection quote today, Tim Keller gets at this. What he says about pastors and church leaders is true of all of us:

Most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don't need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn't based on their performance.

You don't need strengths like Samson. You need repentance, and a knowledge of Jesus' costly grace. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.

Robert Murray McCheyne was a Scottish minister back in the 1800s. He was only 29 when he died. The week before he died, he preached on Isaiah 60:1: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you."

They found a letter by his bedside when he died. The letter was from someone who heard him preach his last sermon. That sermon, the letter said, brought him to Christ, but it wasn't what he said in the sermon. That's just what a preacher loves to hear. It's what he saw in McCheyne. "I saw the glory of the Savior resting on you." It wasn't his gifts that counted in the end; it was the glory of the LORD in the life of this man. Spiritual maturity is far more important than spiritual gifts.

By the way, Samson also reminds us of the one who is able to bring about these gifts in our life. Samson is a foil for Jesus. They are polar opposites in attitude and action. Samson's concerns were about Samson; Christ, on the other hand, emptied himself of self-interest, self-determination, and self-glorification.

He made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2:7-8)

In his death, Samson cared more about personal revenge, not God's plan to deliver the Israelites. In Christ's death, Jesus laid aside self-interest for the Father's plan to be fulfilled.

It doesn't matter how gifted you are. The one who turns to that Jesus, who has the same attitude of mind that Christ Jesus did, and through the power of the gospel becomes transformed - that, not the gifted individual, is the person that God uses.

Father, we are so impressed with those who have exceptional gifts. But in your kingdom, it isn't the gifted or the strong that you use. You have chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

Therefore we will boast all the more gladly about our weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on us. That is why, for Christ's sake, we delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when we are weak, then we are strong.

Teach us that spiritual maturity is more important than spiritual gifts. And draw us to the One who has the power to change us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Knowing God (Judges 10:6-11:38)

I'll never forget the day. I was young, maybe 12 or 13. My brother came rushing in the house covered with paint. It turns out that he and a friend had been over at the church doing some painting. They started arguing about theology. One was a Calvinist, who believed in God's sovereignty. One was an Arminian, who believed in free will among human beings. One thing led to another, and before you knew it they were throwing paint at each other. They ruined a perfectly good day and some cans of paint with an argument about theology.

It's easy to see why people don't like theology. Theology means the study of God, which sounds like it should be okay. But we've all met people who delighted in taking the most obscure points and who have split hairs. They don't have time for anyone who believes any differently than they do. We've also all sat through sermons where the preacher has gone on endlessly about some idea that excited him, but to us it was as interesting as the small print on a contract.

When I go to a mechanic, I don't want to get a lecture on how cars work. I just want them to fix the car. And, by the same measure, people say that they don't come to church to learn theology. Leave that up to the scholars. Many are tired of all the talk about theology.

I've even heard pastors - lots of them - say something like this:

We've had enough talking. It's time for action. I don't preach theology. I think that people need to have an experience of God. People need to know how to relate. I'm into helping people who come on Sunday morning to have an experience. I don't give much time to theology. One thing I've learned is that you don't preach doctrine. Preach to people's needs.

I can understand this view, I really can. Preaching theology isn't a crowd-pleaser. We've all seen it done badly. It's much easier to find something that can relate right to our needs, and to leave the theological discussions for the ivory towers.

But before we decide to downplay theology, we may want to consider the story of this man. His name was Jephthah, a tragic character who lived years ago. His story is strange, but I think you'll soon discover that his story may cause us to reconsider brushing aside theology in our lives and our churches.

The Tragic Life of Jephthah

We've been working through the book of Judges these past couple of months. Judges contains a series of stories about - as you may have guessed - judges. These weren't judges like we're used to. They were tribal chiefs who delivered Israel from oppression. The cycle of disobedience, oppression, regret, and deliverance continues like a downward spiral in this book, until, as we saw last week, things fall apart within the lifetime of one of these judges, and God has to deliver Israel not from an enemy nation, but from one of their own leaders.

Today we come to the story of one of these cycles. You can tell things are getting worse. Last time they went through one of these cycles, God sent a prophet before he sent a judge to deliver them. He wanted to call them back to the covenant he had made with them. This time, again, the people disobey and are oppressed. God this time doesn't send a judge or even a prophet to save the people. Judges 10:11-14 says:

The Lord replied, "When the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you and you cried to me for help, did I not save you from their hands? But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!"

God is both reminding them that he has saved them in the past, but scolds them for their ungrateful response. There's a big difference between regret and repentance. God knows they regret the situation that they're in. Repentance is turning away from sin and turning back to God. Regret is when you're sorry you've been caught.

God knew they hadn't repented. He knows they just want to use him to get out of their difficult circumstances. He's heard them in the past, but this time he says no more.

But then they intensify their cry. It still looks like a conversion of convenience. They haven't really changed. I don't really know what the end of verse 16 means: "He could bear Israel's misery no longer." Does this mean that God changed his mind once again and agreed to deliver them? Or does it mean that he just got exasperated and withdrew his help from Israel? I don't know for sure - but I do know that God is silent in the rest of this passage. There is no mention of God raising up a judge. There is no mention of God strengthening him.

Instead, the people go looking for their own judge. They remember a man named Jephthah. He's essentially a gang leader. He used to be part of Israel, but he had a dysfunctional past and was no longer part of his family. Judges 11 reads:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead's wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. "You are not going to get any inheritance in our family," they said, "because you are the son of another woman." So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. (Judges 11:1-3)

By any standard, Jephthah came from a dysfunctional family. He was rejected by his own family for financial reasons. He still made something of his life, becoming a freedom fighter or a gang leader, depending on your perspective. If you come from the right family and have all the right connections, you can reach positions of power without even really trying. But to become a leader after growing up with rejection and dysfunction says something. Jephthah has something: male aggression, drive, leadership ability, maybe even anger. He became a warrior, and he and his group developed a reputation.

He developed so much of a reputation that when Israel goes looking for someone to fight the Ammonites, Jephthah's name comes up. I'm sure that they kept trying to think of other names, knowing that they would have to eat some major crow in asking him to come back and rescue them. But evidently, there weren't a lot of other options. So they send a committee and go to see him.

This must have been an enjoyable moment for Jephthah. It's like when the people who used to pick on you come back to you begging for your help. Jephthah says to them, "Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?" (Judges 12:7) But the elders are willing to swallow their pride. They need help desperately, and they've decided that he's the man.

Sometimes stories tell us a lot by what's not said. Notice that in selecting Jephthah as leader, God is nowhere to be found. "Far from playing the decisive role, as he had in the provision of all the other judges, God is relegated to the role of silent witness to a purely human contract between a desperate leader and an ambitious candidate" (Daniel Block).

If we're honest, we have to admit that we're tempted to do the same thing today. There are a lot of times that we get into trouble, and we go looking for something to save us. We try to find our own solutions, often without looking at the underlying problems. In this case, Israel never really considered repentance as an option. They went for the quick fix, and they included God only as an afterthought.

By this point in the story, we're not expecting much. What could you expect from a son of a prostitute, the product of a dysfunctional family, a gang leader, somebody chosen without any input from God?

You wouldn't expect much, but surprisingly, Jephthah looks like he's going to pull it off. Instead of going right to battle, he tries to negotiate, arguing not only with history but with theology. Jephthah is a man who takes God seriously:

  • He refers to God as Jehovah, which was the covenant name of God, more than any other person in the book of Judges.
  • When he goes to battle, the text says that the Spirit of the LORD came upon him. This is said of only three other judges.
  • Before he went to battle, he presented himself to the LORD.

Against all odds, Jephthah is taking God seriously. He's making all the right moves. He appears to have faith in God, and things are looking really good.

But right before going to battle, Jephthah makes a huge mistake. Read verses 30-31:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

There's a lot of debate about what Jephthah is doing here. Is he promising to sacrifice an animal to God, or a human? I've looked at both sides, and to be completely honest I'm not sure. But I am sure of one thing: Jephthah was heavily influenced by his belief that you could bargain with God like the Canaanites bargained with their gods. He thought he knew about God, but what he knew came more from culture than it did from Scripture.

In the nations surrounding Israel, sacrificing your child to the gods was at the pinnacle of spirituality. It was the height of piety. Jephthah had learned more about spirituality from the culture than from God himself. He thought, "If I promise to God what is most precious to me, I can get God to do what I want."

It's the same problem that we face today. By the time that we sit down to read Scripture or to listen to a sermon, we are so shaped by culture that we're already conditioned to approach God. David Fitch puts it this way:

We ask parishioners to sit and take notes on sermons on Sunday morning. Meanwhile their souls, character, and imaginations are being formed by the culture technologies of the Cineplex, the television, the university, or the local Starbucks...While parishioners sitting in the pews are agreeing with doctrines intellectually, their so-called autonomous minds are being compromised before they even come to church. They can no longer hear the preacher's words alone apart from the ways of seeing the world. (The Great Giveaway)

The real problem for Jephthah - and the real problem for us as well - is that the ways that we think about the world are formed more from the world than they are formed by God's world - the world of Scripture and his kingdom. And here is where it leads.

Jephthah goes to battle. We read that the Spirit came upon him, and "the LORD gave them into his hands" (Judges 11:32). But then the unthinkable happened:

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break." (Judges 11:34-35)

It's interesting - Jephthah seems to blame her for what happened. He's crying, and they're not tears of joy. When his daughter realizes what happens, she tells him to keep his vow, but asks for two months to mourn that she would never have children. Because of Jephthah's vow, there will be no descendants. It's the end of Jephthah's blood line. We read the awful words in verse 39: "After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed."

The really sad thing about the vow is that he didn't have to make it. If he had just read the Scriptures, he would have known from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that God forbade human sacrifice. All he had to do was open a Bible:

You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

A vow is a vow, but if Jephthah had read the Scriptures, he would have known that there was a way to break a vow before God. Leviticus 27 allowed someone to pay twenty shekels to the priest as compensation for the life of his daughter. It's not exactly the same situation, but it certainly would have applied. If only he had known. If only he had read the Scriptures.

Haddon Robinson says:

We have churches in every community, sometimes on every corner. We have bookstores that sell Bibles. We have radio programs that have a continued array of preachers. We have television stations devoted to preacher after preacher. But how much do [we]...know about God? Not much, if you listen to the pollsters. They say the knowledge is very meager. Not very much, if you listen to the radio...Not very much, if you watch the religious television programs and the trivia that passes for religion...

Jephthah ends up winning a victory. He ends up being listed as an example of faith in Hebrews 11, which lists the great examples of faith. But what he doesn't know about God costs him, just like it costs us today.

Why Knowing God is Crucial

I began this morning by explaining why some of us are turned off by theology. We've seen the fights. We have endured the boring lectures. We have experienced enough bad theology to last a lifetime. The solution, for many people, is to get rid of theology altogether and to simply focus on what's practical.

I got an e-mail this week that said, "Forget your programs and denominational doctrines and theology. Throw out your religious-speak. Just give me more of Jesus. I want a relationship with the Triune God. If you can show people how to achieve that...Everything else will fall into place."

I know what he means. I'm all for getting rid of bad theology and irrelevant theological debates. But if you want to see where forgetting doctrines and theology gets us, then you have to look at Jephthah. It's not a formula for success. It's a formula for killing your daughter. In fact, as one person has said, the more faith you have in God, the more dangerous you are if your knowledge of God is not accurate.

Listen to what J.I. Packer says in Knowing God:

Knowing God is crucially important for the living of our lives...We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentenced yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.

What we need - what we really need - is not more bad theology, but the best type of theology, the stuff that can really change our lives, and indeed our church, and then the world: to know God; to know all about him; to understand the Gospel; to let it soak into our minds down into our hearts and to every part of our lives; to understand who Christ is and what he has done for us at the cross. That's what will keep us from being Jephthah's. If you're looking at something practical that will change your life, there is nothing more practical than good theology that soaks down from your head to your soul.

Knowing God, and knowing about him, is crucially important for the living of our lives. There's nothing more practical, nothing more helpful, than really understanding and then living what God has revealed about himself.

Father, we live in a world that focuses on the practical, what works. We are always looking for the bottom line, and we often buy into the irrelevance of knowing about something, even about you.

This morning we have seen where this leads.

So would you help us to see the importance of knowing you, of really understanding in great detail who you are and what you have done for us. May we meditate on your Word day and night. May the gospel sink deep into our minds and then into our souls so that it shapes everything about us. Would you help us avoid living like Jephthah's, and instead make us into people who are renewed by the transforming of our minds. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.